Self-delusion is the key in dealing with virtue signaling
Virtue signaling is one of those concepts that gets a lot of attention before it gets enough reflection, the perfect recipe for misunderstanding. In the following, I will argue that self-promotion virtue signaling — the version which receives most attention — should not be taken as the paradigmatic case of virtue signaling. Instead, I argue for the prevalence of self-delusional virtue signaling in which we signal the values we believe we are living by but our views about ourselves are often biased. (The personal experience that lead me to develop this hypothesis can be found in this almost ad hominem against Nassim Taleb.)
Looking for a definition
If one wants to start before the beginning, the name is a promising departure. In economic jargon signaling means conveying credible information that is hard to prove just by saying it. Since virtue signaling is usually seen as a deceitful message, people complain that the label would be misleading. Proposed alternatives mark the negative tone using terms such as grandstanding or showing-off. However, these alternatives may be too restrictive. Humbleness is a virtue and while one cannot show off or grandstand humbleness it is possible to signal it.
In spite of the name, most elaborated definitions of virtue signaling mark its negative nature. Tosi and Warmke put it succinctly defining ‘moral grandstanding’ as ‘using moral talk for self-promotion’. Taleb’s definition is another example: ‘exploiting virtue for image, personal gain, careers, social status, these kinds of things’. I label this family of definitions self-promotion virtue signaling. For them, self-promotion is the goal of virtue signaling and this goal makes it problematic. Two questions arise:
(i) Is self-promotion the goal of every instance of virtue signaling and,
(ii) is self-promotion inherently bad?
Self-promotion does not seem to be inherently bad. It may be annoying, but there is nothing wrong in telling people about actions that would prove your qualities. For instance, Levi, who thinks virtue signaling is not essentially bad, see its social function as giving signs to the in-group that you are respectable. Self-promotion is still the goal of virtue signaling, but it is not bad.
However, it is not plausible to conceive that every time anyone signals a virtue they are doing so for self-promotion. A friend might say ‘I promise you it is not hard to become vegan’ mainly as an incentive. Those who adopt the above definitions are isolating self-promotion virtue signaling as a particular case who deserves more attention. However, it is not easy to be sure that a virtue signaler is seeking self-promotion. Certainty would require access to their intentions, which the critic does not have. In light of this opacity, it seems safer to start with a more general and neutral understanding of virtue signaling.
A neutral definition of virtue signaling could be: verbally offering behavioural confirmation of what one values. The scope is wider. Virtue signaling is a communicative event showing the values you endorse and live by that may or may not be used for self-promotion. We may also add that virtue signaling comes in two main forms:
Self-targeted virtue signaling: When one signals their or their in-group virtuous behaviour.
Other-targeted virtue signaling: When one criticizes others for vicious behaviour.
The neutral definition and some real use features of virtue signaling
People are keen to notice the paradoxical trap of virtue signaling. After all, when you point out that someone is virtue signaling for self-promotion you are promoting yourself to another audience. Here we bump into the first advantage of the neutral definition. There is no difficulty in accepting that both the virtue signaler and the virtue signaling accuser are signaling their values and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this.
If virtue signaling is not reduced to self-promotion, we must find another goal common to all the cases. First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between what we think we are doing while engaging in a social behaviour and what is the social function of what we are doing. They may well be different. For instance, people may go to the church thinking that they are assuring a peaceful afterlife while they are reinforcing social bonds within the community.
Virtue signalers probably believe they are helping the society by giving exemplar prescriptions of how one should live. Nevertheless, the common accusation of self-promotion shows that the signal is not always true or believed. It is safer to suppose a milder social function. Virtue signalers are, for sure, providing information about their value alignments. This information is useful for the approximation and dissociation of in-groups and out-groups. Such a scenario creates great opportunities for self-promotion within the in-group and for suspicion among the out-group. Hence, the neutral definition can account for why so many people insist on giving so much prominence for self-promotion virtue signaling. A better understanding of our suspicion requires a distinction:
i) Virtue signaling exposes one’s values and humans, as moral social animals, feel in the guts when people have moral stances that conflict with their own. That is one reason why we feel outraged.
ii) However, there are also cases in which the virtue signaler signals the values we endorse and they still bother us. Danaher points out that it may be because the signaling makes us realize we are not living in accordance with our own moral standards. A self-defensive reaction would be making an ad hominem accusation of hypocrisy against the virtue signaler. How many times you have heard fans accusing indie bands of selling out?
Now we are in a position to have a more complete understanding of virtue signaling. When we do it, we believe we are providing factual evidence about the values we endorse. Yet, when we identify virtue signalers we tend to be outraged by the fact they do not realize how their behaviour or lifestyle is in plain contradiction to the values they claim to endorse. The asymmetry is solved once we add the fact that we tend to make self-serving judgments about ourselves while being keen to spot how people are self-delusional about themselves. The self-delusion in others appears so clear to us that we have a hard time believing they cannot see it themselves. So much that we hypothesize they must be doing it for self-promotion.
