Mark Shea: Signalling virtue, versus virtue

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So if a person gives money to a beggar because the beggar needs money and not to be noticed doing it, he is being virtuous, not virtue signaling.
So if a person gives money to a beggar because the beggar needs money and not to be noticed doing it, he is being virtuous, not virtue signaling.

Much is made these days of “virtue-signalling”.

Most people, by “virtue-signaling”, mean more or less what Jesus is getting at when he says:

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)

They may not always add the theological dimension, but pretty much everybody agrees that doing good things in order to show off how good you are and earn applause is bad.

That is not, of course, something you have to be a believer to do. All in-groups have their own forms of piety and therefore all in-groups have their own temptations to do the right things for the wrong reasons.

People with no temptation to ostentatiously veil for Mass or make a big thing about reminding others how much they tithe to their parish (because they are unbelievers who don’t care about the approval of Catholics) can still seek the applause of their peers they do care about by bragging about recycling, or using people they “help” as props for their ego, or doing whatever good thing their peers care about in order to gain prestige, social leverage, or power.

All such actions are virtue signaling, because they are done, not to do good for others, but to be seen and praised. They are fundamentally selfish acts, even when they are accidentally helpful to others.

But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, it depends entirely on knowing the interior motivation of the person doing the good act to know whether such acts are virtue signaling. Merely doing something good publicly is not virtue signaling. Only doing some public good in order to be seen and praised for it is virtue signaling.

“So we are often told that Politician X or Movie Star Y are “virtue signaling” … But when we really interrogate that accusation, we often find that the accuser has no evidence for their claim beyond, ‘I just don’t like that person, so I’m assuming they are acting out of selfish motives.'”

So if a person gives money to a beggar because the beggar needs money and not to be noticed doing it, he is being virtuous, not virtue signaling.

If a movie star saves a drowning girl because she was drowning and not because paparazzi might photograph him being a hero, he was being virtuous, not virtue signaling.

This matters because many people charge others with virtue signaling when they are actually being virtuous. Indeed, many people denigrate genuine virtue as virtue signaling merely because they hate the virtuous person and want to tear them down no matter what good they do.

So we are often told that Politician X or Movie Star Y are “virtue signaling” if they support some charity or do some good thing.

But when we really interrogate that accusation, we often find that the accuser has no evidence for their claim beyond, “I just don’t like that person, so I’m assuming they are acting out of selfish motives.”

C.S. Lewis warns of the spiritual danger of this way of thinking:

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.”

And this leads to another form of spiritual danger we will discuss next time: vice signaling.

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