April 23, 2019

April Fools on Me: That Insidious Root Sin

April Fools on Me: That Insidious Root Sin

Even authentic outrage is influenced by implicit strategic calculations.

• Jillian Jordan & David Rand

• • •

Two psychologists have written an article at the New York Times about Virtue Signaling, a phrase used to counter some of the expressions of moral outrage that are so pervasive in our day.

Expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality. In response, there have been criticisms of expressions of outrage as mere “virtue signaling” — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.

Behind these critiques is a flaw in thinking, the authors say. When the question is framed in binary terms, “Is this person genuinely outraged or is he/she merely virtue signaling?” this fails to recognize a unity within our psyches that does not allow such a one or the other evaluation.

You may not realize it, but distinguishing between genuine and strategic expressions of indignation assumes a particular scientific theory: namely, that there are two separable psychological systems that shape expressions of moral outrage. One is a “genuine” system that evaluates a transgression in light of our moral values and determines what level of outrage we actually feel. The other is a “strategic” system that evaluates our social context and determines what level of outrage will look best to others. Authentic expressions of outrage involve only the first system, whereas virtue signaling involves the second system.

This theory may be intuitively compelling, but new research suggests that it is wrong. Psychological studies reveal that a person’s authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.

Or, in other words, our motives are always mixed. Even when expressing outrage at injustice done to others, we simultaneously have an eye on looking appropriately “righteous” to those who are watching.

Jesus had a few things to say about this.

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt. 23:27-28)

Now, the authors have an important point to make, and I get it. They are looking at this question from one particular angle. The very fact that I am multitasking when exercising judgment and expressing moral outrage doesn’t mean my outrage isn’t real. A certain amount of virtue signalling does not automatically cancel out the genuineness of my appropriate condemnation of injustice or evil.

What our findings show is that asking whether outrage is “pure” is the wrong question. Even authentic outrage is influenced by implicit strategic calculations. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with evolutionary theories that hypothesize that morality arose precisely as a way of signaling one’s trustworthiness in cooperative endeavors.

But this also shouldn’t strike you as cynical. In fact, we view our findings optimistically. They suggest that if an individual is motivated by a desire to signal her virtue, that does not necessarily mean she is faking her outrage. Of course, people do sometimes fake or exaggerate their outrage to look good. Our point is that the presence of strategic motives does not itself make a moral reaction inauthentic.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time you are tempted to dismiss something as mere virtue signaling.

However, I read this article with Jesus’ words in mind and it hit me from precisely the opposite perspective.

Nothing I do, no judgments I pronounce, are free from self-interest and the desire to advance my own standing.

I suppose there are degrees of sinfulness and selfishness involved in that, and that a good share of it is relatively harmless. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all my “righteousness” is infused with me thinking about me and how I might look to you.

It must be April Fool’s Day when it takes an article in the Times to blow my cover and help me remember that.

Comments

  1. johnbarry says

    All the world is a stage is certainly true. At times we all have to virtue signal as it is the appropriate reaction to a situation. Not cheating and being a good , honest sport may be perceived as virtual signaling by some based on their cultural values and what society they were raised in. Taking advantage of the unsuspecting and being dishonest is the virtue that some life by, Oliver Twist? We virtue signal to identify our values and they are valid if backed up by appropriate actions.
    With the ease and popularity of labels now so much in vogue, it is easy to dismiss anyone we disagree with as a virtue signaler without knowing or caring to know the depth of their perspective. However , as best you can if you explore the issue they are signaling about and find out their understand and depth of knowledge is weak than I id them as virtue signaling , in my own mind.
    The real virtue signalers are the people in our society now that chose a lifestyle and dress, live and tattoo themselves up to show the commitment to their lifestyle , that is their virtue. MS gang members consider tattoos to be a virtue , skin head Nazi nuts go skin head to show their virtue, they show their support for what they believe .
    I think historically what use to be known as wrapping yourself in the bloody flag is now virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is another label that has lost its meaning in any real sense like racist, just about has lost all it import due to its way overuse by the————————————————virtue signalers.

    SPLC— virtue signalers on steroids for sex, fun and mostly profit. How serious were they taken by the press , very seriously.

    • senecagriggs says

      Nothing I do, no judgments I pronounce, are free from self-interest and the desire to advance my own standing.
      _________

      My very real “bent towards sin.”

      It’s all true

  2. Robert F says

    From what I’ve seen and read, the term “virtue signalling” is very nearly only used by conservatives/the Right to critique the expressions of moral outrage or indignation of liberals-progressives/the Left as the manipulative, hypocritical, and empty posturing of politically correct elites. I rarely, if ever, have seen the same charge directed by the Left at the Right. As a liberal, I’m not sure I have much to say about this topic, other than the accusation of “virtue signalling” seems frequently disingenuous to me, since it often deflects the real moral questions and issues raised by attributing motives to other people that the critic rarely can know; it is a too-easy shaming tactic, a form of ad hominem avoidance.

  3. Coffee With Jesus… a ray of sanity in a desert of banality.

    • Yes, I mixed my metaphors. Sorry, I just woke up.

      Also, I agree 100% with the OP.

    • Robert F says

      I’m glad that Jesus isn’t a coffee snob. You can tell he’s drinking pre-ground canned coffee.

