I am not sure if you have heard of the concept of ‘moral licensing’.
It is a fascinating concept and refers to the idea that if you do something positive – such as voting for the first black president of the United States, or go to the gym first thing in the morning, or march for reconciliation or the rights of refugees – then you may well be more likely to be able to justify immoral behaviour. As a consequence, you then more likely to make immoral choices! (See Business Insider for an interesting discussion.)
This is the focus of a podcast by one of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell has written some outstanding books including my personal favourite, Outliers. (If you have not read Outliers, it is seriously a must read.)
In his new podcast Revisionist History, Gladwell goes back and reinterprets “something from the past: an event, a person, an idea. Something overlooked. Something misunderstood.”
His first episode, The Lady Vanishes, begins with a discussion of a famous 19th century painting that took England by storm: The Roll Call by Elizabeth Thompson (see thumbnail on this page).
Thompson painted the work and it was given pride of place in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1874. This was unique both because the painter was female and that she was not a member of the exclusive all male Royal Academy.
It was so brilliant that the Royal Academy considered inviting her to join their exclusive ranks. She applied and after a ballot, missed out by only two votes.
Gladwell describes how this was seeing as a turning point in gender relationships within Victorian England. But rather than it being a sustainable change, it was really a token gesture.
Gladwell argues that an outsider’s success serves not to alleviate discrimination but actually perpetuate it.
This is moral licensing: because the Royal Academy felt that they had supported female artists by given Thompson’s painting the best location during the 1874 exhibition, it also allowed them to claim that they did not discriminate and gave them the justification to exclude females from the Academy for another 50 years!
Gladwell asks, if a country elects a female Prime Minister, does that mean the door is now open for all women to follow? Or does that simply give the status quo the justification to close the door again?
The experience and misogyny experienced by Julia Gillard, who Gladwell interviews, indicates that it is more likely to be the later.
Listening to this I wondered when Australians would be ready to elect the next female Prime Minister. If Gladwell is correct, then it is unlikely to be anytime soon.
A 2015 academic review found that more research and “more participants” are needed before we are able “to draw solid conclusions about moral licensing and its possible moderators”. Even so, it is certainly an issue worth reflecting on.