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How Signaling Turns Virtue Into Vice


In decades hence, historians will no doubt identify plenty of cultural developments that defined our age. Perhaps the most obvious to us, as we are living through it, is the ubiquity of social media and the extent to which millennials and gen-Zers live in that space. Not too far behind, perhaps, is the focus on, or some might say obsession with, political causes that concern allegedly disadvantaged groups of individuals.

The intersection of these two great phenomena is the posting of meme-ish declarations or visual social media profile modifications that gain short-term traction in response to an unjust act that is deemed to be reflective of a broader problem. 

Examples from the last few years include “Je suis Charlie” with the Tricolore coloring of social media profile images, “#BringBackOurGirls”, and many others.

On “Blackout Tuesday,” 2 June 2020, tens of millions of people posted a black square on their Instagram and other social media accounts. The reason for doing so, according to the apparent originators of the idea, was to indicate that one was refraining from spending time on social media for a day and, instead, using that time to educate oneself about the plight of African Americans in the United States, following the death of George Floyd. Of course, many – and probably most – of the posters of a black square did no more than post the square. 

Participation in a cause with others is well known to provide positive emotions. 

Posting that black square or, similarly, splashing “#BringBackOurGirls” over a social media profile, can provide those who do so the feeling that they’ve done something of moral value without the need to spend any time, money, energy or creative energy to solve the moral problem. Posting on social media is as easy for people who have never done anything practical to address the targeted issue as for those who have.

When millions of people do so at once, media coverage of the mass participation contributes to a general impression of the “bigness” of the response, but the effectiveness and therefore morality of such participation necessarily depends on its actual political effect.

On the one hand, political effect is superficially correlated with the visible, public expression of popular demand – which is why protests can work. On the other hand, though, the correlation depends on other factors, such as the risks taken, costs incurred, or inconvenience for politicians that is generated by the protesters.

A person who has spent many hours, weeks or even years as an activist against racial injustice, sexual harassment, Boko Haram or the like, because an issue has moved her and she’s paid a price in time, money or effort to tackle it, is entitled to post whatever she chooses. However, it is highly unlikely that such a person would be content to use someone else’s image or few-word meme and then move on to the next new thing. Rather, such a person will likely choose her own words or modes of expression to articulate her passion, thoughts, experiences, work and, most importantly, knowledge and contribution to righting a wrong that she has engaged independently. 

The Cause of a Post Isn’t the Cause in a Post

To examine the moral and political effect of a declaration fad, there is value in understanding the causes of a person’s declaration. Even a sincere person who really means what he posts; even if he has carefully questioned his motivation for posting; even if he’s done hours of research on the topic; even if he’s going to do more than post that meme on social media accounts – even if all of those things – is posting that particular thing at that particular time only because everyone else is.

This must be so because everyone else’s engaging in the fad is both the direct cause and the immediate cause of any particular individual’s thought about doing it. That is the “but for” test that the Supreme Court recently used to declare illegal the firing of employees on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Why does that matter? 

Certainly, a good deed does not fail to be a good deed just because many others are doing it at the same time or because those who acted later were prompted to do so by those who acted before.

Moreover, the fact that “everyone else is doing something” is a positive reason to do the same thing if the political effect of the action scales positively and non-linearly with the number of participants. This non-linear scaling is why public, repeated, large-scale protests can work, as noted above.

Declaring one’s support for a cause by posting these phrases takes next to no effort, meaning that, even if it does next to no good, that small amount of good might well represent a decent political or moral return on the time and energy invested by each individual in participating.   

However, none of these considerations support participation in a declaration fad if its effect – especially on the motivating issue – is, or could be, at any scale negative.

Is that possible? 

One can easily imagine that the engagement of millions of people with a declaration fad could provide a false sense that a problem has been moved closer to a solution even though no action directly follows from their actions.

In most jurisdictions, a driver who passes an accident is not required to stop to provide help. However, in many, stopping at the scene of an accident as if to provide help and then not doing so is a crime. This is because subsequent drivers-by who would also have provided help may believe they do not need to do so because the necessary help is already being provided. 

The operative principle is that to appear to help while not helping is morally and practically worse than doing nothing because it indirectly causes harm.

