Virtue Signaling, Vice Signaling and the Moral Consistency of Hell

Published June 9, 2020

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:

or this:

or this:

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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.

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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)

25 Responses

  1. As I’ve shared before, facism is best defined by the inhumane behaviors it elicits from average citizens. Our inhumanity is always lurking under the surface. When it bubbles over in certain individuals and groups, it is generally checked by functioning civic, legal and religious institutions.

    The inhumane are in charge now. Watching family and neighbors transform into hate agents has been painful. I have no doubt that these individuals, who I know and love, could easily become a murderous cohort given the word. We are in dangerous times.

    1. @ Linda

      I cannot help but agree with you. What I am seeing in the last 5 years is a more grotesque and dangerous reflection of what I have been seeing for the past 45. Trump has not created something new, he has given something already present permission to grow, fester, and infect.

      What I have written repeatedly about the nature of bigotry— so much of it is not actually hate, but DESPITE— is paramount here. You need only look at the rage distorting the faces of the integration protesters in Little Rock in 1957; how could anyone see a “Negro“ and think that he was good as a white man? Or the Upsons in Auntie Mame and their worries about the Joos, ultimately reflected in Bailey Smith saying “GOD Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew“. Or the contempt and the lies with which super-duper Christian Anita Bryant addressed gay people in 1978, prior to her to divorce for reasons not adultery. Or the contempt that stupid conservative Christian republicans direct towards educated “elites”, Liberals “elites”, non Christians, and Democrats.

      “Elite” is the key word here. “I’ll show YOU that you’re not better than I am.” And that is the basis for the religious megalomania that I have also written about many times in Marks blog. “I will show you that I am God‘s best friend, not you.“

      1. Thanks Ben. I still hold the hope that we will wake up in time. The sad reality is that transformation is almost always born of suffering. I’m reminded that it took the sight of the bodies of 145 young women who burned or jumped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to awaken the public conscience to th need for worker’s rights. Perhaps the endless videos of police violence and inhumanity will wake us up enough to demand real reform.

  2. And we are cursed to live in an hour when the loudest and most ostentatious of the virtue signalers–white conservative Christians–are also some of the loudest vice signalers. They simultaneously curse Pope Francis for calling for ordinary human decency *and* celebrate violence against the weak while hypocritically brandishing the unborn as human shields as their fertility fetish protecting their love of cruelty.

  3. I imagine that for some of those who decide to embrace evil in both word and deed, its a matter of just taking off their mask and revealing who they truly are. But for others, its the result of finally crumbling under the combined weight of a massive cognitive dissonance and their own guilty conscience.

    Only that instead of seeking to reconcile and appease them, they just get rid of them altogether.

  4. C S Lewis, in Out of the Silent Planet, refers to “…the lifelong self-control of social man, the virtues which are half hypocrisy or the hypocrisy which is half a virtue…” We know that when we sincerely try to act well, we are half play-acting – but, on the other hand, acting well, even if half of the reason is to look well to others, will change us, if we keep acting that way.

    I remember, many years ago, at a time of great stress in my life, experiencing a terrible feeling of conviction that everything – God, meaning, life – did not exist. After some weeks of not knowing what to do, and with no real help from our minister (I was still a Protestant), I decided that, well, if all of what I thought was meaningful and true about life was rubbish, then, apparently, my own imagination was better than reality. If so, I decided, I would act as if what I wanted to be true, Iwas true. If I couldn’t believe in God, I would act in the way that I ought to act if God was real.

    I suddenly realised – a week or so later – that I had no problem. I believed.

    All of this doesn’t have much directly to do with what Mark is saying here – with which I resonate absolutely – but I was just struck by the word ‘hypocrisy’ and Lewis’s words to say it. Now that you have read this far, and wondering when I was going to get to the point … you can see I wasn’t 🙂

    1. I think it was in Screwtape Letters where CS Lewis cited an example.

      It didn’t matter that the Patient was scared during the London blitz, it mattered that the Patient acted in a courageous way. So the Patient was in fact courageous, because of the way he acted.

      1. This is worrying. Here I always thought that God was the source of all being.

      2. PS – I am interested in the number of responses I got to what was, after all, really not very directly on Mark’s subject. I do think Lewis’s comment is helpful to me. Sometimes I just have to say to myself “do what you know to be the right thing; you may be – indeed, are – sometimes fishing for praise or something. Never mind. Be like the second son in the parable who said ‘no’ – but changed his mind and did his father’s will” There is always hope for all of us.

      3. We here at Mark’s blog have taken a vote and decided that you do, indeed, exist. The proof is, why would we try to convince you that you exist if you didn’t actually?

    2. I was watching something the other night which exactly reflects what you were talking about. The speaker was talking about someone telling him that without eternal life, life was meaningless and that there was no reason to be a moral person, a good person, or anything like that. (That was a complete non sequitur, of course, but that’s not what I’m getting at). The speaker responded that he came to exactly the opposite conclusion: it was the shortness of life that made it imperative to live a good one, that made it imperative to be moral and to treat other people well. My comment at the time was that I feel exactly the same way about it. if you need God to tell you not to rape, steal, murder, or abuse, You don’t need morality or god, you need empathy.

      The shortest version of this is what Mammy Yokum said in L’il Abner: good is better than evil because it’s NICER.

      That is one of my foundational moral principles. It is served me very well.

      1. My point was that the idea of the Godless, meaningless (I do understand that for you, Godless does not imply meaningless – only speaking about me) world was so inferior to what I wanted to believe, that I would choose the latter. Of course my faith came back with no difficulty. The problem had been that I was at the time heavily influenced by a kind of hyper-Calvinist theology known as presuppositionalism – basically what the Church means by fideism, which pits faith against reason.

        jj

      2. Have you seen “The Painter and the Thief?”

        I think you will really like it. Norwegian film. No spoilers-but I’ll say that I was riveted by the transcendent theme. Nary a mention of God (it’s not a religious film), but it was my favorite catechism lesson of the month. It’s a true story too.

      3. oops the message I left for JJ was for you. I bet JJ will like the film too.

        The Word Press reply system does not bring out the best in me.

        Anyway, funny that JJ feels guilty that he went off topic. I clearly never worry about that. hahaha

      4. By feeling guilty for the minor sin I avoid having to confess the greater. I’ll have a look at the movie.

      5. @ Anna Lisa

        Thank you for the recommendation. I would love to watch it, but the only signal source we have is Netflix. We don’t even get cable in general, Or broadcast TV.

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