Virtue Signalling: Reclaiming character based ethics

In current social media, the term ‘virtue signalling’ has been liberally thrown around. Typically, it is used as a pejorative towards those who seem to be flaunting how virtuous they are. Hence, virtue signalling is a vice. A popular example would be the condemnation of Gillette’s ‘toxic masculinity’ add from reactionaries. Critics would either explicity accuse Gillette of virtue signalling or implicity through statements such as ‘they are more interested in showing how progressive they are than trying to sell razors’.

Normally I would make no association with the philosophy of virtue ethics and virtue signalling. However, I was recently explaining to a friend of mine who holds right-wing/reactionary views of the different philosophical ethical theories. Once I got to explaining virtue ethics the visual response from him was analogous to a deer in the headlights. Somehow, I knew that it was the word ‘virtue’ that was concerning him. I quickly mentioned that this has nothing to do with virtue signalling and he expressed a sigh of relief.

Given how such conflations are possible, I feel a need to defend the philosophy of virtue ethics from being conflated with corporations trying to show off. Virtue Ethics has many flavours, but the one I understand the best is Aristotelean Virtue Ethics. This is the ethical theory that says we should make decisions on what we do based on what a virtuous person would do in this situation. A virtuous person is someone who’s character is better described in terms of virtues rather than vices. In Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, a virtue is the mean between two extreme kinds of behaviour. A common example cited is the virtue of courage. Courage is a virtue because it is the mean between acting timidly and acting rashly. The reason being of virtuous character is because a world that is comprised more of virtuous people than vicious people will lead to human flourishing (or Eudaimonia in Aristotle’s terms).

The philosophy of Stoicism embraces a character based ethics in terms of virtues. The four cardinal virtues commonly cited by Stoics are: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance and Justice. So, it can be immediately be made clear that virtue ethics does not necessarily involve how people should behave in public or flaunt certain virtues, but to actually behave in accordance with those virtues. The Aristotelean virtue ethics believes that virtues don’t always come naturally, but need to be worked on. The continuous practice of the virtues will eventually become natural, which at that point becomes part of your character.

I will now return to the point of virtue signalling. As mentioned earlier, flaunting one’s apparant virtues in public does not only have nothing to do with virtue ethics. In fact, it is contrary to virtue ethics since it reveals not a virtue but a vice: the vice of being boastful. However, my personal experience has been that the charge of ‘virtue signalling’ is applied to any behaviour that assumes virtue. For instance, I have noticed the charge laid towards white people participating in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. Although I cannot rule out the possibilty of a white person disingenuously attending a protest so they can take a selfie to show their friends, there is nothing inconsistent with attending a protest and acting within the virtues. After all, any flavour of virtue ethics will always include the virtue of justice.

There is something to be said about those who throw out the charge of virtue signalling against public advocacy for justice. Sometimes the charge of ‘social justice warrior’ (SJW) is used in place of virtue signalling. I always found it amazing that being associated with fighting for social justice being used as a perjorative. I can imagine aliens learning our language coming across the term and being overwhelmed with confusion when discovering that it is an insult. The liberal use of virtue signalling or SJW has been applied, I believe, as a tactic to influence a ‘chilling effect’ in order to create a disincentive to publicly support oppressed people or campaign for justice. So, it can be argued to fall victim to the chilling effect is also to fall victim to the vice of being timid. Embracing the virtue of courage can be helpful in such a case. At the same time, if such advocacy is limited to merely changing one’s Facebook profile picture, then this behaviour is more in line with the vice of vanity.

There is also a sense of irony of those who publicly shame ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘SJWs’. The irony is that in many cases the behaviour itself is a form of virtue signalling. An example that comes to mind is a recent Sam Harris post forwarded by a friend, which read:

“Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you”

The attitude in this belief itself contains many vices. Some that come to mind are aloof, uncaring, thoughtless and immature. I can imagine Harris trolling young adopted children, pointing out that their parents aren’t really their parents. Perhaps a charge he may lay against me is the vice of being uncharitable. However, since this is all the context the post has provided, I think it is fair to interpret the quote in its own context. And this is not far from the attitude being practiced as a form of virtue signalling in social media. So much of the framing on free speech surrounds what someone has a ‘right’ to say. Such framings either ignores or minimises the importance on the value of how we behave regarding our speech. We can consistently engage in discussing topics that may risk causing offense, whilst also handling the topic in a way that is considerate, tactful, thoughtful and sympathetic.

