The Virtue in Virtue Signaling

Anyone who has ever tried to be a philosophy student knows the importance of virtue signaling in intellectual development.

“I had started to see myself, and once you start to see yourself, you cannot pretend anymore. My white friends (having grown up in Seattle, the majority of my friends were white), some of whom I’d known since high school, were not happy with the real me. This was not the deal they had struck… They would not say a word about the racial oppression and brutality facing people of color in this country. ‘It is not my place,’ they’d explain when in frustration I’d beg for some comment, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable.’ And as I looked around my town and saw that my neighbors were not really my neighbors, as I saw that my friends no longer considered me ‘fun,’ I began to yell even louder. Somebody had to hear me. Somebody had to care. I could not be alone.” – Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want to Talk About Race”

This week, I’ve been exploring various “errors” in contemporary natural law rhetoric. In Monday’s post, I explored the ways in which natural law has been treated in an overly “objectivized” way. Yesterday, I considered how natural law has also been overtaken by empiricist tendencies. Today, I will continue that discussion with an exploration of virtue in the practice of virtue signaling.

The last few months have brought a reckoning. Many Americans, especially Americans of color, are facing the fact that the world was never quite as they had imagined it to be. The American dream was, for many, just a fantasy–less even than a dream, as a dream is something one aspires towards. We have entered more deeply into historical realities–there is no “picking oneself up my one’s bootstraps” for those deprived of bootstraps; the police often select criminals, rather than identify them, and often based on appearances which can’t be changed; and empathy is marked off by party lines.

People speaking aloud their sufferings, often for the first time, beg for a response. Those suffering from racial injustices ask for their friends and neighbors to say something. They ask this of businesses they frequent. They ask it of politicians.

This is what critics of “virtue signaling” often miss. The virtue signaled isn’t something requested for the benefit of the speaker. They don’t request a sign to prove you are virtuous. It’s not about you. They don’t ask you do it for yourself. It’s done for the benefit of the suffering.

It’s like mandated service hours for high school students: maybe the kid doesn’t have virtuous motivations for cleaning his elderly neighbor’s house as part of his service hour requirement. But in the end, she doesn’t need his motivations; she needs her house cleaned. Maybe in the cleaning process, he’ll learn why what he’s done is good, even despite himself. A good deed is a good deed, however one feels about it.

A black square on Instagram is a stupid way to support racial equity… unless you’re someone who doesn’t experience racial equity, and you think your friends don’t care about racial equity, and you’ve been waiting your whole life for them to just do the smallest gesture to show that they do care, even if in ways that are infantile. They hope it will grow into something else. Every great life has an infancy. And an infantile good is certainly better than the absence of a good altogether. I didn’t put up a black square on Instagram on #BlackoutTuesday because I am an expert on promoting racial equity, or because I pursue racial justice particularly well. I put a black square on Instagram because my black friends wanted me to. Because this isn’t about an abstract issue or question. This is about them.

As discussed previously in this series, Aristotle would have us begin the pursuit of virtue by imitating the virtuous person. We see what the virtuous person does or ought to do, and we can start our journey towards virtue by doing this as well, regardless of whether or not we possess the correct motivations or esoteric inclinations at the time.

Anyone who has ever tried to be a philosophy student knows the importance of virtue signaling in intellectual development. Consider how philosophy students imitate the words of their philosophy professors, perhaps in part to be like our professors, and perhaps in part to sound smart among our peers. I spent a lot of time in college around people who wanted to be smart, who wanted to read and write philosophy. What we would do is follow around our professors, trying saying the things they said, using the words they used. We often didn’t really know what we were talking about, even if we thought we did. And we didn’t always know the line between imitating our professors because we wanted to actually be like them, and imitating our professors because we wanted our professors and peers to think we were smart.

Like philosophy students, I suspect the person doing virtue signaling believes they are being virtuous, whether or not that is actually the case. The imitation is: “I see virtuous people speaking in this way, and I want to be like those people, so I also speak in this way.” There may not be a full understanding of what’s being said, just as the person imitating the virtuous in other ways does not in the beginning understand the full content of virtue. The initial student in virtue does not really know what it means to choose virtue for its own sake. This is something that is acquired over the process of becoming the virtuous person.

Of course, many will not excel beyond mere imitation or “virtue signaling”. These acts are not sufficient in themselves to become virtuous. But they may be a starting point. And certainly, there’s a danger that we’ll imitate virtue signaling, rather than imitate virtue. I did this in college, at times, by imitating pretentious upperclassmen who I didn’t know didn’t know what they were talking about. I hope that I have moved on from this at least in some ways.

I’m not saying virtue signaling is virtuous. But I am saying that Aristotle might see it at times as the sort of mimicry acting as a baby step towards virtue. And regardless, virtuous action isn’t just about the person wanting to act virtuously. It’s also about the person owed acts of virtue. If my friends find comfort in a little black box on Instagram, I’ll post a little black box on Instagram. Maybe I’m being virtuous. Maybe I’m just signaling. But regardless of whether it comes of my good, it’s ultimately for the sake of someone else’s good.

In Monday’s post, I’ll return to the discussion of errors, with an exploration of ways in which natural law rhetoric can ultimately be a Neitzschean exercise.

More posts in this series:

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

6 comments on “The Virtue in Virtue Signaling

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