Moral Licensing in the Supermarket

I recently became hooked on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. Over the last few weeks I’ve been binging on this incredible podcast, and would highly recommend the whole series so far.

However, one particular episode really struck a cord with me and this was the Lady Vanishes. This episode addresses the topic of moral licensing. Moral licensing is the idea that people take one positive action in one direction and then, as a result, allow themselves some leeway to take a greater degree of negative action back in the opposite direction. The classic example here being a half hour at the gym allowing you a free pass to stop off at the closest fast food spot on the way home.

Gladwell pushes the moral licensing phenomena to the next level, showing how examples of moral licensing throughout history have allowed gender and racial divides to remain in place far longer, as a result of a single case of inclusion (or in some cases, near inclusion). The basic idea here being that by voting in just one female Prime Minster a country like Australia may have closed that door to other women. If anyone accuses Australian of being sexist in the future we can simply pull out the one positive example and continue along that negative path. I’m not going to delve into the fascinating dynamics of moral licensing and politic but if you want more of that, James Arvanitakis does a great job of it on his blog.

What I would like to raise is the idea of moral licensing in our food system. At the moment there seems to be an abundance of opportunities to publicize positive behaviors around food, something that I have always thought of as a positive. But, what if that post you just read about you friend picking up some local organic produce is just the equivalent of 3o minutes at the gym before driving to KFC for some fried chicken?

It seems to be no coincidence that on Instagram 1,895,894 images are hashtagged #Farmersmarkets, compared to #supermarket with 383, 841 [76,443 for #woolworths and #coles at 83,690]. We know that the vast majority of people shop at ‘the big 2’ so why are the same people so keen to advertise the one off visit to the local farmer’s market, when  clearly it’s the exception, not the rule? Just how many trip to Woolies does one #organics image really buy?

I don’t want to discourage people from doing positive things in our food system and advertising this to their friends. When done well, I still believe that this is an amazingly positive exercise that can bring your friends along for the food literacy journey but it may be worth all of us occasionally reflecting on our online practices and asking:

is this post to positively influence the behavior of my peers or to justify something negative that I may do in the future?


If you enjoyed this exploration of our relationship with food, expect a blog soon that digs further into the topic of food literacy.


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