Is Virtue Signaling Vicious?

by | Dec 27, 2021

Is Virtue Signaling Vicious?

by | Dec 27, 2021

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Virtue signaling—the practice of highlighting what one takes to be one’s own moral superiority, often by loudly denouncing the character and comportment, including the speech, of other people—has become a dominant mode of rhetoric throughout social media and network television. Virtue theory, in contrast, is a teleological approach to normative morality concerned with how actions affect one’s soul or character. Historians of philosophy usually trace virtue theory to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the first extant articulation of ideas such as that habits build character, and virtues represent “the golden mean” along a continuum of two vicious extremes. Courage, for example, lies between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness, according to Aristotle.

It seems unlikely that many of the people who engage in virtue signaling have any genuine interest in the state of anybody’s soul. Certainly shrieking in outrage is unlikely to change anyone’s comportment, much less their beliefs, yet many people persist in the practice anyway, in part because it is both contagious and addictive. The structure of Twitter, in particular, makes it easy to react in a knee-jerk way to short proclamations with which one disagrees. It is in fact very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out reason-based debates in the allotted 280 letter spaces of a Tweet. It furthermore requires a degree of discipline to refrain from shrieking back at shrieking trolls on Twitter, even while knowing that many of them may well be bots—or unreasonable facsimiles…

Having visited in 2021 several different U.S. cities, including Boston, Denver, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Austin, where prominently displayed lawn signs profess the “enlightened” beliefs of the people residing there, I have been puzzling over the strange new phenomenon of essentially advertising one’s own “virtue.” I presume that what is being asserted is moral rather than epistemological superiority, because most of the proclamations on these signs do not contain much in the way of propositional content. “Love is love” is tautological, but “Black lives matter” and “Science is real” also do not represent any sort of cognitive breakthrough. For that reason, whenever I spot one of these signs, I find myself wondering how many people there are who really do believe the literal antitheses of the statements displayed. It would seem that anyone who believes that “Human lives matter” is committed to believing that “Black lives matter,” so there seems to be a hidden insinuation in these pronouncements that people who do not overtly profess such beliefs do not in fact agree and therefore constitute some sort of affront to good people everywhere, by despicably denying the humanity of black people and the deliverances of the scientific enterprise, among other things.

Yet it has become abundantly clear that the disagreements at issue are not really about the simple statements, per se. Instead, the banal expressions appear to be code for far more substantial and controversial positions, such as that “George Floyd was a hero,” and “Climate change is the most pressing problem facing us today.” In this way, nailing a sign in one’s front yard is a performative way of broadcasting that one belongs to the right club, and may explain the preponderance of such signs in some neighborhoods, where a veritable “war of the signs” is underway. (On one street in Somerville, Massachusetts, I saw “Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” placards displayed before adjacent homes.) Anecdotally, I can report that “Black Lives Matter” signs are far more common than “Blue Lives Matter” signs, so it seems that the inhabitants of some left-leaning neighborhoods may feel that by failing to post one of the rainbow signs professing the beliefs of the inhabitants of the house, they may be taken implicitly to ally themselves with the ideological enemy, deplorable Trump supporters and the like.

Alas, in the age of social media, many people appear to labor under the delusion that it suffices to have a “right-minded” opinion in order to be morally superior. This tendency was dialed up significantly during the Trump years, when the stark reality of what can only be termed tribalism became impossible to deny. “You’re either with us, or you’re against us,” serves politicians well during the build up to every war, but now it has infected civil society, to the point where many people reflexively revile anyone who disagrees with them on either Trump or the COVID-19 shots, facilely concluding that they must be not just idiots but also morally depraved.

Millions of Trump haters appear to believe not only that Trump is worthy of their abject abhorrence, but also that they are superior to Trump supporters, who have somehow failed to recognize the former president’s abhorrent character. Shockingly, they lament, millions of poor benighted souls verily celebrate the man as their savior! These polarized attitudes toward Trump are based on beliefs about what he does and why—about which there is considerable disagreement. Mindless worship of a political leader may be wrongheaded, but is it vicious?

