The Vice of ‘Virtue Signaling’

Virtue signaling is simply narcissism cloaked as advocacy.

Social media has made it easier for people to express moral indignation over policies, social customs, or individual behavior that they disapprove of. Indeed, many Facebook and Twitter users often turn their accounts into bully pulpits. While righteous indignation was bearable in the past when social issues were simpler and less divisive, today the cacophony of views on almost any issue has made this practice increasingly unbearable.

A person, sitting in his room, who complains about social problems all the time but does nothing about them, is a joke. Clarence Darrow has said, “Nothing is more cruel than righteous indignation.” Although such indignation does not solve anything, it does cast a (temporary) glow of moral superiority on the indignant person. In the words of H.H. Wells, “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo.”

Selective outrage in social media has turned into a political tool, especially by individuals or parties whose candidates lost in an election, or whose point of view was defeated in a Supreme Court or regulatory decision. This has given rise to the phenomenon of virtue signaling, defined by one netizen as “saying you love or hate something to show what a virtuous person you are instead of actually trying to fix the problem.” Another netizen thought of it as “the very public act of showing how humanitarian or nationalistic or environmentally-friendly you are at the expense of common sense, public safety, and national security.”

When you express disgust over the war on drugs for its human rights violations but fail to understand it in terms of public safety and national security, then you are virtue signaling. And your moral posturing becomes even more feckless when you fail to support drug prevention which can actually reduce prevalence of this social problem, instead of your incessant Twitter and Facebook ranting.

Virtue signaling is simply narcissism cloaked as advocacy. It reduces complex social issues into simplistic sound bites. While the epal tries to earn undeserved brownie points, the virtue signaler is worse as he tries to garner undeserved ethical “likes.” Epal is “pa-pogi”; virtue signaling is “pa-holy.” 

    Photo courtesy of Partnership for Transparency 

About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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