The Pharisee on Social Media
The Pharisee on Social Media

The Pharisee on Social Media

Virtue signalling and the vice of self-righteousness.

Appears in Spring 2021

Too Many Trumpets

The term “virtue signalling” has become ubiquitous in our culture. But would it be better understood if we grasped its connection to the vice of self-righteousness? In journalism and academic philosophy, there is something of a battle between detractors and defenders of virtue-signalling, ranging from the dismissive to the nuanced. Journalist Sam Leith recently complained about the overuse of the term: the tendency to use it, “lazily and arrogantly,” to frame “any assertion of a moral or political principle as an act of narcissism.” Philosopher Neil Levy argues that signalling our commitment to norms is a primary function of public moral discourse.

On the other side, James Bartholomew—the British journalist who claimed, way back in 2015, to have coined the term—defines virtue signalling, somewhat tendentiously, as indicating that you hold an approved, “liberal media-élite” set of views, in such a way that no actual costly action on your part is demanded. How much easier to be a clicktivist than an activist: virtue signallers as the millennial or Gen Z offspring of “champagne socialists.” In a more sustained critique, philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have elaborated—now at book length—a detailed critique of the overlapping (and for all practical purposes identical) phenomenon of “moral grandstanding.” Though their account is more politically neutral than Bartholomew’s, at its heart is a similar worry: that grandstanding or virtue signalling damages the deliberative function of public moral discourse, in that it replaces reason-giving or providing evidence with excessively self-interested social comparison.

Missing in action from this debate, I suggest, and at the heart of what makes virtue signalling or grandstanding objectionable, is a consideration of self-righteousness—a vice that Christians should recognize as a real and present danger in our ethical lives. This vice is perhaps most famously illustrated by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s Gospel. We all know the lesson we are supposed to take from this: Don’t be the Pharisee. Better to be the tax collector—who beats his breast and prays for God’s mercy on “me, a sinner”—than him. Yet the Pharisee’s words (“God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” [Luke 18:11 NIV]) are routinely embodied by many who denounce as evildoers (“tax collectors”) their favoured bêtes noires: Trump supporters, the “metropolitan liberal élite,” Brexiteers, “Remoaners.”

Lest you think I’m standing on some moral high ground in making even this observation (replacing “Thank God I am not like this tax collector” with “Thank God I am not like this Pharisee”), I think we have to concede that we all indulge in this on occasion. Like most vices, we are all susceptible to it; and like most vices, it is far easier to see it in others than ourselves. But the vice of self-righteousness, and the behaviour, virtue signalling or grandstanding, that is one expression of it—especially prevalent on social media—are both worth exploring in more detail. They go to the heart of a problem with public moral discourse in the digital age.

The Pharisee’s self-righteousness—one of the sins of pride—seems to inhere in his having a sense of himself as morally or religiously superior to others, in virtue of which he presumes himself to have the standing to judge those others negatively. The same vice can be found in another Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel. Recall the “sinful woman” of chapter 7, who lavishes her love on Jesus by wetting his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair and pouring expensive perfume on them. Her actions demonstrate her gratitude for how much she has been forgiven. A Pharisee known as Simon looks down on the woman, whom he thinks Jesus ought to know was a sinner. He is admonished by Jesus accordingly, the primary target of Jesus’s criticism being Simon’s judgmental self-righteousness.

It’s a lot easier for me to notice your flaws than it is to notice my own.

The message seems to be that even if Simon is right in his assumption that he is a lesser sinner than the woman, he is indeed a sinner; and perhaps that in comparison to the gulf between God and humanity, the gulf between sinners is relatively small. But there is also a more radical possibility: perhaps Simon might come to question whether he really is a lesser sinner than the woman. He has, after all, been judgmental about someone whose response to God’s grace has been far deeper than his. In the case of both Pharisees, I think, we are reminded that it’s a lot easier for me to notice your flaws than it is to notice my own.

But surely, you might reply, when I take to social media to denounce some perceived immorality, I am simply adding my voice, in “solidarity,” with the marginalized and oppressed; and surely that’s all to the good? Well, not so fast: here’s why things may not be so straightforward.

