Mark Shea: Vice signalling

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Virtue signalling is spiritually dangerous, but there’s something worse to be mindful of. IMAGE: Geran de Klerk/Unsplash

Last time in this space, we discussed Virtue Signalling, the rather common human tendency to do good things for selfish reasons. We discussed the fact that what marks out virtue signalling is not doing good things publicly, but doing good things in order to be seen and praised for doing them.  We also noted that unless we know that somebody is doing good things out of selfish motives, we have no right to accuse them of virtue signalling.

And we noted that if we insist on attributing good acts by other to bad motives out of spite against them, we place ourselves in very dangerous spiritual waters in which we are, as CS Lewis warns, taking “the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”

Interestingly, Lewis elsewhere discusses the distinction between the sins of Vanity and Pride and they are reflected in a kind of parallel here. Many people imagine Vanity and Pride are the same thing.  But this is like imagining a house cat and a lion are the same thing.  Both are sins of self-centeredness just as Tabby and a lion are both cats.  But that is where the resemblance ends.

if we insist on attributing good acts by other to bad motives out of spite against them, we place ourselves in very dangerous spiritual waters..

Vanity, while certainly sinful, is (says Lewis) a “humble fault” compared to the monstrous, diabolical, soul-destroying sin of Pride. A vain person cares intensely what you think of him and is desperate for your approval (as the old joke goes, “Enough about me.  What do you think about me?”).

In contrast, a person filled with Pride—the sin that made the angel Lucifer into the devil Satan–could not care less what anybody thinks of him or her, except insofar as it makes another person into useful tools or extensions of the Prideful person’s will. Nobody and nothing else matters to the Prideful person.  He lives at enmity with his neighbour and, above all, with God.

Now I doubt any of us is entirely free of the urge to do good for purely unselfish reasons.  We all are least tempted (and most of us give in to the temptation at times) to get kudos and applause for our good deeds. So all of us have likely virtue signalled at some point or another and that venial sin should be repented as we notice it in ourselves.

But far more dangerous and deadly than committing virtue signalling is the hungry will to search that or any sin out in others and hope for more and darker sins so that we may better accuse them.  Last time, we largely focused on the evil of falsely charging people with doing good things for bad reasons.  But there is something worse than that: charging virtue itself with being evil.

What I mean is that it is one thing to say somebody does good things to show off.  It is quite another to say that the good things are themselves bad things.  It is one thing to say that helping the poor in order to showboat is disgusting.  It is another thing to say that helping the poor is disgusting.

And that is, in fact, something human beings are capable of doing to themselves if we are not careful.  We can come to a place where virtue itself, not virtue signalling, is regarded as contemptible and laughable: to a place where mobs think it is funny to pour milk shakes on the heads of black people who just want to sit at a diner; to a place where a crowd jeers with glee as a man is roasted on a griddle; to place where SS troops shoot infants for sport and laugh to each other as they do it; to a place where men amuse themselves by pressing a crown of thorns down on the head of a Galilean peasant because he is helpless and offers no resistance.

In such acts, which are always mob actions, what is happening is vice signalling: the perverse mutual agreement of humans at their worst to seek the approval of their peers in being the most demonic version of themselves possible.  Virtue signalling at least seeks a virtuous end, despite its selfish motivations.  Vice signalling is not only selfish in motivation, it deliberately seeks diabolical ends as well. It is perhaps the most deadly condition a soul can put itself in, and only a fool can look at human history and believe it can never happen again.

How to avoid such a horror?  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.

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