Signal Disturbances

Barbara McClay has some interesting thoughts on virtue signalling, to which I have nothing to add:

When, around 2015, “virtue” began to be appended to “signaling,” its main function was to make the unspoken aim of the signaling in question explicit. Whereas before you might have been signaling that you were smart, now you were signaling that you were a good person. But whatever you’re doing, it is, and will always be, about what people think about you, either to the exclusion of any other reason or before any other reason. (The degree to which this diagnosis can also apply to rationalists and neo-reactionaries remains unclear.)

To what extent is “virtue signaling” a useful, or at least meaningful, phrase? That the desire to be thought of a certain way can preclude the desire to be a certain way, or at least complicates the latter, is certainly true. That sometimes people say and do things just to be seen saying and doing them is also true.

Take rich white parents who profess to believe in the importance of desegregation of schools but who send their own children to segregated-in-all-but-name schools. Both of these actions (the professed antiracism, the choice of school) involve signaling of a kind, since the name of the school you send your children to can sometimes carry more heft than the substance of their education. At the same time, choosing to send your children to an integrated school could also be understood to be a virtue signal—that you’re so obsessed with appearing right-minded that you will make decisions that might penalize your children. {…}

Like hypocrisy, virtue signaling should function as a reminder to people that what they say or write should be more than empty words. But more often it is a way of saying you don’t need to listen to any words, because they’re all empty. To signal virtue is bad if signaling overrides actual virtue; to borrow Robin Hanson’s terms, one should say that X is, and ought to be, about Y. More often, however, the accusation of virtue signaling is a way of trying to avoid the question of whether X really is about Y by elevating motive over the content of beliefs.

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5 thoughts on “Signal Disturbances

  1. This made me think of a recent post from McSweeney’s:

    1. All Are Welcome Here…
    As Long As You Can Afford to Buy a House In Our Historic, Single-Family Neighborhood
    2. Black Lives Matter…
    I Just Don’t Know Any Black People
    3. Families Belong Together…
    Children Belong in Boarding School
    4. Love Wins!
    Except In Politics!
    5. No Human is Illegal…
    But Selling Lemonade Without a Permit Sure Is!
    6. I Support Refugees!
    And the Foreign Policies That Create Them!
    7. I Really Do Care…
    I’m Just Not Willing to Sacrifice Anything for Change, Are U?
    8. Fight for $15!
    It’s Not Enough to Afford the Rent Here But it Makes Me Feel Better
    9. I’m a Humanitarian…
    I Just Don’t Like Humans Who Are Young, Make Noise, or Live In Affordable Housing
    10. Racism is Wrong…
    Unless It’s Against Asians Applying to College

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  2. That’s a really good article, and I’d recommend reading the whole thing. I, too, succumb to the temptation to criticize others for their virtue signalling without grappling with what I take to be McCloy’s point that it’s impossible not to always in some way be signalling something. At the same time, of course, I virtue signal as well.

    As we know from the excerpt Will provides, McCloy compares virtue signalling with hypocrisy. I’ll take the comparison in a slightly different direction from what she does and add this: A legitimate charge of virtue signalling, like a legitimate charge of hypocrisy, should prompt the virtue signaller to reconsider what they’re doing or how they’re doing it, just like it should prompt the hypocrite to reconsider their own actions and professions. That “should” doesn’t, to my mind, by itself invalidate the virtue being signalled any more than a hypocrite’s hypocrisy invalidates what the hypocrite professes, but it does (ahem) signal that something isn’t quite right.

    My word “legitimate”–buried in the preceding paragraph–does a lot of work, I know. It’s even circular reasoning. We can say that McCloy’s article and most of the bickering about accusations of virtue signalling (or even hypocrisy) center precisely around whether those accusations are “legitimate” or not. So as a working, preliminary standard, maybe I’ll settle on saying that *any* accusation of virtue signalling or hypocrisy, even if not “legitimate,” should be a prompt for the accusee to look at themselves and determine in what ways the accusation might be right. At the same time, I should avoid making such an accusation myself unless I can meet some sort of strict-ish scrutiny standard for the accusation’s legitimacy.

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