Moral-Credential Bias

by Craig Shrives

What Is Moral-Credential Bias?

The Quick Answer

In Critical Thinking, moral-credential bias is believing previous good acts give licence to performing a bad act.
Moral-credential bias, also known as moral licensing, refers to a cognitive bias in which individuals give themselves permission to engage in morally questionable behaviour or actions after they have previously acted in a morally upright or virtuous manner. It involves using past moral actions as a form of "credential" to justify subsequent behaviour that may contradict those moral actions.

Here's a short example to illustrate moral-credential bias:
Imagine a person regularly volunteers at a local charity organization, devoting their time and effort to helping others. After engaging in these morally praiseworthy activities, they might feel a sense of moral credential or moral superiority. As a result, they may then feel justified in engaging in behaviour that goes against their usual moral standards, such as engaging in dishonest business practices or mistreating others.
The moral-credential bias stems from the desire to maintain a positive self-image and to resolve cognitive dissonance. By having a track record of moral behaviour, individuals may feel that they have earned the right to act in a way that is inconsistent with their moral values, believing they have "balanced the scales."

This bias can have significant consequences as it allows individuals to engage in harmful or unethical behaviour while still perceiving themselves as moral and virtuous. It can undermine personal integrity and contribute to a lack of accountability for one's actions.

Recognizing moral-credential bias is important for maintaining consistency in moral behaviour and avoiding rationalizations that justify immoral or unethical actions based on past virtuous behaviour. It involves being aware of the potential for this bias to influence decision-making and holding oneself accountable for maintaining ethical standards even after engaging in morally praiseworthy acts.
What is moral-credential bias?

Easy Definition of Moral-Credential Bias

Don't think it's okay to do something wrong because you normally do the right thing. Your decision to do the wrong thing would be tainted by moral-credential bias, if you did.

Academic Definition of Moral-Credential Bias

Moral-credential bias occurs when someone's history of making fair judgements gives rise to a sense of "free licence" in the future.

An Example of Moral-Credential Bias

We are an equal-opportunities employer...sometimes

moral credential bias interview My mate used to work for a company that had a high turnover of staff. To combat this, they had regular recruitment rounds to maintain staff levels. They knew that women aged 35-55 were not only the most productive but also the most likely to stay on. But, being a good, law-abiding company, they did not discriminate. They were blind to sex, ethnicity, and disability during their recruitment. They displayed good morals. Well, most of the time. If time was tight and a worker was needed at short notice, the manager would tell the HR department to "find a middle-aged woman to fill that slot by Friday." Because the boss knew his previous moral stance had filled his company with the correct ratios of diversity, he felt he had done his bit and had free rein to do what he liked on such occasions.
"In institutions that do not feel the sharp wind of public criticism, an innocent corruption grows up, like a mushroom."
(German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 18441900)
This quotation captures the situation quite well. Knowing he wouldn't face public criticism (because of his previous recruitment practice), the manager felt he had licence to do what he wanted.

Another Example of Moral-Credential Bias

I've paid enough tax, your majesty

I once overheard a driving instructor say to his pupil, "I just work cash in hand these days. I've paid enough tax over the years."

This is a great example of moral-credential bias. Good practice in the past does give the green light for bad practice.

A Practical Application for Moral-Credential Bias

Defend yourself and others

moral credential bias theft Understanding moral-credential bias is useful to help you counter it, either in yourself or in others. Remember, the idea that you're normally good is no defence for being bad.

"If you rob a bank once, you'll go to jail. You won't be let off for the nine times you didn't rob a bank."

Summary of Moral-Credential Bias

If you think somebody justifies doing something wrong on the grounds that they feel they've accumulated sufficient goodwill, tell them their decision is influenced by moral-credential bias.

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