The term “virtue signaling” means to act or speak publicly in a way that shows off how much more moral you are than everybody else.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, virtue signaling is “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinion or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”
Often the term is characterized by the signaler’s desire to show support for a cause without actually acting to support the cause. An important characteristic of virtue signaling is that there is little to no cost associated with the act.
Virtue signaling is when you say and do things to look good in the eyes of others. For example, politicians will often make statements to appear good in the eyes of the public, such as saying, “I want to raise the minimum wage” to indicate caring about those in that pay bracket. And then, will probably do nothing about it.
Wikipedia says that, “Virtue-signalling is a pejorative neologism for the conspicuous expression of moral values. The origin is often credited to journalist James Bartholomew in The Spectator in 2015.”
However, the idea has been around a lot longer than that, partially originating from the scientific study of signaling theory, initially conceived by Charles Darwin and his work, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871. In this book, Darwin discusses the idea of evolution by sexual selection, which posits that certain traits arise in a species because they attract mates, even when such traits would decrease an organism’s relative fitness for survival.
This theory reminds me of male peacocks, with their incredibly beautiful and ornate tail feathers. I assume these tail feathers are meant to attract females, but at what cost? They must be heavy to carry around and require calories to create and maintain, which reduces the amount of energy available to obtain food and escape from enemies.
Within evolutionary anthropology, signalling theory has been used as a framework to explain various forms of communication between humans, including public displays of commitment meant to solidify membership within a particular group.
Expressions of moral outrage may be mere “virtue signaling” — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others. But sometimes these expressions do arise from genuine outrage.
So, apparently, virtue signaling is one of those all too human traits. I prefer the antonym, “vice signaling,” which refers to blatant amorality. At least it’s honest!