Virtue Signalling

How has your virtue signalling gone this week? Have you praised recycling, veganism or rolled your eyes at the mention of Donald Trump? In my area, free bicycles were left on the street for all who wanted to use them so as to reduce carbon emissions and save the earth. It was a clear sign of virtue to use them and reduce the number of cars on the roads. The only trouble was, the streets were soon littered with broken and vandalized bicycles, some being found at the base of cliffs. How could such a virtuous concept be received so ungratefully, so unvirtuously?

Of course, virtue signalling has little or nothing to do with what a Christian would understand as virtue. It is rather a form of boasting about your politically correct views, in order to signal your compliance with them. For example, when someone shows support for doing away with cars, coal powered stations and plastic bags, this is a support for more contemporary ideologically bound rules which place you in the territory of “getting it right” and hence deserving of approval, or the “warm inner glow.”

A recent news item engaged in some virtue signalling by suggesting that elderly people be offered free rides in electric taxis. Such a laudable idea was lacking in only one thing — how would it work? Could an elderly person having a heart attack ring such a taxi to get to hospital at 2 AM or use it to get to Mass at 8 AM? Would the electric taxis come regularly, or for any reason?

Ideas of such monumental, ideological simplicity do not really allow for questions, nor for any definition of virtue. Not only that, the contemporary engagement in virtue signalling could not be further from the notion of virtue as a western society has understood it for centuries. Many know that St. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as “a good habit bearing on an activity,” about which Father John Hardon, SJ, once explained as: “the concept of virtue, then, is the element of habit, which stands in a special relation to the soul, whether in the natural order or elevated to the divine life by grace.”1

Postmodern notions of virtue signalling exclude the supernatural world, any definition of the human person as having a soul, or any understanding of what constitutes the “good.” Furthermore, forget humility — the point is you are telling everyone how good you are and there is nothing humble about it — only a signal that you are doing what ideologically motivated social circles have deemed to be good. And this deeming of what is good, and the public announcement of it, excludes any metaphysical notion of the good, let alone any reasoned attempt to search for it. As Alasdair Macintyre predicted in After Virtue (1981), once the virtues were severed from their traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic context in the late middle ages, there arose alternative, psychological ways of viewing virtue:

Either the virtues — or some of them — could be understood as expressions of the natural passions of the individual or they — or some of them — could be understood as dispositions necessary to curb and to limit the destructive effect of some of those same natural passions.2

So, this recasting of virtue has been a long time coming and is tied to the Zeitgest of our age. We have reached the stage where passionately tying yourself to a tree, whale watching, or even spending hours at yoga are admirable contemporary “virtues.” So also are the various ways of running down patriarchy, racism, sexism, hate speech, mansplaining (speaking from the point of view of an incurably patriarchal man), as if one were the only person in the world condemning these “vices.” One simply does not question these things; there is a modern imposed psychological barrier which separates the announcement of the modern virtue from further, deeper consideration of it. It is not dissimilar from the Communist “virtue” of working to over-fulfill quotas in a factory for the good of society — which good Soviet citizens never questioned; and not dissimilar from the Hitlerian notion that a woman should have as many Aryan children as possible to further the fatherland — which Hitler-supporting women did not question. Indeed, it is frightening to see how quickly ideological mindsets can penetrate any society. Nowadays, whether one calls it liberalism, secular humanism, or cultural Marxism, the moral ambience we live in is one in which propounding one’s virtues comes from repetition from the media, social organizations, and political parties — a highly effective psychological manipulation surrounding us constantly. Macintyre saw the manipulative quality of the newly proposed “virtues” as stemming in part from an altered view of benevolence, severed from any notion of true Christian charity, a kind of breezy, a feel-good-emotion which invites immediate agreement: “benevolence as a virtue became a license for almost any kind of manipulative intervention in the affairs of others.”3

From this gushy benevolence, issues a kind of emotivism, a simplified cartoon version of reality which has taken deep root: “all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.”4 So, if you see a dolphin — your “gotta love it” buttons are pressed. If you hear a person insist on euthanasia — your “gotta understand it” buttons are pressed. All things lead to feeling good about yourself and threats to that must be fought with all possible might. Threats to comfort in our era have spawned a whole array of easy, quick answers. And by now, there are glib responses to just about everything. All you need to do when someone argues for coal-powered stations is say in return with clear, haughty virtuousness, “I believe in saving the earth,” or, if your friend does not buy organic turnips, say with utter seriousness, “I believe in knowing what kind of food I eat,” meaning by implication your friend does not, and implying that you adhere to benevolent ideals.

