Virtue Signalling: what is it exactly and is it even real?

Recently, the new Director General of the BBC took the unprecedented step of explicitly telling BBC employees that they must avoid “virtue-signalling”. Specifically, staff working in the news division have been told not to express views on matters of current political debate, or publicly supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial.”

The term “virtue signalling” has now entered the public lexicon. It is used, invariably, as a slur. (Anyone remember Piers Morgan calling TV presenter Jameela Jamil a ‘virtue signalling twerp’ during an online spat about the royal family?) Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of hypocrisy, of appearing to promote their concern for a particular cause when, in truth, all they are really doing is displaying their plumage, shouting to the world ‘look at how virtuous I am because I support this cause!’ 

Wikipedia defines virtue signalling as a “pejorative neologism for the conspicuous and disingenuous expression of moral values with the intent to enhance one’s own image”. In 2015, a Spectator magazine popularised the term, criticising those who say or write things to make clear they are “admirably non-racist, leftwing or open-minded” without actually doing anything to change the world. The author of that piece, James Bartholomew, suggested that virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not actual concern for others.

Some of this may indeed be true. We can all think of instances where people’s expressed concern for certain issues doesn’t align with their actions or the image they have hitherto presented to the world. In a piece I recently wrote on cultural appropriation, I highlighted the instance of Bollywood film stars in India who had tweeted messages of support for the BlackLivesMatter movement – only to be then called out for their long-running promotion of skin-lightening creams.

In a 2019 article by Neil Levy first published in Aeon Magazine, he states that the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke label virtue signallers as ‘moral grandstanders’ and suggest that such activity perverts the function of public moral discourse which, when done right, ‘spurs moral improvement in the world’. Virtue signallers, however, ‘cheapen’ such discourse by shifting the focus from the problem onto themselves, resulting in general cynicism for the actual cause.

But this isn’t the whole story. Recently, some have begun to question the legitimacy of the term itself. 

The problem with using virtue signalling as a means of denigrating someone’s actions is that it is impossible to know, with certainty, any individual’s true level of commitment, concern, or intent. After all, who can truly see inside someone else to accurately judge their integrity?

Some suggest that, increasingly, the term is being employed to undermine all moral acts. For instance, many of those expressing support for the climate activist Greta Thunberg have been accused of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, of racing to be the first to align themselves with her so that some of her virtue rubs off, coating them in a sort of climate-activism glamour. No doubt some are. But whether some may actually believe in the cause or be genuine in their commitment to environmental issues seems to have been deemed irrelevant. 

As I see it, the root problem with the term is that it is a blunt instrument, unable to pick out those actions that, in another age, we would have simply called ‘virtuous’. Many things that we do, or opinions that we express, are because we believe in them – for instance, supporting democratic values, positive societal change, equality – they are positions of intrinsic virtue (to us), a part of our moral make-up. Expressing such views publicly is merely an extension of our inner thoughts and feelings. Why then should we be denigrated by the label of virtue signaller? We’re fast getting to the point where anyone who takes a position in favour of a good cause is liable to be torn down moments later on social media. 

The branch of research that deals with virtue ethics tells us that human beings are obsessed by the idea of assessing the true character of their fellows. In this context, actions are less important than the individual. We judge people based on our perception of their moral values, their ethical behaviour, rather than any individual actions they may take. A good person is someone who lives virtuously. (Though, of course, the definition of virtue itself can be debated endlessly.) 

The simple truth is that we all engage in genuine acts of moral virtue all the time without ever speaking about them. Yet, at other times we also signal our alignment with moral virtue – through a tweet, Facebook post, chatting to friends at the pub – telling others that we are engaging with a particular cause, siding with a particular argument. It would be false to claim that at least some small part of us isn’t pleased by how we now expect others to perceive us – i.e. in a way we hope reflects positively on us. Indeed, the very act of me writing this article could be seen as a form of virtue signalling – here I am signalling to you how virtuous I am because I am willing to critique the term virtue signalling!

My take on the matter: let he who is without sin cast the first tweet. 

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

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