Use the Greenwich Foot Tunnel during rush hour at your peril. Every weekday from around 5pm onward (I have not crossed it in mornings), the Victorian-era tunnel that conveniently connects both sides of the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs becomes a shortcut for cyclists who speed through it at full speed from their finance jobs in Canary Wharf to their southeast London homes. The cylindrical foot tunnel, which as its name describes is for pedestrians, is not much more than 2 meters across at ground level. Most annoyingly, it has very large and very clear “NO CYCLING” signs at both entrances and also painted on the ground every couple of meters along the way. Despite this, only a fraction of cyclists who cross the tunnel during rush hour ever bother to dismount from their bikes and cross it by foot. Which by law, they should.
One typically expects reckless, obnoxious behavior in London to be committed by the usual suspects: chavvy youths or wolf-packs of loutish drunk working-class men. Not well-off bankers, most of which are white, middle-aged men. Furthermore, one expects blatantly illegal behavior like riding at full speed in a pedestrian tunnel, where a slight mishap might have them seriously injuring (possibly even killing) someone, to be the domain of cyclists. Cyclists, after all, are the good guys in the story. They don’t burn off CO2 from their cars or from using transportation. Many Western cities now openly encourage people to take up cycling to work.
Why are the most morally-minded, ethical people doing something so wrong?
Beware of the good guys
The answer is: moral licensing. This is the psychological phenomenon whereby people justify current wrongdoing by past morally or ethically correct behavior. As a Stanford University study on the subject describes:
“When under the threat that their next action might be (or appear to be) morally dubious, individuals can derive confidence from their past moral behavior. Such that an impeccable track record increases their propensity to engage in otherwise suspect actions.”
So we have it that cyclists, believing themselves morally righteous by virtue of not harming the environment during the commute to and from work, find justification in breaking the clear rule of not cycling through the foot tunnel regardless of the consequences. There is also an element of herd behavior too in that if one cyclist sees dozens of others riding through the tunnel then they too think it is fine. This kind of behavior, the social acceptance of wrongdoing, is pretty much the root of most corruption. After all, the best predictor of how someone will behave in this world, is to see how the person next to them behaves first.
Studies have identified moral licensing in a wide variety of domains of human activity, such as consumer behavior, voting, and charity. It has also led to some frightening conclusions such as one study which showed that people were eager to behave morally insofar as that gave them a license to later behave immorally. Given that most people live in societies where moral behavior is not just expected but rewarded, there is a clear intention to reap the benefits of appearing to be the righteous ones, even if the rest of our behavior doesn’t live up to those standards. Surely the lycra-clad cyclists who speed through eh Greenwich Foot Tunnel as if it were the Olympic velodrome highlight their frequent cycling, not their frequent cycling in the wrong (real: illegal) places.
Which brings me to the more worrying exponents of moral licensing: the corporation, and conservatives.
The farce of the social firm
Since the 1970s, corporations have engaged in highly publicized public-relations and marketing exercises designed to boost their brand reputation and profits by appearing as socially-conscious institutions. This usually comes under the guise of “corporate social responsibility”. Firms engaged in CSR usually undertake “actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law” such as philanthropy, community outreach, ethical procurement, and advocacy. CSR is so ingrained in modern corporate practices that practically no large multi-national firm lacks some sort of CSR initiative. For the minimum expense to their bottom line (let’s be serious, no firm would risk going into the red by saving the whales), these firms get a public relations boost, get praised by governments and civil society, and most importantly, help starve off attempts at government regulation by pretending that they are capable of resolving the very problems they helped cause.
And yet, the proliferation of CSR does not seem to go hand in hand with the types of corporate practices that actually would make much more meaningful differences in society. Like worker’s rights and living wages, let alone any other forms of employee empowerment. A recently published report by the Economic Policy Institute showed that average CEO pay in 2018 was 312 times that of their median worker, compared to just 20 in the 1970s. If anything, the rise of CSR appears to coincide with a massive rise in corporate moral licensing. The idea that replacing plastic straws and sourcing Fair Trade bananas makes it fine to have your employees on zero-hours contracts and ban any attempts at unionization. And for every dollar spent on CSR, what of every dollar spent on lobbying governments for more tax breaks and further deregulation?
Why conservatives are hypocrites
Outside the corporate world, there is one subset of people who take moral licensing to the most absurd limits: conservatives. Conservatives typically brand themselves as the paladins of moral righteousness: traditional family values, opposition to sexual “deviancy”, strong religious backgrounds, principles-based politics etc. Unfortunately, in more conservative countries like the US, conservatives don’t exactly have a fantastic track record on the values they supposedly upholders. For starters, they have been on the wrong side of history on many key issues like civil rights and economic equality, but perhaps more embarrassingly, on an individual level they have been truly deplorable on basic ethical issues. The cloud of corruption surrounding the Donald Trump administration is an obvious case in point; even discounting the Mafiosi-like dealings of the Donald himself, so much of his political circle have been involved in scandals ranging from the financial to the sexual that a previous incidence of mass Republican scandals in 2006 seems inconsequential in comparison.
Indeed it seems that the more conservatives speak of morals, the less they’re likely to uphold them. And nothing widens this difference than religion. Evangelicals have been among the most steadfast of Christian groups in the US in pursuing the so-called “values vote” but this has largely been thrown out the window when it comes to Trump. Around four in five evangelicals voted for Trump and recent polls show that despite everything about his character that has been revealed in his first two years in office, as many as three fourths of evangelicals still support him. Whether this is down to pure political utilitarianism is up to question, but there is undoubtedly some element of moral licensing involved here. The more one sees a group’s actions as inherently moral, the more some deviance will be tolerated. But this deviance adds up, turning the people of principle into the most immoral ones of the lot.
Say no to charity
A former (French) girlfriend, active in a charity known as Room to Read (which gave out books to girls in developing countries) once lamented the rather low levels of donations received by their French chapter compared to their US chapter. The French, she explained, were not particularly charitable because it was a country accustomed not to require it: most social needs were provided by the state and therefore people felt their duties were fulfilled by paying their taxes. In the US, philanthropy isn’t just a habit – it’s an industry. One that also helps put a publicly acceptable face to some rather awful businesspeople and politicians.
If we are to avoid the damage of moral licensing, perhaps the secret is not to try and be moral in the first place. In the private sphere, this means making charity another necessary evil domain of the state rather than individuals clearly incapable of maximizing the good that comes from it. And in the public sphere: get morals out of politics. That means voting to the candidates and parties that don’t try and build an aura of morality only to use it to justify immoral, unethical behavior. When you hear about “compassionate conservatism” or “values voting” or some other similar nonsense, you’re probably voting for the devil in disguise.
In the meantime, a policeman or two in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel could come in handy.