Not only have I never considered myself overburdened with virtues worth signalling, but if I were I would generally prefer to keep them quiet.

Robert Shrimsley

Virtue signalers grandstand, essentially saying: look at me, I'm moral. They do this without actually making a difference. They're more concerned with looking moral than being moral. It's the practice of publicly expressing moral or political beliefs in order to show one's good character.

A lot of people think that virtue signaling, at least the cheap kind, is bad. Here's one of the best examples from a few weeks ago from Geoffrey Miller:

There are annoying individuals who don't care about racial equality or climate change at all, but are quick to take sanctimonious positions for the sake of self-interest. But on the whole, I think the norm of people cheaply communicating that they care about something is be good. We shouldn't expect that people know what methane clathrate is in order to advocate for climate change.

People do virtue signal. Recent examples of this are:

  • Donations: I just donated Y. Please join me.
  • Wearing masks during the COVID pandemic: I care about your safety, which is why I'm wearing a mask.
  • Changing one's social media profile picture to a mask, blackout, etc.

Many people don't have strong views about whether their donations are effective. And they're just wearing masks because the CDC changed their mind and now said that it's something that people should do.

If Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler are right, then most behavior concerning morality is going to amount to signaling. The general form of an argument for this kind of view is stated by Michael Huemer:

Very few people care very much about social justice, the good of society, and the like. Nearly everyone cares about these things a little bit, and a few people care about them a great deal. But most of those who think of themselves as deeply moved by high ideals are not in fact so moved.

...I suggest that these individuals are chiefly moved, not by a desire for some noble ideal, but by a desire to perceive themselves as working for the noble ideal–not, for example, by a desire for justice, but by a desire to see themselves as promoting justice.... If people are seeking high ideals such as justice or the good of society, then they will work hard at figuring out what in fact promotes those ideals and will seek out information to correct any errors in their assumptions about what promotes their ideals, since mistaken beliefs on this score could lead to all of their efforts being wasted...

But people don't do this. If people really cared a lot about doing good via charity then they'd do more when it came to validating which charities were good. If people really a lot about giving people solid healthcare, they'd research which hospitals were better and which treatments work. If they cared about improving the world through politics, then they'd know econ 101. They don't. This means that we end up with ineffective charities, second-rate hospitals, and even worse politics.

This argument ends up giving teeth to Miller's hyperbolic take:

Excited, but off base.

Two things make virtue signaling good:

  • It communicates social norms.
  • It encourages others to virtue signal.

You can see how signaling communicates social norms norms in the most recent black lives matter social media activism. From posts to profile picture changes, people communicated their political and moral views -- views they expected others to uphold. Sure, there's a sense in which these things don't do as much as you'd like if you're in favor of black lives matter.

But importantly, they communicate what people value. And these actions aren't without cost. People lose friends and followers, friends are a source of meaning and followers are currency (well, perhaps few people lose friends). Moreover, by communicating what they value, they're opening themselves up to critique. We see this in the silicon valley case, if you support black lives matter how come none of your portfolio companies have black founders?

Cheap displays are worth about as much as they cost. If they're too cheap, people will tend to get called out. But even cheap displays of virtue communicate norms.

Virtue signaling motivates action. If it ripples across a community, it can cause a lot of good to be done. More money is given, more masks are worn, and more political pressure is applied. I've seen a lot of people publicly offer their time to those who are struggling during the quarantine. Maybe they do this in public to get praise, but they also do it so that people will reach out to them. At first a handful of people did this and then it caught on and many more did.

My general sense is that this kind of behavior is underrated. On the margin, it would be better to have more of it, not less.