Psychology, Top Stories

‘Virtue Signalling’ May Annoy Us. But Civilization Would Be Impossible Without It

We all virtue signal. I virtue signal; you virtue signal; we virtue signal.

And those guys over there, in that political tribe we don’t like—they especially virtue signal. (Just as they believe that we do.)

Let’s not pretend otherwise. We are humans, and humans love to show off our moral virtues, ethical principles, religious convictions, political attitudes and lifestyle choices to other humans. We have virtue signaled ever since prehistoric big-game hunters shared meat with the hungry folks in their clan, or cared for kids who weren’t their own. Our descendants will continue to virtue signal to each other in Mars colonies, and on spaceships heading for other star systems. As humans colonize the galaxy, virtue signaling will colonize the galaxy.

The phrase “virtue signaling” only became popular with the 2016 American election. Yet virtue signaling goes back millions of years, to the origins of human morality. And I’ve had a love/hate relationship with virtue signaling ever since high school.

I was a precociously political kid. My parents talked a lot about politics around the dinner table. My dad was a lawyer who’d studied the classics of Western Civilization at Columbia University (where I also went). He was fascinated by military history, and by the ideological conflict between communism and capitalism. My mom ran the local League of Women Voters while her two kids were off at school—she moderated local political debates, promoted voter registration, and published objective information about issues and candidates.

Both of my parents were pragmatic, anti-partisan centrists. They embodied the best of the middle-class civic virtues. They often cancelled out each other’s votes in elections, but they took for granted that every American has a duty to vote, in every election, in an informed and rational way. Political issues were things to research and discuss, and to act upon through local committee work—rather than things to signal about in public.

My parents didn’t have political bumper stickers on their car. They didn’t get into political debates around the Thanksgiving dinner table with my mom’s eleven brothers and sisters (whose views spanned a wide spectrum). They didn’t have social media. Instead, they quietly helped to change zoning laws, restore local landmarks, and pass bond issues. Despite their differing views on many issues, they co-operated effectively on shared interests, discussing values, realities, strategies and tactics in ways that my brother and I could witness. In many ways, they were the ideal role models for how to be effective, principled citizens without virtue signaling about their political ideas.

At grad school at Stanford, I learned more about the psychology of virtue signaling from various women I was dating. After I got converted to evolutionary psychology, I realized that being a shameless Darwinian was a social and sexual handicap. I dated a few women doing their PhDs in various fields, from sociolinguistics to German studies to evolutionary genetics. I attended women’s-rights rallies with them, but that counted for nothing—given my Darwinism. I wrote letters to local papers against the War on Drugs, and got in trouble with my head of department for it, but that counted for nothing—given that my libertarianism often was confused with reactionary conservativism. I collaborated with a female professor on research about “Social Dominance Orientation” and its relationship to conservative ideologies, but that counted for nothing—given that I believed the roots of dominance were more biological than cultural.

In each case, these brilliant and otherwise open-minded individuals showed a visceral disgust at evolutionary reasoning applied in any way to the study of human nature. They assumed that evolutionary psychology was morally equivalent to Nazi eugenics. I learned that if I didn’t signal my defense of the “Blank Slate” doctrine about human nature (i.e., that all minds are blank slates, completely formed by the environment), nothing else that I did politically counted for anything. If I wasn’t virtue signaling that I was in the right partisan tribe, I was assumed to be in the wrong tribe.

Ever since grad school, I’ve been fascinated by moral hypocrisy as a hallmark of virtue signaling. People say they believe passionately in issue X, but they don’t bother to do anything real to support X. That kind of behavior seemed highly diagnostic of hypocritical signaling, and hypocritical signaling is bad, because hypocrisy is always bad. Case closed.

Or was it? My understanding of virtue signaling got a lot more complicated when I learned more about signaling theory. In grad school I’d studied sexual selection through mate choice, and the “sexual ornaments” and “fitness indicators” that evolve to signal a potential mate’s good genes, good health and good brains. Fitness signaling is central to animal behavior. But there’s a lot more to signaling than sexual ornaments.

