Virtue Signaling: What It Is and Isn’t

Here’s my most recent piece for US Catholic:

Charges of “virtue-signaling” can be found frequently on social media these days. After the murder of George Floyd, those who expressed outrage at both the murder and the systemic abuse of power by police were scolded for virtue-signaling. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has been accused of virtue-signaling when she pleads for sanity in addressing climate change. Critics of Putin’s war against Ukraine have been told they are simply virtue-signaling. Whether you prefer a vegan diet, practice kindness to homeless people, or oppose the death penalty, there’s a chance you will be told that you are motivated not by genuine ethical concern, but by virtue-signaling.

Well-intended people, intimidated by such charges, may be tempted to silence themselves out of fear they will be seen as show-offs. They may be confused by the charge and, being humble, wonder if there might be something in it. Is it just showing off to protest an evil or advocate for a good? Nobody likes a poser.

But these well-intentioned people should not be silenced. Still less should they be ashamed, as God is with them, not against them, and gives them tools to build their confidence as they seek to speak for what is right.

Yes, there is such a thing as virtue-signaling, and the gospel can be a useful diagnostic in distinguishing when it is happening. Jesus warns against it, saying, “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” (Matt. 6:1). The essence of virtue-signaling is not “saying and doing good things,” nor is it even “saying and doing good things publicly.” Jesus, after all, both said and did good things publicly all the time. The essence of virtue-signaling is, rather, saying and doing good things to be applauded by other people rather than to please God.

If a person says or does a good thing because they believe it is the right thing to say or do, or that it pleases God, or because their conscience demands they do it, they are not virtue-signaling. And this, according to St. Paul, extends even to those who are not Christian or who do not believe in God…

Much more here.


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