Moral Equilibrium

Moral equilibrium is the idea that most people keep a running mental scoreboard where they compare their self-image as a good person with what they actually do.

When we do something inconsistent with our positive self-image, we naturally feel a deficit on the good side of our scoreboard. Then, we will often actively look for an opportunity to do something good to bring things back into equilibrium. This is called moral compensation.

Conversely, when we have done something honorable, we feel a surplus on the good side of our mental scoreboard. Then, we may then give ourselves permission not to live up to our own ethical standards. This is called moral licensing.

For example, Oral Suer, the hard-working CEO of the Washington D.C.-area United Way, raised more than $1 billion for local charities. Unfortunately, Suer gave himself license to divert substantial sums intended for the charity for his personal use to reward himself for his good deeds.

So, our tendency to maintain moral equilibrium may mean that we will act unethically. Indeed, we must guard against our natural inclination to give ourselves permission to depart from our usual moral standards.