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‘Virtue Signalling’ May Annoy Us. But Civilization Would Be Impossible Without It

My mom ran the local League of Women Voters while her two kids were off at school—she moderated local political debates, promoted voter registration, and published objective information about issues and candidates.

I learned that if I didn’t signal my defense of the “Blank Slate” doctrine about human nature (i.e., that all minds are blank slates, completely formed by the environment), nothing else that I did politically counted for anything.

In grad school I’d studied sexual selection through mate choice, and the “sexual ornaments” and “fitness indicators” that evolve to signal a potential mate’s good genes, good health and good brains.

I learned about Thorstein Veblen’s view of conspicuous consumption as wealth signaling, and Michael Spence’s view of educational credentials as intelligence signaling, and Amotz Zahavi’s view of animal displays as fitness signaling.

On the one hand, there’s what economists call “cheap talk”: signals that are cheap, quick and easy to fake, and that aren’t accurate cues of underlying traits or values.

When I was writing The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature in the late 1990s, while working at the game-theory center as my day job, I thought a lot about the difference between cheap talk and reliable virtue-signaling in human courtship and relationships.

I realized that good parenting—patience, safety-mindedness, playfulness, creativity and cheerfulness despite sleep deprivation—is a cardinal virtue that we try to display to our long-term sexual partners.

I met computer scientists who had given up promising careers at tech companies to work for think tanks focused on the risks of Artificial General Intelligence, just because they cared about the future of humanity.

They were deeply ethical vegans, who weren’t disgusted by meat, and didn’t mind eating leftover beef entrées on airplanes (that would be thrown out anyway), but who worked hard, day in and day out, to reduce demand for factory-farmed animal products.

She didn’t mind that I ate beef myself—as long as I stopped eating chicken (too much suffering per pound of meat, compared to cows), and donated enough money to Vegan Outreach every year to convert at least ten other people to veganism.

(That’s called “offsetting,” and people obsessed with cheap-talk signaling can’t understand that it doesn’t rationally matter who becomes vegan, as long as more people do.) So, my love/hate relationship with virtue signaling has continued for thirty years.

The best, because virtue signaling is the best foundation for human morality toward strangers that we could reasonably expect from a process as blind and heartless as genetic evolution.

But evolution has a very hard time shaping moral adaptations for being kind to strangers, much less thinking in any rational, ethical, long-term way about global sentient well-being.

In The Mating Mind, I argued that sexual selection and social selection for virtue signaling is probably the only way that humans could have evolved any interest in people beyond their family, their clan and their trading network—or in any animals outside their species.

Without the evolution of virtue signaling over the last few hundreds of thousands of years, humans probably wouldn’t be able to co-ordinate themselves into any groups larger than a few dozen people, much less civilizations of millions.

It drives social-justice warriors to take over media, academia and corporate life, and to impose their ideology of “diversity, equity and inclusion” on everyone through enforced conformity of thought, inequity in hiring and promotions, and exclusion of heterodox thinkers from any positions of power or influence.

When the instincts to virtue signal are combined with curiosity about science, open-mindedness about values and viewpoints, rationality about priorities and policies, and strategic savvy about ways and means, then wonderful things can happen.

These more enlightened forms of virtue signaling have sparked the Protestant Reformation, American Revolution, abolitionist movement, anti-vivisection movement, women’s suffrage movement, free speech movement, and Effective Altruism movement.

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