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.

1 comment:

  1. The real problem of virtue-signalling (in the way the phrase is now used) comes from its natural association with monotheistic ethics, in which what really matters is the deep intentions (on which God will judge us) rather than the deeds and their consequences for the community. When such an ethical culture is in place (and Western ethical culture, especially American culture, is in part a secularization of monotheistic ethical culture), the stake becomes the intention, and there is a strong tendency for people to get eloquent about how good they are. In fact a large part of any debate with a moral aspect becomes an occasion to show how good one is, without any other real stake.

    This doesn't cause any real good for the community. It is just words, and very typically you will find that the subject has no real interest in the consequences of whatever they are doing. The moral drama unfolds as they speak -- what happens afterward is not their business, and therefore the moral responsibility is fake. In fact, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the subjects won't mind driving us all there provided they can show their good intentions.

    Where the ethical culture is more realistic, on the other hand, intentions are not valued so much, and when people get eloquent about their good intentions, the audience gets impatient much faster, because people are more interested in deeds and their actual consequences, and judge people on them rather than on intentions. Then there is real moral responsibility. J.