Virtue signaling

Image result for semaphoreThe term “virtue signaling” has been around for a few years now, though there’s some dispute about its origin. This guy claims he invented it.  But that seems to be false, the term has been in circulation for much longer than that.

In any case, in its barest sense, signaling is a kind of implicature. I signal one thing by doing another. Virtue signaling borrows from this somewhat imperfectly. Instead of signaling my virtue by doing some other kind of thing, I signal virtue by making arguments or statements regarding virtue kinds of things. It’s not, in other words, the doing of one thing (taking out my recycling, for instance) to signal another (I love the planet). Rather, it’s the arguing or the saying itself that is the signaling.

Here’s how the pretend inventor puts it:

I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

I’m all for neologisms in the service of argument analysis. Scott and I have even coined a few of them. This one, however, seems confusing (see above), unnecessary, and (like qualunquismo) self-refuting.

As for the unnecessary part, there’s already a handy term (or maybe two) for what virtue-signaling means to single out: ad hominem circumstantial (on some accounts). The one who employs the VS charge, in other words, means to claim that a person is making a certain claim not for epistemic reasons (because they think it’s true) but rather to signal belonging in a group (I’m on the side of the angels). I don’t mean to say that this is inherently wrong, people after all make inauthentic pronouncements all of the time. But it’s certainly a difficult charge to make. You have to make a further claim of inconsistency to show that the person does not actually believe what they say (this would be another version of the VS). This is kind of hard. Often, in any case, it’s not relevant, thus the great risk that leveling the VS charge is just to commit the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy: you ignore the reasons and go for the alleged motives.

Now for the self-refuting part. If I by making some pronouncement regarding some moral claim M virtue signal, then does it not follow that the VS charge is itself subject, or potentially subject, to the same charge? It is at bottom a claim about what kinds of claims are proper to make in certain contexts. By leveling the charge I’m signaling that certain kinds of claims are improper in certain circumstances–that, in other words, it’s virtuous not to make them.

4 thoughts on “Virtue signaling”

  1. Hey John, So I wonder if there’s a rejoinder in defense of the virtue-signalling charge. It might go along the lines of either (a) that they are objections to whether the virtues signalled really are virtues, or (b) whether it is vicious to call attention to one’s virtues in some way or another.
    With the first, the objection is doubled — it’s not really a virtue you’re enacting, and your acting as though it is a virtue makes it worse. With the second, I would think the line of reason goes along with the complaint about ‘humblebragging’ — that the objection is that it’s less about the virtues and more about the person calling attention to her/him self. Like taking selfies in the midst of serving sandwiches at the mission.
    So, it’s an objection along your group-identification line, but it’s one that says: it looks like it is less about the virtues and more about you….

  2. Hey Scott–

    Good points. I think there’s more to this than I have allowed in the post.

    I agree that those are objectionable things. My point was whether the new term is adequate to the job. I think not, for the reasons given, but also, as you point out, for the inherent ambiguity of what is being picked out by it.

    It’s a rather substantial claim, I think, to say someone’s indicating their dislike (or approval) of some moral thing M is *sufficient* for virtue. No doubt some people think this, but I’d bet most would add other things (like doing stuff, etc.) as necessary for virtue. Perhaps the accused might reply that saying something about M is necessary or at least very desirable, by way of showing that others should do the same or by way of publicizing the cause. The VS accuser, on this interpretation, dismisses too much, then.

  3. This discussion spurs several thoughts.

    1) It does seem virtuous to signal what virtue is. In a sense, that is what ethics professors do all the time. The might be bad people in their personal lives, but if they are signaling (e.g. Teaching) ethics well, then they make the world better merely through that signaling.

    2) The critique of self-aggrandizement is weakened by the fact that multiple motivations can exist. Consider, for example, a pedophile who has such great control that the pedophile never acts on his/her urges. If somebody holds a gun to the pedophile’s head and makes the pedophile perp on a child, the pedophile would not be held legally responsible for the pedophile’s actions, even if the pedophile enjoys the act. According to utilitarianism, it might even be morally optimal for the pedophile to enjoy it, given that it must be done on pain of death. There might be an argument that enjoying immoral acts tends to cause people to repeat those immoral acts, but we have already established that this pedophile controls his/her urges absent duress. Similarly, the self-aggrandizer’s signaling seems morally worthwhile so long as spreading moral awareness is part of the self-aggrandizer’s goal, and is not solely done out of a concern for self-interest. And according to utilitarianism, the intent might not even matter, so long as the signaling does, in fact, encourage others to act more morally.

    3) The primary point of disagreement in this thread seems to be about the distinction between being a virtuous person and taking a virtuous action. In other words, the answer seems to depend on whether such signaling is enough to make a person virtuous, as opposed to such signaling simply being a good thing to do. Obviously, signaling that something bad should be done (“inaccurate” ethical signaling) would not qualify as virtuous in any sense. But it seems hard to argue that accurate ethical signaling is bad for society, even if it is in self-interest, so ethical signaling does seem like a positive action. It also seems far-fetched to argue that accurate ethical signaling, alone, makes a person virtuous. I guess there might be a question of whether accurate ethical signaling is good enough (in intent or effect) to count as a virtuous act. Maybe the person doesn’t care enough about the positive effects of their accurate ethical signaling, or maybe they do it in such a way that it has only a tiny positive effect. But, in either case, accurate ethical signaling hardly seems objectionable.

  4. Hi Dustin,

    Thanks for the comments. I think the idea that we can both signal virtue for self-aggrandizement, group belonging, or whatever AND be right in doing so is a critical point. It underscores the fact that what ought to be at issue in the first place is whether the thing signaled is in fact virtuous in the first place. The focus on the signalling part of it undermines that quest.

    This move (to accuse of VS) is part, I think, of a general strategic tendency in argumentation: avoid the question and run around the flank. Ethical questions are hard to answer, so why not just talk about whether people are annoying? Oddly, or perhaps by design, the very fact of signalling virtuously self-undermines. So perhaps our moral obligations, on account of the successful (albeit wrong-headed) campaign of the VS employers, entail that we not VS.

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