August 28, 2018


Virtue Signaling (B.D. McClay, Summer 2018, The Hedgehog Review)

To what extent is "virtue signaling" a useful, or at least meaningful, phrase? That the desire to be thought of a certain way can preclude the desire to be a certain way, or at least complicates the latter, is certainly true. That sometimes people say and do things just to be seen saying and doing them is also true.

Take rich white parents who profess to believe in the importance of desegregation of schools but who send their own children to segregated-in-all-but-name schools. Both of these actions (the professed antiracism, the choice of school) involve signaling of a kind, since the name of the school you send your children to can sometimes carry more heft than the substance of their education. At the same time, choosing to send your children to an integrated school could also be understood to be a virtue signal--that you're so obsessed with appearing right-minded that you will make decisions that might penalize your children.

People being--for millennia, as the saying goes--social creatures, things begin to get muddy right around here. Anything can function as a signal, and to some extent does: the clothes you wear, your taste in books, the car you drive, the food you eat, the religion you practice, the organizations to which you give time and money, and so on. Unless you take great pains to make sure nobody ever sees you doing any of these things--which some people have been known to do--they're all information by which other people judge you.

In other words, maybe you like the novels of Leo Tolstoy because they're good; or maybe you like them because you've been told that's what smart people like, and you want to be thought of as smart. But most likely, your reaction is an inscrutable mixture of the two, because your taste doesn't exist in a vacuum but also is probably not purely developed for cynical reasons. And if every action you can take in a given situation can be a virtue signal--whether in accord with your principles or against them--then as a diagnostic tool, "virtue signaling" isn't very useful.

Like hypocrisy, virtue signaling should function as a reminder to people that what they say or write should be more than empty words. But more often it is a way of saying you don't need to listen to any words, because they're all empty. To signal virtue is bad if signaling overrides actual virtue; to borrow Robin Hanson's terms, one should say that X is, and ought to be, about Y. More often, however, the accusation of virtue signaling is a way of trying to avoid the question of whether X really is about Y by elevating motive over the content of beliefs.

It's no accident that this obsession with signaling flourishes in communities of online discontent, because signaling--in a very deliberate sense--is unavoidable in digital interactions. Everything you do online is conscious; it lacks the quality of offline life in this way. E-mails, tweets, and texts are deliberated over in way that doesn't admit of spontaneity. When you fill out a list of your favorite books for Facebook, you're aware of what that list says about you, and what emphasizing books (rather than movies or music) says about you. When you pick a profile picture, that's your face, unchangingly, for as long as you use it. When you fill out a dating profile, you're trying to pick attributes that represent you accurately but which will also attract a certain kind of person. You signal that you are your ideal person's ideal person.

The criticisms implicit in accusations of virtue signaling demand one sort of impossible purity of motive--the assurance that, if you performed this action in a total vacuum, it would be the same--then substitute another for it. If actions are unavoidably performed before others, and the way we think about them is shaped by our culture, then all actions can be understood to be only performative; you wouldn't do them if you had grown up in a different place with different parents and a different value system, and you wouldn't do them if you thought they'd diminish your status or your standing as a good person. But what "virtue signaling" can't admit into its framework, even though it should, is that most people act from mixed motives: They desire to do the right thing, and they also want people to think well of them.

From a societal standpoint, what is the difference between the virtuous person and the one who continually virtue-signals? It is that rigorously imposed conformity that has made our republic possible.

Posted by at August 28, 2018 7:07 PM