Features, Philosophy, Politics

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 addition to getting signaling wrong, the expression also gets virtue wrong.

To see this, it helps to step back from our everyday experience of humans as moral creatures and consider just how much of a puzzle moral behavior is. How is it that humans are not only willing, but in many cases eager to bear costs that don’t provide them with any foreseeable benefit? It’s not just the threat of punishment. Nobody punishes you for failing to bring a meal to your sick neighbor. And yet, acts of generosity like that are common across human societies.

And it’s not just social status, either. Indeed, stories of self-sacrifice in one form or another are common enough that we hardly question the motivation. Martyrdom by an outgroup cannot be explained simply as a desire for status with an ingroup, since there are people genuinely willing to buck their own group and bear the costs for the sake of a cherished belief. So posturing for status or conformity doesn’t explain the exercise of virtue. But it can help to explain the development of virtue.

As I have argued previously, genuine virtue necessarily begins as posturing. People are not born caring about high ideals. They will, however, start to care about what others think of them, and realize that high ideals are something that people reward you for having. It’s only after a period of posturing that norms and high ideals are internalized, and that acting virtuously becomes habitual and second-nature. Only then can these ideals become a motive force for genuine virtue. This has been understood at least since St. Augustine, who wrote at length about the necessity of cultivating virtuous habits. More recently, C.S. Lewis argued:

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.

“Virtue signaling”, therefore, is a necessary step on the road to actual virtue. First you comply with a norm to indicate conformity and to gain standing in a group. Only later does this become habitual enough that you see the norm as an end in itself. And this is true for any deeply held belief. Someone who never virtue signals, in other words, will likely never be virtuous, by anyone’s definition.

Nevertheless, ‘virtue signaling’ has become a powerful epithet for two related reasons. First, because people disagree over what constitutes virtue, an accusation of inauthenticity is a way of explaining away that disagreement. Second – and perhaps more cynically – it’s easier to discredit someone by accusing them of inauthenticity than it is to explain why they are wrong. If I can’t imagine internalizing your norms, well, then your espousal of them must be disingenuous or even mercenary.

But there is a danger in the preoccupation with authenticity over virtue. If we disparage virtue signaling, we risk disparaging virtue itself. Knavery, after all, is quite often more ‘authentic’ than virtue, and we must not give the knave a pass simply because he makes no pretensions to virtue.

The Danger of Piety Contests

All that being said, the fact that displays of virtue are necessary for moral development doesn’t mean we ought to praise them in every instance. There is an important debate to be had about which norms it would be useful or harmful to internalize, and how we ought to judge that question. But, that debate notwithstanding, there still seems to be something pathological about the recent amplification of progressive cheap talk, separate from the question of its rightness or wrongness – something that smells inauthentic, even if inauthenticity by itself isn’t something we ought to condemn.

That something, I submit, is the dynamic of the piety contest. (The term “purity spiral” seems more common now, but I think piety contest is a better description of the actual process.) Imagine a community in which competing statements are judged, not on the basis of their accuracy or coherence, but by the degree to which they reflect some sacred value. Furthermore, there’s some sort of punishment for those who find themselves on the losing end of the contest. The result is that the sacred value in question ends up trumping all other values such as workability, or truth, or coherence, or humanity.

Piety contests wreak havoc to the extent that the punishment for losing them is effective. In the early 2000s there was a “patriotism contest” in the U.S. over who could speak the worst of terrorists, leading to nonsensical statements like “terrorists are cowards.” The punishment here seems to have been limited to some mild haranguing by intemperate right-wingers, but even so, it provided cover for some major foreign policy blunders. That contest was itself instigated by another, the parameters of which are something like “who can defend the sanctity of the Prophet most strongly?” Because the punishment here is death, it’s been able to spiral into homicidal crusades against those who so much as depict him. With such a stringent punishment, it’s no wonder that liberal norms lose out to “behead all those who insult the prophet.”