Overall, don’t be afraid of embracing the virtues. Just remember the point is to embrace them because they are virtues, not because they make you seem virtuous.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

7 thoughts on “Virtue Signalling: Reclaiming character based ethics”

    1. Thanks Jason, yes I agree. I’ve been reading Alaistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue at the moment and he seems to make a similar observation 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. greetings Mr Tulloch.
        Now i may be off piste here, but i reason that virtue, ethics, and morality are dependent upon socio economic circumstances, age, experience , peers, parents, religious upbringing, culture, and ERA, and so are a movable feast. As we have see in the case of the removal of statues, The ethics and morality of today is being applied to past.
        as you said “Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, a virtue is the mean between two extreme kinds of behaviour. ” But does this pertain to life in general or to some specific instance? I would wager most people fall into ” the mean” as we obey the law, pay taxes, treat others with courtesy and respect, and so on . you said Aristotle also said” Aristotelean virtue ethics believes that virtues don’t always come naturally, but need to be worked on. The continuous practice of the virtues will eventually become natural, which at that point becomes part of your character.” so using my criteria, so decides what is virtuous…… peer, parents, region, culture, ER etc? do we have a natural tendency for vice? do some need to work harder on virtue than others? Further, if we need virtue instruction, does that not impinge on free will?
        I tend to use the word “piety” instead of virtue signalling. Evinced by the the Fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, and the Danish cartoonist. The Sunnis were upset, so the Shites had to show they were more upset by issuing a fatwa. I doubt people in the middle east read ANY danish papers, but had to show their piety when the clerics told them of the cartoons. I am sure most could not care, but if one did not take part in the outrage and sanction violence, it showed lack or piety, but more importantly opened you to what is now called being called ” cancelled”. This leads me to believe that piety/ virtue signalling is not only about virtue, but it is also saying ” don’t cancel me”.
        as i say, I am probably off piste.
        Thank you for your time and consideration. Please do not feel obligated to reply. I shall not be offended .

        PS love your website. I know you teach philosophy and critical thinkingto young folk. I believe they are very lucky, it is such a good idea. I hope ALL schools follow. With people like you doing these thing, the world will be a better place

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks, Simon.

        Firstly, thank you for the kind words at the end of your comment. Yes indeed it is a great pleasure getting young minds interested in philosophy. Last week we focussed on the concept of personhood 😁.

        On to your comment, many of the things you raise are good concerns, and I do not have an answer to all of them (I’m not sure myself). So, to answer more generally, I would agree that acceptance of a trait as a virtue, or even that we should be guided by virtues in the first place, is heavily influenced on the social forces you mentioned. There is a possible approach where a virtue, such as being considerate, can cross those boundaries. Take for instance the custom of shaking one’s hand. In some Jewish/Islamic cultures it would be preferred to nod or put your hand on your heart. Of course depending on the circumstances, two cultures amending their behaviour to make each other feel comfortable implicitly accepts the virtue of being considerate.

        Your example of piety fits nicely. I think there was a paradox on piety I think I read somewhere which is similar to what you said, but can’t quite remember. Indeed, regarding cancel culture, if done so out of fear of being cancelled would fall into cowardice. A nice example of this comes from Alaistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, where he argues that a soldier who is does a courageous act not out of courage but out of a greater fear of his own officers has not made courage a part of his character.

        A quick point on history and statues. Yes in philosophy of history I subscribe to Historicism. This basically makes moral judgements in the context of the general morality at the time. It makes little sense getting angry at Shakespear for making sexist remarks, but can blame Hitler for his actions. My stance on statues is follows a similar standard: Are their flaws consistent with historical context?

        That’s basically it, feel free to reply for a more detailed response or questions. Thanks for another great thought provoking comment


  1. Well said. I’ve always appreciated virtue ethics emphasis on not only self knowledge, but self awareness/situational awareness as well.
    If you have a chance to check out the short piece on Camus and happiness I wrote. I just started out. Thanks.


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