I believe the self-delusional virtue signaling occurs in a considerable number of cases. We convey information about what we value and we honestly believe we are as we value but we often fall short of it. Did you ever get outraged with climate change deniers during a flight?
The problem with virtue signaling turns out to have less to do with self-promotion and more with information. There are many possible subtle variations, but the central distinctions are three:
1a. One signals V and acts V-ing, but V is not a virtue.
b. One signals V and acts V-ing, but V-ing is not an instance of V.
2. One signals V knowing that they act non-V-ing (disinformation)
3. One signals V unaware that they act non-V-ing (misinformation)
I am treating virtue as a conventional notion meaning that its existence depends on being recognized by a group. Being conventional does not imply that whatever a group endorses is true. Conventions are a body of tacit and not well-organized information. For instance, a society can value freedom and accept slavery. Therefore, there is plenty of room for internal normative revision.
In this framework, type 1 problems arise if what one is signaling turns out not to be a virtue (a) or if the signaled act does not count as an instance of the virtue (b). Someone may praise revengeful behaviour and be questioned if this is virtuous. Also, parents may claim that they are generous because they gave a Ferrari to their daughter, raising doubts if this action counts as generosity.
We have seen that type 2 is what most people think virtue signalers are doing. They give misleading information praising themselves in order to reap the benefits warranted to the virtuous. Nevertheless, I argued that type 3 might be more recurrent. Here, we honestly convey information about our virtuous behaviour without noticing we fall short of it.
Type 3 will have different truth values depending on the role we attribute to virtue signaling. As a sign of which virtues the signaler endorse, this type of virtue signaling provides truthful information. Again, this may be the main social role of virtue signaling. However, as a sign that the signaler lives by what they endorse — which is what we believe we do when we are signaling — it is frequently wrong.
Now that we have a better grasp of the complex relations between truth and falsity concerning virtue signaling, we may envisage how it can be useful.
Type 1 scenario follows from the fact that our conventions are chaotic. It is always necessary to look if (a) our virtues are really in tune with our individual and collective values, but also if (b) our behaviours reflect the virtues that survived (a). Virtues are not to be evaluated in the abstract but rather in real-life agents. If so, virtue signalers and their critics play an important role by providing material for reflection. A society in which some heirs are proudly riding Ferraris and other children are starving might question what counts as generosity.
Concerning 2, one might think that virtue signaling something that they do not really do will have positive social value. It gives an incentive for people to follow the example. Imagine a guru who defends the spiritual value of detachment while living in a mansion. However, chances are this behaviour is counter-productive. Once people realize the signaler does not live up to their words, it becomes an example of the impossibility to do so.
In type 3 scenario the signaler is opening their values and lives to the public opinion, an audience avid to criticize it. Because we do tend to self-delude ourselves about our virtues, the critiques might actually help us to get closer to the virtuous image we paint of ourselves. Your happiness does not depend on a Ferrari, says the guru to the heir. Why do you live in a mansion, then?
Tosi and Warmke identified ramping as a major problem of virtue signaling. According to them, in a debate involving virtue signaling people tend to show themselves more radical than they actually are at each interaction. Such a ramping effect goes against the aim of moral debate. However, ramping seems to be an external problem related to how we deal with virtue signaling.
We are all virtue signalers, receptors and critics of virtue signaling. Having first-order experiences in all involved roles may help us to adapt our actions and reactions to nourish a more beneficial use of the phenomenon. Given the likeliness of misconceiving our self-image, we should engage in a humbled version of virtue signaling. Humbleness is a virtue, so there is no contradiction here. We should signal as an expression of what we value and how we believe we live by it. Yet, we should be self-conscious enough to admit having blind-spots and welcome criticism.
We should also realize that virtues are complex notions, so people will always have conflicting views about what are the virtues and how to put them into practice. Among other factors, it will depend on how people see and experience life in a given society. If this is so, humbled virtue signaling hopefully will help in providing more information for a multi-perspective analysis. These signals would serve as material for outsiders both to engage in self-critique and to point out blind-spots that insiders might be missing as well.
We should also change our attitudes when we see problems and feel outraged by other’s virtue signaling. Since it is also likely that they have blind-spots, all should benefit from a more general reflection on what is a virtue and what behaviours instantiate such a virtue. In particular, we should focus on cases where there is a behaviour that is systematically seen as neutral or even virtuous by public opinion and, yet, causes suffering on others.
Of course, it will not be easy to implement these changes in ourselves, let alone in society as a whole. On the other hand, it is also unlikely that virtue signaling and accusations of virtue signaling will end any time soon. In either way, a more clear understanding of the phenomenon is already a step towards healthier individual and societal attitudes to it.