In the case of the progressives accused of virtue signaling, the objective function seems to be something like, “who can be the most inclusive?” – which in practice devolves into “who can be the most obsequious toward favored groups?” Naturally this leads to absurdities, like the idea that science is a tool of white oppression (math too!), or the weird ritual of public self-debasement on Twitter, or the idea that differences in group outcomes can be entirely explained by discrimination despite their persistence in the face of waning discrimination. And as Lindsay Shepherd became the most recent to discover, the penalty for losing this contest can be quite stiff.

Being able to identify a piety contest in progress is probably a good way to know what communities to avoid being a part of and which norms to avoid adopting. From the outside, it might look like inauthenticity because the norms move too quickly for the internalization process to keep up, so anyone arguing the bleeding edge of a piety contest is probably still at the point where they’re doing so mainly to signal conformity or maintain standing. But that’s not the problem. Everyone will (or should) at some point find himself in the process of internalizing new norms. And just as it would be foolish to throw out virtue in the course of countering certain pieties, it would also be foolish to conclude that we would be better off without myths, sacredness, and piety at all.

The problem, rather, is judging the acceptability of statements and actions on the basis of a single sacred criterion. Fundamentalism in this sense is part-and-parcel of the piety contest. No matter what your foundational principle, if you have only one, there will be bullets you have to bite.

The defense against piety contests, therefore, is to cultivate a multiplicity of irreducible sacred values. This gives the moral community a vantage point from which to evaluate the consequences of each norm against something else. Christianity, for example, is filled with pairs of concepts that orthodoxy holds “in tension”: trinity and unity, free will and predestination, grace and works, and so on. Indeed, heresy has been defined as emphasizing one element of one of these pairs at the expense of the other, and throughout Christianity’s history it has been heretical movements of just this sort that have been filled with the fervent zeal of the piety contest. “Tension” might frustrate the reductionist who drives for consistency above all, but irreducible pairs like this serve a prophylactic function in preventing ideologically (and often physically) destructive piety contests.

Even outside of the religious context, modern Western moral philosophy has tried to transplant the success of science – where reductionism has proven powerful and useful – across the is/ought gap and into the normative realm. Rather than the four cardinal virtues of ancient moral philosophy – prudence, courage, temperance, and justice – we have a number of philosophies competing to reduce everything to a single ur-virtue, such as happiness (utilitarianism), or equality (socialism), or self-love (objectivism), and so on.

But we must be careful of clearing away and deconstructing sacred values, lest they be replaced with dangerous fast-growth pieties that can metastasize without competition. This does not imply traditionalism for its own sake – a ship that has, in any event, sailed. While many traditional norm-complexes had at least the virtue of stability, I don’t hesitate to call modernity the greatest accomplishment of human history. Nevertheless, as we move into yet another one of its paroxysms of legitimacy, it would be wise to appreciate just what we have discarded in the modern era. Reasserting a multitude of virtues, and resisting the impulse to reduce them all to one, will be an important defense against piety contests from all quarters.


Cameron Harwick is finishing a PhD in economics at George Mason University, where he does research on monetary theory, cryptocurrencies, and the theory of cooperation. He blogs at cameronharwick.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @C_Harwick.


  1. Intriguing, well-written and concise piece. Just three brief comments.

    First, we need to distinguish between the private realm, in which the cultivation of virtues within specific mythological traditions is protected and possibly valuable, and the public (e.g. political and legal) realms, in which justifications need to rest on more generic grounds. I may be a Evangelical Christian judge or legislator, but if I justify my public decisions on the explicit grounds that Jesus said so and It Is Written, then I have deprived those decisions of legitimacy for large portions of the population subject to them within modern, polyglot societies.

    Second, it’s an empirical question, not a philosophical or evolutionary-psychological one, to what extent Sacred Value Sets® give rise to thriving and just modern societies. One could operationalize and measure it. Independent variable: average weekly hours youth spend sitting in Sunday school/Mosque/Communist Youth/Torah indoctrination classes. Dependent variables: rate and trend of criminal and political violence, GDP growth, and employment rate. (And good luck with that.)