To take another example, millions of people have put Dr. Anthony Fauci on a pedestal as their savior from the scourge of COVID-19. Interestingly enough, there seems to be a good deal of overlap between Trump haters and Fauci worshipers, which strongly suggests that the etiology of afflictions such as TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) and COVID Hysteria are traceable to CNN, MSNBC, and the like. Indeed, at this point in history, the most reliable determinant of whether any given person hates Trump and adores Fauci would seem to be not their education, social or economic status, or state of residence, but whether they watch television, and, if so, whether they spend their time at CNN or Fox News channel.

Of course, we often arrive at our beliefs through entirely random and arbitrary processes. We may be absolutely convinced that we are right—Murder is wrong!—but do we deserve any moral credit for having arrived at such a view? I suspect that it is this confusion which leads some people to despise critics. They mistakenly believe that a critic is asserting moral authority, when in fact he or she is making only an epistemological—or, at the most basic level, a logical—objection to what appears to be a manifest falsehood or contradiction. Calling George W. Bush and Tony Blair “war criminals” is to condemn them, but it is also to assert what the speaker takes to be a fact, for if the 2003 war on Iraq was a violation of international law, then its perpetrators were war criminals, and all of those killed in the conflict were victims, whether directly or indirectly, of premeditated, intentional homicide, better known as murder.

Moral rhetoric is intrinsically complicated, because we all have limited perspectives, and it would seem that one person’s incisive critic is another person’s shrieking troll. Being of a naturally critical bent and inclined to sit down and write when questions pop up in my mind, I can attest that some people do consider just about any form of criticism to be an obnoxious, insolent, and self-indulgent form of “virtue signaling.” They may appreciate intelligence in an abstract way, but when it comes after their cherished beliefs, that’s a completely different story.

Witness the plight of Socrates, the case of Julian Assange, or any of the countless other, unnamed, dissidents destroyed by their governments over the course of history. How dare you suggest that there may be weaknesses and contradictions in my views! Who are you to find fault with my opinions and beliefs? These sorts of reactions—typically angry—to attempts to highlight problems with fervently held dogmas have led me to reflect upon the question whether there is any significant distinction to be drawn between, say, screaming that someone is selfish for declining a “vaccine” which is purported not to stop transmission and infection but to moderate symptoms, and pointing out that voluntary obesity has contributed to hospital resource shortages throughout the Coronapocalypse because an estimated 78% of the people who die of COVID-19 are in fact obese.

At the same time that name-calling has become the rule not the exception in responding to anyone who happens to disagree, not only on social media, but also throughout the propagandized mainstream outlets which were formerly homes to journalism, one also occasionally encounters gentle exhortations to “Be Kind.” Only this morning, on a brisk walk on this cold and crisp winter day in Utah, I spotted an SUV with a license plate reading “B Kind.” (I immediately inferred that “Be Kind” had already been nabbed by another, even more enlightened thinker.) Even more so than the yard signs, the exhortation to “Be Kind” may in fact embody a contradiction of sorts, suggesting, as it seems to, that those who see the license plate are going to be mean unless they are told to do the opposite. The form of speech, after all, is an imperative, an order, a command. But is it really “kind” to order people around, or to suggest that, left to their own devices, they would naturally be mean?

The “Be Kind” trend may have been popularized in part by talk show host Ellen Degeneris, around the time when she was explaining her friendship with war criminal George W. Bush. (Oh—was that mean?) I would be surprised if very many people believed that kindness is somehow wrong, and in general, all other things being equal, being kind does seem to be a good thing to do. But my distinct impression from the sometimes hostile reactions to my own critical writings is that some people believe that the very act of criticism is itself mean—or even cruel. Is it “mean” to point out the manifest inconsistencies embraced by other people? Perhaps in some circumstances it can be. But critics such as myself do this a lot. To stop calling out contradictions would require some of us to stop talking altogether. Perhaps we have a “Socrates complex,” but, for better or worse, that is who we are.

One way of resolving this problem is to distinguish between insulting people and arguing with them. After all, ad hominem “arguments” are fallacious because they are only insults masquerading as criticism. Telling a person that he is stupid or ugly, tout court, is quite different from saying that he holds contradictory views or supports a war which will kill thousands of innocent people, even while claiming that he believes that it is wrong to kill innocent people. If “kindness” requires us to remain silent when the government sends troops abroad to deploy homicidal weapons against unarmed, nonthreatening persons, then perhaps the world would be better off with less “kindness” and a bit more “mean” but honest critical thinking.

