So I spend time thinking about the moral licensing effect. For people who are unfamiliar, the moral licensing effect is a subconscious effect where if we do one good thing, we are less likely to do other good things. As someone who wants to do all the good things, this is naturally terrifying. However, as far as I know, the research on moral licensing doesn’t suggest how it works, which is annoying, because how we should respond to it depends on how it works.

For instance, it might be that moral licensing is because we have a certain amount of resources we want to direct to each value. For instance, I might be willing to spend up to one hour (or equivalent in money or foregone utility) on my physical health each day and up to ten percent of my income (or equivalent in money or foregone utility) on altruism. So if I exercise for an hour, I’m probably going to eat chocolate afterward, because I already used up all the resources I want to use on improving my physical health exercising. In that case, I’m not sure there’s much to do beyond making sure my resources are allocated in the best way possible: if I’m using up all my altruism resources volunteering for my local homeless shelter, I’m not going to donate to GiveWell. In that case, the best way to respond to moral licensing is making sure that all of your discourse about ethics clearly states how important the ethical thing is and steering clear of ethical rules (such as language policing or modesty culture) which consume lots of resources for little altruistic benefit. (But you should also be careful to make sure that you don’t use up your whole altruism budget on telling people that they’re wasting their altruism budgets.)

Or it might be that we want to maintain a self-image as a virtuous person who cares about their health and people in the developing world and so on. So when I take a multivitamin, I think “ah yes! I am taking a multivitamin! The way a healthy person would!” and then I feel free to drive without my seatbelt fastened. In that case, in addition to paying attention to the costs and benefits, it might be a good idea to try to raise the amount of concern about your health that you have to do to maintain your self-image as a virtuous person who cares about their health, such that you both take the multivitamin and drive without a seatbelt.

Or it might be that morality is like a muscle. Immediately after you pick up heavy things and put them down, you’ll be really tired and probably not able to pick up any more heavy things. But if you keep picking up heavy things and putting them down, eventually you’ll be able to pick up much heavier things, and for longer periods of time. In that case, it makes sense to do as many compassionate things as you can: you’re developing your ability to be a compassionate person. Even if caring about a cat or an acquaintance might not be the best way to accomplish good in the world, it’s practice for your compassion muscle, which will hopefully extend to people and animals you don’t know.

Or maybe it’s going to turn out to fail to replicate and there’s no point worrying about it at all.