Virtue Signalling Is Virtuous

Philosopher Neil Levy writes:

* Animals use signals for a variety of purposes. For instance, gazelles famously signal their fitness by stotting (jumping up and down on the spot) in front of predators (FitzGibbon and Fanshawe 1988). Peacocks even more famously signal their fitness with their spectacular tails (Zahavi and Zahavi 1999). Good signals are hard to fake signals: if a signal is cheap, then defectors will co-opt it and it will rapidly lose its value. Stotting is a hard to fake signal because it is costly. The gazelle who can afford to waste energy it might have saved for fleeing is probably not worth chasing. The peacock’s tail is an even more reliable signal, because the more spectacular the tail the more resources have been devoted to it and the better the health of the bird. A good signal of trustworthiness, too, will be hard to fake.
In human beings, hard to fake signals take a variety of forms. Some are costly, like the peacock’s tail. Many cognitive scientists argue that costly signalling is at the root of a variety of religious practises (Irons 2001; Sosis and Alcorta 2003; Sosis and Bressler 2003). Regular attendance at religious services is costly, insofar as it requires forgoing more immediately rewarding activities. More directly, tithing is costly and religious rituals often involve some kind of privation. Fasting is a common signal of religious commitment (Lent, Ramadan and Yom Kippur all involve fasting, of course), and particularly devout individuals may take vows of celibacy, of poverty or even enter small cells for life as anchorites. Some signals are not costly, but nevertheless are credibility enhancing (Henrich 2009). Crossing a bridge may not be costly for the person who crosses (she may benefit from doing so) but it is a reliable signal that she believes the bridge is safe.
We live in a world in which we cannot easily rely on others’ moral record, as
conveyed by gossip, to identify those we can trust. Our societies are too large for
reputation-tracking to be reliable: gossip may not reach us, and agents move relatively freely from community to community. Formal systems of regulation may help, but their effective development and enforcement depends on a sufficient level of trust to avoid systematic corruption. Costly and credibility enhancing signalling help fill the gap between reputation tracking and formal regulation. For example, because religious observance involves hard to fake signals of trustworthiness, co-religionists may seek one another out as business partners. The role of Quakers in the early years of British industry is, for instance, well-known (Prior et al. 2006). Moreover, trust is not limited to co-religionists. Religious and non-religious people express more trust in religious people, regardless of their religion, than in atheists (Gervais et al. 2011, 2017).
Credibility enhancing displays and costly signals of religious commitment aremoral
signals (at least for those individuals who belong to the High Gods religions (Norenzayan 2013), with their moralized gods, which have a near monopoly on the faithful today). They are signals ofwillingness to abide by certain, publicly proclaimed, norms. They are ways of signalling our virtue. Displays of religiosity continue to play this signalling function today, especially in highly religious societies like the United States. But as societies secularise, such signals no longer have the same power. Small wonder we have turned to more secular virtue signalling.

* Just as the faithful all join in public worship, with all singing, tithing or witnessing, so we all pile on in moral condemnation or—less often—praise (we pile on, moreover, in part to establish the boundaries of our group: our fellow believers, with whom we preferentially cooperate).

Strong emotions are also predictable, given that emotions are hard to fake (Frank
1988); hence we see fervent religious devotion, on the one hand, and outraged moral
condemnation, on the other. Claims of self-evidence may function to delineate the
in-group, thereby serving the ends of signalling. Ramping up also has its religious
analogues: think of Filipino self-flagellation or voluntary crucifixion at Easter, Shia self-flagellation duringMuharram observances, or of the degradation of self that many Catholic saints engaged in. In these ways (and a myriad others, most much less dramatic: think of Christmas lights for example), believers compete to show how devout they are.9 Good signals are hard to fake, because they are costly, self-validating or involuntary. The peacock’s tail is costly, while crossing a bridge to signal one’s belief that it is safe is self-validating. The facial and bodily expressions of emotion are involuntary and therefore hard to fake: blushing and flushing are classic examples of typically involuntary, and therefore hard to fake, expressions of emotion.

Given that a central function ofmoral discourse is signalling commitment to norms,
the claim that virtue signalling represents a perversion of the justifying function of such discourse is on very shaky ground. Virtue signalling is not merely a central function of public moral discourse; it is one that it plausibly ought to play. Delineating a group of reliable co-operators and signalling a willingness to abide by a publicly proclaimed moral code are surely aims worth pursuing.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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