Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Virtue signalling: pro-social or anti-social?

In 2011, I stressed the positive side of virtue signalling, writing: "Signalling must often be costly to be effective." Costly signalling of virtuousness to an audience of sceptical cheating-detectors often involves actually being virtuous. However, since then it has become fashionable to use "virtue signalling" as a term of abuse.

In standard biological terminology, signalling can be accurate or misleading, costly or cheap, pro-social or anti-social. I recently saw one attempt to argue that virtue signalling was generally positive, and that pointing it out was usually an anti-social means of making yourself look good. The article was titled " The psychological explanation for why we sometimes hate the good guy". Here's what the authors concluded:

Critics often attack the motives of people who protect the environment, seek social justice, donate money or work too hard in organizations. Such good deeds are dismissed as na├»ve, hypocritical (“champagne liberals”) or as mere “virtue signalling” by those who do not perform those deeds. If left unchecked, this criticism may ultimately reduce how often people do good deeds.

Our research helps us recognize these attacks for what they are: A competitive social strategy, used by low co-operators, to bring others down and stop them from looking better than they do.

The problem with this is is that some people only appear to be virtuous, and pointing that out by saying that they are just virtue signalling can be pro-social - by encouraging more genuine forms of do-gooding.

Others have focused on the negative aspects of virtue signalling, arguing that it is a cheap subsitute for actually doing good employed by those with shallow, selfish motives. I don't think that is right either. Virtue signalling is responsible for a lot of the good that take place in the world. It often doesn't really matter if people do it for selfish motives, to impress prospective partners (or whatever) - since it still results in much good being done. Without virtue signalling the world would surely be a much worse place. Virtue signalling is mostly - but not exclusively - a positive force.

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