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:

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…

Sapere audi

Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?

Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.

An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago:

‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’

Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’

As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’

In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?

I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.

A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.

I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.

But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.

The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.

But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.

In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…

Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.

Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.

Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.