Worry About Piety Contests, Not ‘Virtue Signaling’
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Worry About Piety Contests, Not ‘Virtue Signaling’

Originally published on quillette.com »

To accuse someone of virtue signaling usually means something like, “you don’t actually believe this, you’re just posturing”. There are real and troubling aspects of moral posturing, but “virtue signaling” is a misnomer. Instead, by exploring how the process of internalizing genuine virtue can go wrong, I’d like to suggest the term piety contest, which – in addition to being a better description of the actual problem – also suggests ways to combat the problem.

Virtue Signaling Isn’t Signaling

The term signaling comes from biology, where it describes sexual selection, among other things. If you (a peahen) care about qualities in your mate that you can’t directly observe – something like general health or lack of parasites – then peacocks can signal their fitness to you through something observable, say, an ostentatious tail, or an elaborate mating dance. Indeed, the peacock seems to perfectly epitomize posturing for personal benefits, like mates, or group status more broadly.

There are two problems, however, with using “virtue signaling” to call out moral posturing. First, as the term is used in biology and economics, signals are credible because they cost something. It’s a lot harder for a parasite-ridden peacock to maintain a lustrous tail. So the signal isn’t just posturing; it actually conveys real information.

So-called virtue signaling, on the other hand, is usually costless, or nearly so. It doesn’t take a lot of virtue to tweet at the president, or (for a big corporation) to issue a press release reiterating a commitment to diversity. For this reason, costless signals aren’t credible, and don’t convey real information. The term for this, from economics this time, would be cheap talk.

Still, everyday usage doesn’t necessarily need to conform to scientific usage, and anyway, “virtue cheap talk” is a bit clunkier than “virtue signaling”. The more important problem is that, in addition to getting signaling wrong, it also gets virtue wrong.

Virtue Signaling is Necessary

The fact that humans are nearly universally creatures of morality shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that moral behavior is something of a puzzle. How is it that humans are not only willing, but in many cases eager to bear costs that don’t provide them with any foreseeable benefit?

It’s not just the threat of punishment. Nobody punishes you for failing to bring a meal to your sick neighbor. And yet, acts of generosity like that are extremely common and universal to human societies.

And it’s not just social status either. Indeed, stories of martyrdom in some form or another are common enough that we hardly question the motivation. And yet, the martyr – by definition – is losing status (and maybe his life) for a cause he believes in. Nor is it simply a matter of being martyred by an outgroup for status with an ingroup. There are people genuinely willing to buck their own group for the sake of a cherished belief.

As a working definition of genuine virtue, then, let’s call it: the willingness to bear physical or social costs for the sake of something you believe in, with the caveat that the genuineness of someone’s belief doesn’t necessarily imply the goodness of that belief.

So posturing for status or conformity doesn’t explain virtue, at least not as a motive for virtue at a single point in time. But it does explain the development of virtue over time.

Any genuine virtue will have to start out as posturing. People don’t automatically start to care about high ideals as they grow up, but they do invariably start to care about what others think of them. They have to have a sense that high ideals are something people reward you for having. It’s only after a stage of posturing that norms and high ideals are internalized, when acting virtuously becomes habitual and second-nature. Only then can they become a motive force for genuine virtue.

This point has been understood at least since St. Augustine, who wrote at length about the necessity of cultivating virtuous habits. More recently, C.S. Lewis argued,

Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.

“Virtue signaling”, therefore, is a necessary step on the way to actual virtue. You first comply with a norm to indicate conformity and to gain standing in a group, and only later does this become habitual enough that you see the norm as an end in itself. And this is true for any deeply held belief. Someone who never virtue signals, in other words, will never be virtuous, by anyone’s definition.

“Virtue signaling” has become a powerful epithet for two related psychological reasons. First, it’s difficult for people to imagine having internalized norms other than the ones they in fact did, so inauthenticity explains disagreement. Second – and perhaps more cynically – it’s easier to discredit someone by arguing “you’re inauthentic” rather than “you’re wrong”. Much the same applies to other authenticity-related epithets, such as the recent bluster over “dark money”. If I can’t imagine internalizing your norms, well, you must be getting paid to espouse them!