In 1996, I started work as a researcher at the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, in the economics department at University College London. It was an evolutionary game-theory center, led by Ken Binmore. I had a crash course in game theory, including signaling theory. I learned about Thorstein Veblen’s view of conspicuous consumption as wealth signaling, and Michael Spence’s view of educational credentials as intelligence signaling, and Amotz Zahavi’s view of animal displays as fitness signaling. I got the intellectual tools to think in a more nuanced way about virtue signaling.

There’s virtue signaling, and then there’s virtue signaling. This book is about both kinds.

On the one hand, there’s what economists call “cheap talk”: signals that are cheap, quick and easy to fake, and that aren’t accurate cues of underlying traits or values. When partisans on social media talk about political virtue signaling by the other side, they’re usually referring to this sort of cheap talk. Virtue signaling as cheap talk includes bumper stickers, yard signs, social media posts and dating app profiles. The main pressure that keeps cheap talk honest is social: the costs of stigma and ostracism by people who don’t agree with your signal. Wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat doesn’t cost much money, but it can cost you friendships.

On the other hand, there’s virtue signaling that’s costly, long-term, and hard to fake, and that can serve as a reliable indicator of underlying traits and values. This can include volunteering for months on political campaigns, making large, verifiable donations to causes, or giving up a lucrative medical practice to work for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti or New Guinea. The key to reliable virtue signals is that you simply couldn’t stand to exhibit them, over the long term, if you didn’t genuinely care about the cause.

When I was writing The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature in the late 1990s, while working at the game-theory center as my day job, I thought a lot about the difference between cheap talk and reliable virtue-signaling in human courtship and relationships. I was trying my best to adapt to fatherhood, with a toddler, and to step-fatherhood, helping to raise a teenager. I realized that good parenting—patience, safety-mindedness, playfulness, creativity and cheerfulness despite sleep deprivation—is a cardinal virtue that we try to display to our long-term sexual partners. I was renovating our house, growing our garden, and building backyard play structures for our daughter—all hard-to-fake ways to signal resourcefulness, stoicism and altruism. I was working hard to organize conferences and collaborations with colleagues even more socially awkward than me—which required social virtues of perspective-taking and open- mindedness. Everywhere I looked, I started to see virtue signals that were rarely political, but often reliable.

As I got involved in the Effective Altruism movement in the last four years, I learned a lot more about the benefits of reliable virtue signaling. I met young people who were giving away 70% of their income, to support charities fighting against malaria in Africa. Each of them was saving several lives a year. I met computer scientists who had given up promising careers at tech companies to work for think tanks focused on the risks of Artificial General Intelligence, just because they cared about the future of humanity. And there were so many vegans. They weren’t noisy, self-righteous vegans. They were deeply ethical vegans, who weren’t disgusted by meat, and didn’t mind eating leftover beef entrées on airplanes (that would be thrown out anyway), but who worked hard, day in and day out, to reduce demand for factory-farmed animal products. I fell in love with an Effective Altruist who became my moral role model in many ways, and who had the same visceral distaste for cheap-talk virtue signaling that I did. She didn’t mind that I ate beef myself—as long as I stopped eating chicken (too much suffering per pound of meat, compared to cows), and donated enough money to Vegan Outreach every year to convert at least ten other people to veganism. (That’s called “offsetting,” and people obsessed with cheap-talk signaling can’t understand that it doesn’t rationally matter who becomes vegan, as long as more people do.)

So, my love/hate relationship with virtue signaling has continued for thirty years. Virtue signaling includes the best of human instincts, and the worst of human instincts.

The best, because virtue signaling is the best foundation for human morality toward strangers that we could reasonably expect from a process as blind and heartless as genetic evolution.

Here’s the problem. Evolution finds it easy to shape adaptations for being kind to offspring and blood relatives, because they share some of your selfish genes. Evolution can sometimes shape adaptations for the good of the local group—ant nest, termite colony or hunter-gatherer clan. Evolution can, rarely, shape adaptations that allow people to trade goods and services with trusted allies and partners, in various repeated-interaction, tit-for-tat games.