The Structure of the Grandstand

Tosi and Warmke outline five key features of grandstanding, several of which seem to overlap. First, piling on: reiterating what has already been said in order to “get in on the action,” to register one’s views in the public square, even though doing so adds nothing new to the discussion. So I might add my signature to an “open letter” written by others, or start my online post with “I want to echo what others have said.” But what motivates this: genuine commitment to the cause, or a desire to show that we “fit”? If we convince ourselves that it’s the former, an uncomfortable question arises: If we were required to show commitment to a cause that was deeply unfashionable, where doing so would be more likely to lose us friends than make them, would we be quite so click-happy? At its worst, piling on can be indistinguishable from bullying: social-networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter make storms of protest easier to organize than ever before, and the public shaming that results can have devastating effects on the lives and careers of its victims.

Second, ramping up, in which previous condemnations of some perceived wrong are taken to be insufficiently strong. To show that we are really committed to the cause, it won’t do to criticize: we need to insist that the person’s employer takes disciplinary action. No, wait, that won’t do either; it is imperative that they be fired. In fact, let’s take this one stage further: they must never work in this town again (and, given the reach of the internet, the borders of “this town” have never been wider). And now that my original complaint has been ramped up by yours, and yours, and yours, I’d better recalibrate the strength of my condemnation if I want to maintain my social status with the in-group.

Third, trumping up. Nothing to do with the forty-fifth president of the United States, this is about insisting that there is a moral problem when there is not, perhaps as when the category of harm expands to incorporate anything perceived as offensive. Why do people react thus? Perhaps—and here trumping up is a kissing cousin of ramping up—to show to the relevant in-group that they have a keener moral eye than most. What falls below the moral radar of most does not escape theirs.

Fourth, and closely related, excessive outrage. Since strong emotions are often taken as a proxy for strength of conviction, I don’t just tell you I think that you’re wrong, giving my reasons for disagreement; I tell you that I’m “shocked” to learn that you think as you do. I’m not just disappointed in the behaviour of this politician, I’m furious. If my Facebook feed is anything to go by, online outrage seems for some to have become a bizarre kind of hobby, and two philosophers, C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams, have recently coined the phrase “moral outrage porn” to describe cases in which moral outrage gratifies without any of the personal costs usually associated with it.

Finally, high-handed dismissiveness of alternative views or claims of the self-evident truth of positions held. Sometimes, a particular moral position is asserted to be obviously true, when in fact it is one on which conscientious people may genuinely disagree. Suppose you think that the assertion “trans women are women” might need a little nuancing. Perhaps, like J.K. Rowling, you are concerned about the ease of access of pre-op trans women to spaces available to natally female victims of sexual assault. Or perhaps you are concerned about the integrity of women’s sport. Expect to be vilified by many as a “transphobe,” indistinguishable from an unspeakable bigot. Or suppose you suspect your employer is only paying lip service to its professed concerns with “diversity,” and you raise questions about whether racial prejudice has really been defeated in the contemporary workplace. Expect to be dismissed by others as just another foot soldier of the “woke tyranny.”

Virtue signalling may not be “cost-free” after all: it’s just that those costs are hidden.

This amounts to the implicit—indeed, sometimes explicit—insistence that any decent, right-thinking person would see things as I do. Again, and somewhat paradoxically, this can be used to signal that our moral sensibilities are sharper than most: I can reject your suggestion that things may be more morally complex than I claim as revealing a deficiency in your clarity of moral vision.

Defenders of virtue signalling such as Levy suggest that in forming our moral views, we can reasonably rely on “higher order evidence” such as the confidence with which testimony is offered, and the weight of numbers supporting a view. But what this misses, I would argue, is that the reliability of such factors as proxies for truth is radically diminished by the dangers of epistemic bubbles and echo chambers. Moreover, this suggests that virtue signalling may not be “cost-free” after all: it’s just that those costs are hidden, as we shall see.

Bubble Trouble

By an epistemic bubble, I mean our tendency to associate—online and offline—with like-minded people. This means that we can—quite innocently—omit a whole variety of sources of information and opinion that could legitimately influence and nuance our views. Here, apparent weight of numbers gives a false picture, illegitimately inflating the degree of our epistemic self-confidence.

An echo chamber is more sinister. Here, through a manipulation of trust, its members are actively isolated from outside epistemic sources, as “out-groups” are systematically discredited—sometimes by a powerful or charismatic “guru”—as reliable sources of knowledge. (Nguyen, who has done interesting work on this distinction between echo chambers and epistemic bubbles, compares this to the workings of cult indoctrination.)

As we know all too well, both epistemic bubbles and echo chambers are prevalent on social media—and we can easily fail to recognize that we are in one. This should surely reduce our willingness to assume that confident asserters of a view, backed up by large numbers of followers, are a proxy for the reliability of that view.

