Why Is “Moral Grandstanding” Even Supposed to Be a Thing?

by Tim Sommers

Moral Grandstanding is using moral talk as way of drawing attention to oneself, seeking status, and/or trying to impress others with our moral qualities. Moral grandstanding is supposed, by some, to be a pervasive and dangerous phenomenon. According to psychologist Joshua Grubbs, for example, moral grandstanding exacerbated the COVID-19 crisis and is “part of the reason so many of us are so awful to each other so much of the time.”

Moral grandstanding is intimately related to virtue signaling, and both are, let’s face it, first and foremost internet problems – if they are problems at all. Since virtue signaling came first, it actually has a dictionary definition. The Cambridge Dictionary defines virtue signaling as “An attempt to show other people that you are a good person, for example by expressing opinions that will be acceptable to them, especially on social media.”

What’s the difference, then, between virtue signaling and moral grandstanding? Maybe, there isn’t one, or, maybe, it’s this. According to philosophers Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi, the principal investigators on a multi-year Koch Foundation funded research program leading to their 2020 book, “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk,” grandstanding is about using “moral talk to dominate others”. So, virtue signaling is about fitting in, while moral grandstanding is about taking over.

There’s an excellent video debate between Warmke and philosopher Justin Weinberg (the proprietor of the philosophy website Daily Nous) discussing Warmke and Tosi’s book. I won’t summarize the debate (or the background to it, which is interesting too), but what emerges from the discussion, as I see it, is that Warmke qualifies their position so thoroughly that you begin to wonder why they are talking about it at all. They admit you never really know when someone is morally grandstanding. They admit it does more harm than good to call people out as grandstanders in public debates. They even concede that it’s “likely that most grandstanders are perfectly sincere in the views they express”. (How much of this is consistent with what they say in their book is a another question (for example, how do they know grandstanding is pervasive, if you can never really be sure that someone is grandstanding?), but that’s for another day.)

Basically, Warmke and Tosi just think that you should be careful to ask yourself sometimes if you are a moral grandstander. But the concept of moral grandstanding did not arise out of people quietly self-reflecting about whether their moral advocacy has become a little bit too much about them. That is not why, nor how, the concept of moral grandstanding came to be.

Almost any concept can be deployed as a method of categorization, of course. Recall some of the ways, according to Borges, the animals of the emperor were sorted: (1) those that belong to the emperor, (2) embalmed ones; (8) those included in the present classification; (14) those that from a long way off look like flies, etc. What we want to know is how a particular categorization came about and, more importantly, of what use it is.

“Moral grandstanding” and “virtue signaling” are slurs. They are variations on the charge of being “woke”, “politically correct,” etc., going at least as far back as Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay on “radical chic” (celebrities support radical causes, but insincerely, he said, just because it’s fashionable) – and maybe all the way back to the Gospels, where the other disciples were always accusing Peter of being “holier than thou.” These are all ad hominems, attacking the person, not the argument or cause. And despite what Warmke and Tosi claim (that one can be grandstanding while perfectly sincere), all of these are really ways of calling the other person out as some kind of hypocrite. Maybe, moral grandstanding is less disingenuous than some kinds of hypocrisy (if grandstanders do, in fact, believe most of what they are saying). But it must be that, at a minimum, grandstanders don’t mean it as much as they are signaling they mean it, or there’s nothing left to the concept at all. Certainly, nothing to be angry about.

Does accusing others of moral grandstanding inherently have a certain political valence? I don’t know about “inherently,” but consider a real-life case and then a hypothetical.

How did moral grandstanding make the pandemic worse? According to Grubbs moral grandstanding seeks domination that stokes “narcissistic antagonism” and leads, roughly, to people refusing to wear masks or social distance because, as Politco, put it, “the left has been almost uniformly — and loudly” in favor of masks. In plainer language, moral grandstanding made the pandemic worse because it meant the anti-left had to not wear masks to show the grandstanding left…something… Never mind whether the right has a reasonable argument against wearing masks or not. In almost the Platonic Ideal of dysfunctional media “bothsiderism,” the Politico headline is “Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans.” You see, liberals are wrong for being showy and self-satisfied, whereas Republicans are wrong for unnecessarily spreading a plague that has killed more than a million people in the US alone and is still on-going – partly because so many people refused to wear masks. Both sides do it!

Or consider this hypothetical from (the always worth reading) John Quiggin (see, Zombie Economics and Economics in Two Lessons). Which of the following is most likely to get called out for virtue signaling or grandstanding? Displaying a rainbow flag or wearing a MAGA hat? While I am sure you have heard people say negative things about MAGA hat wearers, I bet you have never once heard a single person call them moral grandstanders.

Quiggin’s says that one reason virtue signaling, and by extension, I would say, moral grandstanding, exists is that “hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. By contrast, ‘virtue signaling’ is an insinuation rather than a factual claim.” If “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice returns to virtue,” as François de La Rochefoucauld said, “The accusation of virtue signaling [or moral grandstanding] is vice refusing to pay its tribute,” as Quiggin puts it.

