Signaling Virtue versus Virtue

Over at The Catholic Weekly, I wrote a piece on the phenomenon of Virtue-Signaling, what it is and what it ain’t:

Much is made these days of “virtue-signalling”.

Most people, by “virtue-signaling”, mean more or less what Jesus is getting at when he says:

“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.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

They may not always add the theological dimension, but pretty much everybody agrees that doing good things in order to show off how good you are and earn applause is bad.

That is not, of course, something you have to be a believer to do. All in-groups have their own forms of piety and therefore all in-groups have their own temptations to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

People with no temptation to ostentatiously veil for Mass or make a big thing about reminding others how much they tithe to their parish (because they are unbelievers who don’t care about the approval of Catholics) can still seek the applause of their peers they do care about by bragging about recycling, or using people they “help” as props for their ego, or doing whatever good thing their peers care about in order to gain prestige, social leverage, or power.

All such actions are virtue signaling, because they are done, not to do good for others, but to be seen and praised. They are fundamentally selfish acts, even when they are accidentally helpful to others.

But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, it depends entirely on knowing the interior motivation of the person doing the good act to know whether such acts are virtue signaling. Merely doing something good publicly is not virtue signaling. Only doing some public good in order to be seen and praised for it is virtue signaling.

Much more here.


6 Responses

  1. It should be pointed out that to give alms to the sound of trumpets is better than not to give alms at all, and the people who need the alms probably don’t really care about the trumpets. The problem with calling out “virtue signalling” is that it is frequently a way of condemning the virtue, not the signalling. Jesus was saying to leave off the trumpeting, not leave off the alms.
    A person who starts giving who before didn’t at all, but does so with trumpets rather than quietly, has taken a step in the right direction, and should be encouraged: they can if necessary be weaned off the trumpets later. If the are just condemned as a “virtue signaller” from the off, they will revert to not giving at all.

  2. I honestly don’t care about how much “virtue signaling” anybody can extract out of doing virtuous acts; if anything, I’d say that the bulk of the criticism is aimed at people who engage in the former without the later.

    I think the most insidious form this can take is when someone cynically engages in acts of performative piety in order to mask their acts of casual cruelty. This would be like an employer using their comparatively speaking, measly charity-giving as a way to distract from the fact that their employees are overworked, underpaid and forced to labor in unsafe workplace conditions.

    1. I would say the overwhelming bulk of the “prolife” movement is an immense act of virtue signalling designed to cover up and rationalize the sadistic cruelty of the MAGA cult.

  3. @Mark Shea:
    Pretty much, except that they obviously don’t see themselves that way. I think they’ve been conditioned to disregard the actual consequences of their actions and just make sticking to the script as it is, a virtue on to itself.

    Case in point, I came across this article which I thought might interest you:
    Iowa’s GOP Eliminated a Family Planning Program Only to See Abortions Skyrocket

    This is also something myself and others have critiqued you about when it comes to turning the idea of “defunding Planned Parenthood” into some kind of litmus test for pro-life bona-fides, making them into a boogeyman in the process. It turns out that “winning” a battle against an imagined opponent instead of understanding the actual goals and motivations of those you’re opposing, can turn a so-called victory into a pyrrhic one.

  4. We are back in to the landof the living, where there is wifi.

    I had an interesting conversation last week with a talibornagain. Here it is. There is much more, of course.

    Him: We love and recognize an inherent dignity in each other because we are made in the image and likeness of God. That is Christianity. The two cannot be separated. Yet modern day morality tries to omit the first part, and therefore promises empty good works. These are good works that are only ends in of themselves. This is a false sense of morality.

    BensNewLogin :

    Oh, I absolutely get it.

    Despite your talk about recognizing the inherent dignity and each other, you would never do something just because it is kind.

    you want to get your celestial brownie points from your particular and peculiar version of God, a God who looks surprisingly like you.

    That’s the difference between your type of Qhristian and a good person. I doubt if you do anything charitable without first consulting whether you’re going to get the celestial brownie points.

    Lots of people don’t believe in your Christian God, nevertheless, they do recognize the inherent dignity of others.


    Now, what is he saying here? How do you separate virtue from virtue signaling? And what greater virtue signaling isvthere than doing it because god told you to, not because you have empathy, or care about others, or want to make the world a better place, or even just someone’s life better.

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