But evolution has a very hard time shaping moral adaptations for being kind to strangers, much less thinking in any rational, ethical, long-term way about global sentient well-being. In The Mating Mind, I argued that sexual selection and social selection for virtue signaling is probably the only way that humans could have evolved any interest in people beyond their family, their clan and their trading network—or in any animals outside their species. Without the evolution of virtue signaling over the last few hundreds of thousands of years, humans probably wouldn’t be able to co-ordinate themselves into any groups larger than a few dozen people, much less civilizations of millions. Without virtue signaling, we’d never have seen the end of slavery, animal torture, cruel and unusual punishment, or any of the other outrages that Steven Pinker analyzed in The Better Angels of our Nature.

Yet, virtue signaling can also be the worst of human instincts. It drives most of partisan politics, especially on social media. It drives the demands to censor, fire, cancel and ostracize people who express the wrong opinions. It drives moral panics about satanic ritual abuse, “rape culture” and “porn addiction.” It drives white nationalists to run over protesters. It drives antifa to beat up journalists. It drives social-justice warriors to take over media, academia and corporate life, and to impose their ideology of “diversity, equity and inclusion” on everyone through enforced conformity of thought, inequity in hiring and promotions, and exclusion of heterodox thinkers from any positions of power or influence.

Some of this is cheap talk, but some of it is reliable signaling. What distinguishes good virtue signaling from bad virtue signaling isn’t just the reliability of the signal. It’s the actual real-world effects on sentient beings, societies and civilizations. When the instincts to virtue signal are combined with curiosity about science, open-mindedness about values and viewpoints, rationality about priorities and policies, and strategic savvy about ways and means, then wonderful things can happen. These more enlightened forms of virtue signaling have sparked the Protestant Reformation, American Revolution, abolitionist movement, anti-vivisection movement, women’s suffrage movement, free speech movement, and Effective Altruism movement. But when the instincts to virtue signal are not combined with curiosity, open-mindedness, rationality and strategic savvy—that’s when you get Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Stalin’s Holodomor, Hitler’s Holocaust, Mao’s Cultural Revolution…and Twitter.

 

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychology professor at the University of New Mexico. His research has focused on sexual selection, signaling theory, mate choice, individual differences, behavior genetics, consumer behavior, machine learning and Effective Altruism. This essay is excerpted, with permission of the author, from Virtue signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech. Published by PrimalPoly Media. Copyright © Geoffrey Miller.

Twitter: @primalpoly 

 

Featured image: A greater sage-grouse inflates its gular sacs to attract mates.

Comments

  1. I think the author confuses living or practicing a virtue with virtue signaling. Most people do not object to practicing a virtue. The author is correct that people object to virtue hypocrisy, which is often labeled virtue signaling. The author correctly identifies “cheap talk” as a hypocritical virtue signaling to which people object. But there are others. For instance commitment to an issue does not absolve one of virtue hypocrisy. On many occasions people have worked tirelessly on an issue only to demand an exemption for themselves or insert an exemption into the legislation. These people work tirelessly restricting the activities of others but would revolt at similar restrictions being placed on themselves. Another form of virtue hypocrisy to which most object is “witnessing”. Vegans are most frequently guilty of this. Many vegans simply can not resist the temptation to tell others about the moral superiority of their lifestyle choice. They are frequently bores. It would be as though I ran around to everyone proclaiming, “I don’t rob banks!” If someone chooses to eschew meat and dairy, well bravo for them but if they expect more adulation than someone who avoids refined sugar and salt well the crowd is just not interested in applauding.

  2. I enjoyed the essay, but there seems to me to be some silliness in it:

    “I was renovating our house, growing our garden, and building backyard play structures for our daughter—all hard-to-fake ways to signal resourcefulness”

    Sorry but you were not signaling, you were performing. It reminds me of that pointless philosophical game Ayn Rand played in saying that altruism isn’t really altruism, it just looks exactly like it. Performance of virtue will almost always ‘signal’ virtue, so what’s the point in trying to tease them apart? I’d say that your actual virtue ‘signals’ that you’re also the sort of guy who would donate anonymously to charity. Where’s the signal in that? I think that for genuinely good people the ‘signal’ is often something we try to avoid. The guy who rescues the little girl from drowning and then just slips quietly away. Signaling is overrated.

