The Dangerous Moral Superiority of Physical Distancers

Many people spent Easter weekend worshiping in the Church of Anthony Fauci. These “Faucians” did not attend any actual services at physical places of worship, because their sacraments include self-quarantine and physical distancing rather than communion, wearing face masks and gloves rather than hijabs or yarmulkes, and baptizing delivered packages in disinfectant rather than new converts in a river.

These “Faucians” disdain the heretics who believe that this whole pandemic thing is overblown and that hand-washing rituals are unnecessary and perhaps the product of a Chinese hoax. Many of these skeptics have their own brick-and-mortar churches and are determined to worship in them in large numbers, coronavirus be damned. We worry about the harm these nonbelievers will do by fueling Covid-19’s spread.  But we are also concerned about the “Faucians” and their susceptibility to a psychological concept known as moral licensing.

Most of us want to be good people and keep a sort of running scoreboard in our heads that compares our self-image with our actual conduct. Our brains are very friendly referees when making these comparisons, but sometimes there is a mismatch between our self-conception and our actions. If we do something that we know we shouldn’t, our internal moral scoreboard shows a deficit and psychological studies show that this causes most of us emotional discomfort that we often assuage by looking for opportunities to do a good thing to bring our moral scoreboard back in balance. This is called moral compensation.

On the other hand, if we do something good, we now have a surplus on our mental moral scoreboard. Studies show we sometimes then give ourselves permission to fail to live up to our normal moral standards.  This is called moral licensing, and it may account for why over the years we have seen so many family values politicians (ex: David Vitter), mega-church pastors (ex: Jimmy Swaggart), and crime-busting crusaders (ex: Eliot Spitzer) get caught with prostitutes or engaged in other sordid activity. They tell themselves: “Look at how much good I do in the world. I’m entitled to have a little fun just this once.”

[Moral compensation + moral licensing = moral equilibrium] See our Ethics Unwrapped Video on the subject. 

Studies show that people who are reminded of a bad thing that they have done will tend, when given the opportunity, to donate more to charity than they normally would (moral compensation). Those people reminded of a good thing that they have done, on the other hand, will tend to donate less than they normally would because, hey, they’re good people and don’t have to do the right thing every single time (moral licensing).

Studies show that people who eat organic foods often start thinking of themselves as morally superior to those who don’t and give themselves license to “act like jerks” because they’ve already done their good deed. Even corporations that engage in corporate social responsibility often create conditions where their employees are more likely to behave unethically in a form of moral licensing.

In their fervent devotion to the Church of Fauci, some adherents may exhibit a discomforting level of moral hubris. They may become so convinced of their righteousness that their mental scoreboards will build up the sort of surplus that may lead them to engage in moral licensing. Afterall, their religion is Puritan-like in its asceticism.  There is much self-abnegation involved in daily hand-washing, facemask-wearing, and physical-distancing.  “Surely,” they may think to themselves, “I’ve earned the right to slack off, just this once.”

If they are not wary, moral licensing may lead Faucians to not wear their mask or wash their hands just one time when they really should. It might cause them to donate less to needy charities than they normally would. It might induce them to apply for CARES Act grants that are not really aimed at helping people in their situation. Or maybe they’ll just go wild when the physical distancing guidelines are lifted.

The good news is that if people know about moral licensing, they can guard against it. One way is that we can all focus on building our long-term moral identity. Instead of thinking just about all the good things we did yesterday (and giving ourselves permission to slack off today), we can focus on all the good things we have done in our lives and think: “I’m the kind of person who does the right things; I am not a jerk.” Lord Fauci, we suspect, does not approve of jerks.

 

Sources:

Paul Conway & Johanna Peetz, “When Does Feeling Moral Actually Make You a Better Person? Conceptual Abstraction Moderates Whether Past Moral Deeds Motivate Consistency or Compensatory Behavior,” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38: 907 (2012).

Alina Dizik, “Why Corporate Social Responsibility Can Backfire,” ChicagoBoothReview, June 11, 2018 (referring to several studies)

Kendall Erskine, “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments,” Social Psychology and Personality Science, 4(2): 251 2012).

Robert Prentice, “Moral Equilibrium: Stock Brokers and the Limits of Disclosure,” Wisconsin Law Review 6: 1059 (2011).

Hope Reeves, “Naturally Awful,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 2, 2012.

Sonya Sachdeva et al., “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation,” Psychological Science 20: 523 (2009).

 

Videos:

Ethics Defined: Moral Equilibrium:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium

In It to Win: Jack & Moral Equilibrium:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-moral-equilibrium

 

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