Mar 04, 2015 | By

The Moral Hazard of Doing Good

Last year we reported the interesting finding that ethics professors seemed to behave somewhat less ethically than other academics, likely as a result of their greater practice at rationalization. (see link)  A new study at the Harvard Business School has been reported (see link) that finds another example of the amazing human power of rationalization. This study noted that people who use their own shopping bags tend to buy “greener” options than the average customer, but they also tend to reward themselves with more self-indulgent treats: sweets, ice cream and chips. Psychologists call this behavior “moral licensing” – our tendency to reward ourselves for doing good. This also seems to explain why virtuous behavior in reducing water consumption, in response to a marketing appeal to MA consumers, oddly enough results in higher electrical consumption at the same time.

This finding seems to cut across the virtuous cycle of doing good and feeling good, discussed in my post “The Science of Love” and in the BQO question “Is Being Good Good for You?”  Doing something good for other people does have significant positive benefits for the doer. However, the benefit of feeling better about oneself can backfire. If we feel good about ourselves for doing something good, and as a result we are then more self-indulgent, the virtuous cycle becomes a downward spiral.

This goes to show that the difference between feeling virtuous and being virtuous is profound. Being virtuous is doing good for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do. Feeling virtuous, in contrast, may be OK, but it brings with it a high moral risk. If we remain self-aware and accept this feeling as a blessing, with humility, hopefully we will avoid moral licensing and subsequent self-indulgence. In this case, our doing good will retain its virtue. If, however, we are not vigilant, the good feeling can subconsciously influence our future behavior in a self-indulgent direction – effectively undermining the virtue of our doing good.

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