But there is danger in the preoccupation with authenticity over virtue. If we disparage virtue signaling, we disparage virtue itself. Knavery, after all, is quite often more “authentic” than virtue, and we must not give the knave a pass simply because he makes no pretensions to virtue.

Piety Contests are Dangerous

All that being said, the fact that virtue signaling is necessary for moral development doesn’t mean we ought to praise every instance of posturing. On one level, there is an important and vast debate to be had about which norms are useful or harmful to internalize, and how we ought to judge that question. And yet, even without getting our hands dirty with that question, there still seems to be something pathological about the recent amplification of progressive cheap talk, separate from the question of its rightness or wrongness – something that smells inauthentic, even if inauthenticity by itself isn’t something we ought to condemn.

That something, I submit, is the dynamic of the piety contest. (The term “purity spiral” seems more common now, though I think piety contest is a better description of the actual process)

The piety contest works like this: Imagine a sacred value. Now imagine a community in which competing statements are judged on the basis, not of their rightness or wrongness, or coherence, or other human values, but of how adulatory they are toward that sacred value. On top of that, there’s some sort of punishment for getting out-pioused. The result is fundamentalism of a sort, in the sense that this sacred value ends up trumping all other values such as workability, or truth, or coherence, or humanity.

Piety contests abound, and wreak havoc to the extent that the punishment is effective. In the early 2000s there was a “patriotism contest” in the U.S. over who could speak the worst of terrorists, leading to nonsensical statements like “terrorists are cowards”. The punishment here seems to have been limited to some mild haranguing by intemperate right-wingers, but even so, it provided cover for some major foreign policy blunders. In turn, that contest was itself instigated by another contest whose parameters are something like “who can defend the sanctity of the Prophet most strongly?” Because the punishment here is that you get killed, it’s been able to spiral into homicidal crusades against those who so much as depict him. When the penalty for losing the piety contest is death, it’s no wonder that liberal norms lose out to “behead all those who insult the prophet“.

In the case of the progressives accused of virtue signalling, the objective function seems to be something like, “who can be the most inclusive?” – which in practice devolves into “who can be the most obsequious toward favored groups?”1 Naturally this leads to absurdities, like the idea that science is a tool of white oppression (math too!), or the weird ritual of public self-debasing on Twitter, or the idea that group-level differences can be entirely explained by discrimination despite theirpersistencein theface ofwaning discrimination. And as Lindsey Shepherd became the most recent to discover, the punishment for losing the contest can be quite stiff.

Piety Contests are Avoidable

Being able to identify a piety contest in progress is probably a good way to know what communities to avoid being a part of and which norms to avoid adopting. From the outside, it looks like inauthenticity because the norms move too quickly for the internalization process to keep up, so anyone arguing the bleeding edge of a piety contest is probably still at the point where they’re doing it mainly to signal conformity or maintain standing. But that’s not the problem with it. Everyone will (or should) at some point find himself in the process of internalizing new norms. And just as it would be foolish to throw out virtue in the course of countering certain pieties, it would also be foolish to conclude that we would be better off without myths, sacredness, and piety at all.

The problem, rather, is that you can’t decide whether a statement is acceptable based on a single sacred criterion. Fundamentalism in this sense is part and parcel with the piety contest. No matter what your foundational principle, if you have only one, there will be bullets you have to bite.

In the end, therefore, the only defense against piety contests that doesn’t also discard an important part of being human seems to be: cultivating a multiplicity of irreducible sacred values. This gives the moral community a vantage point from which to evaluate the consequences of each norm against something else external to it. Christianity, for example, is filled with pairs of concepts that orthodoxy holds “in tension”: trinity and unity, free will and predestination, grace and works, and so on. Indeed, heresy has been defined as emphasizing one element of one of these pairs at the expense of the other, and throughout Christianity’s history it has been heretical movements of just this sort that have been filled with the fervent zeal of the piety contest. “Tension” might frustrate the rationalist (which is to say, reductionist) modern who drives for consistency above all, but irreducible pairs like this serve a prophylactic function in preventing ideologically (and often physically) destructive piety contests.

