Moral licensing is a phenomenon where we're less bothered acting less virtuous after doing something virtuous. Simply put: After a positive action, we feel less guilty doing something negative.
If you work out before going to dinner, you're more likely to have a dessert or eat more carbs than usual.
Let's say you've spent considerable time advocating on behalf of a group outside of your own race, religion or culture, and have invested significant time nurturing meaningful relationships with folks from these groups. You'll feel less guilty about saying something that's culturally inappropriate to or about them.
Remember Bill Maher's public blunder? He probably felt he had a moral license to say "house nigger" since he's dated black women and often advocates on behalf of blacks and other minority groups on his television show. When he said it, he probably felt, "Hey, I'm Bill Maher, the super liberal, they know that I'm cool." I have no doubt that it was coming from a harmless place. However, someone who's a stark conservative and has little association with blacks would never feel comfortable saying that publicly and so nonchalantly.
How does this affect us as musicians?
- If you have a gig where you're able to pay your band handsomely, you won't feel guilty about not paying for dinner or offering to cover the car fare.
- Maybe your gig from the night before goes really well, you're more likely to take the next day or two off. I'm guilty of this more times than I want to admit.
- Let's say after a gig everyone is telling you what a great sound you have, the next day, we're more likely to skip the long tones portion of our practice routine. Again, guilty as charged.
- You're doing well career-wise. Now you're more likely to skip practicing, altogether, especially if you're playing a lot.
- Here's one I'm sure many can relate to. Let's say we're having a good year financially, you're probably less prudent with your spending. Instead of putting away the extra income for a rainy day, we're more likely to spend it foolishly. In fact, we probably spend more wisely when we're making less.
But as you can see, moral licensing can lead us to less productive and regressive places.
What's the remedy? Moderation.
This is one of the reasons I stress maintaining an equal-tempered perspective on things that happen to us--the good, and the bad.
With the exception of stopping practicing altogether, none of the aforementioned are catastrophic. But it’s good to understand moral licensing so that we can embrace progressive behavior, instead of regressive behavior as a consequence of doing something positive.
Move towards the sun, not towards the dark.