Again, is there a difference between denouncing someone as a “fascist” and exposing the lies and hypocrisy of governments which claim to champion human rights while running perpetual motion bombing campaigns, leaving “collateral damage” victims everywhere in their wake? I have found myself indulging in a bit of the former of late, ever since the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, announced his intention to punish the entire population of unvaccinated inhabitants of the land, rendering them outcasts from the society in which they live, prohibited from mingling with compliant ( = “good”) people in cafes, bars, restaurants, clubs and shopping malls, all for the “crime” of having refused to volunteer in an experimental drug trial. Handing out carrots was fine for a while—until it turned out that many citizens found them not enticing in the least, at which point some European governments, even Germany, whose abysmal behavior led to the drafting of the Nuremberg Code, resorted to picking up big sticks.

Taken out of context, an outburst such as “Macron Fasciste!” could be regarded as a case of virtue signaling, for it would seem to imply that the speaker, in contrast to Macron, is not a fascist. As I virtually emote “Macron Fasciste!” however, my interpretation of what he is doing also embodies a criticism of his violation of French people’s rights, which I must figure out a way to explain to those who do not themselves recognize what is problematic about it, lest my words fall on deaf ears. It is easier said than done to persuade others to listen to a rival position with an open mind, and the responses of those whose beliefs are challenged by critics is often emotional, not rational, as is nowhere better illustrated than in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, during which a frightening degree of certainty has impelled the “Listen to the Science” crowd to lash out hysterically at anyone who disagrees. It does not seem to matter in the least how seemingly intransigent beliefs were formed. Anyone who dares to adduce new studies or evidence which conflict with the March 2020 CNN/BBC narrative is immediately denounced all over social media and on many networks for spouting “disinformation,” as though the television were somehow the sole and authoritative source of The Truth.

The “Listen to the Science” crowd appears to be signaling what they take to be their own epistemological humility in deferring unerringly to “the experts,” even though the ones who regularly appear on television may well have financial interests in promoting the Big Pharma line, and indeed some of the news shows unabashedly showcase Pfizer as a sponsor. The millions of people apparently prepared to hook up to an IV drip of boosters for the remainder of their lives, far from being virtuous, strike me as both frightened and confused, which explains why they respond with such vehemence to anyone who points out even scientifically respectable grounds for skepticism. But because individuals themselves bear the brunt of their own decisions, and indeed become who they are through choosing to act in the ways in which they do, they are entitled to disagree on risk-benefit analyses. As with all other decisions, the choice of which medical treatments to undergo is a highly personal one.

Given the highly unsystematic means through which we arrive at our beliefs, it seems likely that each of us holds at least some contradictory views, which is precisely why we can engage endlessly in heated debates over every matter under the sun. We all change some of our views over the course of our life—though not all at the same time. It would be irrational to not modify beliefs in the light of new revelations, and as the COVID-19 story continues to unfurl in real time, rational people stand ready to acknowledge when they were wrong. The purpose of rational debate is not to prove that we are right but to figure out which beliefs should be abandoned in the face of evidence and logic.

The proper end of debate is not the glorification of whoever “wins” the argument but the ascertainment of the truth or, at the very least, the elimination from contention of a false or misguided belief. Censorship makes this impossible to do, assuming as it does that The Truth has already been ascertained, and all expressions of disagreement, no matter their source or intention, must be stopped. Tactically speaking, the suppression of the speech of those who hold what the censors take to be offensive opinions seems unlikely to change anyone’s view and may well exacerbate divisions among those who disagree. But there is a far more fundamental problem with censorship. Like it or not, virtue signaling, and emotive outbursts more generally, are expressed through language, the very tool essential to rational discourse. Whether a statement or exclamation strikes us as puzzling, amusing, repulsive, hateful, or even vicious, we must tolerate it and resist all calls to censorship. “Selective free speech” is a contradiction in terms.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, Theodicy: A Metaphilosophical Investigation, You Can Leave, Laminated Souls, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique, in addition to many essays and book chapters.

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