    “I argued that sexual selection and social selection for virtue signaling is probably the only way that humans could have evolved any interest in people beyond their family”

    But why on earth would a fitness seeking female select a mate who signals that he’s going to expend resources on anything other than her? Evolutionary psychology does indeed have a hard time with this. It seems to me that such a signal would positively exclude this guy from selection.

    “or in any animals outside their species”

    Dolphins are well known to rescue monkeys who have fallen into the water where their efforts at swimming are quite pathetic. On a few occasions we’ve even asked for favors in return:

  3. I enjoyed the essay. But I agree with @Farris and @RayAndrews. The virtuous part is the deed. That good deed is a signal. But it’s only when you broadcast that signal, that you are signalling.

    Altruism is a tricky concept. Obviously, if you do a good deed, take a selfie as you do it, then post on Twitter to fish for likes and retweets, you’re one type. The ones who do the same good deed, then move on…are another type altogether. But even then, they still get the same warm fuzzy inside. So I do wonder whether there exists a scenario where someone truly does something good for absolutely no personal benefit.

  4. Seems to me that’s the Rand fallacy: We feel good when we do good, so it’s not really good, it’s just chasing the good feeling. I’m not sure if it’s a named fallacy, but what is being done is to attempt to make a separation that can’t be made and say that one end of the stick is longer than the other. You don’t really drink water because you need water, you drink to satisfy you thirst! How is that a useful sentence?

    Dunno, I’ve done good things when I’m in a bad mood and I don’t get any fuzzies from it, and so has everyone else. This idea that we only ever do right because we’re junkies seeking some hi is a lousy idea. Doing good has the consequences of doing good and one of them is the feeling of having done good. Not really much of a revelation is it? I’m not driving to the store to get to the store, but to enjoy the feeling of having driven to the store. Really?

  5. I just don’t get it. So everything anybody does is a virtue signal? If so, then how did virtue signaling “evolve” at all? What’s the point of the concept? Is it just a meaningless catch-all term?

    The author mentions that animals “fitness signal” in sex selection - is that the same thing as human “virtual signaling”? Why two different terms, then? Also, is everything ultimately based on sex selection in evolutionary psychology?

  6. To me, most virtue signalling behavior is mildly annoying but usually harmless. Examples are stickers that people get saying ‘I voted’ or ‘I donated blood’ or ‘my kid is an honor student, etc.’

    ‘… “Virtue-signalling” is also used as a pejorative term, denouncing empty acts of public commitment to unexceptional good causes such as changing Facebook profile pictures to support a cause, participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy, celebrity speeches during award shows, and politicians pandering to constituents on ideological issues…’ (from Wikipedia)

    Virtue signalling when used pejoratively is roughly equivalent to ‘empty words,’ ‘hollow gesture,’ ‘Pharisaism,’ ‘holier than thou,’ etc. Any type of public signalling behavior is vulnerable to invasion by cheaters, hypocrites, mimics, etc. An example would be the late Jeffrey Epstein wearing a HARVARD sweatshirt, when he never actually attended that school.

    So what are we to make of the following types of religious virtue signalling?

    Wearing of crosses by observant Christians [outside the clothing]
    Wearing of religious clothing by nuns, monks, priests, etc.
    Wearing of simple, modest clothing by Amish and other Old Order sects
    Wearing of turbans by Sikh males
    Various levels of veiling by Muslim females

    In these and many other instances, it’s better to abandon the idea of ‘virtue signalling’ and just refer to the behavior as ‘identity signalling.’ That solves the problem that we generally don’t know what other people’s true motives are. And, yes, human identity signalling behavior is just about universal.

  7. On the subject of vegans, I thought Quillette viewers might be amused by this:

    As an aside, I was veggie for 16 years before becoming pescetarian- and still get annoyed when I take my mother out for a meal and she publicises my food habits- because I am all too aware that many who adopt new dietary practices, can become preachy pains.