The matters addressed by these social media moral memes are all of great moral consequence. That is precisely the reason they exist, after all. Given that fact, to make a social media declaration merely because everyone else is doing so and in exactly the way they are doing is to act on a weighty moral matter without giving the matter any of the consideration that the post is asking the rest of the world to give it. Does that do anything to reduce the alleged injustice – or could it be doing exactly the opposite?

The potential issue of moral consistency here can be accessed by asking why someone who makes a public statement of the abhorrence of racism by posting a black square, for example, would not also mention, let alone learn about, the Uyghurs in China, for example. An onlooker could suggest a reasonable, practical explanation of course, but the important question is whether the poster of the black square and corresponding hashtag has her own answer that satisfies moral consistency.

If It’s Not Your Message, It’s Not Your Meaning

If an issue is important enough to have spawned a slogan that millions are jumping on, then it’s a movement, loosely defined. Movements are big, unpredictable things. A person who, as one of millions, rides a particular bandwagon with a particular slogan, has no control over its direction or what it ends up promoting or causing. Will the cause that is identified with the slogan stay true to its motivating ideals or will it morph to suit and favor an agenda of a particular group?

For example, will “Black Lives Matter” ultimately turn out to be a statement that saves the lives of black people? Or will it ultimately empower an agenda that is not supported by many of the people who are passionate about justice for black Americans? Some of their number have already taken issue with some of the policy positions on the “Black Lives Matter” website, such as the dismantling of the nuclear family, which would arguably lead to poorer life outcomes for black (and other) Americans.

When a user of social media chooses to post someone else’s words, he lends his support to all that those words are used to justify and advance. He therefore takes on a moral responsibility for what that movement becomes, because his support contributed to the power and influence it ultimately wields – but it is a responsibility that comes without influence.

A matter as serious as one that generates these declarative memes on social media is a matter that is too serious to weigh in on before an examination of its complexities. 

A person who is willing to say no more or no less than the slogan that all of his friends are posting, and to post their words without doing the due diligence to satisfy himself that those same words will serve justice better than anything he would come up with after a little effort, has no way of knowing that he’s making matters better rather than worse. 

When it comes to issues of life and death, that is a very serious negligence of moral responsibility indeed. 

Virtue: Positive, Negative and Cheap

Glaring and great injustice elicits glaring and great virtue – but also, alas, glaring and cheap virtue because it provides an opportunity to get something of value without having to make the slightest bit of difference or having to pay the slightest price.

That “something of value” is the feeling of caring, of being right, of being good; it is also moral standing within one’s peer group. 

So what? 

The moral problem here is that, regardless of intent, a participant in a declarative fad is knowingly and personally benefiting from an injustice without doing anything to put right the wrong from which that personal benefit is being extracted. To do so is to benefit slightly from the very injustice at issue without providing at least as much benefit to anyone else – which could, at least, justify one’s participation.

That is not virtue; it is not even cheap virtue: it is negative virtue, which is better called vice.

How might we distinguish between them? 

A rule of thumb is helpful. 

True virtue does more to improve the condition or experience of the one suffering injustice than it does to improve the condition or experience of the person speaking out or taking action against it.

Negative virtue does the exact opposite.

This rule of thumb requires that the maker of such a statement determines that the upside for the people he’s purporting to support exceeds the upside for himself.  

To fail to do so is not to help victims of any harm but rather, with the best will in the world, to use their victimhood to help oneself. 

This explains, of course, why some people, particularly those who are not used to “performing the private,” which is what social media necessitates, feel so uneasy about such fads and would feel hypocritical or otherwise morally compromised about participating in them.

This idea is reflected in a Biblical verse. 

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.” – Matthew 6:5.

Could there ever be a declarative bandwagon that could be jumped on without violating the above moral rule of thumb?

The answer is likely in the affirmative – but the declaration would have to satisfy a simple condition: it would not make a moral demand on the rest of the world without making a demand on the person who posted it, and the person who posted it would then have to make best efforts to meet that moral demand. The declaration would demand a standard of, or change in, behavior that the poster would be inviting others to hold her to. In making the moral and practical effort to hold herself to that standard, she turns her post from public performance to personal improvement with political effect.

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  • Robin Koerner

    Robin Koerner is a British-born citizen of the USA, who currently serves as Academic Dean of the John Locke Institute. He holds graduate degrees in both Physics and the Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge (U.K.).

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