A term that has gained widespread currency online, particularly in political discussions, is “virtue-signaling.” In this essay, I would like to share some thoughts regarding the philosophic origin of this phenomenon, particularly its roots in the moral theory of altruism. To begin, let’s consider what the concept “virtue-signaling” designates.
Virtue-signaling is the attempt to gain the approval of others by visibly supporting a cause in which one does not actually believe. Even more succinctly, it is the conspicuous support of a value that one does not hold. Those who virtue-signal are trying to gain unearned moral approval from their friends and colleagues. Let’s consider some concrete examples comparing “true believers” with virtue-signallers.
A shopper that routinely patronizes more expensive “mom and pop” stores to save them from Target and Wal-Mart is not virtue-signaling. A Park Slope resident that signs an e-petition to ban “big box stores” from their neighborhood between Amazon shopping sprees, on the other hand, is.
The environmentalist that actively lobbies the state legislature to ban straws and puts out propaganda pamphlets decrying plastic is not virtue-signaling, but the soccer mom that helps circulate a video of a tortoise with a straw in its nose on Facebook while relying on plastic products for her kids’ school lunches is.
A Christian that goes to church every Sunday, observes Old Testament dietary practices, and reads the Bible regularly is not a virtue-signaller. The “Christian” that never goes to church and has never read the Bible, though he brags about being godly and wears a golden crucifix on his neck, is virtue-signaling six ways from Sunday (and especially on Sunday).
American millennials that advocate for socialism in online polls via their iPhone web browser, otherwise apolitical people that denounce Donald Trump because they want their co-workers to like them, and people who superimpose flags on their Facebook profile pictures after some national disaster are also cases of virtue-signaling. None of these people think about the causes that they “support” when nobody is watching. Without a crowd to please, these people would be lost at sea like a ship without a functioning compass.
Now that we have a feel for what virtue-signaling is, the next question to ask is: what does this phenomenon have to do with altruism? Altruism is the ethical theory that mandates self-sacrifice as a moral ideal. The good, for the altruist, is what is good for other people, and the essence of immorality is selfishness. Altruism has two implications which are crucial to our analysis of virtue-signaling.
The first is that nobody can be a consistent altruist, because a person that is entirely unconcerned for their own welfare would be dead faster than a fish in a volcano. Human beings, as living things, have specific requirements that must be met for them to remain alive, such as food, shelter, love, purpose, etc. People working in soup kitchens don’t have the energy to carry out more trays if they do not eat on occasion. A man who donates his penicillin to the first afflicted soul he meets on the road will not be well long enough to continue the practice. Perhaps the most eloquent example is that of Francis of Assisi, who famously despaired that he could not cease eating entirely and made sure to sprinkle his food with ashes to destroy its flavor when he did permit himself a meal. We can call this difficulty the “consistency problem.”
The second result of altruism is that its practitioners require someone who is not an altruist to serve. To see this, imagine the following scenario. An altruist, Adam, is urged to sacrifice for the good of his neighbor, Bob. Eager to do good, Adam goes to Bob’s home and knocks on the door. Bob answers the door, and Adam asks, “What can I do for you, Bob?”
What happens next in our story depends on whether Bob is an altruist or not. If he is, then he might say: “I don’t know, my idea of the good is helping other people. My neighbor Carol might need our help, let’s go over to her place and see what she needs.” Should that contingency obtain, then Carol will have the same dilemma on her hands. If the neighborhood is sufficiently populated with altruists, this may go on for quite some time, with the posse having to visit Dan, Eleanor, Fred, and many more before they reach someone who is happy to accept the sacrifice. Of course, if Bob is not an altruist, he would gleefully have asked Adam to trim his hedges or mow his lawn.
The difficulty inherent in this story is that the altruist defers the question of what is good to the person for whom he is supposed to sacrifice. Altruism turns people into do-gooders with no real idea of what “good” even means. Another way of putting the same point is that where there is a person offering sacrifices, there is an entity (whether real or imagined) that is reaping sacrifices. We can call this issue the “infinite regress problem.”
Now for the payout. Virtue-signaling allows people who have adopted altruism as their ethics to cope with both the problems discussed above. It provides an answer to the “consistency problem” in that it gives people an ability to save face as altruists even though they do not wish to make sacrifices. It provides an answer to the “infinite regress problem” by serving as an example to others who want to showcase their altruist bona fides and have no idea how to do so. Virtue-signaling thus appears to be an adaptation made by people who are wary of the onerous demands of altruism, yet are unable to challenge its ethical premise. It is not surprising that a practice such as virtue-signaling would evolve in a culture which mixes Christian, Kantian, and Aristotelian premises the way that ours does.