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.