Is Virtue-Signalling A Perversion Of Morality?

4 November, 2021

Since the rise of social media – and in particular, social media activism – the term ‘virtue-signalling’ has been used to dismiss those who make moral claims in public as little more than self-righteous hypocrites, more concerned with their own image than the cause they so vocally espouse. But Neil Levy, senior research fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney, argues that to accuse one of virtue-signalling is itself virtue-signalling. Here, Levy suggests we should not be so quick to dismiss the virtue-signaller, but rather that they may play an important role in productive moral discourse.

Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy, writes Neil Levy. 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. As the journalist James Bartholomew (who claimed in 2015 to have invented the phrase, but didn’t) puts it in The Spectator, virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not concern with others.

Ironically, accusing others of virtue signalling might itself constitute virtue signalling – just signalling to a different audience. Whether it should be counted as virtue signalling or not, the accusation does exactly what it accuses others of: it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it. It can therefore be used to avoid addressing the moral claim made.

Levy also considers the opinion that virtue signalling is perverting the function of public moral discourse. 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. Since we often spot virtue signalling for what it is, the effect is to cause cynicism in the audience, rather than to induce them to think the signaller is so great. As a result, virtue signalling ‘cheapens’ moral discourse.

Levy comes to the conclusion that virtue signalling is a core function of moral discourse.

Via Aeon, Neil Levy, 29 November, 2019. Read the full article here.

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