One of the things about contemporary society that bothers me the most is virtue signalling. Wikipedia’s definition of the term was written by someone who doesn’t like being accused of virtue signalling: “a pejorative neologism for the conspicuous expression of moral values.” Other dictionaries are more astute about what is meant by the term. According to Oxford Languages, the term refers to “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.” Cambridge English Dictionary indicates that the term refers to “the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas or cultural happenings” so that the speaker feels “morally superior.” A few people, like writers in the NY Times, the Guardian newspaper of the United Kingdom, or the blog of Adamsmith.org, feel that the term has passed its sell-by date. I disagree. Over the past few days I have been assaulted with a continual barrage of people, ranging from fellow members of the Church of God whom I happen to know to random music reviewers I follow on social media, to support the Black Lives Matter movement, itself an example of the radical and racialist leftist identity politics that have sprung up in recent years. Having a marked antipathy to the politics of white guilt and in the worth of spouting obvious truths to signal to others that I am not one of those racist whites, I would like to comment on what it is about virtue signalling that hinders the genuine achievement of justice.
What is the purpose of virtue signalling in the first place? The goal is to communicate to others that one is a decent and moral person by the standards of one’s place and time by affirming what are considered to be obvious truths that make one morally superior to those who happen to deny those affirmations. On the one hand, the person making the signalling has little particular interest in generally wrestling with a problem or its tangled roots in history and experience, or to stick around and resolve the repercussions of a desired moral stance, and so the signalling is a no-cost way of gaining pride for being the right sort of person who speaks out against evil. As we saw with the Kony 2012 problem, where there was a widespread desire for people to speak out against the leader of a murderous gang of thugs involved in the wars of Eastern Africa, a great many people can passionately proclaim their opposition to evildoers while themselves doing nothing productive or useful in overcoming the brokenness in which that evil is involved. One sees a similar dynamic at hand in the endless use of pious nostrums about how black lives matter that fail to account for the way in which black privilege and white privilege intersect to create a toxic environment regarding the achievement of genuine unity among our diverse population.
It is common enough to hear of the white privilege by which a white armed man has an equal chance of being shot by police as an unarmed black man, or the reality that interactions with the police are generally far less tense for most whites than for blacks or other minority peoples. Such things are often heard because they speak a fundamental truth of the way that police are not viewed, at least not yet, as being inimical to the well-being and freedom of white people in the way that they are for minority populations where any hint of criminality can lead to extremely unpleasant interactions with police officers. Yet at the same time, there is an asymmetry in response by which rioting in response to perceived racial injustice suffered by minorities is encouraged and media reports far more heavily on such matters than it does on the murders that are committed by privileged minorities against whites, who do not respond to these acts of violence with riots and protests against the evildoers responsible. It is a privilege to have a light shone on evils that one suffers, and to know that there are others who are willing to speak out and act out in defense against perceived threats, and those whose sufferings are ignored and trivialized are not privileged in that regard.
How is it that virtue signalling is a hindrance to justice? Justice is more about how we behave than how we are viewed by others, but virtue signalling is meant to communicate to others that one is just, whether or not that is the case. Our desire to be seen as just does not in fact make us just. We all have our own biases that spring from our experiences in the world, and most of us have blind spots where we find it hard to see how we gain advantages because of various factors but are vigilant and ever-observant to the way we suffer disadvantages because of circumstances beyond our control. The desire to appear evenhanded may, in fact, lead us to condemn riotous behavior by leftist and rightist extremists alike when there may only be leftist extremists engaged in attempts at urban terrorism, as is quite common. We may fancy ourselves to be even-handed and therefore just when we have in fact made a false moral equivalence between a fictitious evil and a real one. Moreover, our desire to communicate to others that we are just people free from prejudice may blind us to the way that we are in fact not as free from prejudice as we would like to think ourselves, not least because in our contemporary society, the admission of prejudice practically makes one so far a social leper that one appears to lose the right to make any sort of moral judgments whatsoever if found in possession of such unwanted and antisocial tendencies. And while we are quick to notice the prejudices of others, we are vigilant in refusing any label of ourselves as being the sort of -ist or -phobe whose judgment privileges can be safely revoked. Incidentally, this is why admissions of white guilt or male guilt or straight guilt or any other sort of guilt by which majority populations try to appease subaltern identity groups come with the commitment that one will “do better” in the future, so as to avoid the permanent loss of one’s judgment privileges from the supposed moral arbiters of our present, evil age, those victims who possess the moral fiber to determine who can be considered one of their precious and all-important allies.
As is frequently the problem, virtue signalling fails because of two related and fundamental moral problems. For one, such signalling is a desire to please other people by verbalizing generally accepted principles within a society. One does not virtue signal by verbalizing unpopular but moral opinions. Speaking about the moral superiority of the Bible may be virtue signalling to a doctrinally conservative church, but would not be virtue signalling to a society which mistakenly views itself as morally superior to the Bible and in a position of judgment over the validity and relevance of the Bible and its moral law. Any statement that has no risk to make gives the speaking of it no credit as an encouragement to justice. We need not be encouraged to be just in those areas where we are already just. We need a great deal of encouragement to be just where we are unjust, but such encouragement must be delicately and carefully made because offended people tend not to be very just. And few people are as prideful in their integrity as people who wish to be viewed as just. Our pride, which spurs us to desire to be seen and viewed by others as just, is the biggest obstacle for our being just. For our being just would require us to give a fair hearing to the justifications and reasoning of people we do not like and do not respect. It would require us to examine ways that we may be unjust and biased for reasons that we consider to be very good but which are not going to be viewed as sympathetically by others. It will require us to say things and do things that will be very unpopular because it cuts against the injustices of our time that later generations will pillory as a way of rejecting our authority to speak to how they should live, but which are casually accepted and taken for granted in our own time. Thomas Jefferson, a man well acquainted with both justice and injustice, said one time under the inspiration of wisdom that he trembled that God was just and that His justice did not sleep forever. We should tremble as well, for we are not nearly as just as we think we are or to the extent we would want others to think us.