Virtue Signaling as Self-Justification

Virtue signaling has become a way to discredit the virtuous ones

“Even when we are committed to something that has always traditionally been considered immoral, we can’t just do what we want anyway.  We insist that it is moral.  We change the paradigms and definitions so that it appears to be moral.”

 

“Virtue signaling” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”  It has become a staple of social media, whether by an expression of indignation when “catching” someone else’s lapse in sensitivity or by an overt reference to one’s own good works.

The charge, though, of virtue signaling has become a way to discredit the virtuous ones.  An article in the New York Times,  ‘Virtue Signaling’ Isn’t the Problem. Not Believing One Another Isdefends the practice when it is sincere.

But the issue is not, as the article suggests, that certain displays of virtue are not sincere, that people are signaling virtues that they don’t really have, that they are just being hypocritical.  I think that most virtue signaling–pointing out that I am not a racist, though you are; that I care about the environment, while it is evident that you don’t; that I support the LGBT cause, while you are a narrow-minded big–reflects positions sincerely held.

What it illustrates is the phenomenon of “self-justification.”  We have a need to “justify” ourselves, to show that we are right, that we are good.

It is surely telling that in a culture that supposedly cares nothing for morality–that is relativistic, that rejects absolutes, that is amoral or flagrantly immoral–is actually full of moral indignation, righteous criticism, and virtue signaling.

Even when we are committed to something that has always traditionally been considered immoral, we can’t just do what we want anyway.  We insist that it is moral.  We change the paradigms and definitions so that it appears to be moral.  But even then–say, in the example of homosexuality–that is not enough.  We want the approval of others.  The approval of society.

So it isn’t enough for homosexual behavior to be tolerated.  Society must allow for homosexual marriage, so that it is exactly on a par with regular marriage.  But that isn’t enough either.  We must insist that everyone approve of homosexual marriage.  And anyone who does not approve of it must be condemned and, preferably, punished.  Those who condemned homosexuality must now be condemned themselves.  Only then is the sense of justification complete.

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