Magazine August 24, 2020, Issue

The Costs of Virtue-Signaling

Harvey Weinstein, 2012 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk, by Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke (Oxford University Press, 248 pp., $19.95)

In his first public statement following accusations of sexual abuse, now-disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein boasted of his support for supposedly righteous progressive causes. Weinstein was morally grandstanding, i.e., using moral discourse to promote his own status. And since just about everyone recognized what he was up to, Weinstein’s grandstanding was ineffective. Grandstanding isn’t always so easy to detect (if it were, no one would do it), but it’s hard to spend much time on social media and not think that there’s a lot of grandstanding going on.

In their new book, two philosophers treat moral grandstanding as a serious problem. Justin Tosi of Texas Tech University and Brandon Warmke of Bowling Green State University argue that grandstanding corrupts moral talk. The term “moral talk” covers everything from praise and blame, to expressions of moral emotions such as outrage, to support for specific policies on moral grounds. Some of our most important communication is moral talk, but for precisely that reason it lends itself to abuse:

Invoking sacred words — justice, dignity, rights, equality, or honor, tradition, faith, family — magically transforms your nasty, abusive, selfish behavior into something heroic and praiseworthy. Want to be cruel to those people you don’t like and have your like-minded peers congratulate you? Wrap your behavior in high-flying moral language. Voilá! Brave, Admirable, Speaking Truth to Power.

Tosi and Warmke define moral grandstanding with a simple equation: “Grandstanding = Recognition Desire + Grandstanding Expression.” In short, people grandstand when they engage in moral talk as a means of satisfying their desire for others to recognize them as good people. Sometimes grandstanders don’t believe what they are saying, but dishonesty isn’t essential to grandstanding. People can believe what they’re saying and still be saying it for self-serving reasons (even unknowingly, since we’re sometimes self-deceived).

Recent empirical research shows just how strong the “recognition desire” is. Tosi and Warmke summarize the results of one 2018 study, which found

that people would prefer to spend a year in jail, lose a hand, or even die before being . . . assumed to be a neo-Nazi, or falsely thought to be a pedophile. Many subjects chose to stick a hand into a bowl of writhing, wriggling beetle larvae to prevent the larger university community from learning that they had received a (doctored) high “racism” score on an implicit association test (IAT).

Tosi and Warmke identify several types of grandstanding; I’ll mention two. “Piling on” occurs when people essentially just repeat the moral pronouncements of others (“I, too, stand with women!”) to register with others that they’re on the “correct” side of some issue. “Ramping up” describes the kind of moral competition people engage in when they make increasingly strong moral claims. This often looks like the verbal equivalent of a nuclear-arms race: “When people ramp up, they are not trying to arrive at the correct moral claim any more than the Soviets and Americans were trying to produce the correct number of bombs [in the Cold War]. Instead they are trying to outdo one another.”

Tosi and Warmke devote much of the rest of the book to arguing that grandstanding is a problem worth worrying about. They argue that grandstanding is to be avoided for at least three reasons. First, the social consequences of all this grandstanding are probably negative, since it likely breeds distrust and cynicism, and fuels political polarization. Second, grandstanding is disrespectful to others in the same way that lying is, i.e., it’s a way of treating others as mere instruments for your self-promotion. Finally, a virtuous person wouldn’t grandstand, since grandstanding often involves acting for the wrong sorts of reasons.

The grandstanding of ordinary people is bad enough, but grandstanding by politicians and other politically influential people is especially pernicious:

The point of political action is to solve problems, not to create a forum for the glorification of those who participate. But if politics becomes a morality pageant, then the contestants have an incentive to keep problems intact — or perhaps even worse, to engage in political activism with no clear aim at all.

