Virtue Signaling and Moral Progress

Philosophy and Public Affairs 49 (2):156-178 (2021)
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‘Virtue signaling’ is the practice of using moral talk in order to enhance one’s moral reputation. Many find this kind of behavior irritating. However, some philosophers have gone further, arguing that virtue signaling actively undermines the proper functioning of public moral discourse and impedes moral progress. Against this view, I argue that widespread virtue signaling is not a social ill, and that it can actually serve as an invaluable instrument for moral change, especially in cases where moral argument alone does not suffice. Specifically, virtue signaling can change the broader public’s social expectations, which can in turn motivate the adoption of new, positive social norms. I also argue that the reputation-seeking motives underlying virtue signaling impose important constraints on virtue signalers’ behavior, which serve to keep the worst excesses of virtue signaling in check.
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