I am going to share my views on this apparently recent phenomenon called virtue signalling. Jeremiah Traeger recently wrote a super article on it here at ATP. He’s good, that man.
Let’s define it again, as per Wikipedia:
Virtue signalling [sic] is the conspicuous expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group.
The term is often used, at the moment, to attack people on the left who are deemed to be showing moral concerns or views in a way to highlight how much of a good person they are. Sometimes, people in the limelight will do this as a form of PR.
However, there are some real problems with a certain approach to virtue signalling, and here’s for why.
I’ve just returned from holiday where, at a theme park, I saw two people from the same family wearing Nottingham Forest (football club) tops, and someone wear a Liverpool FC top. And someone wear a SuperDry T-shirt, and a Bench sweater, and Nike trainers and and and…
The point is, every single fashion choice there is in some way communicating a message to other people something about the wearer. In some way, the wearer is saying, “Hey, look at me! This is the sort of person I am. This says something to you about who I am.” This includes hairstyles, facebooks statuses, bumper stickers, posters in your room as a student. There is arguably often a message that “I like these things and you should, too.”
We are all moral characters, and we all have beliefs about ourselves that we would like other people to know.
The next time you slip on your favourite image- or fashion-laden top, just think who you are doing it for. Are you doing it to enhance your standing amongst a certain group of others, or to be iconoclastic, even, in a sort of reverse-appeal? Either way, you are selling yourself, and your virtue (in a loose sense).
I have a humanist bumper sticker on my car. Why? Because I want people to know I am an atheist and a humanist. Also, like Jeremiah said previously:
Visibility is incredibly important for a cause. This is why campaigns such as #NormalizeAtheism are being set up, partially why the gay rights movement was so successful in their movement towards success, and why things as simple as platforming marginalized groups are more important than we might initially think. This is part of why when, for example, Matt Dillahunty debates Christians onstage, his largest goal is simply to be a kind and fair visible atheist so that Christians can overcome preconceived negative stereotypes that they harbor.
As a social species, the people visible to us and the viewpoints we observe affect our behavior and opinions. Social conformity is a more powerful effect than we like to admit to ourselves, since we are all susceptible to biases. I have already discussed the Asch conformity experiments, where the presence of people giving a clearly wrong answer significantly increased the probability of the test subject also giving an incorrect answer. There’s also a reason why companies can spend billion dollars on a celebrity endorsement deal and expect that to create even more profits. Often times, it seems like the size of the platform and the attention we give to an idea, product, or cause can be the largest affect on the number of people who accept these things than anything else.
Obviously, we should care about creating visibility to the causes that we care about, especially if they are going to be ideas that promote human rights and well-being. Because social pressure is such a powerful effect, being visible about positive values can start to become less of merely a good idea and more of a social responsibility.
Since skepticism is a virtue that most of the readers here hold, I can use that as an example. There are many representations of skeptics and critical thinkers in film and TV shows that portray them as curmudgeonly or overly-critical, often stubbornly stuck in their position and condescendingly lecturing other characters. Even positive portrayals like Sherlock or Agent Scully are riddled with these negative characteristics (and often these portrayals manifest as inaccurate applications of critical thought). It’s quite often the case that these characters will have their naturalistic and critical positions “disproven” by the end of the piece, when the scientists are done in and it turns out that faries or Santa Claus do exist afterall! This does place a bit of value on fantastical and often irrational thinking and trades it in for the unfettered romanticism of belief in magic and the supernatural. Would we not be better off with more portrayals of critical thinkers that live full, happy lives, and show off the benefit of critical thinking, and wouldn’t it be nice if the writers of these shows signaled the positive aspects and benefits of skepticism?
I have T-shirts of my favourite bands or with scientific slogans that are ways to communicate my ethical stances or tastes. Tastes include many things: musical, political, sporting, fashion, ethical and so on, and many tastes have a virtuous dimension (from the point of view of the subject person).
When a politician comes to your door with a rosette, or someone is wearing a political pin, we don’t stand and say, “VIRTUE SIGNALLER!”
What virtue signalling should be rephrased as is “identity signalling” because that is really what is going on. We are signalling – with things we do, say, wear, support – our identity to everyone, often in the hope that someone else in that same group as us (with the same tastes) recognises our brilliant choice or identity. We are enhancing our standing.
But where the direction of traffic is usually either people on the right attacking the left or people on the left who take issue with whatever particular virtue is being signalled (i.e. a personal beef), we have another problem: special pleading.
Take virtue signaller who makes a (moral) proclamation of X. Now take person B, accusing A of virtue signalling. This is more often than not because B believes ~X (not X). So the accusation of virtue signalling is actually a virtue signal in and of itself. This is itself an enhancement amongst those to whom B is appealing.
The accuser (B) is themselves professing a virtue, or a moral standpoint. We could call this virtue signaller signalling.
And then we might have an infinite regress of signalling!
Of course, one person’s virtue is another’s non-virtue. And when we agree with A, we don’t accuse them of virtue signalling (or very rarely in the case of overtly obvious image enhancement and the notion that A might not really believe X). They are just good people who are A-Okay by us,
Basically, virtue signalling can be a way of disagreeing with someone’s moral standpoint and communicating this disagreement by poisoning the well and not really dealing with the content.
Now, this might not always be the case, but I think this is often the case with accusers of virtue signalling.
This is not to deny that genuine almost explicitly conscious heralding of a moral viewpoint to be seen to be the paragon of virtue actually does happen. I’m sure it does. But I do think that people get attacked for expressing opinions that simply run against the opinion of the accuser, and to make a charge of virtue signalling is to undermine that moral position without dealing with the content. Perhaps there are times where some part of the accuser knows deep down, subconsciously, that the position being originally signalled is really the correct moral position, but one that runs counter to their own intuitive and psychologically derived moral position. Rather than stick their head above the parapet and defend the original position, the lazier approach is to shout “virtue signaller” and run for cover to watch the fallout from afar.
But perhaps, also, I am over-analysing and seeing too much in all of this.