Moral licensing: I’m not sexist, but…


Sexist? My mum is a woman! Image credit wikimedia

No offense, but women can’t handle politics.
Sexist? I’m not sexist, I voted for Gillard!

It sounds odd when you read it, but something like this is going on inside the heads of everyone to varying degrees. And in your head, it makes perfect sense…

A great analogy is the ‘closed door’.  Imagine you run a prestigious art club that everyone is trying to get into. With a closed-door attitude towards women, the club remains men-only and will pretty soon be called out for being sexist, . But open the door (just once) to a woman, and you can put those accusations to rest. That is the story of Elizabeth Butler and the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

World renowned author Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping Point) illustrates the concept with a story about his mother:

“My mother is Jamaican, and she and my father moved to England in the 60’s. Our neighbour, who my mother knew quite well, would always talk to my mother about how outrageous it was that so many West Indians were moving to London… despite the fact that my mother was a West Indian who had just moved to London. [It climaxed] with a conversation this neighbour had with my mother, saying that she and her husband were going to move to South Africa because they were anxious to go to a country that really had their race problems sorted out…”

Keep in mind that this is a white person telling their friend, a black Jamaican, that they wanted to move to a country that at the time was carrying out gross injustices against its black population. Gladwell goes on to say that moral licensing allowed their neighbour to say this to his mother’s face, without feeling ashamed or guilty of it.

Gladwell: “The neighbour felt that they were in a certain sense ‘insured’ against the charge of prejudice, because they had a black friend… Because I’m friends with a black person, I can then say whatever I want about black people, because who can say that I’m biased…”

The act of doing something morally good (i.e voting for a woman as PM, having friends from diverse backgrounds, giving to charity) gives us the license to then publicly or unconsciously hold opinions that directly oppose those sentiments.

It’s easier to slam an open door [Image credit Andreas Schalk]

Moral licensing in action: Obama v. Trump
Jacob Weisberg, who is chairing the interview with Gladwell, brings up a really good point: how can Americans, who elected the first African American president (and re-elected him), now even consider electing Trump, who would have to be the most racist president to date? “That’s classic moral licensing” says Gladwell. Individuals who voted for Obama are now able to do a full 180 and think, or say to others, ‘hey you know I voted for Obama but it didn’t work out well, and now I might vote for Trump… but I’m not racist’.

You vs. junk food
Interestingly, the same mental glitch is at play when it comes to rewarding exercise or dieting with food. It’s a well-known practice, and explains why many people experience failure. The fact is that we’re more likely to think we ‘deserve’ a tasty snack or bigger meal after having completed a tiring, demanding or unpleasant task.

We feel we’re entitled to some self-indulgent behaviour that we’d not normally allow ourselves without having first done some positive, opposite action. The same thing can be said for sexism, homophobia, donating to charity, and anything else that affects our self-image in some way.

Moral licensing or real change?

Julia Gillard was voted in as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and sworn into office by Australia’s first female Governor General. It seemed like real change was in the air. But towards the end of her term in office she was the target of misogynistic and sexist remarks by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, which culminated in a courageous and comprehensive dressing-down by Gillard in Parliament house. Despite the video going viral and drawing widespread condemnation upon Abbott, his party later allowed him to replace Kevin Rudd as PM, possibly heralding the end of Australia’s brief foray into female leadership.

On the other hand, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in 1947, breaking the racial segregation of the league. For non-white Americans the doors remained open, and many were soon playing for MLB teams.

So how are we meant to know whether something is just a temporary, tokenistic concession brought on by moral licensing or is part of a truly pioneering moment? Gladwell says there’s no way to know. [Cue classic cliché] Only time will tell…


Want more?
Malcolm Gladwell on racism, Trump and the moral licensing phenomenon

Revisionist History podcast – Ep. 1: The lady vanishes
The inspiration for this blog post

Gillard’s misogyny speech
It’s hard not to get that tingly, uplifting feeling watching this (unless you’re Abbott, who stopped laughing and started shrinking the longer it went on)

7 Responses to “Moral licensing: I’m not sexist, but…”

  1. Sakib says:

    @Tal, no offence taken! And thanks for explaining the Gillard example, it makes perfect sense now. My point about eating meat being ‘natural’ refers to the fact that, biologically, we have evolved to eat (some) meat. I understand that it is morally indefensible (or at least it’s far more moral to be a vegetarian) to be a meat eater in this day and age, but our bodies are nonetheless built to eat a certain amount of meat. I’m talking about the fact that we can process meat in a way that herbivores can’t – and the only reason we would have those adaptations would be to eat meat. That doesn’t excuse my eating of meat in a moral sense, so it can’t really be a case of moral licensing – I know I’m in the wrong morally. It may be some form of justification, but it certainly isn’t moral licencing.

