Virtue Signalling, Ancient and Modern

  • April 30, 2022
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Reprinted from Law & Liberty

Virtue signalling is a new term for an old concept. One puts on a display that costs him nothing. It earns him praise—or wards off rebuke—as ostentation replaces actual possession of the virtue and affectation takes the form of self-sacrifice. Its appeal lies in an easy payoff for little work. Thus, virtue signalling functions as a new—and more cynical—form of boasting. Traditional boasting about one’s beauty or riches appears self-centered and vain, whereas showing off how much one contributes to the common good—lowering one’s carbon footprint, appearing to help BIPOC, or voicing concern for the Developing World—makes one appear more virtuous.

But real virtue is silent. It is not something we self-attribute but a trait of character recognized by others. Aristotle argued that virtue is a habit, a disposition to behave in the right manner. And habits don’t need to be signaled; they flow naturally from one’s normal moral life.

Virtue signalling is thus the opposite of real virtue. Whereas becoming virtuous depends on the humbling experience of recognizing our own faults, virtue signalling is a way of pointing at others’ faults and flaunting our superiority. It is a political act: a way of stating not just that I am doing something good, but that this is what “we” as a “society” need to be doing.

The use of murky concepts—such as “society” or humanity”—is a necessary part of the virtue signalling discourse. The concepts are vague so that they can be employed as necessary to praise or censure any group of people at any given moment. This flexibility and obscurity are essential: since no human is unequivocally good or evil, the virtue signaler can always point to something he is doing in the service of humanity and he can always identify some shortcoming in his enemies. He thereby can simultaneously claim credit for himself and hold someone else accountable. Personal responsibility is eroded.

These concepts are therefore counterproductive for those who actually wish to deal with problems in society. For one, since there will always be holdouts against majority opinion in a liberal country, it is difficult to gauge whether “society” is in fact improving or not. Moreover, the use of vague abstract concepts that we don’t deal with in our day-to-day experience—“society” or humanity”—is the perfect way of pointing to problems without actually tackling them. In The Brothers Karamazov one of Dostoyevsky’s characters says, “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.” After all, humanity doesn’t bother us, it doesn’t leave its grass uncut, it doesn’t play loud music while we’re trying to take a nap. It is easy to love humanity in the abstract because we don’t need to interact with it.

This would be a damning enough indictment of the virtue signaler if he were actually interested in solving problems. But he is not. He seeks instead to raise awareness about problems—and especially to spread awareness that he appears concerned about problems. He speaks the transformative language of the Marxist without actually wishing to effect revolutionary change. Marx wrote that “[p]hilosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The virtue signaler seeks neither to interpret nor to change the world; for the world is a stage on which he parades his self-absorption and performative justice. If problems were actually solved, the virtue signaler would lose his right to boast. Similarly, if no one paid attention to the virtue signaler, he would lose his incentive to boast. Virtue signalling then is a selfie with altruism appended, an act of boasting with political consequences. All the more dangerous for the body politic, since it requires participation and acknowledgment from others. What is the result? Prosecutorial frenzy.

Enter Cornelius Tacitus, the great Roman historian, whose uncompromising realism and analysis of politics and “the mockeries made of mortal affairs in every activity” earned him high praise from Montesquieu, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Extraordinarily allergic to sycophancy, vanity, and hypocrisy, Tacitus was exposed to all three as he cut his political teeth under the Flavian dynasty. When he came to write his Histories and Annals, he was living under the peaceful reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. But looking back on history he must have seen in the prosecutorial frenzy under Tiberius and Nero certain similarities to the fifteen years he spent in the cursus honorum under Domitian.

