Virtue Must Advertise
Why virtue signalling is a good and human thing and efforts to suppress it will lead to social disaster.
Do you ever wonder why we have public institutions to bring bad deeds done in secret to light, and yet we do nothing of the sort for good deeds?
Take, for example, murder. We spend a tremendous amount of resources to investigate the clues surrounding the actions of a nefarious moral agent. We turn the state into a bloodhound. Public (and sometimes private) agents look for motives and means; they seek out dust for prints; they go over timelines and locations of fellow citizens to determine opportunity. We search for weapons, we interview, we corroborate. We post bulletins seeking information from the public. We even go so far as to demand that the dead body tell its own story of its demise; the autopsy is a ghostwritten last chapter of autobiography. Murderers want to get away with it, but usually they don’t. We won’t let them.
Yet, we devote none of this energy toward publicizing a good deed done in secret. We’re happy to let people get away with secret good all day long. What gives?
On the one hand, the answer is simple enough: we don’t want to die, and we certainly don’t want to be killed by someone else (or allow them to kill our loved ones). It’s not just self-interest. Killing is not right: allowing murder introduces a chthonic element into society that is best kept caged (although, in Western societies, it’s allowed, but only in a sanitized morgue under the label of health). The same concern doesn’t apply to good deeds. We don’t need public examinations of good deeds and their doers because there is nothing to make right; we’re already convinced such behaviour is right and meet.
Yet there is something more to it. Good deeds can be done with impunity, sure, but there’s a general understanding that good deeds are made better by their privacy. We don’t work to uncover good because there is an unspoken belief (verging into a fear) that to be seen or publicly acknowledged as doing right, may, in some way, make the deed less right.
There are, to my knowledge, two intertwined traditions that have contributed rootstock to our cultural concern about public displays of good: the one Greco-Roman, and the other Christian. And while they seem to be identical species, they lead to very different moral fruit, and only one produces fruit that can sustain life.
Goodness Rings True
In Plato’s Republic, there is a conversation that centres on the nature of justice and happiness. Socrates, the protagonist, says that justice is “among those goods which he who would be happy desires both for their own sake and for the sake of their results,” while Glaucon, one of the antagonists, places justice “among goods which are to be pursued for the sake of rewards and of reputation, but in themselves are disagreeable and rather to be avoided.” To make his case, he enlists the myth of the ring of Gyges. The myth tells the story of a shepherd named Gyges. After an earthquake in Lydia, Gyges discovers a hollow bronze horse in a fissure opened by the quake. Inside that horse is a dead body. And on the finger of the body Gyges discovers a golden ring. It turns out that, just like Sauron’s ring, it makes the wearer invisible. But, unlike Bilbo, Gyges takes the ring, goes to the king of Lydia’s court, seduces the king’s wife, kills the king, and takes the kingdom. The implication?
Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
Plato must have been on Twitter, or at least tuned in to the news every now and then. We do good things to benefit from being seen to do right; and we don’t do wrong because we fear the consequences of being seen doing wrong. Why do right if “the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound—will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled”?
Socrates doesn’t buy it. He says that doing injustice is harmful to our nature, and harmful to our soul. We should, instead, seek to act in ways that are in accordance with our nature. And the soul is in its most natural state when it loves wisdom. Socrates says that if you want to see the soul in her nature, you need to look at “her love of wisdom”:
Let us see . . . what society and converse she seeks in virtue of her near kindred with the immortal and eternal and divine; also how different she would become if wholly following this superior principle, and borne by a divine impulse out of the ocean in which she now is, and disengaged from the stones and shells and things of earth and rock which in wild variety spring up around her because she feeds upon earth, and is overgrown by the good things of this life as they are termed: then you would see her as she is, and know whether she have one shape only or many, or what her nature is.
For Socrates, that which is good has one shape. It is immortal, eternal, and divine. It is a superior principle. “Justice in her own nature has been shown to be best for the soul in her own nature. Let a man do what is just, whether he have the ring of Gyges or not, and even if in addition to the ring of Gyges he put on the helmet of Hades.”
