Skin in the Game Virtue Signaling: almost an ad hominem against Nassim Taleb
In Taleb’s last book, Skin in the Game there is a subsection entitled Merchandising Virtue in which he discusses virtue signaling and the principle according to which we must act accordingly if we want to criticize others for not acting as they should. However, I believe the best way to introduce the discussion is making and abandoning an ad hominem against Taleb. By doing that I hope to unveil the process of developing my view on these issues.
Taleb presents the following definition of virtue signaling: “exploiting virtue for image, personal gain, careers, social status, these kinds of things”. Then he offers staple examples of cultural icons who build their image by publicly endorsing whatever the pet moral issue of the day is while living a lifestyle that is in blatant contradiction to what they preach. For him, their actions should cancel the value of what they say. This is the skin in the game version of virtue signaling. I will explore more definitions in the next post but for now, this will do.
My original plan was to formulate an ad hominem against Taleb. In the present case, since the object of discussion is one’s own virtuous behaviour, it did not seem to be a fallacy. I would go like this.
Taleb posted early drafts of subsections of his book in his Medium account. That is a very smart thing to do because allows a wider audience (including nobodies as me) to read the text and provide you with some feedback that might improve the work-in-progress. In one of these drafts for Merchandising Virtue we read:
“Now I have wondered why, by the Lindy effect, there was no mention of what is called virtue signaling in the texts. How could it be new? Well, it is not new, but was not seen as particularly prevalent in the past. Indeed, let’s check Matthew 5 and 6…”
Having a background in Ancient philosophy, as I read these lines I immediately said to myself, well, not only it is not new but it was indeed pretty common throughout ancient texts discussing moral behaviour. I had a couple of Platonic passages on the top of my mind and the famous words about Cato having chosen to be good instead of looking good. Thus, I did what every lazy researcher does. I went to check out Wikipedia hoping to easily find a compendium of passages. It worked out perfectly, proving how prevalent the notion was. So, I shared an extract of the Wikipedia entry in a comment to Taleb’s draft.
It is important to emphasize that my action was not a critique. On the contrary, since he mentioned the Lindy Effect — by which the longer something survives the higher its life expectancy gets — I thought I was providing him confirming evidence. After all, as predicted by the Lindy Effect, virtue signaling was prevalent since ancient times. After that, I forgot about it until a couple of days ago when my brother mentioned Taleb’s name at lunch. I became curious about the published version of the passage mentioned above and looked it up. These are the lines I have found:
“Now I have wondered why, by the Lindy effect, there is so little mention of what is called virtue signaling in the ancient texts. How could it be new? Well, it is not new, but was not seen as prevalent enough in the past to warrant much complaining and get named a vice. But mention there is; let’s check Matthew 6:1–4…”
I believe we will all agree that replacing ‘no mention’ for ‘so little mention’ was an unsatisfactory fix. So much, that it got me thinking. Why Taleb would not want to make his argument stronger by saying that, as the Lindy Effect predicts, bashing virtue signaling was prevalent since ancient times?
My first reaction, I admit, was to accuse Taleb of virtue signaling. As my intuitive hypothesis goes, he wanted his text to appear more original than it is. That is why he did not want to admit the prevalence of the critique of appearance of virtue in ancient times. If so, it would characterize dissimulation for self-promotion!
However, I did not stop there. Knowing that we tend to exaggerate the assumption of bad intentions while judging the actions of others, I pushed myself to reflect a little deeper on the situation. On a second reading, the following lines calls into question the plausibility of my first hypothesis:
“As usual, if it makes sense, it has to be in the classics, where it is found under the name esse quam videri, which I translate as to be or to be seen as such. It can be found in Cicero, Sallust, even Machiavelli, who, characteristically, inverted it to videri quam esse, “show rather than be.”
The mentioned names are extracted from the Wikipedia entry. Yet, the relevant point is that Taleb recognizes the prevalence of virtue signaling criticism in ancient times. In light of such self-conflicting statements, I had to change my hypothesis. Chances are that he, just like me, seems to be guilty of nothing but recurring to a lazy fix.
This is the story conducting at the general hypothesis that I want to develop in the next text. What if most instances of virtue signaling would be a failure of self-examination rather than evil intentions? We are likely to be just too lazy or biased to see that what we say might conflict with our actions or lifestyle. On the other hand, we are good at spotting these failures in others. As the conflict seems so obvious for us when we are at the place of external observers, we just tend to assume that the signalers must be engaging in a blatant attempt of self-promotion. If this is the case, we should change our attitudes concerning virtue signaling, both when we accuse the others and when we are accused of it.
In this interpretation, virtue signaling might be useful because it allows others to spot and point out our moral self-delusional blind spots. That means that being accused of virtue signaling allows us to take a step further on becoming the virtuous person we mistakenly assumed we already were. And here is the interesting caveat. Back and forth virtue signaling becomes an antifragile dynamic in Taleb’s sense, that is, the more we are exposed to these critiques the more reliable we may become.