Virtue Signaling is the Opposite of Virtue

On April 12, the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, said that North Carolina will remain on the list of states to which California employees may not travel using state money. The reason for the ban is simple: California wants you to know how virtuous it is. In other words, the state is virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling is nothing new. In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks of how hypocrites ensure that everyone knows they are fasting, or praying, or giving alms. Rather than doing these things to please God, or to help the poor, they do these things only so that others may see them and think well of them.

It is a fundamental principle of human existence that we want others to think well of us, despite the fact that it can become a great temptation to pride. And, in reasonable measure, we should care what others think about us. If those we know to be good and holy people think well of us, then perhaps we can believe we are doing what is good and holy. And setting a good example can lead others to good acts. This would be truly virtuous.

True virtue is usually characterized by three traits: 1) it is done quietly, without drawing attention; 2) it is done in harmony with reason and natural law, and 3) it is outward-looking, being directed either toward helping others or toward God.

Virtue signaling, on the other hand, stands these principles on their heads. The best virtue signaling has three distinct characteristics: 1) it must be readily visible; 2) it is unreasonable; 3) it does not help many people.

This is the essential condition of virtue signaling. If others can’t see the signal, how can they think more highly of the virtue behind it?

In 2011, the economists behind Freakonomics ran a story about the research of Steve and Alison Sexton. They wondered why it was that the Toyota Prius was designed to be such a distinctive-looking automobile. As it turns out, the unique look was no accident. The Sextons found that, in particularly conservation-conscious areas of the country, people were willing to pay as much as $4200 more for a recognizably “green” car.

Unfortunately for the masses, buying a Prius is a very expensive way of showing others how much you care. Fortunately for the masses, there’s an even better—and free—way to signal virtue. It’s called Facebook.

Before Facebook, it was not easy to raise issues of political and social justice with distant acquaintances. Even the most ardent social justice warrior wouldn’t phone a fourth grade classmate to wax eloquently about people being forced to use the locker room corresponding to their objective body rather than their subjective identity. Fortunately, Facebook came to the rescue. On Facebook, you can let everyone know how much you care about issues. What’s even better, if others don’t care or (horrors!) disagree, they can be shamed. Without Facebook how could you shame an old high school classmate for opposing gay marriage? But now, any non-progressive person can be hounded until they either “change their mind” or get off Facebook and all other social media.

The attorney general of California keeps a web page devoted to telling the world which states are not virtuous enough for California. If you go to the attorney general’s website, you don’t have to search for it. It’s right at the top.

Visibility? Check.

At first blush the idea that virtue signaling should be unreasonable might in itself sound unreasonable. But with a little more thought, the reason for this becomes obvious. Suppose that you live in a “green” neighborhood and buy a Prius. You could have bought a cheaper hybrid that isn’t so distinctive, but then people might not know you are driving a hybrid. You spend thousands of dollars more than the car otherwise is worth so you can signal your virtue. If someone else in your neighborhood buys a Prius, that’s great. You can nod to each other as you pass on the street. But suppose everyone in your neighborhood buys a Prius? At that point, your signal is lost among the noise of all the other signals. If the Prius were a cheaper and better car, everyone would want one on that basis. But if you must pay an unreasonably high price for it, no one can think you bought the car for anything but virtuous motives.

Unreason is shown in almost all virtue signaling. It is emphatically shown in the transgender debates. While transgender people should be treated with compassion and dignity as children of God, it is precisely the opposite of reason to say that men are actually women or that women are actually men. Unreason is also shown in such movements as the $15 minimum wage campaign; perhaps some change in the minimum wage might be warranted, but to call for a doubling of the minimum wage without accounting for the displacements that would inevitably result is not reasonable. On almost every issue—from immigration to abortion to free speech on campuses—the positions of the Left are fundamentally unreasonable.