I think it’s safe to say that Plato is against virtue signalling. Good is a thing to be loved for its own sake. It’s not just that we shouldn’t do good for the sake of pleasing others, but that we should be indifferent about others when it comes to doing good. For the Stoics who came later, doing good was to be done with genuine indifference in the face of an indifferent cosmos. But even for Plato, for whom doing good arises out of an erotic love of the good, others in the vast ocean of humanity don’t really enter into it. The indifference is personal to the doer. Virtue is its own reward.
Vain Empty Praise
The indifference to the opinions of others when it comes to doing good seems very much in line with Christianity—particularly the words spoken by Jesus in his ministry on earth. Take this well-known passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.
When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting.
God seems quite intent on good being done in secret; on encouraging us to act as if we had on the ring of Gyges while we do good. Give your money away, but don’t let anyone know. Pray, but don’t let anyone see you. Fast, but look like you just came home primped and oiled from the spa.
Yet I don’t think you can say that Jesus is opposed to virtue signalling, nor can you say that he is opposed to being just for the sake of rewards. On the contrary, Jesus seems to acknowledge that there is a built-in sociality to good deeds.
Consider the parts of the passages above that I left out. In the text, the places where I placed ellipses, Jesus says “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Those rewards are, ostensibly, worth something or they wouldn’t be rewards. And those rewards are real. Have you ever had someone call you a good man or woman? Has anyone ever praised you for doing good? I have. I know I’m really not a good person. If the same people who compliment me could see inside the recesses of my mind, or see how much it sometimes grieves me to get off my backside to do anything, let alone good things—or, worse, if they could see me when I get angry at my children—they’d call the cops first. But even though I know it’s not really true that I am a good man, the compliment still gives me a chemical rush, a warm glow, a sense of satisfaction that is real. And just think of the person who benefits in business deals and other worldly goods that come from being known as a person who does good. Are those things unreal? I don’t think you can say that such rewards are somehow not real without denigrating our material world. I especially don’t think this is an option for Christians, for whom the material, created world is a thing that God created and that he loves.
So why should we heed the warning that opens this section of the Sermon on the Mount? “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
The message seems to be that while the praise you get from others for doing righteousness might seem valuable, it is a poor substitute for a more valuable thing: rewards from God. It is no coincidence that the passage on the Sermon on the Mount that immediately follows Jesus’s command to do good in secret is about treasures in heaven. Having your fellow citizens praise your good deeds is real, but at the end of the day, like the treasures that moths and vermin destroy, or that thieves may steal, they are fleeting. As Ecclesiastes teaches, they are a chasing after the wind.
Virtue as Communion
All good deeds send a signal. All signals communicate. And the highest end of communication is communion with someone else. And communion requires trust.
I’ve often wondered why Jesus seemed so obsessed with keeping his miracles secret. Scripture tells us that it is because Jesus is mindful of the timing of God, and does not want to reveal himself as the Messiah until the proper time. There is a sense that Jesus will send out a clear signal at some point, but he wants to keep the beacon hidden for the time being. Those who have eyes to see will see it, but most won’t. This makes sense.
All good deeds send a signal. All signals communicate. And the highest end of communication is communion with someone else. And communion requires trust.
But there is a passage in John after the wedding miracle at Cana that casts a different light on Jesus’s desire to keep his good deeds secret. After Jesus clears the temple of the moneychangers, John writes, “While he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” What is unsaid in this passage is that Jesus has entrusted himself fully to his Father in heaven. He is no Plato, seeking good for its own sake; he wants recognition and love. But Jesus is practicing what he preaches on the Sermon on the Mount: He doesn’t want to receive the vain empty praise of men. He wants, as the second verse of the Canadian anthem says, “a lasting rich reward.” And that reward is communion with his Father: “to Glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
I wonder: As good deeds send signals, and signals communicate, and communication is aimed at communion, does it also work the other way? Pride and concern for the self are the opposite of communion. This desire to see the self become greater leads us to untruthful communication—we send signals, but they’re false, like a beacon that leads a plane to land in the sea, rather than a runway. Why? Because we’re not really interested in communion, we’re interested in ourselves.