Familiar to those living under totalitarian regimes—or cancel culture—is the tendency to up the ante and actively prosecute those who do not contribute to the chorus of virtue signalling. Sundry reasons attend: when everyone spends their time boasting about how great they are, they need someone to blame. Unacknowledged vanity stands awkwardly in a crowd. And virtue is most resplendent when set against vice. The vain virtue signaler must go on the offensive. He must expose those who are vicious—or those who appear insufficiently virtuous. But what prevents him from becoming the next target? The virtue signaler’s position is precarious and he comes to realize that the best defense is a good offense. Regardless of the issue, from greenwashing to #metoo, it is easier not to be attacked when one adds his voice to the great chorus of virtue signalers. Virtue signalling and cancel culture are two sides of the same coin.

This form of virtue scapegoating was not foreign to the ancient Romans. Prosecution of a high-level figure had always been an effective method of winning friends (and enemies) for an up-and-coming advocate. It’s no wonder that a mature Cicero, writing some 150 years before Tacitus, should declare that greater glory goes to the defense advocate. But as Tacitus illustrates in his Annals, the trials under Tiberius were different—they were treason trials, begun already under Augustus. The prosecutor could claim that he was upholding the safety and security of the emperor and the state—much as the virtue signaler of today claims to be serving society or humanity—and so it became ever more common for senators to prosecute each other for treason.

False prosecutions were common, and “public hatred made [the prosecutor] increasingly more secure. Each accuser, the more exposed he was, was as if sacrosanct; it was the lightweight, the ignoble who had punishments inflicted on them.” So bad had it become, writes Tacitus, that “[a]t no other time was the community more tense and panicked, behaving most cautiously of all toward those closest to them: encounters, dialogues, familiar and unfamiliar ears were avoided; even dumb and inanimate objects such as a roof and walls were treated with circumspection.” Virtue scapegoating instigated a crisis where nobody could trust anyone and the burden of proof fell upon the accused.

But what is the solution to the scapegoating stance? Against the plethora of senators hypocritical, superficial, and vain, whom does Tacitus hold up as a model of behavior? He gives us an idea at the end of his Agricola: “Let those whose custom it is to admire actions that are forbidden know that great men can exist even under bad emperors; and allegiance and moderation, if hard work and vigorous action are added, can reach the same level of renown that many have reached by dangerous paths, but they became famous by an ostentatious death, with no advantage to the state.”

His father-in-law Agricola was an example of an industrious and good man who kept his head down, did his duty, and received his just fame through the writings of his equally industrious and good son-in-law. Another was Marcus Lepidus, born of a distinguished family, celebrated by Tacitus for his moderation and wisdom. Considered by Augustus to be capable of ruling, he seems to be one of the few who avoided the wrath of both the emperor and his fellow senators.

The historian’s admiration for Agricola and Marcus Lepidus was only partially motivated by what they had achieved. In point of fact, while Agricola encountered some success in Britain, Marcus Lepidus’ achievements were minor. According to Tacitus, Agricola and Marcus Lepidus were great because glory was not their main priority. In this, they differ even from such a glorious figure as the stoic Thrasea Paetus, who commits all of his virtuous actions—including his suicide—with more than half an eye to the glory that he will receive.

Agricola’s and Marcus Lepidus’ glory was quieter. They lived under bad emperors and yet they were still able to do good. They did not need to appear moderate because they were moderate. They were exactly the kind of people whom historians—and especially those caught up in the ephemeral—tend to dismiss and forget. And our age is nothing if not an ephemeral age. Tacitus is therefore remembering these men for our benefit. Otherwise, we would never know that such people existed and can exist in troubled times. They are the models we need, especially now, when we care excessively about fame and recognition, when we idolize the superficial, when we talk too much.

And because we—the intellectuals—talk too much, we might find the taciturn historian’s judgment particularly unsettling. He would have hardly been surprised, for he knew that “even philosophers find that the last frailty to be shed is a longing for glory.” The problem Tacitus espied under the principate bedevils us in our modern democracies as well, since we pride ourselves on talking, making a spectacle of our opinions, and being “on the right side of history.” What Tacitus shows us is that “the right side of history” usually belongs to those who don’t insist on being a part of it. Instead, “energy, hard work, and reverence for posterity.” Devotion to a task greater than oneself.

And done diligently and quietly. Silence speaks volumes.

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