Why reporting virtue isn’t the same as virtue – it actually reinforces partisan division

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(THE CONVERSATION) In a July 23, 2022 speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, Senator Ted Cruz introduced himself to the public as follows: “My name is Ted Cruz and my pronoun is kiss my ass. ”

In 2019, the Vermont College of Fine Arts brought in another group. They replaced the term alumni – which is derived from the Latin masculine plural but traditionally used to refer to all school graduates – with alumnx. In its statement, the college said moving away from the traditional term ‘alumni’ was “a clear step towards exercising more intentional language, which we strive to implement in all aspects of life. university”.

These statements are of course very different. One is explicitly inclusive, designed to demonstrate that all school graduates, regardless of gender, are included and respected. The other grossly disparages the very attitudes expressed in the second example.

But for all their differences, the two are examples of what has come to be called “virtue signaling” – an act that implicitly claims that the speaker has made a decision on an important moral issue and wants to signal to others where they descend.

Although some might call the use of the phrase “kiss my ass” far removed from any notion of virtue, and more correctly understood as a “signal of vice”, as a scholar of ethics and politics, I contend that these two statements operate in the sense in precisely the same way – and that is the problem.

Signaling Virtue Alone Is Insufficient

Virtues are really just agreements between 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, such an agreement is to talk about it.

This is what virtue signaling does. It helps any group to remember and reflect on what gives the group its identity. So while the term virtue signaling is relatively new, the practice is as old as morality itself.

But as useful as it is, signaling virtue is much less demanding and much less constructive than virtue itself. Unless the former is matched with the latter – that is, unless words are matched with actions – mere reporting is insufficient.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is widely regarded as one of the earliest, and still one of the most important, virtue theorists. He maintained that becoming a virtuous person is a dignified but arduous process, requiring maturity, discipline and constant repetition.

“Men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Likewise, we become righteous through the practice of righteous actions, mastered through the exercise of self-control, and courageous through performing acts of courage,” he wrote.

Virtuous flaggers are often prone to praise themselves for their moral insight and courage. Aristotle saw exactly the same thing. He observed that many believe that “by taking refuge in argumentation” they can become ethical. But Aristotle knew that this refuge was not working: talking about virtue is useful – after all, this discussion comes from Aristotle’s book on ethics – but real virtue takes work. It is much more demanding and therefore much more difficult to simulate.

Who is reported?

But there’s another question that speaks to the problem with virtue signaling right now: who is it signaled to?

Consider the two examples above. Cruz received a standing ovation immediately after those words. This is not at all surprising, because there was hardly anyone who disagreed with his signal and who did not already consider themselves the most moral group of Americans. Moreover, Cruz’s words were meant to alienate the other side of the partisan divide, downplaying them, and dismissing them as part of the conversation.

Vermont College of Fine Arts’ language isn’t quite as inflammatory, but that statement might also be considered dismissive by anyone who might insist that alumni has been a benign word for millennia, or that it’s already gender neutral. term, or who believes that inventing new words is both ineffective and infuriating.

These two examples show what is often the case: the “signal” in virtue signaling is designed to communicate specifically with a partisan tribe and to assert the moral superiority of that group. This result is particularly unwelcome, since the United States is already sufficiently divided.

A June 2022 poll found that a majority of Americans – 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans – thought 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 there will be a civil war in the United States”.

Virtue signals to a partisan tribe do nothing to lessen 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 should also allow for disagreements and productive discussions on differing viewpoints. Yet virtue signaling undermines all of this.

Lincoln’s Call to Virtue

Those who worry about the deep division in American society would do well to remember Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Given shortly before the end of the American Civil War – perhaps the only time American society was more polarized than it is now – Lincoln insisted that Americans strive to have a very democratic understanding of the virtue of charity.

Lincoln called on Americans to undertake the difficult task of reuniting their torn society “without malice to any, with charity to all”.

With the end of the war, charity meant looking after the widow and the orphan, the disabled veteran and the worker whose business was destroyed.

But Lincoln went further: the charity was “for all”. In a democracy, this means adopting the posture that like me, my opponent is a person of good will and worthy of my benefit of the doubt. And by extending this 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, she rejects such an idea. There’s certainly nothing charitable about Ted Cruz’s statement. And even the ostensibly inclusive statement from the Vermont College of Fine Arts makes it all too easy to slander those not enlightened enough to follow.

Lincoln called for charity between two parties who had been killing each other for four long years. He understood the difficulty associated with such a task, but he also saw its value. This same understanding would also be valuable to American society today.

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