Even outside of the religious context, modern Western moral philosophy has tried to transplant the success of science – where reductionism has proven powerful and useful – across the is/ought gap and into the normative realm. Rather than the four cardinal virtues of ancient moral philosophy, we have a number of philosophies competing to reduce everything to a single ur-virtue, such as happiness (utilitarianism), or equality (socialism), or self-love (objectivism), and so on. With no defenses against piety contests, indeed with a positive endorsement of fundamentalism in principle, it’s no wonder that the reductionist bent of Western education seems to produce the most virulent Islamism.

To return again to C.S. Lewis, he once remarked that the problem with hedonism is that “our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” Similarly, the problem with piety contests is not too strong a sense of the sacred, but too weak. We must be careful of clearing away sacred values, lest they be replaced with dangerous fast-growth pieties that can metastasize without competition.

The answer is not traditionalism for its own sake – a ship which has, in any event, more than likely already sailed. Which may be just as well: while many traditional norm-complexes had at least the virtue of stability, I don’t hesitate to call modernity the greatest accomplishment of human history. Nevertheless, as we sail into yet another one of its paroxysms of legitimacy, it would be wise to appreciate what exactly we have departed from in the modern era, in order that we may not dissipate its accomplishments. Reasserting a multitude of virtues, and resisting the impulse to reduce them all to one, will be an important defense against piety contests from all quarters.


  1. It’s tempting to think the rule is a more general “whoever can make the strongest case for having been victimized the most wins“. But, alas, there are rules for who gets to be a victim in the first place.


ChristianityNormsPhilosophyVirtueC.S. Lewis


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  • 1

    Lorenzo from Oz

    Nov 03, 2017 at 22:21 | Reply

    Excellent post, which has changed my use of terminology, thank you.

  • 2

    David Chennells @BeatConfusion

    Dec 12, 2017 at 9:41 | Reply

    Intriguing, well-written and concise piece. Just three brief comments.

    First, we need to distinguish between the private realm, in which the cultivation of virtues within specific mythological traditions is protected and possibly valuable, and the public (e.g. political and legal) realms, in which justifications need to rest on more generic grounds. I may be a Evangelical Christian judge or legislator, but if I justify my public decisions on the explicit grounds that Jesus said so and It Is Written, then I have deprived those decisions of legitimacy for large portions of the population subject to them within modern, polyglot societies.

    Second, it’s an empirical question, not a philosophical or evolutionary-psychological one, to what extent Sacred Value Sets® give rise to thriving and just modern societies. One could operationalize and measure it. Independent variable: average weekly hours youth spend sitting in Sunday school/Mosque/Communist Youth/Torah indoctrination classes. Dependent variables: rate and trend of criminal and political violence, GDP growth, and employment rate. (And good luck with that.)

    Third, I’m personally drawn to your concept of the irreducible tension among various legitimate competing values. And from that I deduce the need for open competition among speakers who, individually, may be less than balanced in the virtues to which they hew but, collectively, are much more likely to capture the diverse range of basic considerations. In the end, it is that general type of abstract calculus, not any hairy mythological commitment, that firmly anchors for me and for many actual historical classical liberals the fundamental commitment to free expression and pluralism.

  • 3


    Dec 12, 2017 at 10:03 | Reply

    “Being able to identify a piety contest in progress is probably a good way to know what communities to avoid being a part of” – or, if you’re of a marginally more robust sensibility and see polarization as something to be challenged, which communities to engage with in debate, perhaps?

    • 3.1

      Oss Ickle

      Dec 13, 2017 at 17:35

      Luke, I think the thought is that those engaged in piety contests are essentially unreachable, and thus that even people with robust sensibilities who’d like to challenge polarization would be wasting their time.

      Granted, that’s a pretty strong belief to hold, but I think it’s the premise of that sentence.

    • 3.2

      Cameron Harwick

      Dec 13, 2017 at 18:50

      I actually did have in mind something closer to Luke’s comment. Engaging with a community in dialogue is one thing, and far be it from me to prejudge anyone’s unreachability. But being a part of a community (and therefore accepting the normative premises around which it coordinates) is quite another.

