Virtue Signaling and the ‘Moral Grandstander’

Neil Levy has written an intriguing and interdisciplinary article for Aeon recently. Jones explores the recently coined term ‘virtue-signalling’ and its development, role, and influence within contemporary moral discourse. Not only does he explore virtue-signalling on its own, but he also ties the concept back to evolutionary biology (by way of the peacock’s tail feathers) as well as the cognitive study of religion (through the distinction between costly and credibility-enhancing signals). Though his ultimate conclusions are mere echoes in an increasingly large chamber, the empirical evidence under-girding them has been undeniably growing over time and it is a topic (i.e. the multifaceted nature of human morality and the various biological influences on its development and continued existence) that is of perennial importance. However, there are certainly elements of his article, particularly his critique of the work of Tosi and Warmke, that must be taken to task. 

KEY EXCERPTS FROM LEVY’S ARTICLE:

“Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse 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.”

“In the only full treatment of the topic in the academic literature…philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke accuse the ‘moral grandstander’ (their term for the virtue signaller) of perverting the function of public moral discourse. According to them, ‘the core, primary function that justifies the practice’ of such public moral discourse is ‘to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world’. Public moral talk aims to get others to see a moral problem they hadn’t noticed before, and/or to do something about it. But, instead, virtue signallers display themselves, taking the focus away from the moral problem…As a result, virtue signalling ‘cheapens’ moral discourse.”

“In the cognitive science of religion, it is common to identify two kinds of signals. There are costly signals and credibility-enhancing displays. The peacock’s tail is a costly signal: it takes a lot of energy to build it and drag it around, and it gets in the way when fleeing predators. Credibility-enhancing displays are behaviors that would be costly if they weren’t honest: for example, the animal who ignores a nearby intruder not only communicates to group members its belief that the intruder isn’t dangerous, but does so in a way that certifies the sincerity of the communication because, if the intruder was dangerous, the signalling animal itself would be at risk.”

“Why, from an evolutionary point of view, would someone signal religious commitment? A likely explanation is that the function is to secure the benefits of cooperation. Cooperation with others is often a risky activity: there is the constant possibility that the other person will free-ride or cheat, making off with the benefits without paying the costs…Signalling helps to overcome the problem. The religious person signals her commitment to a code, at least of cooperating with the ingroup. She signals her virtue. Her signal is, by and large, an honest signal. It is hard to fake, and religious groups can keep track of the reputation of their members if not of everyone else, since the pool is so much smaller.”

“Virtue signalling is supposed to be signalling to the ingroup: it shows that we are, by their lights, ‘respectable’ (in Tosi and Warmke’s word). That’s not a perversion of the function of morality; it is moral discourse playing one of its central roles.”

SOME THOUGHTS ON LEVY’S ARTICLE:

While Levy shows great care in demonstrating how ‘virtue-signalling’ is a seemingly unavoidable (and relatively unproblematic) aspect of human morality, the issue that I take with him, at least in this article, is that he seems to talk past Tosi and Warmke. At the core of all this confusion is the fact that Levy seems to have forgotten the simple distinction that moral grandstanding is not identical to virtue signalling. Conceptually and semantically, they are distinct from one another. [1]

Virtue signalling applies to a large class of moral actions, perhaps even all of them. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which a particular moral action undertaken by a moral agent would not, one way or another, insinuate or implicate the signalling of a particular moral cause, belief, or value. [2]

But we must be clear that moral grandstanding belongs to a much smaller sub-set of that same class of actions. All moral grandstanding may involve, at least rudimentarily, some virtue signalling, but the opposite is not true. And it is this observable discrepancy that allows for Tosi and Warmke’s convincing analysis on the topic.

Finally, Levy misconstrues one of Tosi and Warmke’s key qualifications in their arguments. Granted, it is a key assumption, but Levy makes it out to be far more controversial than it needs to be. He states: 

“According to them, ‘the core, primary function that justifies the practice’ of such public moral discourse is ‘to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world’. Public moral talk aims to get others to see a moral problem they hadn’t noticed before, and/or to do something about it. But, instead, virtue signallers display themselves, taking the focus away from the moral problem…As a result, virtue signalling ‘cheapens’ moral discourse…But Tosi and Warmke offer no evidence for their claim that the primary, or the justifying, function of moral discourse is improvement in other people’s beliefs or in the world.”

Notice that Levy drops the key qualifier ‘public’ from the beginning of the paragraph compared to the last sentence. Moral discourse, of course, can be individualistic or collective (i.e. public). You can, coherently and genuinely, have moral discourse with yourself. Well, to be slightly more accurate, you can have moral discourse with yourself and some other moral entity, whether that is just another moral agent or with a moral tradition itself, perhaps in the form of books, movies, and articles that you peruse in order to better understand some feature of morality or proper behavior. I’m rambling, but suffice it to say, there is nothing illogical or contradictory about a singular moral agent engaging himself or herself in moral discourse in the sense stipulated by Tosi and Warmke.

All that being said, there are definite and pronounced differences in the typical beliefs, actions, and practices of singular moral discourse in comparison to public moral discourse. The emphasis on public stringently stipulates that this has to be more than just one moral agent, more than two, and so on. It has to include the public which, regardless of however granularly or sweepingly we define the term, includes a plurality of moral agents (i.e. several, many, most likely including hundreds or thousands (or more)). Public moral discourse, by definition, is not isolated or detached from those moral agents and the environment around us. 

But just to re-focus one last time on this particular point: Levy may be correct in stating that the purposes of singular or individual moral discourse may be prioritized slightly differently than collective or public moral discourse (in the sense that the individual may engage in behaviors or habits or practices which the public either cannot or should not). But when we are considering only public moral discourse, as Tosi and Warmke go to great lengths to qualify that they are, then it seems entirely uncontroversial that public moral discourse primarily functions to better regulate our complex human interactions and relationships, often times in the form of increased knowledge. What’s more, ‘moral grandstanding’ as they define it, is a legitimate concern for ethicists, public policy-makers, and the general public alike. As a result, Levy’s criticism is ultimately misguided which is unfortunate given that he wove together such a beautiful scholarly tapestry about signalling as a whole.

***

NOTES:

[1] My own particular ‘litmus test’ is to take two terms and try to use them in various common contexts or phrases. For instance, there are examples of common English usage (including idioms and slang) in which ‘virtue signalling’ cannot be substituted for ‘moral grandstanding’ without changing the meaning or connotations of the entire utterance. If this is the case, the terms are semantically and conceptually different. There has to be that 1:1 process of exchange.

[2] Insofar as Levy points this out, he is correct. But again, this is a trivial truth. It’s just a variation of the Law of Excluded Middle. Banal. 

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