From politicians taking moral stances to increase popularity, to companies like BP accused of 'greenwashing' to boost revenue, we tend to see the flaunting of virtue as a fundamental perversion of morality. This is mistaken argues Holly Elmore. Virtue signalling is a vital component of ethical behaviour and we should seek to adopt better and more meaningful signals to navigate through the moral landscape.
We all hate virtue signalling, right? Talk is cheap, and performances of virtue can be utterly bankrupt. Sam Bankman-Fried brazenly described his “talking about ethics” before the FTX crash as “this dumb game we woke westerners play where we say all the right shibboleths and so everyone likes us”, confirming the internet’s worst suspicions about conspicuous displays of “virtue”.
But, despite all this, I believe the pendulum has swung too far against virtue signalling. Virtue signalling is bad when signalling virtue is confused for possessing the virtue and when possessing a virtue is confused for having a good effect upon the world. It is at its worst when all your energy goes to signalling virtue at the expense of actually doing anything good. But sometimes we do have something to prove, whether to others or just ourselves, and we aren’t off the hook just because it’s possible to lie. Quality signals of virtue, especially costly signals that are difficult to fake, are very useful tools– sometimes the only tools we have for assessing character.
The best virtue signals are not empty assertions– they offer some proof of their claim by being difficult to fake.
Imagine if a company like Nabisco took the stance that it didn’t have anything to prove about the safety and quality of its food, and that their current extensive food safety testing was just a virtue signal that wastes a bunch of time and product. They could be sincere, and somehow keep product quality and safety acceptably high, but they would be taking away our way of knowing that. Quality control is a huge part of what it is to sell food, and monitoring your character is worthy of consuming a large portion of your life.
Some signals are more correlated with actual virtue than others. The best virtue signals are not empty assertions– they offer some proof of their claim by being difficult to fake. For example, being vegan takes a great deal of forethought, awareness, and requires regular social sacrifice. Veganism proves a dedication to a cause like animal rights or environmentalism proportional to the level of sacrifice required. The virtuous sacrifice of being vegan isn’t what makes veganism good for the animals or the environment, but it is a costly signal of character traits associated with the ability to make such a sacrifice.
So the virtue signal of veganism doesn’t mean you are necessarily having a positive impact or that veganism is the best choice, but it does indicate that you as a person are committed, conscientious, gentle, or deeply bought into the cause such that the sacrifice becomes easier for you than it would be for other people. Being vegan isn’t enough to prove you’re a good person, but it is a demonstration of character and acting out your values.
The most common objections I get to the preceding are not actually objections to virtue signals per se, but disagreements about what signals are virtuous. My support of virtue signals requires some Theory of Mind— a quality virtue signal demonstrates character given that person’s beliefs about what is good. Say a person virtue signals mainly as a signal of group membership— I may still judge them to show positive character traits if they believe that taking cues from the group are good. If someone uses false “virtue signals” cynically to manipulate others, I do not think they have virtuous character. Might an unvirtuous person be able to fool me with their fake virtue signals? Sure, but that will be a lot harder to pass off a counterfeit virtue signal than to emit a genuine virtue signal. Signals don’t have to be 100% reliable to be useful evidence. Even if I don’t agree with the specifics of someone else’s principles, I trust them more when I see they are committed to living by the principles they believe in, and I trust them even more if they pay an ongoing tithe in time or effort or money that forces them to be very clear about their values. I also think that person should trust themselves more if they have a track record of good virtue signals.
Virtue signals are a proxy for what actually matters— what we are likely to do and the values that are likely to guide our behaviour in the future.
Is it really better not to offer others proof of character? How could it be better to give others no reason to trust us? Virtue signals are a proxy for what actually matters— what we are likely to do and the values that are likely to guide our behaviour in the future. It is possible to make an idol of virtue signals and lose track of actual virtue, but we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. A signal of virtue is not the same as virtue itself, but the only way we can learn a person’s virtue (including our own) is by studying the signals of virtue they emit. Sometimes signals can be misleading or deceptive, but surely that doesn’t make it better to navigate the world of human morality blind.
Aristotle, Mr. Virtue Ethics, thought that virtues begin as inherent dispositions but that they are tempered through good habits. How can we navigate deficiency and excess to stay in the golden mean without measuring and monitoring our virtue? The implication of anti-virtue signalling sentiment is that true virtue is private, but Aristotle thought that many virtues were meant to be practiced in public, and creating the conditions for virtue ought to be the primary concern of the state. In virtue ethics, at least, the cultivation of virtue is not siloed and inward, but is meant to be a community activity, done with the help of the community for the benefit of the community.
Even for the solo seeker of virtue, when signalling virtue is considered unvirtuous, character deficiencies can more easily hide from measurement. When virtues must be hidden to be virtuous, it’s harder to trust others, it’s harder to support virtuous norms that make it easier for the community to act out its values, and it’s harder to be accountable to yourself.
Why care about virtue signals? Why not just look at what people do? Because we need to make educated guesses about cooperating with people in the future, especially ourselves. “Virtue” or “character” are names we give to our models of other people, and those models give us predictions about how they will act across a range of anticipated and unanticipated situations. Watching our own virtue metrics can not only be a way to assess if we are falling into motivated reasoning or untrustworthiness, but the way we measure the growth of our character and become more aligned with our values. Sometimes you can just look at results instead of evaluating the character of the people involved, but sometimes a person’s virtue is all we have to go on.
Quality virtue signals are better than nothing. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into the false safety of dwelling in a place of moral ambiguities that doesn’t permit real measurements. I urge you to do the prosocial thing and develop and adopt more legible and meaningful virtue signals— for others and especially for yourself.