Author: Cameron Harwick

Worry About Piety Contests, Not ‘Virtue Signaling’

To accuse someone of virtue signaling usually means something like, “you don’t actually believe this, you’re just posturing.” There are real and troubling aspects of moral posturing, but ‘virtue signaling’ is a misnomer. Instead, by exploring how the process of internalizing genuine virtue can go wrong, I’d like to suggest the alternative term ‘piety contest,’ which, in addition to being a better description of the problem, also suggests ways to combat it. The Problems of ‘Virtue Signaling’ There are a couple of problems with the term ‘virtue signalling.’ The first is that, strictly speaking, it isn’t signaling at all. As Sam Bowman pointed out in a recent post at the Adam Smith Institute, ‘signaling’ is a term with a specific meaning and, as understood by biologists and economists, it is credible because it costs something. The kind of posturing we call ‘virtue signaling,’ on the other hand, usually costs nothing and so is actually closer to what economists call cheap talk. Everyday usage, however, doesn’t necessarily need to conform to scientific usage. The more important problem is that, in …