    Third, I’m personally drawn to your concept of the irreducible tension among various legitimate competing values. And from that I deduce the need for open competition among speakers who, individually, may be less than balanced in the virtues to which they hew but, collectively, are much more likely to capture the diverse range of basic considerations. In the end, it is that general type of abstract calculus, not any hairy mythological commitment, that firmly anchors for me and for many actual historical classical liberals the fundamental commitment to free expression and pluralism.

  2. “Being able to identify a piety contest in progress is probably a good way to know what communities to avoid being a part of” – or, if you’re of a marginally more robust sensibility and see polarization as something to be challenged, which communities to engage with in debate, perhaps?

    • Oss Ickle says

      Luke, I think the thought is that those engaged in piety contests are essentially unreachable, and thus that even people with robust sensibilities who’d like to challenge polarization would be wasting their time.

      Granted, that’s a pretty strong belief to hold, but I think it’s the premise of that sentence.

      • I actually did have in mind something closer to Luke’s comment. Engaging with a community in dialogue is one thing, and far be it from me to prejudge anyone’s unreachability. But being a part of a community (and therefore accepting the normative premises around which it coordinates) is quite another.

  3. Internet Woman says

    In common parlance (aka Internet shitposting), I think that “virtue signalling” has largely come to imbibe an ironic/pejorative meaning in the same way that “social justice warrior” has; “virtue signalling” is used precisely to describe behaviour that is (a) usually not even virtuous and (b) costs the “signaller” absolutely nothing.

    • That’s precisely how I view it too; an empty gesture of kindness.

  4. The concept of ‘virtue signalling’ is very closely associated with the world of online communications, which is important to bear in mind. When interacting with people in day-to-day life offline, I am chiefly known by my actions. When I say something, it is read against the background of my actions and generally weighs relatively little when it comes to defining my identity. On the Internet, by contrast, we are in very large measure defined by what we say.

    When I am known chiefly by my actions and these weigh much more than my words, I am much freer to say things that are controversial, knowing that people have a good sense of my character. Words can be much more driven by truth in such a context.

    On the Internet, however, where people are largely defined by their words, the double-aspect of statements becomes more apparent. On the one hand, every statement I make is a statement about its object. On the other hand, however, every statement I make is indirectly a statement about myself, presenting me as the sort of person who holds that viewpoint. It is in the foregrounding of this dimension that virtue signalling lies. In some sense, we are all inescapably virtue-signalling online, but some people do it more purposefully.

    This situation heightens our distrust when people make statements that express highly orthodox sentiments. They may actually believe what they are saying, but we also know that their statements are probably highly beneficial to them when it comes to their personal positioning. When they stand to gain in their reputation, we can become suspicious of how sincere their professed beliefs actually are.

    The foregrounding of the virtue-signalling dimension of speech in online discourse is important to consider in various debates, where the apparent object of our discourse is actually eclipsed by our moral self-positioning. Debates about refugees are a good place to see this. There have been well over ten million displaced persons as a result of war in Syria and Iraq. However, people are massively focused upon whether a fraction of a percent of these people should be able to come to the US and other Western countries, because our identities are deeply invested in this question and our viewpoints on this issue are seen to say something about our moral character. People are remarkably silent on the question of how to serve the rest of the displaced persons, however, perhaps because such considerations offer little in the way of the benefits of moral self-positioning the other question does.

  5. Carl Sageman says

    Overall, a very thoughtful article.
    – Internet Woman is right that the pejorative of virtue signalling is not meant to be taken literally.
    – the article uses word inclusive but I would suggest the people who are guilty of “virtue signalling” are anything but inclusive, they are almost always divisive along the lines of biology (usually white vs. non-white, male vs female).
    – the section on reductionists is ambiguous. I initially read it as being critical of those who call for consistency (eg. If you’re going to promote women in STEM because it’s a male dominated field, promote men in all female dominated fields too – which we know doesn’t happen. I’d rather have neither promoted, but, consistency can be reasoned). However, the article shifts gears into equality (linking “equality of outcome” to communism). I believe this confusion around reductionists is caused by ambiguity of terminology used. Consistency (or logic and reason) is important to anyone who isn’t into postmodernism (see below).

