Moral Licensing, Grudges Not Enough to Justify Call for New BOCC Chairman



Several months ago, the Concurrent raised the question if doing the right thing the wrong way was still virtuous. A couple weeks ago, the Concurrent published a column about the power centers in Citrus County. Both of these need to be revisited in the context of choosing the next Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) Chairman.


The theme of the more recent piece was that influence determined power, but that the most influential force in the county wasn’t any one thing but rather ideas. These ideas could come from anywhere, including the public.

The idea to urge Commissioner Ron Kitchen not to accept the nomination to be the next chairman that Commissioner Holly Davis raised at Tuesday’s meeting is likely one of these ideas that originated from the public.


In fact, you can probably point to the exact moment it happened.


In the Oct. 12 meeting, the Commission was faced with a vote to amend a contract to release funds already allocated to the Chamber of Commerce early because the Chamber faced financial difficulties staying within the budget of the original allotment.


The Commission had allowed the Chamber to use $100,000 of the $1,000,000 CARES Act allocation to set up the Citrus One-Stop Recovery and Economic (CORE) Business Center. The project received $50,000 in May with an additional $50,000 scheduled for release six months later in November. Five months in, though, CORE was out of money.


“Most of the money went to buildings, renovations and expanding, not for what it was intended for,” Commissioner Kitchen said as he laid out the reasons he was going to vote against it. The President and CEO of the Chamber Josh Wooten rebutted this claim that the money was spent in that way.


“I’m tired of being contradicted by people of special interests coming up here,” Commissioner Kitchen retorted. He then quoted the action item, “‘The Chamber is facing depleted funds due to additional overhead and renovations and start up costs.’”


This was likely the moment, or at least the culmination of several moments, that led to the idea to select someone else as chairman. Mike Wright wrote that Mr. Wooten publicly supported Commissioner Davis’ effort and that he had done a similar move to select a different chairman than the one originally proposed when he was on the BOCC in the early 2000s.

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This proposal does have to do with power, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with influence as discussed in the previous column. Instead, it’s centered on intention.


There’s a relatively new theory in social psychology first defined in 2010, although the phenomenon it describes is as old as human nature. It’s called moral licensing.


Moral licensing is the justification an individual makes for acting in a way they would categorize as bad because of a previous action they’ve done which they would consider good. It’s a personal code of conduct built on a balancing act.


Have you ever eaten a cookie before dinner because you worked hard cleaning the house earlier that day? That’s moral licensing.


Wikipedia defines the idea with a little more academic specificity saying it is, “the subconscious phenomenon whereby increased confidence and security in one's self-image or self-concept tends to make that individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent immoral behavior and, therefore, more likely to make immoral choices and act immorally.”


I have often pointed to a heightened sense of trust in individuals over the institutions as a way that organizations like the Chamber and the Chronicle conduct decisions in Citrus politics. What it really comes down to, though, is moral licensing.


In a discussion over his active role in opposing the reelection of Sheriff Mike Prendergast, Mr. Wooten told me that I would never understand Citrus because he’s been serving the county since I was a twinkle in my dad’s eye.


That’s the epitome of moral licensing! Look at all the good I’ve done in the past so anything I do in the future is free of immorality.


Does that mean the idea to block Commissioner Kitchen from becoming Chairman is immoral? No. But it does challenge what we believe to be right, which is everyone in line gets their turn and Mr. Kitchen is next up.


It all comes down to intention. The idea can be easily dismissed if that intention is seen as a grudge or moral licensing. Future columns will focus on why the real merit in the proposal is improved communication.


A 750 word column about Citrus County published every Thursday and Sunday