How bad is hypocrisy, anyway? Suppose I publicly support gay marriage, but no longer speak to a former friend because he married another man. That seems better than, not speaking to him and publicly opposing gay marriage, doesn’t it? On the other hand, suppose I publicly condemn gay marriage, while concealing the fact that I have close friends, who I count as equals, that are in such marriages with my blessing. Hypocritical, sure, but it doesn’t seem worse to me than not having such friends – openly or not.

Yet, “hypocrisy” has been the defining sin of modernity. We explain away other sins, Judith Shklar argued, but “not hypocrisy, which alone is now inexcusable.” But why should that be? Especially, if it’s true, as the cases above suggest that, at least sometimes, it’s better to be a hypocrite than not? Consider what John Rawls calls the “fact of reasonable pluralism.”

People disagree. Especially on the most fundamental matters. And not always from ignorance or bad faith. People reasonably disagree because the evidence is complex, relevant concepts may be vague, and we may have to make judgments that ultimately reflect our life experiences as a whole which will often be very different than others’.

When you are arguing with people who disagree with you in fundamental ways, about basic material facts, or what ultimately matters in life, one thing you can always still criticize them about, if they give you half a chance, is being a “hypocrite.” You don’t need to be a Catholic or vegan (or in favor of Catholicism or Veganism), to condemn a priest for having sexual relations (even with a consenting adult) or a vegan for eating a cheeseburger. They are hypocrites.

Hypocrisy becomes the defining vice where pluralism is pervasive because authenticity becomes the only universal virtue.

But the truth is, you don’t get very far criticizing people for not living up to the standards they profess.

First of all, we are all hypocrites sometimes. And it’s a good thing too. I pontificate on the virtues of swimming for exercise and tell people I swim a mile a day – even during the times when I actually do not. I talk a lot about the injustice of economic inequality – including to students in my classes. But I have done almost nothing concrete to address the issue in real life. But I think it’s still better to profess these views, and have these aspirational standards and fail to meet them, than not to have any standards at all – or not talk about them unless you always live up them. Arguably, people who have higher standards are apt to always be the biggest hypocrites, since they leave themselves more room to fail. Anyway, as Kant said, “Every action is a new beginning.” One may always yet succeed.

Secondly, the important question behind the question of people living up to the standards they profess is what the standards should be. If you profess to be a “effective altruist”, a socialist, a libertarian, or a Methodist, why should I care the most about, for example, how well you really followed the effective altruist strategy of maximizing your income potential so you can give more away? I care more about questions of economic justice and what to do about economic injustice and, yes, even what your view of economic justice is – much, much more than I care about whether you are living up to your own professed ideals in regard to economic justice.

None of this proves that hypocrisy is never harmful or even worse sometimes than more substantive sins. But I suspect that doing or not doing the things that one should or shouldn’t will tend to be worse than being hypocritical about them. But, I admit, I haven’t proved that.

Still, a conversation about who is living up to their own standards and who isn’t, seems much less productive than arguing about what to do. For example, when celebrities are chastised for professing to care about poverty, but not giving most of their money away, by people who don’t, even in principle, endorse people actually giving away a significant percentage of their money to alleviate poverty, it does not advance the discussion. In fact, on any very demanding account of morality (utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, or Islam), we are all likely to be hypocrites most of the time. That may be a problem for other reasons. Nietzsche thought it was, as do advocates of the “too demanding” objection to utilitarianism. But that aside, what should people who sincerely hold these views do? They can give them up or try, try again.

Moral grandstanding is supposed to be a thing because it allows an important complaint to be lodged against a pervasive and pernicious problem. In fact, moral grandstanding is a just a slur. It exists because it is a lazy, generic, basically irrefutable insinuation that one can apply to anyone without engaging substantively with their arguments. At most, moral grandstanders are hypocritical about their level of enthusiasm for a cause. But given that even more serious forms of hypocrisy are not necessarily as bad as they have been advertised to be, so what?

If you ask me, moral grandstanding should not even be a thing. Not that it shouldn’t exist, like reality television, but that it should not be something we treat as an important, distinct, and cohesive phenomenon, like alternative rock or industrial chic. These are not really, morally or metaphysically, worth treating as categories of “things” at all. There may well be animals “that from a long way off look like flies,” in other words, but this is not a useful enough categorization to keep around. Be wary of those who use it.

As yet unanswered, why does moral grandstanding seem to be mostly something people on the right accuse people on the left of doing? I will leave that question to others.

Post Script for My Mom. I was just kidding, Mom, of course, “Survivor” and “Big Brother” should exist. And, to be clear, I have a favorable opinion of many examples of alt rock, I just don’t think they have anything in common captured by that label – especially, at this point.