    What particularly works well in this article is the strong link between religious fervor and virtue signalling. The article also downplayed left vs right because it’s ultimately misleading. When it suits, both left and right will play different games (eg. blind acceptance of foreigners vs blind intolerance of foreigners).

    I have a sneaking suspicion that social attitudes toward political correctness/virtue signalling/identity politics may be changing as recently as the last week. Modernism may be in full swing, but, I’m starting to see cracks in the dam of political correctness. Its too early to say for sure, however, several mainstream sites are discussing the extremism of mainstream media/social networking openly in the last week. I’ve never seen that happen on the Internet before. It’s possible that traditionalism (whatever the author was eluding to) may come back in vogue. If so, I may have to revert back to being a progressive.

    For society’s sake, I hope this divisiveness and maliciousness of post modernism is marginalised quickly. To quote Brittanica, “Postmodernism is a contemporary Western philosophical movement characterized by skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and antirationalism.”.

  6. Grumpy Liberal says

    Excellent piece. Why are all of the most interesting economists at GMU?

  7. Pingback: Holier than thou! – Freedom Today Journal

  8. Space Heater says

    The author tries to rescue the concept of “genuine virtue” (habitual, internalized virtue) from the smear of “virtue signaling” but he fails to divulge the proper significance of the term. Thus, his attempt to correct the misuse of the term “virtue signaling” obfuscates it anew.

    In popular (and frankly debased) usage the term “virtue signaling” connotes “fake virtue,” such as acts of mere conformity, or acts consciously calculated for selfish net-benefit, or cheap-talk claims of virtue. But when properly used as originally intended the term “virtue signaling” is not an epithet at all, not a jab at craven posturing for brownie points.

    Properly used, the term “virtue signaling” denotes a particular EXPLANATION for “genuine virtue.”

    What the proper use of the term “virtue signaling” dangerously (or disagreeably) illuminates about virtue is this: even the purest, most genuine virtue / altruism can be rooted in naturally selected facultative adaptations which are, like other forms of “costly signaling”, on average more beneficial than costly. Thus the ultimate cause of “genuine virtue” may be biological selfishness.

  9. nicky says

    Although you maybe right (I think you are1), the term ‘ virtue signalling’ has gotten a specific meaning and is in common use now. That is how language works.
    Note that the cost is not zero, just very small (even if only the time of typing). And it is a signal: “look how good (PC, woke, pious, etc.) I am” . I find it a useful term,.

  10. Space Heater says

    nicky wrote: “the term ‘ virtue signalling’ has gotten a specific meaning and is in common use now. That is how language works….I find it a useful term”

    nicky, there are any number of expressions one can use to criticize people for fake virtue. The technical term “virtue signaling” concisely chunks and elegantly captures a big (“dangerous”) idea and is not easily replaced. Using the term “virtue signaling” as an epithet—accepting the new (popular) meaning of “virtue signaling”—amounts to a net loss in the expressive power of our language.

  11. nicky says

    Yes, that is so, but my point is that it’s use as an epithet has become so well established that it is futile to fight it. So let us use it, it has acquired a precise meaning.
    There are many fights I gave up in language, language changes.
    E.g.. I gave up on ‘ patriarchy’, which by now only means ‘all what is bad in Western societies’, and has little to do with its original meaning (in fact, the ‘West’ is one of the less -in the original sense- ‘patriarchal’ extant societies we know).
    Or even ‘data’ as a singular, as in “the data is clear…” I gave in.

    • nicky says

      I’m still fighting for ‘begging the question’ though, although I fear it is a lost battle too.

  12. ccscientist says

    One of the criteria by which people tend to judge that some statement is purely virtue signaling (in the common use not technical use) is when the person a) does not actually do anything about the problem and b) does not seem to care that what he is espousing makes the problem worse.
    a) It has been frequently noted that those who virtue signal (the Left) contribute much less to charity than those they disparage and also tend to do little volunteer work. For example, after hurricane Harvey, those out rescuing people were uniformly conservative working-stiff men, not the elite.
    b) Policies are often pushed by the elites that harm those that supposedly are the reason for the policy. The minimum wage is a classic example but we can also point to the devastation welfare has wreaked on the black family.
    I would add that there is much to be said for silent virtue: the good deeds that one does not tell everyone about, the simple refraining from doing bad things.

