In a speech on July 23, 2022, before the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced himself to the audience with the words, “My name is Ted Cruz and my pronoun is kiss my ass.”
In 2019, the Vermont College of Fine Arts appealed to a different group. They replaced the term alumni – which is derived from the Latin masculine plural but traditionally used to refer to all graduates of the school – with alumnx. In its statement, the college said that dropping the traditional term “alumni” was “a clear step toward exercising more intentional language, which we strive to implement in all aspects of college life.”
These statements are very different, of course. One is explicitly inclusive, designed to demonstrate that everyone who graduated from the school, irrespective of their gender, is included and respected. The other crudely denigrates the very attitudes expressed in the second example.
But for all their differences, both are examples of what has come to be called “virtue signaling” – an act that implicitly claims that the speaker has made a determination about some important moral question and wants to signal to others where they come down.
Even though some might call the use of the phrase “kiss my ass” far from any notion of virtue, and more correctly understood as “vice signaling,” as a scholar of ethics and politics I argue that both of these statements operate in precisely the same way – and that is the problem.
Virtue signaling alone is insufficient
Virtues are really just agreements among the members of any group about what is important, valuable and what group members can expect from each other. This is as true for motorcycle gangs as it is for monasteries. And the only way to establish and maintain, let alone modify or improve, any such agreement is by talking about it.
That’s what virtue signaling does. It helps any group recall and reflect on what it is that gives the group its identity. Thus, while the term virtue signaling may be relatively new, the practice is as old as morality itself.
But useful though it may be, virtue signaling is far less demanding, and far less constructive, than virtue itself. Unless the former is matched with the latter – that is, unless words are matched with actions – mere signaling is insufficient.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is widely regarded as one of the first, and still one of the most important, virtue theorists. He argued that becoming a virtuous person is a worthy but arduous process, requiring maturity, discipline and constant repetition.
“Men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage,” he wrote.
Virtue signalers are often inclined to pat themselves on the back for their moral insight and courage. Aristotle saw the very same thing. He observed that many think that “by taking refuge in argument” they can become ethical. But Aristotle knew that this refuge doesn’t work: talking about virtue is useful – after all, this discussion comes from Aristotle’s book on ethics – but real virtue requires work. It is far more demanding and thus far harder to fake.
Who is being signaled?
But there is another question that speaks to the problem with virtue signaling right now: Who is being signaled to?
Consider again the two examples above. Cruz got a standing ovation immediately after these words. That is not at all surprising, for there was hardly anyone who did not agree with his signal and who did not already understand themselves to be the more moral group of Americans. What’s more, Cruz’s words were designed to alienate the other side of the partisan division, to belittle and reject them as part of the conversation.
The language of the Vermont College of Fine Arts is not nearly as inflammatory, but that statement, as well, could be viewed as dismissive by anyone who might insist that alumni has been a benign word for millennia, or that it is already a gender neutral term, or who believes that making up new words is as ineffectual as it is exasperating.
These two examples show what is frequently the case: The “signal” in virtue signaling is designed to communicate specifically to one partisan tribe and to affirm that group’s moral superiority. That outcome is particularly unwelcome, for the U.S. is divided enough already.
A June 2022 poll found that a majority of Americans – 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans – believed it was “likely” that the United States would “cease to be a democracy in the future.” Another survey conducted around the same time by the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program found that half of all Americans agreed that “in the next few years, there will be civil war in the United States.”
Virtue signals to one partisan tribe do nothing to diminish this division and likely exacerbate it. As researchers Scott Hill and Renaud-Philippe Garner conclude in their 2021 paper, “Human societies require people who disagree to cooperate and trust each other. They must also allow for disagreement and productive discussion of competing views. Yet, virtue signaling undermines all of this.”
Lincoln’s call for virtue
Those concerned about the deep divide in American society would be wise to recall Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Given shortly before the end of the American Civil War – perhaps the one time when American society was more polarized than it is now – Lincoln insisted that Americans strive for a very democratic understanding of the virtue of charity.
Lincoln called Americans to take up the difficult task of reuniting their riven society “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
With the end of the war, charity meant caring for the widow and orphan, the disabled veteran and the worker whose business was destroyed.
But Lincoln went further: Charity was “for all.” In a democracy, that means adopting the posture that like me, my opponent is a person of goodwill and worthy of my benefit of the doubt. And by extending that charity to all, charity reinforces democratic equality: All citizens should both give and expect to receive this benefit.
Since virtue signaling so often only serves one partisan tribe, it spurns any such idea. Certainly there is nothing remotely charitable about Ted Cruz’s statement. And even the ostensibly inclusive statement by the Vermont College of Fine Arts makes it all too easy to malign those who aren’t enlightened enough to go along.
Lincoln called for charity between two sides who had been killing each other for four long years. He well understood the difficulty associated with such a task, but he saw the value, as well. That same understanding would be valuable to American society today, as well.