The Merchandising of Virtue

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Published in
6 min readMay 27, 2017


(Excerpts from Skin in the Game) Sontag is about Sontag — Virtue is precisely what you don’t show

I will always remember my encounter with the writer and cultural icon Susan Sontag, largely because it was on the same day that I met the great Benoit Mandelbrot. I took place in 2001, two months after the terrorist event, in a radio station in New York. Sontag who was being interviewed, was pricked by the idea of a fellow who “studies randomness” and came to engage me. When she discovered that I was a trader, she blurted out that she was “against the market system” and turned her back to me as I was in mid-sentence, just to humiliate me (note here that courtesy is an application of the Silver rule), while her female assistant gave me the look, as if I had been convicted of child killing. I sort of justified her behavior in order to forget the incident, imagining that she lived in some rural commune, grew her own vegetables, wrote on pencil and paper, engaged in barter transactions, that type of stuff.

No, she did not grow her own vegetables, it turned out. Two years later, I accidentally found her obituary (I waited a decade and a half before writing about the incident to avoid speaking ill of the departed). People in publishing were complaining about her rapacity; she had to squeeze her publisher, Farrar Strauss and Giroud of what would be several million dollars today for a book advance. She shared, with a girlfriend, a mansion in New York City, one that was later sold for $28 million dollars. Sontag probably felt that insulting people with money inducted her into some unimpeachable sainthood, exempting her from having skin in the game.

It is immoral to be in opposition of the market system and not live (like the Unabomber) in a hut isolated from it

But there is worse:

It is even more, much more immoral to claim virtue without fully living with its direct consequences

and this will be the main topic of the chapter: exploiting virtue for image, personal gain, careers, social status, these kind of things –and personal gain is anything that does not share the downside of a negative action.

By contrast with Sontag, I have met a few people who live their public ideas. Ralph Nader, for instance, leads the life of a monk, identical to the member of a monastery in the sixteenth century,

The Public and the Private

As we saw with the interventionistas, a certain class of theoretical people can despise the details of reality, and completely so. If you believe that you are right in theory, you can completely ignore the real world –and vice versa. And you don’t really care how your ideas affect others because your ideas make you belong to some virtuous status that is impervious to how it affects others.

Likewise, if you believe that you are “helping the poor” by spending money on powerpoint presentations and international meetings, the type of meetings that lead to more meetings (and powerpoint presentations) you can completely ignore the individuals –the poor is some abstract reified construct that you do not encounter in your real life. Your efforts in conferences gives you a license to humiliate them in person. Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison, more commonly known as Hillary Clinton, found it permissible to heap abuse at secret service agents.[i] I was recently told that a famous socialist environmentalist who was part of the same lecture series abused waiters in restaurants, between lectures on equity and fairness.

Kids with rich parents talk about “white privilege” at such privileged colleges as Amherst –but in one instance, one of them could not answer D’Souza’s simple and logical suggestion: why don’t you go to the registrar’s office and give your privileged spot to a minority student who was next in line?

Hence the principle:

If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life


If your private actions do not generalize then you cannot have general ideas

This is not strictly about ethics, but information transfer. If a car salesman tries to sell you a Detroit car while driving a Honda, he is signaling that it may have a problem.

The Virtue Merchants

In about every hotel chain, from Argentina to South Africa, the bathroom with have a sign meant to gets your attention: “protect the environment”. They want you to hold off from sending the towels to the laundry and reuse them for a while, because avoiding excess laundry it saves them tens of thousand dollars a year. This is similar to the salesperson telling you what is good for you when it is mostly (and centrally) good for him. They, of course, love the environment but you can bet that they wouldn’t have advertised it so loudly had it not been been good for their bottom line.

So these global causes: poverty (particularly children’s), the environment, justice for some minority trampled upon by colonial powers, or some unknown yet gender that will be persecuted; these global causes are now the last refuge of the scoundrel advertising virtue.

But virtue is precisely what you don’t advertise. It is not an investment strategy. It is not a cost-cutting scheme. It is not a book selling (and worse, concert tickets selling) strategy.

Now I have wondered why, by the Lindy effect, there was no mention of what is called virtue signaling in the texts. How could it be new?

Well, it is not new, but was not seen as particularly prevalent in the past. Indeed, let’s check Matthew 5 and 6.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Unpopular Virtue

Virtue without courage is an aberration: in fact you see cowards endorsing a public face of “virtue” as defined by the mainstream media, because they are afraid of doing otherwise. Their cowardice leads them to avoid association with, say anti-Al Qaeda in Syria because some Saudi shill (or some AlQaeda promoter like Charles Lister) will accuse them of Putinism, racism, anti-democracy, or some accusation that will cause ostracism.

The best virtue requires courage; accordingly it needs to be unpopular. If I were to describe the perfect virtuous acts, it would be to take currently frowned upon positions, those penalized by the common discourse (particularly when funded by lobbyists). Like fighting the Monsanto claims, and promotion through shills that they are “saving the children” with their poisonous products, so anyone opposing them becomes easily described as a baby killer.

The more costly, the more virtuous the act — particularly if it costs you your reputation. When integrity conflicts with reputation, go with integrity.

Other Virtues

True virtue lies in being nice to those who are neglected by others, the less obvious cases, those people the grand charity business tends to miss, those causes that are not (yet) promotional.

Risk as Virtue

Finally, when young people who “want to help mankind” come to me, asking: “What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world” and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level. My suggestion is:

1) never engage in virtue signaling;

2) never engage in rent seeking;

3) you must start a business. Take risks, start a business.

Yes, take risk, and if you get rich (what is optional) spend your money generously on others. We need people to take (bounded) risks. The entire idea is to move these kids away from the macro, away from abstract universal aims, that social engineering that bring tail risks to society. Doing business will always help; institutions may help but they are equally likely to harm (I am being optimistic; I am certain that except for a few most do end up harming).

Risk is the highest virtue.