    • “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

      Matthew 6:3-4

    • Also: “Voluntary works besides, over and above, God’s commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We be unprofitable servants.” (Thirty-Nine Articles)

  13. I would agree that “piety contest” describes the phenomenon in question better than “virtue signaling.” However the latter has the virtue of being both a verb and a noun, while the former is a noun only. Accusing someone of “virtue signaling” is pithy and concise, while an accusation of, um, “being involved in a piety contest” is kind of clumsy.

    Language matters, so I’m trying to come up with something better, but so far nothing brilliant. He’s trying to win social justice? Chasing purity? Piety flashing? Going for the social justice gold? He’s a piety champ? A social justice pope? A social justice droid? A freaking self-absorbed puritanical moralist? OK, I’m drifting away from the topic at hand now…

  14. John Dickinson says

    I wager that the author is a Christian. There is too much here that smacks of motivated reasoning.

    The concept of a piety contest is similar to that of both virtue signalling and purity spirals, and I’ve no objection to the differences identified in the article. But here’s the rub… “it would … be foolish to conclude that we would be better off without … sacredness … at all.” Really? Tell me of something sacred that we wouldn’t be better off not treating as sacred. Agonisingly valuing something such that we might want to invoke the word sacred, Ok. Actually sacred, no.

    The intractability of the land dispute in the Middle East is a great example of the poison of sacredness. So are the cruel, dogmatic, Catholic, sanctity-of-life based anti-abortion laws of the Irish Republic and elsewhere, the cruel sanctity-of-life based anti-euthanasia laws, and the cruel sanctity-of-life based resistance to stem cell therapy research. The ultimate importance and inviolability of sacredness is the end of discussion, the end of compromise, the end of understanding.

    This is where the religious have to employ motivated reasoning. They can’t drop their sanctity, so they come up with more nonsense – “cultivate a multiplicity of irreducible sacred values” and “pairs of concepts that orthodoxy holds ‘in tension'”.

    Please value what really is valuable in your tradition (I’m writing this in a pub on Christmas Eve. There is karaoke. There are fireworks. Oh God, I miss the quiet sense of anticipation and happy wholesomeness of a traditional Christmas – born of the sense of seasonal hunkering down at the solstice, the emotional warmth of a retreat to home, and the cultural bulwarks against the harsh winter). But please don’t pile more nonsense on your nonsense. Please DO deconstruct the sacred values and reveal them for what they are. Poison.

    • There’s a conceit that some secularists have that religion is some unique mode of knowing that can be invalidated on its form – saying, as you seem to, that “sacred values in general are a problem” rather than “your particular sacred values are a problem”. This is wrong. Everyone has foundational (sacred) values. You can have one or several (and the argument of this piece is that several is better than one); they can be tacit or explicit; but there’s no possibility of having none.

      And since trying to deconstruct foundational values can only be done from the standpoint of other foundational values, trying to do so is likely to lead to one remaining sacred value – which results in exactly the sort of pathologies that you seem to want to avoid.

      You can, of course, argue that your foundational value(s) is/are better than mine. And I’m willing to entertain that. Maybe “life” as such is a poor sacred value for the reasons you mention, at least compared to some alternative. But to say that sacred values *in general* are poison is to misunderstand the preconditions of human knowing and motivation.

      The supernaturalness is not the important aspect here (I think this is what you’re getting at based on your examples). There are benign and harmful values with a supernatural basis, and there are benign and harmful values without. I suspect that what you’re really averse to in looking at the pathologies of sacredness (besides the particulars of the sacred values you mentioned) is not supernaturalness at all, but exactly what I’ve tried to point out: the elevation of a *single* sacred value, whether supernatural or not, which offers no standpoint from which to restrain its excesses.

      You might say that anything other than that doesn’t deserve the name sacred. But then we agree on everything except the semantics.

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