    • headless Unicorn Guy says

      Good strip.
      Is it still going on?
      And did anyone ever bring out a hardcopy collection?

  4. senecagriggs says
    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Buttigieg is a cool dude; and operating several tiers higher, intellectually, than just about everyone else.

      • senecagriggs says

        Looking at the Democrats running for office, that’s a pretty low bar Adam – smile

  5. Good food for thought here this morning, as usual.
    Thanks.

  6. Alas, nothing new here I’m afraid. One tried and true tactic when one is incapable of responding to or critiquing a debate opponent’s arguments is to attack their style or their motives. Way back when I studied classics and animal husbandry at the Zebulon T Pike Barber College I learned that if you can get your debate opponent to resort to ‘ad hominem’ then you had essentially won the debate. Of course on social media ‘ad hominem’ is the baseline. Nothing puts people to sleep faster than reasoned critique. (Or sentences arranged in paragraphs.)

    “Virtue Signaling”, “Social Justice Warrior”, “Islamophobia”, etc etc etc blah blah blah…all such usage are attempts to shut down the conversation.

    “Shut up!” he explained.

    -Ring Lardner

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Virtue Signaling”, “Social Justice Warrior”, “Islamophobia”, etc etc etc blah blah blah…all such usage are attempts to shut down the conversation.

      I call BS on that.
      These are just Secularized versions of behavior we’ve seen inside the Christianese bubble. The same dynamic is in play as in an abusive church environment, just they’ve Evolved Beyond All That Imaginary Friend in the Sky stuff.

      SJWs are just secularized Church Ladies, on fire for The Righteous Cause That Justifies Any Means (and parading My Righteousness before the unwashed unwoke rabble) just like any graduate of The Navs or Acquire the Fire. Placed on Earth in These Last Days for Such a Time As This. As one of our commenters here put it, “New England Puritans, seven-times-distilled-down to eliminate every hint of God-talk while leaving the Righteousness and Moral Fury intact.”

      Virtue Signalling is the secularized form of Holier Than Thou, out-Piousing everyone else with Devotion Devotion Devotion to The Righteous Cause. (And making sure You’re not the Lukewarm Apostate among the True Believers; you do NOT want to be the first to stop applauding Comrade Stalin or cheering Baba Saddam.)

  7. Richard Hershberger says

    “Hate your own sin.”

    There is a pernicious strain of perfectionism within some versions of Protestantism, in which an individual believes him or herself to have achieved Christian perfection. We see this most openly with people like Joyce “I am not a sinner” Meyers (a claim she seems to back off from, at least some of the time). A weaker version of it is implicit in the standard Evangelical trope of a distinct moment in time in which the individual was “saved.” This divides the world into saints and sinners, and we know who we are.

    In this scheme, the call to “Hate your own sin” is a nonsensical. Wackiness inevitably follows. The model of a church without financial controls, for example, follows naturally.

    I have come to agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber that Lutheranism’s great contribution to the conversation is the doctrine of Simul Justus et Peccator. Internalize that and much improves, both for yourself and those around you.

    • Clay Crouch says

      I good dose of Robert Farrar Capon’s The End of Scorekeeping goes a long way, too.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There is a pernicious strain of perfectionism within some versions of Protestantism, in which an individual believes him or herself to have achieved Christian perfection.

      AKA “God’s Speshul Pets”.
      I’m sure you’ve encountered them. Always serene and secure in their unshakable Faith Faith Faith. (“O Ye of Little FAITH. Tsk. Tsk.”) Never an instant of Doubt or Imperfection or Anxiety since they Said the Sinner’s Prayer and were SAVED. Every prayer answered instantly. Angels carrying them around 24/7 so they could never ever strike their foot against a stone.

      And as my writing partner (the burned-out preacher) put it, “Faking It Every Minute of the Day.”

  8. Christiane says

    Virtue Signalling for Dummies:

    ““It should be a privilege to be able to say “I love you” to someone. It shouldn’t be something people say just because they feel like it. A privilege that is earned. They say you have to earn the right to be loved; no, love is unconditional, if you love someone, they don’t have to earn it. But. The right to tell someone that you love them? That has to be earned. You have to earn the right to be believed.”
    ? C. JoyBell C.

    https://pixel.nymag.com/imgs/fashion/daily/2019/03/29/29-paso-del-norte-2.w700.h467.jpg

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1)

    Living in the Virtue Signalling capital of the country (where it’s near-universal), VIRTUE-SIGNALLING IS JUST THE TOTALLY-SECULARIZED VERSION OF “PRACTICING YOUR PIETY BEFORE OTHERS IN ORDER TO BE SEEN BY THEM”.

    With a secondary of Out-Virtue-Signalling everybody else as a matter of survival. (Like the Roloff Home survivor who said she survived by “Out-Piousing Everybody else”.) It’s not only chickens who peck defectives to death in the barnyard – “Beware Thou of the Mutant”.

  10. anonymous says

    ‘Virtue Signalling’ is an interesting way of calling bull on those who loudly and verbally preach the Gospel for credit

  11. senecagriggs says

    ‘Everybody everywhere,’ Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, ‘has his own movie going, his own scenario, and everybody is acting his movie out like mad, only most people don’t know that is what they’re trapped by, their little script.’