Neil Levy in Aeon:
People engage in moral talk all the time. When they make moral claims in public, one common response is to dismiss them as virtue signallers. Twitter is full of these accusations: the actress Jameela Jamil is a ‘pathetic virtue-signalling twerp’, according to the journalist Piers Morgan; climate activists are virtue signallers, according to the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research; vegetarianism is virtue signalling, according to the author Bjorn Lomborg (as these examples illustrate, the accusation seems more common from the Right than the Left). Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy. The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves. They’re not really concerned with changing minds, let alone with changing the world, but with displaying themselves in the best light possible. As the journalist James Bartholomew (who claimed in 2015 to have invented the phrase, but didn’t) puts it in The Spectator, virtue signalling is driven by ‘vanity and self-aggrandisement’, not concern with others.
Ironically, accusing others of virtue signalling might itself constitute virtue signalling – just signalling to a different audience. Whether it should be counted as virtue signalling or not, the accusation does exactly what it accuses others of: it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it. It can therefore be used to avoid addressing the moral claim made. Here, though, I want to consider a different issue. In the only full treatment of the topic in the academic literature (that I know of), the philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke accuse the ‘moral grandstander’ (their term for the virtue signaller) of perverting the function of public moral discourse. According to them, ‘the core, primary function that justifies the practice’ of such public moral discourse is ‘to improve people’s moral beliefs, or to spur moral improvement in the world’. Public moral talk aims to get others to see a moral problem they hadn’t noticed before, and/or to do something about it. But, instead, virtue signallers display themselves, taking the focus away from the moral problem. Since we often spot virtue signalling for what it is, the effect is to cause cynicism in the audience, rather than to induce them to think the signaller is so great. As a result, virtue signalling ‘cheapens’ moral discourse.