Who is Good. You or Me? Who is Right. You or Me?
I published a blog about virtue signaling back on May 28, 2021. There has been so much discussion of it since then that I decided to refresh the blog and bring my thoughts up to date.
One of the differences between virtue ethics and virtue signaling is the former pertains to one’s character as a measure of ethical behavior while the latter relates to how some people express a point of view that may be interpreted as their being better than others. It is based on the words we say while virtue ethics is based on the behaviors and actions we take.
Virtue theorists place less emphasis on learning rules and instead stress the importance of developing good habits of character, such as kindness, empathy, and compassion. Plato emphasized four virtues, later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Notice that the good habits link to how we treat others while the cardinal virtues relate to one’s thought process and the actions we take.
Other important virtues contribute to overall wellness, such as fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory emphasizes moral education because virtuous character traits are developed in one’s youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.
To distinguish between virtue ethics from virtue signaling, we need to understand how the latter is defined and examples of it.
Definitions/Characterizations of Virtue Signaling
I did some research and found a variety of definitions and characterizations of “virtue signaling.” Here are some of the most frequently mentioned:
- 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.
- An attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media.
- A slur meant to imply moral grandstanding that might not be all bad.
- A pejorative statement that is often yielded as a sneering insult to dismiss the statements by others as grandstanding.
- Personal attacks that dismiss an argument based on the character of the presenter, not the argument itself.
An example of virtue signaling in action is if a person proclaims on social media that they strongly support a certain cause, just because they want to show others how caring they are. They assume the moral high road regardless of the position they hold. They may think they are better than others because of their “good moral character.”
If you choose to point out that someone is virtue signaling, you should first make sure they are virtue signaling, and then make sure to point this issue out in a way that fully and properly explains why it is problematic, potentially while avoiding the term virtue signaling itself.
The Cousins of Virtue Signaling
Virtue signaling is a way to call out an individual, company, or organization for backing an idea to make others think the signaler’s position is the right one. Virtue signaling is a form of the cancel culture. You are trying to stifle someone else because of the positions they hold. It does not even matter if those opinions are ‘right or wrong.’ It is the person you seek to cancel from society usually on social media.
Virtue signaling also smacks of political correctness in that holding a position promotes a point of view deemed more worthy than others. In this regard, Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right have used it to signal their moral superiority.
Virtue signaling is a product of group think and if you do not adopt their position, then you, too, could be canceled. Beware that the virtue signaler accepts no other position than their own.
One problem with political discourse today and in society, is that our discussions tend to rely on slogans to make a point rather than argumentation. Indeed, arguments are often nothing more than rationalizations for one person’s, or group’s position. The term virtue signaling just muddies the waters in that regard.
Differences of opinion on virtue-signaling positions often result in heated exchanges that threaten civility in our society. We should learn to get along with each other, value individual thought, and promote human kindness to advance the cause of free speech. We need to learn how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. Virtue signaling does nothing to reach that goal.
According to Neil Levy, a senior research fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, accusing someone of virtue signaling is like accusing them of a kind of hypocrisy. “The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue, but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves. They’re not really concerned with changing minds, let alone with changing the world, but with displaying themselves in the best light possible.”
Why does virtue signaling occur so often today? The reason is each side of a two-sided argument wants to claim the moral high ground on controversial issues. It makes them feel they have the right answer or interpretation of a complex issue.
Virtue signalers need to think about the fact that virtue signaling is a position taken on an issue while virtue ethics is an expression of one’s beliefs about the kinds of traits a good person needs to adopt to claim the moral high ground. We need to emphasize the latter to get back to a society where one’s character signals the goodness of a person. In this regard it is worth remembering the inspirational words of Martin Luther King: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on January 2, 2023. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.