    I’m very well informed about meat industry practices, my laziness is a reference to the fact that as a vegetarian, you have to make much more of an effort to live your lifestyle. We live in a society that, unfortunately, is geared towards supporting non-veg lifestyle. That being said, I’d like to hear your opinions on people who’ll eat meat that’s been hunted, rather than farmed.

    Thanks for the discussion by the way, it’s not often I get to talk about the moral nuances of vegetarianism!

  2. Tal Cohen says:

    @Sakib: You’re spot on re: MLB. Gladwell actually does mention it in his podcast. I didn’t want to add too many variables in, but perhaps it was misleading. On that same note, I agree that there may be any number of factors influencing our thoughts and decision-making other than moral-licensing.

    The Gillard example was given not to say that she was removed as a result of moral licensing, but to illustrate that we may not see another female in charge for a long while because we fall into the trap of thinking our little bit of revolutionary change has been effected by electing Gillard.

    As far as our diet is concerned, I’d have to disagree with you. Yes, cooked meat is pretty well established as the reason we could develop bigger brains and became more successful. And yes, I’d agree that eating meat ‘back then’ (pre industrial revolution) would be natural, and morality would not have been an issue.
    However now that we can have a perfectly healthy diet WITHOUT the massive environmental footprint or moral issues that eating meat causes, why wouldn’t we?

    “My views on vegos being morally ‘better’”… I’d have to disagree on that; non-meat eaters choose that diet for any number of reasons, not solely moral. And even if – as a group – vegos are more moral, it’s only once you’re informed on an issue that you act on it. Perhaps laziness in your case (“my lazy ass”), results from not knowing enough about meat industry/practices/repercussions to feel motivated to do something?

    This is getting off track, but would be happy to continue thru email/fb. Thanks for raising some great points.

    EDIT: not to try and force the phenomenon onto you Sakib, but your stating that it’s natural to eat meat does in fact license the act of eating meat.

  3. Sakib says:

    Great post, you did a fantastic job of describing a very interesting phenomenon. However, I think at times it can be more complex than just moral licencing. Take MLB for example: here, the driver was likely either money or success in the competition – it would have hurt a team’s chances to not include a highly skilled player, simply based on their race. That’s likely why they didn’t do something terribly racist afterwards – it was just better for them to not be racist. Eating meat is different altogether. It’d be pretty hard to argue that vegetarians don’t have the moral high ground – they’re giving something up because they value life so much. I’m of the same view, but I eat meat. Why? Because it’s natural – we’ve evolved to eat meat, and it’s easier to be healthy while eating meat than while being veg (at least for my lazy ass). My views on vegos being morally ‘better’ aren’t why I justify eating meat, and I don’t think that moral licencing is why Labor got rid of Gillard either. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist – your examples clearly show that it does, but I think that sometimes there’s a lot more going on.

  4. Tal Cohen says:

    @Maja, I don’t know why we have a tendency to do it… we owe our evolutionary success to being social creatures, so perhaps there’s an element of wanting to be accepted and ‘part of the group’, whilst also holding conflicting beliefs.

    Something else I’d put down to moral licensing is that many compassionate people consider themselves animal lovers, but continue to eat meat despite alternatives that cause less suffering being widely available (and you could also argue healthier).

  5. Maja Dunstan says:

    I wonder why people do this? I’m sure I do it too but it always seems so obvious when others do it, in particular with sexist/racist views.
    Super interesting that it also plays a role in feeling entitled to junk food.

  6. Gen says:

    You addressed a couple of really important issues – good job! Any type of bigotry (not just sexism and racism) can be justified by moral licensing even sub-consciously so it’s important that people are aware and check themselves on it! Thanks for the interesting read!

  7. Lachlan says:

    Tal, any blog that references the misogyny speech deserves 1000 reads. Great writing, so much respect