Finally, Tosi and Warmke turn to practical matters: What should we do about grandstanding? They advise us above all to focus on the beams in our own eyes. One tempting thing we probably shouldn’t do is to “call out” grandstanding when we see apparent instances of it. That’s in part because it’s easy to be wrong about whether someone is grandstanding. But even if you’re sure, drawing attention to particular instances of grandstanding is unlikely to be productive. The person who is being called out probably won’t be receptive to what you’re saying, and others might accuse you of grandstanding. A better approach is to refrain from liking social-media posts that appear to be grandstanding, or from otherwise conferring undeserved praise (e.g., “So brave!”).

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the ethics of discourse. Grandstanding is an accessible and informative introduction to a neglected topic. The book also has a light touch. Whereas delving into moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia can be depressing, grandstanding is an amusing topic to read about, and it’s gratifying to see such self-promotion exposed. Tosi and Warmke do a good job of showing how grandstanding connects with issues such as political polarization, honesty, and respect for others. What they say is, by and large, persuasive.

I’ll nonetheless register a few quibbles, starting with the way Tosi and Warmke understand “grandstanding.” A minor one is that the word “grandstanding” appears on both sides of the equal sign in the equational definition “Grandstanding = Recognition Desire + Grandstanding Expression,” giving it the appearance of circularity. They could have avoided this by using a label other than “grandstanding expression.”

Another issue arises from the fact that people often engage in moral talk from mixed motives. We can want both to be recognized as good people and to promote good causes. How much influence must “recognition desire” exert on an agent in order for his utterance to count as grandstanding? If a small amount of recognition desire corrupts moral talk, then almost all moral talk is grandstanding. On the other hand, if grandstanding expressions must be entirely motivated by recognition desire, then grandstanding would be much rarer than it appears to be.

Tosi and Warmke say that recognition desire has to be “strong enough that if the grandstander were to discover that her audience wasn’t impressed with her moral qualities because of what she said, she would be disappointed.” I think this sets the bar too low. Some people whose hearts are (mainly) in the right place might be more susceptible to that kind of disappointment than others. I’d rather say that a grandstanding utterance must be made with self-interest primarily in mind. Such an utterance is one the speaker wouldn’t have made but for the expectation of personal benefit.

I also think that sometimes engaging in moral talk primarily to boost one’s own status is plausibly the right thing to do. Consider someone who has been slandered or otherwise unfairly maligned. It seems acceptable — and perhaps even morally obligatory — for this person to broadcast his actual moral values and virtues with the hope of repairing his reputation. This might involve his saying things like “I, too, condemn racism.” Is this grandstanding? I’m inclined to say that it isn’t, but it seems to satisfy Tosi and Warmke’s criteria.

The book in some places strikes me as a tad too cautious and defensive. Tosi and Warmke are very concerned about the criticism that they are guilty of grandstanding themselves, and they don’t want to be accused of violating their own advice against calling out grandstanders. One consequence of this is that they don’t give us very many ordinary real-life examples of grandstanding, i.e., cases far less extreme than Weinstein’s remarks.

One prominent criticism of Tosi’s and Warmke’s critique of grandstanding seems unfair. Philosopher Neil Levy, responding to an earlier paper on grandstanding by Tosi and Warmke, objects in an Aeon magazine essay (and later blog post) that “Tosi and Warmke offer no evidence for their claim that the primary, or the justifying, function of moral discourse is improvement in other people’s beliefs or in the world. . . . Perhaps, in fact, virtue-signalling, or something like it, is a core function of moral discourses.”

If virtue-signaling is a core function of moral discourse, then it can’t be a perversion of moral discourse, Levy reasons. But although signaling one’s positions can be useful, it’s unlikely that signaling for the sake of self-promotion is an important function of moral discourse. If it were, grandstanders wouldn’t take pains to disguise what they’re doing. Usually they try to make it look like they’re promoting some cause beyond their own status. Rarely does anyone simply announce: “Behold my righteousness!” Moreover, paradigmatic cases of grandstanding — again, like Weinstein’s notorious remarks — really do seem like perversions of moral discourse.

Grandstanding might not be the final word on grandstanding, but as the first book-length treatment of a (sadly) current topic, it’s undoubtedly a public service.

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Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.

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