Signaling Virtue

Morality, psychology, and viruses that care about neither.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

Can I trust you? Wait … can I really trust you? What if you’d given me your word that you’d never betray me, but then you discovered that betraying me could make you really rich, or really successful, or even just a bit happier?

A lot of us discover—sometimes too late—that verbal contracts aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. But, what about social contracts? What about the warp and weft of what keeps humans making moral sense to one another?

This always matters. But, it matters especially at the moment, when we are all deciding how we should behave in the face of an enemy that doesn’t care about our values or our politics, no matter how loudly (or increasingly desperately) they are shouted. How do we make sense of these conflicts?

Moral philosophers routinely distinguish two types of approaches to moral problems—deontology, and utilitarianism (a form of consequentialism). Deontology is (roughly) the idea that some actions are just beyond the pale, whatever the consequences. Utilitarians, on the other hand, argue that actions must only be judged relative to consequences.

Psychologists have noted that deontologists tend to be more trusted than utilitarians, and it isn’t hard to intuit why this might be. If you announce that, sure, you’d never cheat on me…unless…Well, I am going to care a lot about that ‘’unless’’ part. Many leaders in the time of COVID-19 have switched messages from utilitarian (''we can let a few die'') to de-ontological (''one for all, and all for one").

Thus far so obvious. But I suspect that a number of people are thinking to themselves “Ok, you win this round deontology, but utilitarianism is still right even if it's repulsive. If only humans could get rid of that silly disgust thing they have at stuff like murdering innocents. If only they could overcome their sentimental attachments to one another then they would be truly moral beings.’’

We have had the recent spectacle of supposed behavioral science experts sitting in TV studios, telling the population that they have to accept a certain number of COVID-19 deaths on cost/benefit terms (perhaps of ''just the weak and old'', reinforcing the suspicion of eugenics in some minds). The fact that these scientists were surprised at the horrified reactions to this (and have typically reversed their advice, with nary a mention of their earlier position) might raise doubts about their status as experts in behavioral science. What sort of creatures were they experts at analyzing the behavior of, precisely, if the human reaction to being told to accept innocent deaths surprised them?

What has gone wrong here? I suggest that it is this: These behavioral scientists have represented themselves as an expert in how humans do behave when, really they are occupying a moral position on how they think humans should behave. They are utilitarians, and have just assumed that this is the right (albeit repulsive) position in the final analysis. Because utilitarians can admit of no absolute right or wrong, it is routine to hear them debate the morality of things like torture. Sometimes they do this in ways that make it sound as if they are thrilled at their moral daring.

Confusing Facts and Values

It’s somewhat rarer to hear utilitarians discuss any possible “utility’’ of acts like child abuse or rape, however, and I say this not just to be flippant, or to try to close down the conversation with sentiment. I say it to draw attention to the absurdity of the complacent belief that only utilitarianism can deliver the correct moral result, if only humans could get over all their silly emotional failings.

One reason is that those ‘’silly failings’’—caring about innocence, for instance, is a large part of what makes us human. If humans weren’t the sort of fragile, contingent creatures that, for example, routinely make love the centerpiece of their lives, they wouldn’t be recognizably human at all. To discard key, species-typical, features of your study, in a quest for moral clarity, seems decidedly odd. Might I humbly suggest that utilitarians might have made a category error? Maybe those very things that utilitarians see as failings—virtues we might call them if we were in that sort of mood—are what give moral reflections meaning in the first place, and, if so, any account of right and wrong that discards them is doomed to be conceptually recessive in relation to its own stated topic area.

A clue to what has gone wrong here may be found in that famous trolley problem. Practically a cottage industry among utilitarian philosophers—it goes like this: A trolley bus is going down a track about to kill someone. You have a switch to stop it. Only a psychopath wouldn’t pull that switch. OK, then, what if the trolley was heading towards five people, and now the switch sends it down another path that would kill only one? Surely you pull the switch? What if, instead of a switch, there’s a fat guy on a bridge you can push in front of the runaway trolley? He dies, but five are saved. Do you push him? What if the trolley is carrying a cargo of orphans, and you can make it run over either 10 utilitarians, or three nuns about to win Nobel peace prizes? And so on and so forth in endless arrays of allegedly morally salient examples.

Utilitarians are disappointed that real humans routinely refuse to do evil that a greater evil might be prevented—even in thought experiments. "If only humans could overcome their revulsion, disgust, and sentiment, and see reality for what it really is!" But that attitude makes a big assumption—that moral reality boils down to counting money and corpses. In other words, that the whole of human relations can be reduced to market pricing style transactions. However, it's striking that, for a theory that claims to demarcate the boundaries of what humans can take morally seriously—by calculating the greatest good for the greatest number--the only numbers that ever get discussed by utilitarians are money, and corpses. It’s hard to calculate goodness.

Well, yes and no. Humans are laser-guided to forms of it. Any glance at art, literature, film, and music makes our near-total obsession with it so obvious that you wonder at how any behavioral scientist could miss this most obvious core to human behavior.

Philippa Foot proposed the trolley problem thought experiment to help show the limits of utilitarian reasoning. Elizabeth Anscombe developed her thought like this: ‘’But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration—I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.’’ Anscombe is here trying to close down certain forms of reasoning as not being about morality at all. Someone with a corrupt mind doesn’t just believe false things, and it’s not just an insult either. It means the sort of person who we wouldn’t trust with anything that mattered.

To put it another way—that they lack certain virtues.

The term ‘’virtue signaling’’ has become much-maligned, after having been first introduced (I think) by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, but it was clearly not his intent that it be always a sneer. Organisms signal things to one another all the time. Peacocks send out honest (hard to fake) signals of genetic quality with their magnificent trains. We signal character.

Virtue can be hard to fake. That’s one reason why, when social media lowers the cost of such signaling to a "like," we feel an urge to point and go "virtue signaling." But that’s precisely because what is often being done is low cost, and easy to fake. The existence of fake virtue doesn’t invalidate the hard to fake variety. Indeed, it highlights it.

How do we feel about, for example, an aircraft carrier’s captain who sacrifices his career on a point of principle of protecting his men? He has signaled virtues effectively—maybe if only to a very select audience. We don't sneer if we recognize an honest signal.

The inability to give proper weight to what gives human lives meaning is a serious lack in much academic psychology. Meaning isn’t just some irritating add-on to the human lab rat, such as its pesky need to be fed, and cleaned, so that we can get to the real science. It should be the focus of the real science. Meaning-making is species-typical in humans and seeing our own, and each other's, flaws, and strengths, trustworthiness, and weaknesses—our virtues in other words—lies at the heart of it.


Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19. 

Foot, P. (1967). The problem of abortion and the doctrine of double effect.

Miller, G. F. (2007). Sexual selection for moral virtues. The Quarterly review of biology, 82(2), 97-125.  

Dempsey, M. & King, R. J. (2020): Qualitative Versus Quantitative in Evolutionary Science. Encyclopaedia of Evolutionary Psychology. Springer.

Miller, G. (2008). Kindness, fidelity, and other sexually selected virtues. Moral psychology, 1, 209-243.