When beliefs and intentions trump action and results

Tommy Richardson

A few years ago, I was leaving the public library when I overheard a woman and a man debating Obamacare.

The woman said she and other Democrats support it because they care about poor people, but Republicans oppose it because they only care about themselves and their rich friends.

The man said it raises premiums, lengthens waiting periods, and incentivizes businesses to replace full-time positions with part-time positions.

At this point, I expected the woman to insist that it does so work and that the man's concerns were unwarranted.

Instead, she said, "That could be true, but even if it doesn't work, at least it shows we care."

Huh? She would support a policy whether it works or not?  But why? 

In 2015, British writer James Bartholomew began using the term "virtue signaling" to describe the expression of political opinions not as honest efforts to address serious issues, but as thinly disguised advertisements of one's personal goodness.  When a person is virtue signaling, "I support affirmative action" is code for "I'm not racist." "Let's raise taxes on foreign goods" means "I'm patriotic." "I hate guns" means "I'm loving." 

Bartholomew believes virtue signaling cheapens virtue by linking it to beliefs more than actions.  Why get dirty and sweaty picking up roadside litter or building homes for the poor when you can get online "likes" and approving comments by putting on a "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" T-shirt or a well chosen awareness ribbon, snapping a selfie, and posting it on Facebook? 

Virtue signaling also emphasizes good intentions over actual results.  Someone who considers his support of a $15.00 national minimum wage to be his certificate of compassion has a built-in reason to ignore inconvenient news like fast food restaurants moving to replace some of their minimum wage workers with self-service kiosks.  "Never mind the unintended consequences," says Bartholomew. "Just feel the good intentions."

Critics of the concept of virtue signaling say it's a conversation killer, that it's too easy to dismiss others' opinions as mere virtue signaling.  Is it possible to distinguish earnest thought from shallow virtue signaling?

I think it is. Earnest thinkers express their values through actions more than words or symbolic gestures. They may appreciate praise, but their primary interest is results, so if evidence suggests their plans aren't working, they are willing to adjust their thinking.  Finally, they don't believe that merely holding a particular opinion makes them morally superior to those who hold different opinions. 

Anybody can have an opinion.

Tommy Richardson lives in Erath County.  His e-mail address is tommy.richardson71@yahoo.com.