  • 4

    Internet Woman

    Dec 12, 2017 at 10:53 | Reply

    In common parlance (aka Internet shitposting), I think that “virtue signalling” has largely come to imbibe an ironic/pejorative meaning in the same way that “social justice warrior” has; “virtue signalling” is used precisely to describe behaviour that is (a) usually not even virtuous and (b) costs the “signaller” absolutely nothing.

    • 4.1


      Dec 13, 2017 at 18:47

      That’s precisely how I view it too; an empty gesture of kindness.

  • 5

    Alastair Roberts

    Dec 12, 2017 at 11:21 | Reply

    The concept of ‘virtue signalling’ is very closely associated with the world of online communications, which is important to bear in mind. When interacting with people in day-to-day life offline, I am chiefly known by my actions. When I say something, it is read against the background of my actions and generally weighs relatively little when it comes to defining my identity. On the Internet, by contrast, we are in very large measure defined by what we say.

    When I am known chiefly by my actions and these weigh much more than my words, I am much freer to say things that are controversial, knowing that people have a good sense of my character. Words can be much more driven by truth in such a context.

    On the Internet, however, where people are largely defined by their words, the double-aspect of statements becomes more apparent. On the one hand, every statement I make is a statement about its object. On the other hand, however, every statement I make is indirectly a statement about myself, presenting me as the sort of person who holds that viewpoint. It is in the foregrounding of this dimension that virtue signalling lies. In some sense, we are all inescapably virtue-signalling online, but some people do it more purposefully.

    This situation heightens our distrust when people make statements that express highly orthodox sentiments. They may actually believe what they are saying, but we also know that their statements are probably highly beneficial to them when it comes to their personal positioning. When they stand to gain in their reputation, we can become suspicious of how sincere their professed beliefs actually are.

    The foregrounding of the virtue-signalling dimension of speech in online discourse is important to consider in various debates, where the apparent object of our discourse is actually eclipsed by our moral self-positioning. Debates about refugees are a good place to see this. There have been well over ten million displaced persons as a result of war in Syria and Iraq. However, people are massively focused upon whether a fraction of a percent of these people should be able to come to the US and other Western countries, because our identities are deeply invested in this question and our viewpoints on this issue are seen to say something about our moral character. People are remarkably silent on the question of how to serve the rest of the displaced persons, however, perhaps because such considerations offer little in the way of the benefits of moral self-positioning the other question does.

  • 6

    Carl Sageman

    Dec 12, 2017 at 18:50 | Reply

    Overall, a very thoughtful article.
    – Internet Woman is right that the pejorative of virtue signalling is not meant to be taken literally.
    – the article uses word inclusive but I would suggest the people who are guilty of “virtue signalling” are anything but inclusive, they are almost always divisive along the lines of biology (usually white vs. non-white, male vs female).
    – the section on reductionists is ambiguous. I initially read it as being critical of those who call for consistency (eg. If you’re going to promote women in STEM because it’s a male dominated field, promote men in all female dominated fields too – which we know doesn’t happen. I’d rather have neither promoted, but, consistency can be reasoned). However, the article shifts gears into equality (linking “equality of outcome” to communism). I believe this confusion around reductionists is caused by ambiguity of terminology used. Consistency (or logic and reason) is important to anyone who isn’t into postmodernism (see below).

    What particularly works well in this article is the strong link between religious fervor and virtue signalling. The article also downplayed left vs right because it’s ultimately misleading. When it suits, both left and right will play different games (eg. blind acceptance of foreigners vs blind intolerance of foreigners).

    I have a sneaking suspicion that social attitudes toward political correctness/virtue signalling/identity politics may be changing as recently as the last week. Modernism may be in full swing, but, I’m starting to see cracks in the dam of political correctness. Its too early to say for sure, however, several mainstream sites are discussing the extremism of mainstream media/social networking openly in the last week. I’ve never seen that happen on the Internet before. It’s possible that traditionalism (whatever the author was eluding to) may come back in vogue. If so, I may have to revert back to being a progressive.

