Moral License to Fail


Ever wonder why real change is so, so hard? A friend sent me an article that sums up the ways that we tend to stay entrenched in bad habits and fail to grow. Bottom line, it’s moral licensing (Moore, see link below). We are giving ourselves moral license when we justify doing things that go against our values or goals. We unconsciously cite loopholes that justify our behavior.—I had steel cut oatmeal this morning, so I can eat 25 Hershey’s nuggets this afternoon!—but the pull of the loophole thwarts our attempts to change, so they are worth examining.

Author Gretchen Rubin offers this list of loopholes people give themselves so that “they don’t have to change or grow or do a single thing differently than the day before”. I

  • False choice loophole: “I can’t do this because I’m so busy doing that.”
  • Moral licensing loophole: “I’ve been so good, it’s OK for me to do this.”
  • Tomorrow loophole: “It’s OK to skip today because I’m going to do this tomorrow.”
  • Lack-of-control loophole: “I can’t help myself.”
  • Planning-to-fail loophole: “I’ll just check my email quickly before I go to the gym … oops, I don’t have time to go to the gym, after all.” Or, “I’m not going to eat anything more tonight, but I’ll go into the kitchen and look in the freezer. Just curious.”
  • This-doesn’t-count loophole: “I’m on vacation.” “I’m sick.” “It’s the weekend.”
  • Questionable-assumption loophole: “It’s not a proper dinner without wine.”
  • Concern-for-others loophole: “I can’t do this because it might make other people uncomfortable.”
  • Fake self-actualization loophole: “You only live once! Embrace the moment!”
  • One-time loophole: “What difference does it make if I break my habit this one time?”

What commitment or goal has been undermined by a loophole in your life?

Tracy Moore’s article is here:  CLICK


  1. More good stuff. Thanks.
    A lot of the loopholes revolve around food, but here are few old favorites, in my life, relating to anger and rudeness.
    “they made me angry, I had no choice”
    “they were rude first, so I can respond rudely”
    “They meant to hurt my feelings, so it’s not mean if I return the favor”
    “lots of people think this way, so I can too.”

  2. Wow challenging stuff Janice. Definitely food and exercise but also I think fantasy and wishfulness which undermines planning and commitment. I like the Rubin quote “so that they don’t have to change or grow or do a single thing differently than the day before.”

  3. I both love and hate reading your blog. Hate it cause it is gets to heart of the matter. BTW, did you know that the term loophole comes from the small slits at the top of castles where archers would shoot from. Odd that that term survived as it did.

  4. I thought loophole was a term from ropes and knots! Interesting! The ease in which we give in to loopholes reminds me what Dallas Willard said: “Our bodies (minds in this case) are poised to sin, waiting for the occasion.” That is the source of our moral license, arrghh!

  5. love this post Janice! Willard’s (Renovation of the Heart) or Ortberg’s “dumbed down version” (Soul Keeping) really are key for understanding how we do this in the most critical areas of life — fighting with spouses, emotional coldness, ways of abusing employees and loved ones or keeping them off guard, etc. and beyond that, if we have any intention as followers of Jesus of actually being changed into his image. We have theological and church culture based excuses for why we cannot possibly stop habits of sin and self/other harm. What would happen if someone came to your church or fellowship and said, “I have a workable plan to stop sinning.” Would we think they are nuts? 99% of the time. what about the opposite, a person who says, “I have no intent to do anything to stop sinning. God will have to zap me in worship to break my habits of lust, anger, scorn, manipulation, materialism, lying, etc.” We just keep hoping, but have no plans because we think it’s too much work to cooperate with grace in transformation.

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