What is virtue signaling?
- Humans are a social species: we form groups to cooperate.
- In order to cooperate, we establish values.1
- By following values, we increase our social status within a group.2
- With higher social status, we have access to more resources (e.g., money, influence, female attraction).
- Virtue signaling is a display of value-following in order to gain social status and resources.
On social media, people signal their virtues to win followers and approval. Through moral outrage, they try to demonstrate their worth as social beings.
Political virtue signaling
The accusation of virtue signaling is usually directed at the left qua “social justice warriors.” Leftists signal the virtues of empathy and anti-racism by complaining about animal cruelty, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, and racial injustice.
“I’m not a fascist bigot! I care about the dignity and equality of every sentient creature, regardless of gender, race, or species,” says the leftist vegan, signaling his empathy and anti-racism for approval from his ideological tribe.
But virtue signaling is by no means a specialty of the left.
People on the right practice virtue signaling just as much; only they have different values, so they signal different virtues. Right-wingers signal the virtues of duty and loyalty by complaining about degeneracy, sexual depolarization, societal brittleness, and nuclear family decay.
“I’m not an individualistic beta leftist! I fight for something greater than myself: the flourishing of my people, my ethnicity,” says the right-wing nationalist, signaling his duty and loyalty for approval from his ideological tribe.
Even those who try to make unbiased, evidence-based arguments for political ideologies are essentially signaling virtues. They all signal the virtue of objectivity and in addition:
- The liberal who cites facts to prove the importance of tolerance for societal well-being is furtively signaling that he is righteous and worthy of being a moral guide.
- The conservative who cites facts to prove the decay of family values is furtively signaling that he is trustable and worthy of being a husband.
- The centrist who cites facts to prove the need for moderation in political issues is furtively signaling that he is wise and worthy of being a politician.
- The libertarian who cites facts to prove the glory of the free market is furtively signaling that he is self-reliant and worthy of high achievements (or worthy of his wealth).
- The fascist who cites facts to prove the decline in traditional spirit, masculine character, and authoritarian strength is furtively signaling that he is ‘alpha’ and worthy of being a leader (or worthy of male respect and female affection).
In sum, everybody who expresses a politico-moral emotion, affiliation, opinion, or even argument is primarily signaling virtues that are important to him, i.e., that express values shared by a group he wants to be respected by.
And who am I?
This blog post is, of course, itself a form of virtue signaling. The virtues I am signaling might not be political, but they are epistemic. By providing meta-political insights, I am signaling that I’m a rational, critical thinker who’s worthy of steering the intellectual debate. Whether I am doing so with success is yet another question…