    For society’s sake, I hope this divisiveness and maliciousness of post modernism is marginalised quickly. To quote Brittanica, “Postmodernism is a contemporary Western philosophical movement characterized by skepticism, subjectivism, relativism, and antirationalism.”.

  • 7

    Grumpy Liberal

    Dec 13, 2017 at 12:17 | Reply

    Excellent piece. Why are all of the most interesting economists at GMU?

  • 8

    Space Heater

    Dec 13, 2017 at 13:55 | Reply

    The author tries to rescue the concept of “genuine virtue” (habitual, internalized virtue) from the smear of “virtue signaling” but he fails to divulge the proper significance of the term. Thus, his attempt to correct the misuse of the term “virtue signaling” obfuscates it anew.

    In popular (and frankly debased) usage the term “virtue signaling” connotes “fake virtue,” such as acts of mere conformity, or acts consciously calculated for selfish net-benefit, or cheap-talk claims of virtue. But when properly used as originally intended the term “virtue signaling” is not an epithet at all, not a jab at craven posturing for brownie points.

    Properly used, the term “virtue signaling” denotes a particular EXPLANATION for “genuine virtue.”

    What the proper use of the term “virtue signaling” dangerously (or disagreeably) illuminates about virtue is this: even the purest, most genuine virtue / altruism can be rooted in naturally selected facultative adaptations which are, like other forms of “costly signaling”, on average more beneficial than costly. Thus the ultimate cause of “genuine virtue” may be biological selfishness.

  • 9


    Dec 13, 2017 at 19:53 | Reply

    Although you maybe right (I think you are1), the term ‘ virtue signalling’ has gotten a specific meaning and is in common use now. That is how language works.
    Note that the cost is not zero, just very small (even if only the time of typing). And it is a signal: “look how good (PC, woke, pious, etc.) I am” . I find it a useful term,.

    • 9.1

      Space Heater

      Dec 14, 2017 at 2:13

      nicky wrote: “the term ‘ virtue signalling’ has gotten a specific meaning and is in common use now. That is how language works….I find it a useful term”

      nicky, there are any number of expressions one can use to criticize people for fake virtue. The technical term “virtue signaling” concisely chunks and elegantly captures a big (“dangerous”) idea and is not easily replaced. Using the term “virtue signaling” as an epithet—accepting the new (popular) meaning of “virtue signaling”—amounts to a net loss in the expressive power of our language.

    • 9.2


      Dec 14, 2017 at 11:54

      Yes, that is so, but my point is that it’s use as an epithet has become so well established that it is futile to fight it. So let us use it, it has acquired a precise meaning.
      There are many fights I gave up in language, language changes.
      E.g.. I gave up on ‘ patriarchy’, which by now only means ‘all what is bad in Western societies’, and has little to do with its original meaning (in fact, the ‘West’ is one of the less -in the original sense- ‘patriarchal’ extant societies we know).
      Or even ‘data’ as a singular, as in “the data is clear…” I gave in.
      I’m still fighting for ‘begging the question’ though, although I fear it is a lost battle too.

  • 10


    Dec 18, 2017 at 12:29 | Reply

    One of the criteria by which people tend to judge that some statement is purely virtue signaling (in the common use not technical use) is when the person a) does not actually do anything about the problem and b) does not seem to care that what he is espousing makes the problem worse.
    a) It has been frequently noted that those who virtue signal (the Left) contribute much less to charity than those they disparage and also tend to do little volunteer work. For example, after hurricane Harvey, those out rescuing people were uniformly conservative working-stiff men, not the elite.
    b) Policies are often pushed by the elites that harm those that supposedly are the reason for the policy. The minimum wage is a classic example but we can also point to the devastation welfare has wreaked on the black family.
    I would add that there is much to be said for silent virtue: the good deeds that one does not tell everyone about, the simple refraining from doing bad things.