The designation of North Carolina as not virtuous enough is unreasonable in several ways. First, California is punishing North Carolina for repealing a law that mandated that all businesses make any bathroom or locker room equally accessible to any physical gender. California, despite its virtue, does not have such a law. If California legislators think such “equal access” is so important, why don’t they pass the law themselves?

Second, if California legislators don’t like North Carolina, what place do they like? If you guessed Cuba, you are correct. In 2015, approximately 18 months before the North Carolina travel ban, a delegation of nine California state legislators went on a trip to Cuba to “expand economic relationships.” Of the nine legislators who journeyed to Cuba, eight of them voted for the North Carolina travel ban. (The ninth had already left the legislature before the travel ban vote.) When it comes to virtue signaling, the rule seems to be: Cuba, si; North Carolina, no.

Unreasonableness? Check.

Not being helpful to many people is a sort of unreasonableness, but it so often accompanies virtue signaling that it deserves a category of its own. The most obvious case of not helping many people is the transgendered bathroom issue. Society is supposed to reorder its policies about bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, sports teams, etc., on the basis of supposed fairness to the transgendered. But the number of transgendered is extremely small. Although different studies have come up with various percentages of the transgendered in the overall population, it seems to be somewhere between 3 in 1000 and 6 in 1000. Reordering society changes things for everyone while only “helping” a tiny number of people.

Sometimes virtue signaling doesn’t help anyone. In 2016, the radio show This American Life ran a story about a dispute in San Diego involving seals. In seems that San Diego had made a swimming beach for children. The beach became popular not only with children but with seals. According to the show, “people loved to come here and sunbathe and swim and take selfies with the seals. And everybody seemed happy. Except for one group of activists that believe that humans shouldn’t be on the beach at all. That it was bad for the seals.” The seal activists used bullhorns and yelled at and harassed the people on the beach in the hope of driving them away. “And if anybody disagreed with the activists or their methods, they were branded seal haters.” The virtue signaling in this case hit the perfect trifecta: it was loud and visible, it was unreasonable, and it didn’t help anyone.

California’s travel ban doesn’t help anyone either. North Carolina isn’t going to change its laws because of California’s disapproval. The travel ban doesn’t do anything of value either for the government or the people of California. And if other states decide to retaliate against California, then there could be a kind of travel bidding war in which red states only allow travel to red states and blue states only allow travel to blue states.

Unhelpful? Check.

Virtue signaling—especially by government—would be laughable if it were not so destructive. A government at any level ought to be making decisions based upon the common good, weighing and balancing the interests of all citizens. But when a government begins to run as an exercise in virtue signaling, all other considerations become irrelevant. If a certain action or policy—say being a sanctuary city—is virtuous, then the opposite action must be vicious. All issues become fundamental questions of good and evil, with no possibility of the normal compromise needed to run a functioning government.

This is seen nowhere so much as in the current campaign against religious freedom. In the normal give and take of government, there is no reason why a Christian baker should be forced to service a gay wedding. There is no reason why nuns should be taken to court to force them to provide contraceptive insurance coverage. There is no reason why states and localities could not find the proper way to handle bathrooms or other issues regarding the transgendered. But in the era of government by virtue signaling, no deviation from “virtue” can be permitted. To deviate would show a lack of virtue, and open oneself up to denunciation as insufficiently committed to the cause. Social unraveling, in which the “evil” are shunned and the “virtuous” interact only with their own kind, becomes inevitable.

With the continuing expansion of social media and the ever-growing reach of government, it’s hard to see where all the virtue signaling will end. In the meantime, we can only pray that God will save us from the ravages of the virtuous. And help us to practice real virtue in our own lives.

Kevin Clark


Kevin Clark is a graduate of Christendom College and is currently editor of Seton Magazine. His writings have also appeared in Reflections, The Teaching Home, Hereditas, The Annals of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, and Catholic Men’s Quarterly. His fictional works include Will of God; Numbers Up; and Could You Not Watch? and other stories.