Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Wenstra on Virtue Signaling

 Evan Wenstra has a forthcoming paper on virtue signaling in the unfortunate genre of analyses that do not analyze the term being analyzed but analyze instead of what it looks like it might be if you ignore its actual use. In particular, it's one of those that takes 'virtue signaling' to mean either 'signaling your virtue' or 'signaling what virtues you consider important', despite all the endless evidence that it means 'trying to treat one's signaling of virtue as equivalent to virtue'. Wenstra comes right out and states it: "Virtue signaling is the act of engaging in public moral discourse in order to enhance or preserve one’s moral reputation." He justifies this with a footnote to Bartholomew's essay, which was a key influence on the spread of the term, but this is not at all what Bartholomew says. As Bartholomew describes it, virtue signaling is a kind of "camouflage" and "disguise" that "comes from mere words or even from silently held beliefs" and is contrasted with being virtuous by doing virtuous things. Wenstra's description is so absurdly broad that it would include defending oneself from scurrilous attack, which is not at all what people mean when they talk about virtue-signaling. He continues, "What makes the act in question an instance of virtue signaling is not the content of the moral expression itself, but rather the status-seeking desires of the person or corporate entity making it." But this is also not the point; Bartholomew, for instance, gives status-seeking as an explanation for why people virtue signal, not as a criterion for what it is. And you have only to look at how the term is used in social media to see that this, not Wenstra's description, is more or less how it is understood when used at large.

He also makes the error, which has become increasingly common, of confusing virtue signaling with moral grandstanding as discussed by Tosi and Warmke; Tosi and Warmke explicitly do not treat their account of moral grandstanding as an account of virtue signaling. Wenstra's reason for conflating them is that the definition of moral grandstanding "coincides with the commonsense understanding of 'virtue signaling'". I think Wenstra is not quite getting Tosi and Warmke right (e.g., they repeatedly characterize it not as enhancing or preserving one's moral reputation but as trying to impress others with how moral you are, which is easily seen to be not at all equivalent when you start thinking through different cases). But as we've seen, even if we take Wenstra to be getting Tosi and Warmke correct, he only can say this because he mischaracterizes 'virtue signaling'.