Virtue Signaling in Political Discourse

In a post-truth world, and one where the death of expertise is an increasing threat, it makes sense that artificial moral dialogue should find a place in political discourse. In other words, as Tom Nichols has pointed out in his book The Death of Expertise, the low-information voter and other sorts of political ignorance (e.g. the uninformed who disdain proper sources of expertise, the claim that those who are experts are nothing more than elitists, the emergence of the customer satisfaction model in education, and the merging of information and entertainment) have begun to rely more on virtue signaling than actually making an argument or refining their moral discourse.

Virtue signaling is a pejorative term for the expression of a moral position that signals the speaker’s morally superior stance on some issue. When your office mate declares that she does not eat red meat and advises that for the good of water management and the environment you adopt a vegetarian diet, she’s engaging in virtue signaling. It is a message (signal) that expresses the speaker’s virtues and carries the underlining implication that the speaker is morally superior. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is a banality that carries no logical path and is little more than a generality designed to portray Trump as someone who recognizes what it means to be great and therefore must be great himself. It carries the quality of virtue signaling because it’s not really designed to change minds as display himself as someone who is great.

All points along the spectrum of political philosophy virtue signal – those on the left and the right. But there seems to be slightly more moral outrage in the form of virtue signaling on the left. Social programs, the democratic state, moral positions on gun-control and welfare, etc. easily lend themselves to virtue signaling.

Signaling of course is part of human evolutionary development. Humans have evolved ways to signal availability for reproduction, danger, and ways to control the costs of signaling.

You are more likely to see virtue signaling in environments where decisions cannot be traced to a single person. In logical environments where actions are understood as having a connection between one act and another virtue signaling is less effective. So, businesses making financial decisions don’t virtue signal very often because it’s difficult and costly. But when a corporation wants to express its good citizenship it can virtue signal by common conscious slogans such as “We Are Going To Go Green” and our products are “Environmentally Friendly”. An article in Aeon explains how the use of religion to virtue signal is common. Appeals to God and religious morality certainly signal the speaker’s virtue along with a clear moral discourse.

Most citizens feel overwhelmed when it comes to real political action. They are exhausted by the possibilities and requirements, both organizational and financial, and consequently do nothing. So, the performance of ostentatious displays of virtue and high diction condemnations of others on the basis of “social justice” takes the place of actual moral mechanisms that guide our action.

It’s not surprising that virtue signaling has surfaced as an alternative to tighter logical systems of reasoning and decision-making. An alternative that political figures exploit in order to supply ideological images that stir our emotions more than anything else.

About Donald Ellis

Professor emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on December 11, 2019, in Political Conflict and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. There’s nothing inherently wrong with displaying virtue. Using Trump as an example of virtue signaling gives it a bad name but shouldn’t. ML King displayed virtue.

    On Wed, Dec 11, 2019 at 10:59 AM Peace and Conflict Politics wrote:

    > Donald Ellis posted: ” In a post-truth world, and one where the death of > expertise is an increasing threat, it makes sense that artificial moral > dialogue should find a place in political discourse. In other words, as Tom > Nichols has pointed out in his book The Death of Expe” >

  2. I can see the connection between the Death of Expertise and the rise of virtue signalling. But I wonder if this argument is not a bit overgeneralized. There seems to be no room for advocacy of an idea the advocate sincerely believes could benefit the common good without attributing it to egocentric motives. That seems a bit deterministic to me (e.g., the only reason someone would advocate gun control is because they wish to let everyone else know they are morally superior). It also strikes me as a bit simplistic. Would Gandhi be convicted of virtue signalling?

  3. Your point is well taken.

  4. Wow! Well said. How about the radio commentators insisting on saying “Merry Christmas” to callers who might or might not share the holiday. Or the bumper stickers mandating “Keep Christ in Christmas”, definitely virtue signaling from the bumper of their cars!!

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