Most people want to think of themselves as basically “good people.” Many people want to appear to be good people, particularly to their friends and social group. The cynic in me believes that few people are all that concerned with being good people, because being a good person is hard work, requiring careful analysis of complex, nuanced situations, dealing with ambiguity, and occasionally being forced to confront uncomfortable facts.
Enter Virtue Signaling, a way to express to your tribe that you uphold the tribal values without, you know, doing that hard, uncomfortable work! Gain all the advantages of conforming to the norms of your social group without any of that messy ethical stuff!
In the US, the political right loves to accuse the political left of virtue signaling, but this is something that knows no political divide. The rural conservative who throws away his Bud Lite because Budweiser gave beer to a transgender activist, or smashes his Dixie Chicks CD, is engaging in virtue signaling just as much as the liberal who posts “boycott Avatar 2!” on his Twitter feed without ever intending to watch the movie in the first place.
Emory & Henry College defines virtue signaling this way:
The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments to demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Modern examples of Virtue Signaling are posting opinions that you do not share on social media in order to gain popularity and reputation.
And, in the spirit of complete honesty, I admit I’ve done this. I’ve offered opinions on people and situations about which I was uninformed, because I wanted to be the good guy but didn’t want to take the time to better inform myself. (In fact, the times I’ve done this, I would’ve strenuously denied that was what I was doing, because of course I knew what I was talking about, even though I didn’t know the situation or talk to the people involved…I let my own narratives about How The World Works fill in the blanks for me. We human beings understand the world through stories; the narratives we accept, often without realizing it, inform the way we perceive the world.)
So, with that in mind, what separates genuine virtue from virtue signaling? How can you tell?
I would like to propose a set of guidelines that, I believe, makes separating the two rather easy:
Virtue signaling is cheap and costs nothing. You’re literally sending signals to improve your standing with your in-group; it will not cost you socially with your in-group by definition. It always goes with your in-group, never against it.
Virtue may cost you something—socially, politically, or financially. It sometimes may not match the expectations of the people around you. Holding to virtue might occasionally put you at odds with your in-group.
Virtue signaling has no nuance, no shades of gray. It boils everything down to bumper stickers: Jesus Is Lord. Make America Great Again. Eat The Rich. Kindness Is Everything. Because its purpose is to communicate that you belong with your in-group, it’s made up of simple slogans that champion the in-group’s values in simple, easy-to-understand ways.
Virtue allows for nuance. Virtue requires looking at complex situations and making informed choices, rather than relying on bumper-sticker deepitudes. Virtue isn’t about clearly-defined good guys and bad guys; it requires constant engagement.
Virtue signaling is about the person doing it. It’s a way to say “Look at me! Look at me! I share your values! Look at me!” It centers the person engaging in it: “everyone, see what a good person I am because I support the values of my in-group.”
Virtue is about the thing. It doesn’t grab the spotlight or seek attention. While a virtue signaler is on YouTube talking about how great they are for shining a light on the fact that homelessness is bad (don’t forget to click Subscribe! And sign up for my Patreon!), virtue is out there with a hammer building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
There’s actually a Bible passage about this: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.” Virtue signaling is out there praying loudly in the middle of the street; virtue takes place off stage, with sleeves rolled up, doing the work to find the facts and minimize harm in a world where there’s not always a lot of adulation in it and sometimes things aren’t as simple as they seem.
Virtue signaling is about identifying who’s one of Us and who’s one of Them. We are good, noble, just, patriotic. They are evil, corrupt, traitorous dogs.
Virtue is about living, inasmuch as is possible, a life of kindness and compassion, rooted in truth, empathy, and generosity.
Virtue signaling is about keeping safe by rigidly enforcing and policing the boundaries between Us and Them through purity and moral conformity. It turns on itself. It eats its own. It seeks out those on our side who are insufficiently pure, insufficiently dedicated to our ideals. It frequently spends as much time savaging those on Our side as attacking those on Their side.
Virtue is about living in an imperfect world where people are not always 100% pure 100% of the time. It’s about genuine harm reduction, not moral purity. Harm reduction is, as my crush and co-author Eunice once said, “ethics trying to live in the real world.” Where virtue signaling is proving one’s moral purity in a vicious game of Last Man Standing, virtue is about making the world just a little bit kinder, a little bit better, not just for those who pass the moral purity litmus test, but for everyone.
Virtue signaling tells you who the good guys and the bad guys are.
Virtue is understanding that nobody is purely one thing or the other, so the best approach is to treat others the way you would have them treat you—ir, if you’re genuinely virtuous, to do unto others 20% better than they do unto you, to correct for subjective error.
In other words, the key takeaway I’d like to propose is this:
Virtue signaling is about bettering your own station by persuading the people in your social group of your moral purity. Virtue is about bettering the world for everyone.