    I think the point that the author misses, is that virtue signalling in the modern context is often accompanied with an industrial dose of narcissism and that anybody straight, white and male who can’t be converted into becoming an ‘ally’ is automatically an enemy. It also posits incredibly simple solutions to problems of structural disparity, that deserve far more thorough investigation and study.

    But the single greatest flaw in virtue signalling, is the philosophy that underlies it. A recent study shows that liberals exposed to the concept of white privilege were no more sympathetic towards poor black people, but became considerably less sympathetic towards poor white people.

    In many ways this explains some of the response by liberals towards Trump supporters in the US, and Brexiteers in the UK. It is a sobering thought that we are perhaps living through the first time in history when the rich resent and hate the poor, rather the more normal human default of the poor resenting and envying the rich. I wonder how we got here. When did it become permissible to sneer at, and despise, those less fortunate than you? Of course the contempt is never direct, it’s always couched as the denigration of the choices of the poor- whether it’s how they vote, or that they happen to eat at McDonald’s- when often McDonald’s also happens to be the one place that they can get food cheap. But the condescension is there nonetheless.

    One of the most interesting ways that this manifests is that in America parents are more worried about their child coming home with someone of a different political party, than someone of a different race. On one level, this is reassuring- yet more evidence people care less about the colour of someone’s skin than ever before. But on another level it is deeply disturbing, more evidence of the political gulf opening up in most Western nations. But worst of all, the hatred is not proportional- liberals concerns over a son or daughter bringing home a conservative rate at 37%, conservatives concern over a liberal in the family at 11%. Seems that the political divide is more one-sided than we thought.

  8. Hmmmm… My academic career from undergrad student to prof emeritus spans 50 years. In the early 1970s on campus, identity signaling by students often including wearing blue jeans, army surplus jackets, overalls, work boots, etc. Much of this working-class gear was worn ironically, which is a very sophisticated form of counter-identity signalling. That type of behavior pretty much disappeared on campus in the 1980s, as far as I remember.

    More recent cohorts of college students have been battered by successive waves of economic recession that were unknown in the 1960s. That has probably made them more conservative in terms of lifestyle. Has that also made them more fragile and intolerant? I don’t know, but J. Haidt has suggested very recently that something happened on American college campuses around 2014 to make today’s college students more fragile and fearful. That happens to be after I retired, so I’m not sure if he is on to something or just being alarmist.

  9. Haidt describes the temporal correlation with Gen Z, which is generally agreed to as birth year 1995-2010. They would’ve started college in 2013…when he started noticing the shift on campus to trigger warnings and safe spaces and all the other fragility nonsense we see now.

    He correlates that fragility to parenting styles…helicopter, no exposure, kids in a bubble…that type of thing.

  10. I’ve got to run out for a bit, so this will be brief. I’m about halfway through the interview (which is good, thanks for posting it) - I wonder how much of this fragility is much more a result of early childhood experience rather than the current American college experience.

    My youngest was born in 1990, and at that time children were still pretty much allowed what’s now called a free range upbringing, and in general they seem pretty able to handle things. FWIW, I still work with young people born around that time. and with that group there is still a lot of risk-taking in their lives.

    But I did notice, at least in my area of the world, how much more constricted childhood started to become in in the late 90s, and it was certainly widely discussed among parents in the early 2000s. I haven’t figured out why, though my own personal favourite theory is that these were the children of parents who in turn were the first generation brought up on Sesame St.

  11. The definition of “virtue signaling” is that one signals without actually achieving anything other than the signal.

    Or at least it was, before the author got ahold of it…

  12. Interesting article. I tend to think in terms of basic personality traits when it comes to how people find positions, dominant or otherwise, in a social hierarchy. And I tend to think mate selection (or at least available options) comes along automatically with position in aforementioned social hierarchy. But maybe my thinking on this has been wrong. When I got married myself, it was to somebody who wasn’t even a member of the same group as me, nor was I a member of hers. So clearly there were other factors involved. If we’re going this route with virtue signalling, I wonder if the author would think vice signalling equally important? For example, what Epstein was doing with his island and his pervy rich guy crew? Or, for another example, the way certain cliques of socialites relish having a reputation for passing out in trendy clubs during the wee hours?

