Moral Grandstanding and Virtue Signaling: The Same Thing?
It's time to clear up some confusion.
Posted Aug 11, 2020
Public moral discourse is toxic. One reason it’s so bad is that people use their discussions of morality and politics for self-promotion, rather than to help others. You may have heard people accuse those they suspect of abusing moral talk in this way of engaging in "moral grandstanding" or "virtue signaling."
People tend to use these terms interchangeably. They’re applied to the same kinds of cases, where someone is suspected of using moral language to show off their purity of heart. We think both terms have their uses, but there's a lot of confusion. Let's try to clear it up.
But first, a bit of historical background.
The first recorded use of the term "grandstand" in the sense of “showing off” is from a book on American baseball published in 1888. The term was used to describe baseball players who liked to show off after making an impressive play: “It’s the little things of this sort which makes [sic] ‘the grand-stand player.’ They make impossible catches, and when they get the ball they roll all over the field" (Kelly 1888).
In the last 20 years, the term has become a ubiquitous feature of public discourse, at least in the United States. For example, The Brookings Institute called Mitt Romney’s rhetoric on Iran in 2012 grandstanding. In 2013, then-President Obama criticized congressional Republicans for grandstanding as they threatened to shut down the federal government. Ross Douthat characterized President Donald Trump’s pitch to his blue-collar supporters as no more than “the perpetual distraction of Twitter feuds and pseudo-patriotic grandstanding.” And Trump himself called former FBI Director James Comey a showboat and a grandstander while providing his rationale for firing him.
A few years ago, people started using the term "virtue signaling." Although the term might seem to have been with us much longer, it picked up steam in public discourse in 2015 or so.
We are now in a situation where there are two different terms for what appears to be the same, or similar, phenomenon. This has led to much confusion. Do these terms mean the same thing? Do they refer to the same behavior?
We suspect that when most people use the term "virtue signaling," they have in mind something very close to what we call "moral grandstanding" in our psychological and philosophical research: people using talk of morality or politics to try to impress others with their moral qualities and gain social status. Grandstanders treat public discourse as a vanity project. They care more about looking good on social media than actually doing good.
The problem, however, is that the term "virtue signaling" is ambiguous and misleading in several ways.
First, let’s discuss the ambiguity of the term "signal." As it’s used in disciplines like economics, biology, and psychology, signaling can mean different things. Sometimes it refers to messages that people are trying to send. For example, you might buy a fancy car to signal that you are wealthy. Such signals can be “honest” (if you possess the trait you're signaling) or “dishonest” (if you don't).
But sometimes, the term “signal” is used—both in popular discourse and in the sciences—to refer to messages that one sends without trying to. Animals send signals all the time without trying or intending to (Zahavi 1975; Zahavi and Zahavi 1999). Some signals have simply been selected for through evolution because they communicate information that makes the organism more fit. The rear ends of female chimpanzees naturally swell during periods of peak fertility. Male chimps understand what this signal means and competition for females increases dramatically during this time. But the female chimp, so far as we know, is not trying to change the color of her derriere in order to send a message. She may not even be aware of it. It just happens.
Humans send signals in a similar way, too. If Chip shops at Whole Foods, drives a Subaru, and listens to NPR nonstop, he sends a signal to others about his moral and political values, whether he is aware of this or not.
All this means that "signaling" has a built-in ambiguity. "Virtue signaling" could mean:
- Strong Virtue Signaling: Someone is saying or doing something because (they think) it signals virtue.
- Weak Virtue Signaling: Someone is saying or doing something that happens to signal virtue.
Accusations of virtue signaling are often meant to express that someone is acting vainly and trying to impress others. But this ambiguity allows people to defend the morality of virtue signaling by focusing on cases where someone simply does something good in public. They say, “what could possibly be wrong with doing something good and being seen doing it?” They're using the Weak version. What they mean is, "what’s wrong with sending the signal that I’m virtuous?" And there may be nothing at all wrong with this. In fact, it's often good to be seen doing good things. But that's different than, say, posting something on Twitter with the intention of trying to impress people and gain social status for your moral qualities. “Moral grandstanding,” on the other hand, simply avoids this ambiguity by requiring an intention to impress others and seek status.
"Virtue signaling" is also misleading. For one thing, "virtue signaling" implies that one is signaling (or trying to signal) one’s virtue. Virtue is an excellence of character. But one can grandstand without trying to get others to think that one has excellent character. One might simply want others to think that one is minimally decent (where perhaps many others fall well below even that standard).
For example, someone might say, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but even a jerk like me knows better than to disrespect women that way.” Or, “I’m absolutely disgusted that you all still eat meat. Even a morally mediocre person knows that’s the equivalent of genocide! Do better.” "Grandstanding," however, carries no implication that one is trying to get others to recognize specifically one’s virtue.
A second way that "virtue signaling" is misleading is that it invites talk of "vice signaling." "Vice signaling" supposedly involves boasting about what a bad person you are. But this invites confusion. Suppose someone accuses President Trump of virtue signaling. Then another replies, “Oh no, that’s not virtue he’s signaling, that’s vice!”
But now it’s unclear what makes for virtue or vice signaling. Is the thought that Trump is trying to show off good moral qualities, but just doesn’t have them, and is actually signaling bad moral qualities? Or is it thought that Trump is actually trying to show off what he takes to be bad moral qualities? Or perhaps "vice signaling" is what happens when people in your out-group see you "virtue signaling" to your in-group. Anyway, as you can see, it’s simply unclear what the term is supposed to mean.
Moreover, if discussion of "vice signaling" continues to catch on, we can look forward to lots of arguments about whether someone is "virtue signaling" or "vice signaling," depending on whether they are expressing good or bad values. Of course, discussions about what is actually morally good and bad are important. But we need not settle those debates before being able to determine whether someone is trying to use moral talk to look good. Since “moral grandstanding” simply refers to one’s attempt to use public discourse to impress others with one’s moral qualities, it avoids these pitfalls.
What many people mean by "virtue signaling" is often very close to what we have called "moral grandstanding." Labels generally don’t matter that much. What we are interested in, after all, is the idea to which a label refers. But sometimes one label does a better job of promoting understanding and limiting confusion than another. "Moral grandstanding" is better for precisely that reason.
Grubbs, J. B., Warmke, B., Tosi, J., James, A. S., & Campbell, W. K. 2019. "Moral grandstanding in public discourse: Status-seeking motives as a potential explanatory mechanism in predicting conflict." PLOS ONE, 14(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223749
Kelly, Michael J. 1888. Play Ball: Stories of the Ball Field. Boston: Emery and Hughes.
Tosi, J., & Warmke, B. 2016. "Moral Grandstanding." Philosophy & Public Affairs, 44(3), 197–217. https://doi.org/10.1111/papa.12075
Tosi, J., & Warmke, B. 2020. Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk. Oxford University Press.
Zahavi, Amotz. 1975. “Mate Selection—A Selection for a Handicap.” Journal of Theoretical Biology53 (1): 205–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-5193(75)90111-3.
Zahavi, Amotz, and Avishag Zahavi. 1999. The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle. Oxford University Press.