Tonight I’m speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme about ‘virtue signalling’.
The Moral Maze is a very particular kind of show with a courtroom vibe, and it tends to be more combative than Socratic in spirit. Still, it should be a rewarding experience, if only because being tested, live, about what you really think is very helpful in forcing you, on pain of incoherent babbling, to distil your view of the world.
The blurb about virtue signalling on the BBC website is as follows:
“There was a time when publicly standing up to protest at injustices, especially if they didn’t affect you personally, was the sign of an upright citizen — the very definition of altruism — a “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Now such expressions of moral outrage are as likely to be dismissed as “virtue signalling” as they are to be applauded. It’s a neat and pithy phrase and like all the best neologism seems to capture and distil something in our cultural discourse. It’s only been in use for a couple of years. You know the sort of thing — ice bucket challenges, male actors and politicians wearing t-shirts with the slogan “this is what a feminist looks like”. Virtue signalling — the practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate our good character or the moral correctness of our beliefs — was only coined a couple of years ago, and has caught on like wild fire. Perhaps because the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signalling is judging other people. To some the phrase deftly skewers an age where politics is driven by narcissism and the echo chamber of social media where being moralistic is more important than being moral? But has what started off as a clever way to win arguments become a lazy put down or mental shortcut to dogmatism? Does accusing others of virtue signalling encourage you not to interrogate your own beliefs? Even if we can’t change something we know to be wrong, big collective moral shifts in society have to start somewhere, so is dismissing them as empty gestures a cynical counsel of despair? There was a time when virtue was its won reward. Is that still the case?”
These shows tend to take on a life of their own, so I have no idea what I will have a chance to say, but my general take is this:
- The right kind of virtue signalling is less about personal vanity and tribal affiliation and more about the basic progressive belief that people and societies can and should become better versions of themselves.
- The experience of moral indignation is part of the solution and part of the problem. It is necessary but not sufficient. There is a major risk of going numb through information overload, and the desperate experience of moral significance (‘This really matters!’) is worth fighting for. However, there is a risk of getting too attached to one’s experience of righteousness —we often wrongly think that it is itself enough. We need to discern between lazy and narcissistic moral outrage and moral determination to act on things that matter. That gap between ideal and actions is challenging — but that’s the whole point — it’s a virtue challenge!
- And we are starved for discussions of virtue and need them more than ever. We need to protect and expand the public discussion about ends, not just means. If virtue signalling gets more people talking about virtue as such, that’s a good thing. Don’t take my word for it. Watch this marvellous video lecture by Jeffrey Sachs to show the contemporary relevance of virtue cultivation.
- To be virtuous is to be disposed to behave well, where ‘well’ contains an idea of the good person, the good relationship, the good society and the life well lived. There are many virtues — wisdom, temperance, curiosity, love, friendship, and some argue courage is the one virtue makes possible all others — because virtues are always tested by life.
- Real virtue is exacting. It’s about making mistakes. In fact, what marks virtue theory out from utilitarian (consequences) or deontological (duty) theories is that it’s about trial and error, about progressively becoming a better version of oneself. That ongoing reflection on ultimate ends and the mistakes we make in upholding them would be encouraged in a society that was keen to become a better version of itself, but, alas, our predatory media culture is mostly unforgiving of mistakes.
- Virtue signalling is helpful in reminding us all of the value in living what Roberto Unger calls ‘a larger life’. Sometimes a tweet or an online petition or an amusing piece of satire can draw our attention to an issue that we would otherwise neglect to see as part of our world— again, a good thing.
- We know for instance, that volunteering is conducive to wellbeing, and we know there are limits to self-seeking pleasure. The question is just: does virtue signalling strengthen the bubble around us, or make it pop? The answer to that is not a given. It’s up to us to decide.
- In this sense the bashing of virtue signalling is based on a flawed view of the world — of unchanging individuals making announcements about binary morals to a world that doesn’t hear or respond. But we are all social and signalling beings. We signal all the time, for instance with what we wear, how we act, how we speak — most communication is unconscious and we are deeply sensitive to what others perceive to be normal. This applies across the political spectrum.
- When you consider the ubiquity of signalling and factor in network effects (other people become aware of the issues and act on them in their own way) it’s hard to tell where your influence begins and ends. Maybe a tweet is just a tweet, maybe one more name on a petition doesn’t get you far. Or maybe you were just a key link in a chain that transformed millions of lives.
- The deeper point is that virtue signalling of the right kind is about highlighting the need for humans to develop — both for the intrinsic rewards of that (learning, flourishing etc) and the societal benefits of that growth in perspective and complexity. That idea is central to my work at Perspectiva.