Why virtue signaling isn't the same as virtue – it actually furthers the partisan divide

In a speech on July 23, 2022, before the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced himself to the audience with the words, “My name is Ted Cruz and my pronoun is kiss my ass.”

In 2019, the Vermont College of Fine Arts appealed to a different group. They replaced the term alumni – which is derived from the Latin masculine plural but traditionally used to refer to all graduates of the school – with alumnx. In its statement, the college said that dropping the traditional term “alumni” was “a clear step toward exercising more intentional language, which we strive to implement in all aspects of college life.”

These statements are very different, of course. One is explicitly inclusive, designed to demonstrate that everyone who graduated from the school, irrespective of their gender, is included and respected. The other crudely denigrates the very attitudes expressed in the second example.

But for all their differences, both are examples of what has come to be called “virtue signaling” – an act that implicitly claims that the speaker has made a determination about some important moral question and wants to signal to others where they come down.

Even though some might call the use of the phrase “kiss my ass” far from any notion of virtue, and more correctly understood as “vice signaling,” as a scholar of ethics and politics I argue that both of these statements operate in precisely the same way – and that is the problem.

Virtue signaling alone is insufficient

Virtues are really just agreements among the members of any group about what is important, valuable and what group members can expect from each other. This is as true for motorcycle gangs as it is for monasteries. And the only way to establish and maintain, let alone modify or improve, any such agreement is by talking about it.

That’s what virtue signaling does. It helps any group recall and reflect on what it is that gives the group its identity. Thus, while the term virtue signaling may be relatively new, the practice is as old as morality itself.

But useful though it may be, virtue signaling is far less demanding, and far less constructive, than virtue itself. Unless the former is matched with the latter – that is, unless words are matched with actions – mere signaling is insufficient.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is widely regarded as one of the first, and still one of the most important, virtue theorists. He argued that becoming a virtuous person is a worthy but arduous process, requiring maturity, discipline and constant repetition.

“Men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage,” he wrote.

Virtue signalers are often inclined to pat themselves on the back for their moral insight and courage. Aristotle saw the very same thing. He observed that many think that “by taking refuge in argument” they can become ethical. But Aristotle knew that this refuge doesn’t work: talking about virtue is useful – after all, this discussion comes from Aristotle’s book on ethics – but real virtue requires work. It is far more demanding and thus far harder to fake.

Who is being signaled?

But there is another question that speaks to the problem with virtue signaling right now: Who is being signaled to?