In this article, I specifically redefine virtue signaling to make a point. I give virtue signaling a positive meaning since in my experience people accused of virtue signaling are likely intending to do the right thing.
Often we hear people complain about others who virtue signal. But what is virtue signaling? Virtue signaling is usually a form of argumentation and rhetoric that defends the dignity or rights of classes of people considered underprivileged, whether they are people of color, women, homosexuals, trans, or non-binary. When individuals signal their virtue they’re educating people about an unjust power imbalance between those who are privileged and those who are underprivileged. After all, virtue isn’t just something that should be important to one person, it should be important to everyone.
I contrast virtue signaling with what I consider to be vice signaling. Vice signaling is a rhetorical strategy that attacks virtue signalers merely on the basis that virtue signalers are virtue signalers. In fact, vice signalers define virtue signaling as an attempt of a person who virtue signals to score social points, pat themselves on the back, or advance their status in their in-group. In fact, painting someone as a virtue signaler is an ad hominem attack that does not address the issue of justice the virtue signaler is concerned about.
Why call it vice signaling? It’s vice signaling because by only attacking virtue signalers as individuals, but not a virtue signaler’s arguments, vice signalers defy the virtues of wisdom and intellectual honesty. Since the strategies of the vice signaler are against virtue, then they are participating in vice. The vice signaling strategy doesn’t add to the dialogue, it subtracts from the dialogue. Vice signalers might have a point that some virtue signalers out there are just pretending to care but whether a virtue signaler pretends to care is besides the point. The vice signaler still needs to address the virtue signaler’s arguments rather than attack the virtue signaler him/herself.
Vice signaling is not merely a problem because the vice signaler is being vicious but also because of immediate negative consequences. Vice signaling derails discussion, it poisons the dialogue, it even harms the underprivileged because it stifles dialogue meant to address unjust power imbalances in society.
Musonious Rufus, Epictetus, Cato the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca were virtue signalers during their time. Musonius Rufus believed that everyone regardless of gender were endowed with reason during a time when women were regarded as nothing more than property. Cato put his virtue on full display when he vowed never to live under Julius Caesar as dictator. We don’t indubitably know all the ancient Stoics’ true intentions. Maybe Epictetus really did virtue signal because he wanted to increase his social approval and increase turnout at his school. But we’ll never know and it is counterproductive to speculate. We should be thinking about what we know about Epictetus, his arguments, and his sound conclusions.
One pernicious quality of a vice signaler is their anger and disgust. Vice signalers attempt to conceal their anger and disgust but it’s easy to spot their hatred spilling over in the form of snide remarks, ad hominems, vitriol, and trolling. One way to respond to vice signalers is to help them see wisdom by discussing the issues with them objectively and without bias all the while without counter-attacking their character. If the attempt is fruitless, then there is no choice but to ignore them.