    • 10.1


      Dec 19, 2017 at 13:31

      “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

      Matthew 6:3-4

    • 10.2

      Candide III

      Dec 19, 2017 at 14:55

      Also: “Voluntary works besides, over and above, God’s commandments which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety. For by them men do declare that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for His sake than of bounden duty is required: Whereas Christ saith plainly, When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We be unprofitable servants.” (Thirty-Nine Articles)

  • 11


    Dec 23, 2017 at 12:26 | Reply

    I would agree that “piety contest” describes the phenomenon in question better than “virtue signaling.” However the latter has the virtue of being both a verb and a noun, while the former is a noun only. Accusing someone of “virtue signaling” is pithy and concise, while an accusation of, um, “being involved in a piety contest” is kind of clumsy.

    Language matters, so I’m trying to come up with something better, but so far nothing brilliant. He’s trying to win social justice? Chasing purity? Piety flashing? Going for the social justice gold? He’s a piety champ? A social justice pope? A social justice droid? A freaking self-absorbed puritanical moralist? OK, I’m drifting away from the topic at hand now…

  • 12

    John Dickinson

    Dec 24, 2017 at 17:38 | Reply

    I wager that the author is a Christian. There is too much here that smacks of motivated reasoning.

    The concept of a piety contest is similar to that of both virtue signalling and purity spirals, and I’ve no objection to the differences identified in the article. But here’s the rub… “it would … be foolish to conclude that we would be better off without … sacredness … at all.” Really? Tell me of something sacred that we wouldn’t be better off not treating as sacred. Agonisingly valuing something such that we might want to invoke the word sacred, Ok. Actually sacred, no.

    The intractability of the land dispute in the Middle East is a great example of the poison of sacredness. So are the cruel, dogmatic, Catholic, sanctity-of-life based anti-abortion laws of the Irish Republic and elsewhere, the cruel sanctity-of-life based anti-euthanasia laws, and the cruel sanctity-of-life based resistance to stem cell therapy research. The ultimate importance and inviolability of sacredness is the end of discussion, the end of compromise, the end of understanding.

    This is where the religious have to employ motivated reasoning. They can’t drop their sanctity, so they come up with more nonsense – “cultivate a multiplicity of irreducible sacred values” and “pairs of concepts that orthodoxy holds ‘in tension’”.

    Please value what really is valuable in your tradition (I’m writing this in a pub on Christmas Eve. There is karaoke. There are fireworks. Oh God, I miss the quiet sense of anticipation and happy wholesomeness of a traditional Christmas – born of the sense of seasonal hunkering down at the solstice, the emotional warmth of a retreat to home, and the cultural bulwarks against the harsh winter). But please don’t pile more nonsense on your nonsense. Please DO deconstruct the sacred values and reveal them for what they are. Poison.

    • 12.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Dec 24, 2017 at 18:40

      There’s a conceit that some secularists have that religion is some unique mode of knowing that can be invalidated on its form – saying, as you seem to, that “sacred values in general are a problem” rather than “your particular sacred values are a problem”. This is wrong. Everyone has foundational (sacred) values. You can have one or several (and the argument of this piece is that several is better than one); they can be tacit or explicit; but there’s no possibility of having none.

      And since trying to deconstruct foundational values can only be done from the standpoint of other foundational values, trying to do so is likely to lead to one remaining sacred value – which results in exactly the sort of pathologies that you seem to want to avoid.

      You can, of course, argue that your foundational value(s) is/are better than mine. And I’m willing to entertain that. Maybe “life” as such is a poor sacred value for the reasons you mention, at least compared to some alternative. But to say that sacred values *in general* are poison is to misunderstand the preconditions of human knowing and motivation.

      The supernaturalness is not the important aspect here (I think this is what you’re getting at based on your examples). There are benign and harmful values with a supernatural basis, and there are benign and harmful values without. I suspect that what you’re really averse to in looking at the pathologies of sacredness (besides the particulars of the sacred values you mentioned) is not supernaturalness at all, but exactly what I’ve tried to point out: the elevation of a *single* sacred value, whether supernatural or not, which offers no standpoint from which to restrain its excesses.

      You might say that anything other than that doesn’t deserve the name sacred. But then we agree on everything except the semantics.

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