Virtue Signaling, Vice Signaling and the Moral Consistency of Hell
It’s not a huge secret that Jesus condemns hypocrisy. Literally all of Matthew 23 is one huge diatribe by Jesus against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It is a classic of Hebraic invective that stands in the ranks shoulder to shoulder with the invective of the prophets who served Jesus before his Incarnation.
“Hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hupocritos. It refers literally to a stage actor. In Jesus’ day, such actors typically wore exaggerated masks to make the character’s face visible to all the people up in the nosebleed seats. The mouths of the masks acted as little megaphones to amplify the actor’s voices.
So what Jesus is condemning is wearing a mask of goodness over a reality of sinful selfishness. As he puts it
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt 23:27–28).
It is not surprising, then, that Jesus condemns what is today called “virtue signaling”:
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, ¶ so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6:1–6).
Jesus is blunt: don’t show off to win applause. Act in such a way as to please God regardless of what people think.
Only here’s the thing: that’s not the same as saying, “Never say or do anything that might be applauded by men.” How could he? He himself was sometimes the object of the fickle adoration of the mob. Sometimes the public mood was so fevered that the crowd wanted to crown him king. After the raising of Lazarus, the poll numbers briefly went through the roof and the “whole world” was running after him. Jesus did not hesitate to do the righteous act of raising Lazarus even though he knew he would be (very temporarily) the toast of the town.
Because he didn’t do it for the crowd. He did it in obedience to his Father and directed all the praise and glory to his Father, not to himself.
This matters because one of the standard devices deployed by Christians who are angered or ashamed of their own sins is to declare that their enemy is “virtue-signaling” when he does something good that they oppose. So if that enemy points out that, f’rinstance, racism is evil the Christian guilty of racism will shoot back that such opposition to racism is just virtue signaling.
Now it is very true that some of those who oppose racism do so in order to win the praise of men. But then again, it is also very true that some who oppose abortion also do so to win the praise of men. Some people recycle, or exercise, or collect stamps merely to win the praise of men. It all depends on their interior motivation. But without actual evidence of evil hypocritical intent, the accusation of virtue signaling tells us vastly more about the accuser than it tells us about the accused. If you instantly assume without evidence that somebody is doing good things merely to pose, you are telling us what is in your heart, not theirs.
That said, there is another form of moral inconsistency that Jesus not only mentions, but praises. I call it “eupocrisy”:
“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, ‘The first.'” (Mt 21:28–31).
The second son is a garden variety hypocrite. His actions are worse than his pious words. But the first son is a eupocrite–a good hypocrite, if you will. Because his actions are better than his worst words. Whatever he says, the first son, at the end of the day, does his Father’s will. And that is all Jesus cares about: doing the Father’s will.
So there are two ways in which our words and deeds can be morally inconsistent with each other, but only one that Jesus objects to.
Similarly, there are two ways in which our words and deeds can be morally consistent. As discussed above, we can talk piously and act virtuously (as Jesus consistently did, both praising the Father and obeying the Father). The agreement of word and deed in the love of God and neighbor, so far from being condemned as ostentatious by Jesus, is heartily commended:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Mt 5:14–16).
That is no counsel of quietism. It is, rather, a demand that we make noise and talk openly about the Kingdom, but take care to live in such a way that what we say is backed by our lives rather than undermined by them.
That said, there is another kind of moral consistency into which human beings can fall, including Christians. It is a satanic moral consistency in which evil acts do not even pay homage to virtue by the device of hypocrisy. It is what may be called “vice signalling”, an open and naked boasting and glee over wanton evil. Take this, for instance:
Virtue signaling is how vain people who want to be perceived as good show off to other people who respect pious acts. They have enough residual conscience to at least try to look like they are doing good.
Vice signaling is how evil people show off their contempt for human decency to other evil people who have destroyed their love of the good completely. It is how people who have given themselves over to grave evil unite word and deed in a concerted effort to maintain Unit Cohesion with each other in the perverse attempt to portray grave evil as an act of courage. Because grave evil always tries to disguise itself as courage.
Here, for instance, are a gaggle of brutal thugs who are quite literally hunting a homeless man in a wheelchair for sport. The blood and gore you see dripping from this helpless man’s face is the remains of his eyeball, which was shot out for laffs by the armed predators you see taking aim at him. This is not a “couple of bad apples”. This is Unit Cohesion for Evil.
Human beings can really put themselves into spiritual states where deliberate willed and vile evil–known to be evil by the people celebrating it–becomes a badge of honor and the boast of unit cohesion. There is no functional difference between the mindset of the men above and the SS soldiers on transport trains who took turns throwing infants off and laughing as they shot them in midair for target practice. We really are a species capable of that–and capable of laughing and boasting as we do it. Such agreement between praise of evil and practice of evil is the moral consistency of Hell.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! (Is 5:20–21)