Worthy of Being Pleased
It’s easy to see this excess in a lot of the virtue signalling that goes on today. John Lippitt’s article in this same issue (or a quick check of most public communications platforms) shows that most of what goes for virtue signalling is really self-righteousness rooted in lies and “moral grandstanding.” On the one hand it’s pride, pure and simple. And it’s easy to condemn it. But charitably, I think even moral grandstanding has, at its root, a virtuous and deeply social impulse. The fact that we seek recognition from ideological groups (or the blue-check gods at Twitter) reveals both a deep sense of anxiety about worth and belonging that is simply human. We all want to be known, loved, and trusted. We all want to be recognized by someone whose recognition is worth it. Parents don’t condemn their kids when they say, “Look at me!” after doing something good; they delight in it. We all want—need—something like this.
Thus the answer to the problem of virtue signalling isn’t going to be found by trying to douse our signals, and following the path set out by Plato. Plato’s view—following the path of wisdom and loving the “superior principle” of the good will only exacerbate the anxieties that emerge out of the self-isolation that leads to virtue signalling in the first place.
In discussing this essay with me, my colleague Lisa Richmond pointed me to a passage in Pride and Prejudice that shows this well. Mr. Darcy, in confessing to Elizabeth, offers a good example of where a life of following a principle leads:
I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.
Darcy, a gentleman who embodies in English society the “golden” class of aristocracy that Plato describes in the Republic turns out to be a selfish, conceited prig. What turns him from this is his giving himself over to a desire to please a “woman worthy of being pleased.”
This illustrates the point beautifully. A life spent doing good for the sake of principle alone may be as likely to lead to pride—perhaps more—than a life spent doing good in order to gain the approval of others. The former sends a signal into a cold ether; the latter is like sending a signal into a mirror. But when we act out of a desire to please those worthy of being pleased, we have illumination.
We act well when we act to gain praise from those whose praise we care about, whose love we crave, and who themselves are good. And who does this encapsulate more than God in the flesh? The person whose strongest signal of virtue was to be the just man doing deeds that were secret from the world, but not his Father; the just man who was thought unjust, was scourged, racked, bound and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled; murdered.
And so, it seems, that virtue is most clearly displayed in the course of murder.
There is a line in Dorothy Sayers’s novel Murder Must Advertise where the investigator of a murder in an advertising firm, Death Bredon, asks,
If all the advertising in the world were to shut down tomorrow, would people still go on buying more soap, eating more apples, giving their children more vitamins, roughage, milk, olive oil, scooters and laxatives, learning more languages by gramophone, hearing more virtuosos by radio, re-decorating their houses . . . affording themselves that little extra touch which means so much? Or would the whole desperate whirligig slow down, and the exhausted public relapse upon plain grub and elbow grease. He did not know.
Would we say the same about virtue signalling? Would all the good deeds stop? I think so. It’s murder that’s done in secret. It’s virtue that must advertise.
But not all advertising is created equal. Billboards, bumper stickers, most tweets and Facebook posts are rigid advertisements making one-way promises that they may or may not keep. There is media that has the pretense of being personal, but is really just a more sophisticated, subtle version of the billboard—Google ads, for example, and guerilla marketing. More traditional means include buildings named after donors, medals pinned on your lapel, a Jesus or Darwin fish, complimenting someone else’s good deeds in a public meeting to show that you, too, are part of the inner ring.
The alternative, and really the type of virtue advertising that is most virtuous and effective, is also the type of advertising that cannot be bought or sold: word of mouth. Our good deeds should be done in such a way that the focus remains on the person for whom the deed is being done. Do the deed for someone; do it for God. Focus on nothing else but the other person’s good; think of nothing else than that, in doing so, you are pleasing your neighbour and pleasing God. Don’t think of yourself at all. In doing so, you will find that the signal sends itself.
Think of the words in 1 Peter 2: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” The signal of a good deed is clearer when you don’t stand in the way. This is how the good deeds that are associated with the kingdom of God are advertised: by the mouths of people whose lives have been changed by the good deeds. I find it particularly amusing that the only thing more insistent than Jesus’s desire not to be credited with his healings and miracles is the desire of those who are healed to let everyone know.
Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them. Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.”
When you do the good deed, let others do the talking for you. Care not about the talk. Care for the person, and then do what Jesus did when others started talking about his good deeds: withdraw to lonely places and pray. Your Father in heaven sees you; what more reward do you need?
Detail from Oriental Pleasure Garden by Paul Klee, 1925.Subscribe