It so happened that once, in conversation with secular professionals, I announced (in what I thought was a tone of lamentation) that I had neither a clothes dryer nor dishwasher at home. This was a big-time clear indication to my colleagues of my hatred for carbon and coal-powered electricity plants, and my preference for a minimalist life. I was dumbfounded as I could see that some process of secular beatification was occurring. I tried to explain where I was coming from, but with little success, so I had no alternative but to bask in the warm approval. This lasted only a little while for, a few months later, I expressed my views on homosexual marriage in a polite way, at a meeting, but no amount of politeness could stop the glares I received, as if I were suddenly speaking Swahili, and spoiling the ambience of the virtue-signalling world. By saying I was voting “no” to gay marriage, I had cut the cable to the warm inner glow, and I was now forever suspect.

While praising dolphins and lamenting the assumed demise of polar bears (some say their numbers are increasing) will get you approbation, expressing your Christian views on gay marriage, pro-life issues, and the political motivations behind gender fluidity and “diversity” will not. It would be very helpful to be shown by priests how to do this, as not everyone is aware of how to assert one’s Catholic beliefs in a civil way. Unless you can make yourself into a victim quick-smart, as did psychologist Jordan Peterson, who claimed in a BBC interview that he would not use an endless variety of transgender pronouns, as this was linguistic coercion in the style of Mao and he did not want to be coerced. This was so shocking — to suggest that the virtue-signalling BBC interviewer could be oppressor, not the oppressed; even, horror of horrors, that she could be fascist. But Peterson had indeed done that and had beaten the BBC at their own game. This should give heart to those fed up with virtue signalling, in learning to jump in and depict the virtue signaller as the oppressor, and oneself as the oppressed. It is also a good idea to present some contrary facts and ask questions. And this is what the virtue signallers do not want you to do, as they wish you to agree or to reduce you to cowering silence. It is the strategy, however, of the resistance fighter to ask uncomfortable questions, to assert one’s rights as a Christian in our increasingly anti-Christian West, and never to give up.

By the way, I thought I might just throw in, after all this, that I do love dolphins and whales (and unborn children, too), am anti-pollution (especially political, verbal diatribes), and like solar power (but do not like wind turbines, as they kill birds and make noise). My virtue signalling is not up to scratch, but, then, I have never liked such public global warming as is produced by ideologically motivated warm inner glows.

  1. John Hardon, SJ, “Meaning Of Virtue In Thomas Aquinas” (1995), ewtn.com/library/spirit/meanvir.txt (accessed April 1, 2019).
  2. Alasdair McIntyre, After Virtue (Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1981), 208.
  3. McIntyre, After Virtue, 212.
  4. Ted Clayton, “Political Philosophy of Alasdair Macintyre,” iep.utm.edu/p-macint/ (accessed March 1, 2019).
Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD About Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD

Wanda Skowronska is a Catholic psychologist and author living and working mainly in Sydney. She writes for several periodicals, being a regular contributor to the Australian Catholic journal Annals Australasia. She completed a PhD in 2011 at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, where she has done sessional lecturing. She published the first compilation of Australian conversion stories, Catholics from Down Under and All Over (2015) and is about to publish, through Connor Court publishers, a book on 1960s Catholic schooldays entitled Incense, Angels and Revolution.

Comments

  1. Avatar GUY MCCLUNG says:

    Dear Dr. Wanda S, This is SO clear, many thanks! Whatever heppened back when I was trying to impose my morality re: abortion as mommy murder on society, and when I was attempting to have the pover of government and legislation to force all to live under a regime of my idiosyncratic morality? And whatever happened to: my morality is as good as yours; and me-me-me-now-now-now-pelausre-pleasure-pleaure?

    Thanks again for a great article. Guy McClung, Texas

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