    I learned about Thorstein Veblen’s view of conspicuous consumption as wealth signaling…

    I’d call that bait. It’s certainly not going to signal anything to other rich people, other than that somebody is careless with money. It will, no doubt, attract people who don’t have money but want it, and are willing to be exploited to get it. See Epstein vice signalling comment, above. I would think cultural activities more effective at signalling wealth, to the wealthy. Or even zipcodes. Remember TV show 90210? Even area codes for phone numbers can indicate high income (though easily faked now with mobiles).

    …and Michael Spence’s view of educational credentials as intelligence signaling…

    Does that really hold up outside of academia? I can’t recall anybody ever telling me about their educational background when I met them at a conference, a trade show, or a dinner. A business card will tell you a lot, though. Dunno.

  13. The definition of “virtue signaling” is that one signals without actually achieving anything other than the signal. Or at least it was, before the author got ahold of it…

    Maybe something like value signalling? I knew an MD many years ago who volunteered for many humanitarian aid programs. She traveled probably a couple months a year, doing that, and living pretty rough. I met her when she kept showing up for the same Sierra Club backpacking trips my wife and I were on. Sierra Club seems to have faded, but back then it was a thing people did to prove they were humanitarians. Between those two things, and others, anyone who didn’t know her would come to the conclusion that she really cared about people. But the thing is, she felt very little connection to other people. She was doing these humanitarian activities to fill a void she felt in herself. I don’t think her case qualifies as either virtue signalling or “identity” signalling, as was mentioned as an alternative elsewhere in these comments.

  14. You think it’s bad as a social scientists, try it as a biologist! Absolutely spot-on. Nobody wants to think that human beings are not tabula rasa, when there are mountains of evidence showing that we are pre-loaded with all sorts of very useful behaviors. Otherwise, we’d starve because we didn’t bond with mother, because she seems to expect that pesky smiling stuff. Otherwise, we might just put our hands on that weird crawling thing with the red hourglass on its back. Baby chicks are born knowing the shadows of their predators, just as we are born knowing the components of our future languages and the basics of relating to, and of course completely wrapping around our little fingers, our mothers.

    Furthermore, we are born with the Basics already set up of a number of important traits. Is our brain more towards the male pattern or female pattern, are we going to want to mate with males or females, are we set up along neurotypical lines or are we psychopathic or possibly autistic? This is just a small selection of the many many traits that we come out of the womb with.

    Tabula rasa has a very old history, one of my favorite parts being when it took over the Soviet Union thanks to Trofim Lysenko. Militarily, it was extremely useful, because it held the Soviets back from figuring out a lot of the bacteriology genetic techniques that would have enabled them to develop bioweapons much sooner. However, it caused some major problems due to the insistence that one could, for example, change the environment of a seed and automatically turn it into a different version of itself, such that one could make spring wheat out of winter wheat via simple environmental changes. This not only doesn’t work, it’s a great recipe for famine. This is something that the Soviet Union was noted for having, and it did not help that it tried to dictate ideology to reality.

    The Triumph of ideology over reality is going to be short-lived, because the only way to get the actual people that you want to fulfill your ideological dream is going to involve brainwashing and probably some torture and Terror. Why don’t we learn from the Soviets and skip all of that, and just go straight to what biologists have been saying for many many decades? It takes nature and nurture to make any organism, including humans. All right, are we done? Good, let’s move onto doing something useful as opposed to debating nonsense with ideologues.

  15. The tone of the essay was playful but I do think the author presents the thesis in all seriousness. In this I disagree. He conflates “virtue signaling” with “being virtuous” with “being virtuous in public or in a way people can observe” with “affiliation with a group.” In order to argue as he does, he has to pretend that “virtue signaling” is all these things together. I can’t tell if that’s just sophistry or sloppy thinking or if he really believes it. The main issue I have is that he conflates virtue with virtue signaling. The two are very different. Young people who give away 70% of their income but do so quietly are not signaling anything; they are simply doing what they believe because they want to be virtuous. It is a form of virtue signaling if they tell a lot of people they’re doing it, but only in a literal sense.

