is virtue signalling a sin?

I promise I’ll not make a habit of this, but I have one of those personality types where it is hard to let a conversation go without replaying it in my mind over and over again. It’s not a particularly enjoyable quirk to have – especially as a person who communicates for a living. So indulge me as I (yet again) add some further commentary on the most recent Every Thought Captive Podcast. We have such great conversations on interesting topics that it sometimes leaves me wanting more time to tease out what I think about the issues we discuss.

Last week we talked about “virtue signalling.” Specifically, we asked the question, “Is virtue signalling a sin?” It’s a good question. And given how influential social media has become in our lives, it is an important question.

Before giving my answer, a definition is in order. Here’s the dictionary definition: “Virtue signalling is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.” I like that definition, but I describe virtue signalling in this way: It is to adopt a public posture through word or symbolism for the primary purpose of convincing others of your virtue. Notice the emphasis. The primary purpose of virtue signalling is to bring attention to the self. That doesn’t mean that the action isn’t actually virtuous. It is possible to do the right thing with all of the wrong motivations.

My answer to the question was a simple “yes.” Virtue signalling is a sin. And before you savages go digging through my timeline, let me save you the time by freely admitting that I have been guilty of this sin an embarrassing number of times. It makes no moral sense to discuss a topic dealing with the motivations of a person’s heart without first turning the attention to the only heart that I know – which is my own.

I’ll just give four quick reasons why I believe virtue signalling is a sin:

  1. It is motivated by affirmation not authenticity. In the podcast, we connected the practice of virtue signalling to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 6. Jesus warns, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” I can’t see any real difference between the person who announces his gifts with trumpets and the person who announces his virtue for retweets. It seems that, at least to Jesus, any true virtue that could be demonstrated through the giving of gifts to the poor is undermined and spoiled by the motivation of wanting to receive the attention and praise of men. I’ll put it bluntly. If you are adopting a public posture motivated by a desire for others to judge you to be a “good person” you are sinning. And I am the worst among sinners. Worse yet, this affirmation model of virtue will ultimately undermine virtue. Think about it. If we come to see retweets as our reward for virtue, that means that whatever we post that receives a large number of retweets must be virtuous – regardless of the actual content of the tweet. It is virtuous not because it was right but simply because it was affirmed.
  2. It substitutes performance for virtue. Now all virtue is performed to some degree or another. It is no virtue to claim to care about the poor without actually taking steps to care about the poor. But therein lies the problem with virtue signalling. It substitutes a public performance for an actual demonstration of virtue. Social media in particular seduces us into a type of false efficacy. We think that we are accomplishing something in our tweets, but in the overwhelming number of cases we aren’t actually doing anything more than posturing. James gives us a scenario in James 2 of encountered a person who is hungry and in need of clothes. The person who responds, “Go in peace. Keep warm and well fed” hasn’t actually been virtuous. He has simply acknowledged the difficulty of the situation by offering a platitude. I would argue that the hypothetical person of James 2 is guilty of virtue signalling. “Here is a social problem. I publicly acknowledge the social problem. Therefore, I am virtuous.” Don’t misunderstand. There is something to be said for raising public awareness of an issue. I’m just not convinced that “raising awareness” should be counted among the virtues. Virtue should cost us something. Changing the filter on our Facebook profile picture or adopting the latest trending hashtag on Twitter doesn’t really cost us anything and also doesn’t really accomplish much of anything other than signalling our virtue.
  3. It transforms virtue into a competition. I’m reminded of the brief parable that Jesus told about a Pharisee and a tax collector both engaged in prayer. The tax collector was contrite in his prayers. The Pharisee, on the other hand, was exulting in the fact that he wasn’t like the tax collector. Often, the reason why we virtue signal is to demonstrate our tribal affiliation. “I’m not a part of this very bad group. Instead, I’m a part of this very good group.” This is the flip side of my first point. Virtue signalling isn’t just about getting affirmation for how good we are. It is also about getting affirmation for how “better” we are. This leads me to the last point.
  4. It encourages us to distort what we see in others. Last week there was a short video that went viral on Twitter. It portrayed an 82-year-old man fighting off three younger people who were attempting to rob a store. The title for the video was “This 82-year old SUPER-grandpa heroically fought off three ARMED robbers.” You wouldn’t think there would be anything offensive or problematic about this headline, but if you think that, you haven’t spent much time on Twitter where pretty much living and breathing is problematic. This was the first reply to the video.

Now, was Miranda actually offended by the word “grandpa?” I can’t be sure. There are two options. Either she was genuinely offended – in which case she should probably be pitied as the type of chronically unhappy person who goes about looking for new, creative ways to be offended. Or, she is adopting the posture of offense in order to signal her virtue. I can’t judge Miranda’s motivations, but it is undoubtedly the case that virtue signalling often takes the form of performative offense where we distort what we see (or hear) in others in order to prop up our own virtue. In the book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors talk about what they call “vindictive protectiveness.” This is the phenomenon of calling out or publicly shaming others for small things that they deemed to be insensitive. It is a new Puritanism which makes it next to impossible to have civil disagreement over nuanced topics. Virtue signalling causes us to treat others as the worst version of themselves (often a version of themselves that only really exists in our imaginations). Virtue signalling creates a simplistic way of looking at people as either “good” or “bad.” And I can show how virtuous I am by calling out those I have judged to be bad. I think that it is safe to say that using the perceived lack of virtue in others to prop up my own virtue is sinful as is the tendency to willfully see the worst in a person or group of people in order to appear virtuous to the only truly “good” people all of whom happen to be on my team.

All of this invites a certain follow-up question: So much of our virtue signalling today happens on social media. Can a person be on social media without virtue signalling? We discussed this question a little bit after our podcast ended. My answer to this question is also “No.” So, should we tweet at all then? Well, maybe not. But then again, James points out that we can’t talk without sinning either. So should Christians everywhere take a vow of silence then? No, the problem isn’t tweeting or social media. Blaming the instrument is too easy when the real problem is our heart. We would do well to heed James’ famous warning about ill-spoken words when it comes to social media. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Not every thing needs a tweet. (I should have this tattooed on my knuckles.) The way to overcome virtue signalling isn’t to virtue signal some more by pointing out how others do it more than we do. The way to overcome virtue signalling is honest self-reflection (What really are my motivations?), the humility and restraint that should accompany sanctification (Do I have to say something about everything? Do I really understand this issue or this person as well as I need to before saying something?), as well as accountability from those who truly know you well (Am I blind to my own motivations such that I need to hear the voices of those whom I know I can trust?).

Finally, as I said, social media isn’t the villain here, but I would encourage anyone and everyone to watch this short video explaining how social media does encourage this sort of hot take, virtue signalling culture. It is well worth your time.



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