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.