Virtues we write in water


I’ve only recently stumbled on the concept of virtue signalling. The words seem self-explanatory enough, but their juxtaposition seems curious. I had always thought of virtue as being, if not invisible, then not openly displayed like chest hair or cleavage. Perhaps it’s my United Church lineage, or the fact that many of my formative years were spent in pre-Flood Winnipeg, but the idea of flaunting goodness still seems anathema to me -too social mediesque, I suppose.

Naturally, I am reminded of that line in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water. And, although I admit that I am perhaps woefully behind the times -and therefore, hopefully, immune from any accusations of what I have just disparaged- it seems to me that virtue disappears when advertised as such; it reappears as braggadocio. Vanity.

Because I had never heard of the issue, it was merely an accident that I came across it in an article in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/is-virtue-signalling-a-perversion-of-morality

It was an essay written by Neil Levy, a senior research fellow of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney. ‘Accusing someone of virtue signalling is to accuse them of a kind of hypocrisy. The accused person claims to be deeply concerned about some moral issue but their main concern is – so the argument goes – with themselves.’

And yet, as I just wrote, ‘Ironically, accusing others of virtue signalling might itself constitute virtue signalling – just signalling to a different audience… it moves the focus from the target of the moral claim to the person making it. It can therefore be used to avoid addressing the moral claim made.’ That’s worrisome: even discussing the concern casts a long shadow. But is that always ‘moral grandstanding’?

Levy wonders if ‘virtue signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourse.’ Maybe you can’t even talk about virtue, without signalling it, and maybe it signals something important about you -like a peacock’s tail advertising its fitness.

The question to be asked about signalling, though, is whether it is costly (like the resources that are needed to create the tail), or enhances credibility -honesty, I suppose- (like the sacrifice that might be involved in outing, say, an intruder that might harm not only the group, but also the signaller). And while the latter case may also involve a significant cost, it may also earn a significant reward -not only cooperation in standing up en masse to the predator, let’s say, but also commendation for alerting the group: honour, prestige…

Seen in this light, Levi thinks, virtue signalling may in fact be a proclamation to the in-group -the tribe- and identifying the signaller as a member. So would this virtue signalling occur when nobody else was around -when only the signaller would know of his own virtue? Would he (Okay, read I) give to charity anonymously? Help someone in need without identifying himself? And if so, would it still be virtue signalling, if only to himself? Is it even possible to be hypocritical to oneself…?  Interesting questions.

Of course, memory is itself mutable, and so is it fair to criticize someone who honestly believes they acted honourably? Would it be legitimate to accuse them of virtue signalling, even if evidence suggested another version of the event?

Long ago, when I was a freshman living in Residence at university, a group of us decided to celebrate our newly found freedom from parental supervision and headed off to a sleazy pub near the school that catered to students and was known to be rather forgiving of minimum age requirements for drinks.

For some of us at least, alcohol had not been a particularly significant part of our high school experience and so I quickly found myself quite drunk. I woke up, apparently hours later, lying on my bed and none the wiser about the night. I was wearing my roommate’s clothes, and I could see mine lying clean and neatly folded on the chair beside my desk. My wallet and watch, along with a few coins were arranged carefully on top.

“You passed out in the pub,” Jeff explained when I tried, unsuccessfully, to sit up in bed. “I thought I’d better wash your clothes, after you were sick all over them,” he explained, smiling proudly at his charity. “Well, actually, Brenda put them in the washer -I’m not good at that kind of stuff.” He stared at me for a moment, shaking his head in mock disbelief. “Boy, you were really wasted! It took three of us to get you back…”

I remember trying to focus my eyes on him as I attempted to think about the evening, and then slumped back onto the pillow and slept for most of the morning.

My memory of the pub night is vague now, but I do remember going to the store the next day to buy something, and finding that, apart from the coins, I had no money left -none in the pockets of the freshly washed clothes, of course, but none of the money my parents had given me for my first month’s expenses that had been in my wallet either.

None of this is particularly consequential, I suppose, but it did surface at a class reunion many years later. Jeff was now a high school teacher, Brenda a lawyer, and I had just finished a medical residency and was about to open a consulting practice.

Jeff, as had always been his wont, was holding his own noisy court at the bar, and Brenda -now his wife- was glaring at him. He was slurring his words already, even though the socializing part of the evening had just begun.

Perhaps in an effort to deflect her attention he glanced around the room and when he saw me, waved.

“Remember old G?” he shouted to nobody in particular, and immediately embraced me as soon as I got close enough. I saw a few people I recognized, but even under Brenda’s worried look, Jeff wouldn’t let go of my arm. “G was my roomie…” Jeff explained and signalled the bartender for another beer with his free hand before Brenda waved him off. “He used to get so drunk,” he explained, although I had trouble untangling his words. “Thank the gods that I was around to take care of his, though…”

His what,” I asked, largely to break the palpable tension between Jeff and Brenda.

Jeff looked surprised. “Take care of him…  Take care of you, roomie. You!” He looked at Brenda and finally let go of my hand. “One night he got so drunk, I had to carry him home, and then lend him my clothes because he’d been sick all over his own…”

The others in the group shuffled nervously and glanced at each other. Brenda seemed angry, but I just shrugged.

“That was good of you, Jeff,” I said. “I obviously needed help that night…” I hadn’t forgotten about the missing money, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The others smiled and nodded -rather hesitantly, I thought.

“But, that’s what a real friend does, eh?” Jeff added, as Brenda tugged on his arm to leave. She blinked self-consciously at me as she led him away from the bar. “Nice to see you again, G,” she said, her eyes silently apologizing to me. “Maybe we can talk later, eh…?”

I think she knew more about the missing money than she was willing to admit, even to friends.

Maybe we were all virtue-signalling, though…

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