So, recent psycho-behavioural research has confirmed what I have believed for a long time; we are all basically bad. Our so-called “moral foundations” are just psychological tactics to hide our inherent badness, egoism and hedonism.
Worse, the mechanisms that we use to justify our badness are behind some of the most evil human behaviour such as extermination of Jews, paedophile priests and corrupt politicians to mention some recent examples. And there is no cure in sight.
Other unrelated research has shown that positive re-enforcement tends to ingrain certain behaviours whose growth is exponential with time. In other words it grows stronger all the time. Still other unrelated research has shown that we easily forgive immoral behaviour to preserve social cohesion.
According to some very serious research; when under the threat that our actions might be or appear to be morally dubious (bad), we derive confidence from our past moral behavior (good). This is called “moral self-licensing” and occurs when past moral behavior makes us more likely to do potentially immoral things without worrying about feeling or appearing immoral.
The researchers argue that moral self-licensing occurs because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard. For example, when people are confident that their past behavior demonstrates compassion, generosity, or a lack of prejudice, they are more likely to act in morally dubious ways without fear of feeling heartless, selfish, or bigoted.
A priest is considered by all (including himself) to be kind and compassionate and acts accordingly. He therefore gives himself moral license to abuse children. Apparently humans are hard-wired to act this way. Not to abuse children; to justify bad behavior through moral self-licensing.
I also doubted this theory until I started to apply it to other domains of human behavior. And the evidence is conclusive – we are hardwired this way.
Take selfishness for example. Selfishness is one of the first behaviors that infants learn (just after screaming to obtain something). This behavior is reinforced through childhood to reach a maximum during adolescence.
When people have had a chance to establish their kindness, generosity, or compassion, they worry less about engaging in behaviors that might appear to violate social norms. For example, individuals whose past good deeds are fresh in their mind may feel less compelled to give than individuals without such comforting recollections. Unscientific people call this behavior “selfishness”.
Politicians are another example.
Research has shown that we want the credit for moral intentions without having to pay the costs. This suggests that if you let yourself express your exemplary intentions (political promises), you may feel licensed not to follow through on them (political fact).
Thus, one does not even need concrete memories of good deeds for self-licensing; imagining doing good or claiming what one would ideally do good can be enough to reduce prosocial motivation. These imagined claims allow people to show that they really want to be upstanding citizens, even though they may not always able to follow through on their intentions.
Consumer choice is another area where moral self-licensing is evident. Everyday purchasing decisions are tinged with morality; buying luxury items or frivolous goods is generally associated with feelings of guilt and self-indulgence.
According to the logic of self-licensing, individuals whose prior choices establish them as ethical and reasonable spenders (or ethical and reasonable people in a more general sense) should be more likely to indulge in frivolous purchases later on. The unbridled consumerism of our age is testimony to this theory.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel.
If moral self-licensing works in one direction then chances are good that it will work in the opposite direction; past immoral behavior can make us more likely to do potentially moral things.
But that would make this a very boring world to live in.