The consequences of this go well beyond much-discussed phenomena like “fake news.” Consider, for instance, the pressure to divide the world into the “privileged” and the “oppressed.” Apart from failing to notice the oversimplification in such categories, a tendency to focus on one particular “oppressed” subgroup can lead us to fail to notice others. Might our focus on racial injustices in the workplace lead us to fail to notice the harms done to working-class people of all ethnicities who feel left behind by globalization? Might our focus on the harms suffered by trans people lead us to overlook the harms done to gender-critical feminists, who are routinely abused and threatened with violence online by some trans “allies”? Or—in both cases—vice versa?

If I don’t see my own need for forgiveness, I am less likely to extend it to others.

Perhaps polarization—which virtue signalling to our own in-group arguably helps to feed—has the following hidden costs: it deprives our thinking of the nutrients needed from regular exposure to alternative points of view; the “viewpoint diversity” championed by many as a corrective to confirmation bias. Such alternative viewpoints can—as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty reminded us over a century ago—either change our minds, or challenge us to think harder about why we think as we do (thus improving our ability to justify our original beliefs). Or they can simply expand our range of reference, to move us beyond our in-group’s hobby horses.

If virtue signalling often reveals the vice of self-righteousness, how does it reveal itself online? In looking for opportunities to condemn, such as “offense archaeology”—mining someone’s tweets from years ago in order to show them in the most negative possible light—and offering condemnation without the possibility of redemption. What kind of person does this? A person, perhaps, convinced that they occupy the moral high ground and are on the “right side of history.” And what kind of person is that? Someone who—whatever they may profess—is on some fundamental level unable to recognize the implications of the view that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that all stand in need of forgiveness. If I don’t see my own need for forgiveness, I am less likely to extend it to others.

The Self-Righteous Mind

Here are a few suggestions about attitudes we may fall into. Self-righteousness might be revealed by a tendency to treat strength of conviction as a claim to judgmental certainty. This is to make the mistake of thinking that the primary job of morality is to issue a summary sentence, closing down further discussion, since—we effectively assume—all decent, right-thinking people think as we do. It might be revealed in our tendency to offer selective, “normatively slanted” descriptions (in Amélie Rorty’s words), which present our opponents in a misleading light. This need not involve deliberate misrepresentation. It can simply involve offering descriptions more loaded than they need to be. So he is “woke” or a “cultural Marxist,” not a political progressive; she is a “TERF” or “transphobe,” rather than a gender-critical feminist. And it might reveal a distorted sense of values: the certainty that we are on the right side of history with regard to specific injustices blinding us to the need for compassion for all who share our common humanity, not just our favourite candidates for the “oppressed” label.

It seems vital to be on the lookout for our own propensity to self-righteousness, and vital not to encourage the next generation unwittingly to mirror the Pharisee. It’s at this level that well-publicized developments on some contemporary campuses trouble me, in which nuanced positions are treated by some “no platformers” as being indistinguishable from manifest bigotry, and an important distinction between being harmed and being offended is thrown overboard. There are epistemic risks here, as well as the risks to our character. The concern to “fit”—not to take the risk of speaking out in favour of unfashionable views—may start out as the minor self-censorship of biting one’s tongue, but morph—perhaps without one’s noticing it—into a servile willingness always to defer to the powerful or to majority opinion. Unless we implausibly believe that the powerful or majority opinion always have access to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, this silencing should concern us. Self-censorship is not only a problem for those coerced into it in this way. It does an epistemic injustice both to those silenced and those who might benefit from hearing their views.

There are no simple solutions to the problems I’m isolating here. Indeed, the proffering of simple solutions to complex problems is itself part of the disease. Sure, there are practices that can help. Resist the temptation to “like” or retweet when all you are doing is adding to the pile-on. Practice a regular, more radical social media detox. And maybe expand this more broadly into the rich resources of silence as spiritual practice. All this can help, but to conquer the vice of self-righteousness, I see no alternative to the hard work of cultivating—rather than merely “signalling”—some countervailing virtues: genuine humility and a greater generosity of spirit.

Paris, France, taken from the International Space Station, 2013.

John Lippitt
John Lippitt

John Lippitt is professor of philosophy and director of the Institute for Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He also holds honorary professorships at Deakin University and the University of Hertfordshire. His most recent book is Love’s Forgiveness: Kierkegaard, Resentment, Humility and Hope (Oxford University Press, 2020). John has also served as an ethics advisor to police forces in the United Kingdom. A British citizen, he currently lives in Sydney with his wife Sylvie, a film and media scholar.


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