I have had many posts about really awful wealthy people (the Sackler family and Jeffrey Epstein being noted examples) using philanthropy to cover over the stain of their actions and enable them to act like they are pillars of the community. The assumption is that these acts of generosity are after-the-fact attempts at covering up their ill-gotten gains or their evil acts and ingratiating themselves into society.
But Patricia Illingworth, a professor of ethics, writes that the problem is even worse and that the very act of philanthropy may actually give these people a sense that they have the right to behave badly, something she refers to as ‘moral licensing’.
Is it possible that giving money away or being generous makes some people more prone to bad behavior? In a word, yes.
Studies show that people unconsciously attempt to achieve a moral balance. Social psychologists call this tendency the “moral licensing loophole.” In other words, doing good according to one’s own judgment frees people to be bad.
Although it’s not a universal experience, it is a common mental glitch. One good example is how dutiful dieters may reward themselves with a pint of ice cream. And environmentalists who go out of their way to consume less water may later use more electricity.
When people donate money to charity, others view them as generous and caring. But giving also influences how donors see themselves. It reassures them of their virtue. Here lies the trigger for moral licensing. With moral credits in hand, donors can feel entitled to be bad.
One study showed that even anticipating doing something good could be enough to trigger doing something bad. Other research shows that the good vibes from giving to one cause may allow the do-gooder to act badly in altogether unrelated ways.
This is a problem for nonprofits because, whether they realize it or not, they can wind up enabling donors to do bad things.
Moral licensing differs from what’s known as “reputation laundering,” in which charities help to make bad guys look like good guys by accepting their money. Reputation laundering can undermine an institution’s credibility when its donors get into trouble.
Moral licensing, however, raises questions about nonprofits facilitating harm to others through complicity.
I found this to be an interesting perspective that should cause nonprofits to do some serious thinking about under what conditions they should accept gifts from wealthy donors.