Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“Over the years we have all seen high-profile televangelists and “family values” politicians involved in sex scandals. You might have also noticed numerous cases of embezzlement by employees of charitable organizations. How is it that seemingly good people can act so unethically?
One factor is a psychological phenomenon known as moral equilibrium. The basic idea is that most of us want and indeed need to think of ourselves as good people. We keep a sort of running scoreboard in our heads, comparing our mental image of ourselves as good people to our actual behavior.
When we act in ways that don’t live up to our own ethical standards, we tend to feel bad and look for ways to make up for it. So we might do some good deeds in order to restore balance to our internal scoreboard. This is called moral compensation.
On the flip side, when we do something good, we add points to the plus side of our mental scoreboard, and we then may give ourselves permission to fail to meet our own ethical standards. This is called moral licensing.
Moral compensation and moral licensing are the two components of moral equilibrium. Moral licensing is the scary one. It is what allows TV evangelists, family values politicians, and people who work for charities to start telling themselves how wonderful they are, and then to give themselves permission to depart from their own ethical standards. Importantly, these people do not even realize how their past actions are affecting their current decisions.
One study asked two groups of people to write about themselves. The first group was prompted to write about something they did that they were NOT proud of, and the second group was asked to write about something they did that they WERE proud of. Afterwards, both groups were asked to donate to charity or to volunteer.
The first group donated more to charity and volunteered more than the second group. The first group – bad deeds fresh in their mind – was engaged in moral compensation. The second group – focused on their own goodness – was practicing moral license.
There are many more studies on moral equilibrium, and they all make the same point: don’t get cocky! Just when you are feeling especially good about yourself, you are most in danger of giving yourself license to screw up.”