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Virtue Signaling is the Opposite of Virtue

On April 12, the attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, said that North Carolina will remain on the list of states to which California employees may not travel using state money. The reason for the ban is simple: California wants you to know how virtuous it is. In other words, the state is virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling is nothing new. In the sixth chapter of Matthew, Jesus speaks of how hypocrites ensure that everyone knows they are fasting, or praying, or giving alms. Rather than doing these things to please God, or to help the poor, they do these things only so that others may see them and think well of them.

It is a fundamental principle of human existence that we want others to think well of us, despite the fact that it can become a great temptation to pride. And, in reasonable measure, we should care what others think about us. If those we know to be good and holy people think well of us, then perhaps we can believe we are doing what is good and holy. And setting a good example can lead others to good acts. This would be truly virtuous.

True virtue is usually characterized by three traits: 1) it is done quietly, without drawing attention; 2) it is done in harmony with reason and natural law, and 3) it is outward-looking, being directed either toward helping others or toward God.

Virtue signaling, on the other hand, stands these principles on their heads. The best virtue signaling has three distinct characteristics: 1) it must be readily visible; 2) it is unreasonable; 3) it does not help many people.

This is the essential condition of virtue signaling. If others can’t see the signal, how can they think more highly of the virtue behind it?

In 2011, the economists behind Freakonomics ran a story about the research of Steve and Alison Sexton. They wondered why it was that the Toyota Prius was designed to be such a distinctive-looking automobile. As it turns out, the unique look was no accident. The Sextons found that, in particularly conservation-conscious areas of the country, people were willing to pay as much as $4200 more for a recognizably “green” car.

Unfortunately for the masses, buying a Prius is a very expensive way of showing others how much you care. Fortunately for the masses, there’s an even better—and free—way to signal virtue. It’s called Facebook.

Read more at Crisis Magazine. 

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