Moral self-licensing leadership?

Moral self-licensing, often overlooked, is one of the lenses through which we can look to help us to understand the political culture of the ruling party.

This is because it negates a sense of shame for and personal responsibility for morally dubious behaviour.                                                                           This phenomenon is well documented in research studies done in different contexts (Merritt, Effron & Monin 2010). We are all in danger of our past moral behaviour increasing our propensity to engage in morally dubious actions without it making us feel immoral; or of justifying. or re-interpreting, our behaviour based on previous (good) moral behaviour. It would seem that good deeds, or an unblemished record of doing good, also known as prosocial behaviour, could promote our self-confidence and make us feel morally superior.

Participants in research who can recall a moral (good and prosocial) action show fewer prosocial intentions than the control group. However, the opposite is also true, in that participants who can recall an immoral (bad and unsocial) action tend to demonstrate more prosocial intentions.

A research study demonstrates that the actions of participants with a history of showing compassion, generosity and a lack of prejudice can be heartless and selfish in follow-up decision-making or actions, with what seems to be a lack of emotional awareness that they are violating the prosocial norms they tend to follow. In other words, when past good deeds are fresh in our minds, we may feel less compelled to give to charity than when we do not have such comforting recollections of good deeds. People thus tend to donate more to good causes after being asked to write down their negative traits.

It would seem the anxiety of having to make difficult decisions can be eased by making a morally good decision, which then, as it were, allows participants to license themselves to make more morally dubious decisions in situations that follow.

Research in the US shows how white participants who appointed a black candidate (who was by far the best candidate) found it easier, in a second round of appointments, to appoint a white person (where black and white candidates offered the same qualities). The same behaviour was observed in the appointment, by men, of women; and, by heterosexual people, of gay people. Accordingly white American research participants who voted for President Barack Obama seemed, when making an appointment, to find it easier to ignore an application from a black job-seeker.

Research also shows how people strategically seek out opportunities to act morally when they know they might need a moral licence for future difficult (read dubious) social actions. Self-licensing can operate across different domains of decision-making. Participants who selected (bought) more environmentally friendly (green) items (at greater cost) afterwards found it easier to engage in morally questionable behaviour when making certain judgment calls that cost another person money. It goes further. There are indications that even when we express our willingness to help someone or imagine that we are going to help someone, the intention may make us more selfish in decision-making with regard to unrelated situations. So it may be possible that volunteering for a charity grants us licence to buy luxurious or frivolous items with less guilt.

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the different theories that explain the phenomenon of self-licensing.

But acknowledging the phenomenon helps us to understand to some degree the inconsistent behaviour shown by people. Self-justification and inconsistency in how we act are a danger that lurks within all of us. Politicians’ actions and decisions in the political domain offer a good example in this regard. Looking at the ruling party, it appears that a form of self-licensing seems to be playing an important role in its actions and decision-making processes.

It would seem that past prosocial actions (the struggle against apartheid) give many public figures the credentials (moral self-confidence) to act in violation of what is good for society. The impression the public gets is that public figures are blind to the moral inconsistencies of their actions and decisions. After having given up so much and suffered so much during apartheid, the climate was created that would seem to support a great deal of self-justification at a conscious and unconscious level. It would seem as if some actions and decisions are based on a feeling of entitlement (self-licensing) and provide the justification to misuse, for example, taxpayers’ money. Not only individuals, but the ruling party as a whole, may feel justified in certain actions and decisions. The opposite is also true – people who feel guilty for having supported apartheid may compensate for that guilt by being more tolerant of these actions. Although there seems to be a limit to how far that tolerance would stretch.

A non-deterministic view of life and behaviour implies that to explain certain behaviour does not mean that individuals (or our leaders) have no choices. We are, fortunately, more than just a flock of sheep and victimhood is no excuse for our actions. There are many examples of people who are not limited by the sway of social forces. All of us, including our leaders, should take responsibility for our actions. Knowing the pitfalls of self-licensing, we should raise our level of awareness to help us to act in a more emotionally intelligent manner. People who rise to the level of public leadership should not be seen as the victims of social forces and it can be expected of them to rise above those forces. The South African public should expect of those whom we elect as our leaders to act in an emotionally intelligent way, to live with an awareness of the danger of self-licensing. These are leadership qualities to be expected in a nation that wants to be a great nation.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” (Long Walk to Freedom). “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” (Nelson Mandela, Inaugural Address, Pretoria 9 May 1994).


Frederik B O Nel (Theologian, pastoral therapist and social commentator)