Thomas Jefferson and Moral Licensing

moral licensing in the conscious consumer movement and thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson and Moral Licensing

Scare quotes (“”) are used in this essay to indicate language that is euphemistic. In a slave-slaveholder relationship, the enslaved person has no choice and thus language that implies choice is imperfect and doesn’t tell the full story.

“Sally Hemings died in Charlottesville, Virginia. No one knows where she is buried.”

Around these parts, it is a well known fact that Thomas Jefferson had a longterm “affair” with Sally Hemings, a woman he owned as a slave from the time she was an infant (around 1773) until his death on July 4, 1826.

Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, who died from childbirth complications. Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Hemings when she was 14 or 15. They had four children who survived into adulthood, all of whom were eventually freed as adults and three of whom passed into white society. Only one child, Madison, remained in black society after leaving Jefferson’s plantation, and he is the best source of information about his mother, Sally, and life on the plantation.

According to Madison, Jefferson knew that he and his siblings were his biological children but gave them only nominal special treatment as youngsters, insisting on training them in trades at around age 14. His “relationship” with Sally Hemings endured for at least 40 years – and he is not thought to have had any children with other enslaved women – and yet she was never freed.

And yet we don’t even know where she is buried. Meanwhile, Jefferson’s white heirs still own and control the cemetery where Jefferson is buried.

Thomas Jefferson, you may recall, wrote these powerful words in The Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

He also wrote extensively throughout his life on the sin of slavery, “calling it ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot,'” according to historians at Monticello. And yet he owned over 600 enslaved people throughout his lifetime, only freeing his own biological children and a couple of their relatives.  In a similar vein, he believed that people of African heritage were innately inferior and could not flourish together in community, that slavery was perhaps a “necessary evil” to avoid a race war.

But hey, this is a fashion blog.

Why am I talking about Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson is one of the best examples we have of someone who can speak eloquently about valuable and righteous ideals while promoting and perpetuating entrenched injustice. 

He is an American hero who never managed to tear down the structure he insisted he loathed, who, in reality, benefited immensely from owning other human beings and never even made amends at a personal level for the system he publicly decried. A man who kept his own children as slaves for 20 years and never freed a woman he clearly had affection for.

Thomas Jefferson is a hypocrite’s hypocrite.

And we in the social justice community better take note, because we are at risk of joining him.

Jefferson likely fell prey to a common psychological tick called moral licensing.

According to researchers, a series of studies on the subject of moral behavior reveal a consistent conclusion:

Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid.

In Jefferson’s case, there were lots of things to feel good about. Drafting one of our nation’s most important documents, acting as the ambassador to France, being the President, inventing lots of cool stuff, and believing that slavery was bad. If I were in his position, I too would believe I was pretty dope.

That’s because moral confidence not only allows us to lower our guards against moral ambiguity or depravity, it can actually justify immorality.

moral licensing in the conscious consumer movement and thomas jefferson

Moral Licensing in the Conscious Consumer Movement

I have had the grave misfortune of watching many moral scandals unfold in the ethical fashion community over the years. From companies lying about where their products are made to bloggers buying followers, from startups treating unpaid interns as wage-slaves to influencers promoting shady brands. 

Most recently, I’ve been watching (and sometimes commenting on) a situation where the influencer, a very popular Instagrammer, developed a pyramid scheme under the guise of community-building and then refused to engage well with legitimate critique, instead circling the wagons and rewarding those who backed down over those who stood firm.

This is moral licensing at work…

  • Sometimes we think that helping poor people over there means it’s ok to abuse unpaid interns right here.
  • Sometimes we think that promoting ethical goods means it’s ok to exploit salespeople through pyramid schemes.
  • Sometimes we think that raising funds for disaster relief warrants marketing that objectifies the recipients.
  • Sometimes we believe that good intentions are good enough.
  • Sometimes we believe the lie that the ends justifies the means.

And sometimes, oftentimes, we are wrong. 

Talking about ethical fashion is really just a way to talk about systems. Systems like slavery, indentured servitude, the patriarchy, and Capitalism. Or systems like farms, factories, and corporations, that are at risk of unethical business practices even when they appear neutral. 

And we can shout on and on about how much we hate these systems that bring suffering and death and darkness. We can call it “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” 

And yet. 

And yet, we can keep benefiting from the structures and systems that have allowed this suffering in the first place: exploitative marketing, profit manipulation, individualism, and ego. We can use these systems instead of overturning them. (Imagine! It’s as if Jesus simply started selling fair trade jewelry at the temple instead of turning over the tables in a rage.)

But what if we’re being called to something more revolutionary than the status quo?

And what if real change requires imagination and humility, and vulnerability that makes us look like the complex and strange human beings we are? 

In case it wasn’t clear, we are all guilty of moral licensing.

We have all done a good job at work then justified an impulse buy, or cut corners on a project because we “deserved” more than we received. We have all landed flat on our backs trying to navigate a slippery slope. 

What now?

It is not our responsibility to become super humans, but it is our job to know what we’re capable of, to name it and do what we can to walk the talk. It is very easy to sit behind our screens and claim good deeds while secretly advocating – even if not explicitly – for systems that run at odds to our stated morals. And it’s also easy to claim that because someone has consented to an imperfect system – like Sally Hemings did when she, at one point, left freedom in France to come back the Virginia with Jefferson – that they own the problem now. 

But we cannot be people of deflection. If we claim community-mindedness – if we claim a movement with the word “ethical” in the label – then we are responsible for picking up the slack and carrying more than our fair share when our sister is incapable of carrying her own load. 

After all, an abundant world isn’t one in which everything is fair. It’s one in which everyone is flourishing. We must become people of sacrifice, of truth-telling, of radical love or we will be no better than a complicated man who died nearly 200 years ago. Surely we’ve progressed since then?

We are not called to continue the legacy of the dead. We are called to a revolution.

I’m ready. Are you?

Oh yeah, and happy 4th.

Read other Fourth of July posts

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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