    I guess it would be best to start with a definition of terms. That may be the problem. In my view, “Virtue signaling” may sound like it has to do with actual virtue, but instead it has to do with publicly conforming to the Tribe’s dogma in order to boost your standing in the Tribe’s hierarchy. Whether you actually practice the virtue is irrelevant. No one follows up or cares. What’s relevant is that you post it on social media or put a sign in your front yard so all know you are part of their collective. In this way, virtue signaling brings out a lot of hypocrisy and narcissism.

    To use the author’s example, it’s like flying the Nazi flag to signal you’re a good Aryan so you get invited to the right parties, but not doing anything Hitler would have considered virtuous. Whereas the S.S. officers who, say, shot 10 Jewish infants point blank, believed themselves to be acting virtuously, but they kept their "virtue’ to themselves and fellow officers as part of their duty. Such officers were higher up in their Tribe’s hierarchy due to their actions, not their words. Actual virtue signaling, on the other hand, is all about the words.

    To use a less evil example-- I happen to be in the midst of a move, and on the way to clean up my old place, I made a quick stop at the store to get cleaning supplies. I left my little dog in the car. It was about 75 degrees out and the car was in the shade and I was gone for all of ten minutes. When I returned, a young white woman in an expensive SUV and dressed in expensive clothes (I mention all this because wealthy young white people are the biggest virtue signalers as far as I can tell)—anyway, this woman immediately started screaming at me, and cursing at me. “F-- b–” and so on. The cords on her neck were standing out. She was several inches taller than me and loomed over me screaming. My crime was that I left the dog in the car. She then stood in my way as I tried to back out. She kept cursing at me - I didn’t respond except twice, to say “You really know how to spread goodness and kindness” (that got her more enraged) and then, 'Stop harassing me." - and eventually she gloated she was calling the police and then she filmed me as she called, informing me she knew my license plate.

    I left and hopefully will never see her again. But what she was doing was virtue signaling. In the guise of caring about the welfare of my dog, she was actually signaling to her group that she was a virtuous warrior out to protect dogs from idiot owners. She couldn’t care less whether my dog lived or died-- if she were really worried, all she had to do was ask me politely if I was aware that keeping a dog in a car could really hurt them. She didn’t. She immediately started cursing me out - that was to dehumanize me and make me a Bad Guy so she could feel even more virtuous - and then almost immediately filmed me as I left, telling me again (smiling in joyful anticipation) how she was going to call the cops on me. Her actions were definitely not designed to help me see that keeping a dog in a car might be dangerous. They were designed to inflate her sense of self and to virtue signal to her group.

    The examples the author gives are all over the place, but they aren’t what most people mean when they say “virtue signaling.” To my mind, “virtue signaling” by definition does not differentiate between words and actions, between intention and results, between the medium and the message. It is all about signaling and not about virtue.

    I definitely disagree that “everyone” virtue signals. I know many people who do a great deal of good in quiet, and you’d never know all their good works. Just yesterday, neighbors approached me and offered to help move some large furniture to my new place as they saw me struggling. There was no reason for them to do this other than goodness. I barely know them and I was moving away, unlikely to see them again. They dropped the items off in my backyard and expected nothing in return and got no signaling for it. I see this sort of goodness all the time. More commonly still, I know people who are virtuous when people are watching, but they still do good works, eg people who, say, spend 10 hours one day to help strangers in a hurricane and post about it or tell others what they did. But they’re still helping strangers in a hurricane.

    Sort of. I think what the author means is that virtue itself must be evaluated based on its real world impact, not on intentions. Virtue signaling, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a real world effect - Tweeting that you hope we have a recession because it would hurt Trump is entirely virtue signaling (they are signaling to their Tribe that they loathe Trump so much they would be willing to ‘sacrifice’ our economy, though they really have no intention of doing so even if they could), entirely without real virtue and without any real world effect - unless it’s to divide humans against each other according to tribal affiliations. That has nothing to do with actual virtue.

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