The Immorality of Virtue Signalling
Today we are going to discuss the concept of "virtue
signalling". I suspect most of you have encountered that
phrase before - but to make sure we are all on the same
page, let's use this definition: Virtue signalling occurs
when a person states or supports an opinion in order to
maintain a good and moral appearance.
An essential nuance to this definition is suggested by
the word "appearance". The implication here is that the
virtue signaller is not bearing any of the costs associated
with the opinion or position. So, for example, if you are
out walking around your neighborhood, and you see a yard
which is covered in dandelions, and you say "that person
should clean up his yard" - you are virtue signalling.
Worth noting is that, generally, the signaled opinion
is correct - that person should clean up his yard.
At the level of an observation, it is very hard to argue
with the virtues which are signalled.
However, it also is essential to recognize that the person
doing the signalling is not bearing the costs associated with
his or her opinion. Yes, the homeowner should clean up the
dandelions. But what if he was sent away on business? What
if it has rained every time he has scheduled time to do
that work? What if he lost his job and cannot afford to
buy the bags of stuff which would limit the dandelions?
What if he has been spending days at the hospital with
his sick wife?
The difference between virtue and virtue signalling lies
in the acceptance of the costs: if you wish to be virtuous,
you must accept the costs of a decision.
This brings us to housing in Seattle. (Didn't see that
transition coming, did you?) You see, Seattle recognizes
that people with criminal histories often have trouble
recovering from that past - finding jobs and housing is
more difficult for those who have a criminal record, and
those additional challenges contribute to recidivism. To
address that problem, Seattle has passed a Fair Chance
Housing Ordinance. This law prevents potential landlords
from checking the criminal histories of prospective tenants.
The idea is to eliminate discrimination, so that people with
criminal convictions who have served their time will not face
discrimination as they try to re-build their lives.
The virtuous opinion seems pretty clear - good people are
opposed to discrimination, and we all want to help people
recover from bad episodes in their lives. Thus it seems
reasonable to support laws which enforce non-discrimination.
However, consider the situation of a small-business
landlord - a person who owns one or two units for rent. This
person cannot afford large amounts of insurance, major
repair bills, and certainly cannot accept the risk of
large legal fees. What that Fair Chance Housing Ordinance
does is deny landlords the ability to manage their risk, to
protect themselves against the additional costs which are
likely to accompany the granting of housing to potential
this article (reference below) describes exactly that
conflict and carries it one step farther, to the
situation of MariLyn and Chong Yim, who actually live in
one of the units of a tri-plex - renting out the other two.
What the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance means is that the Yims,
who have young children, may be legally required to rent to
potential criminals, exposing their young children to elements
of society they might not want their children to see.
Clearly, the people who have passed the Fair Chance Housing
Ordinance are not recognizing the full costs of their political opinions.
They are imposing a decision on others (the Yims)
without bearing the
costs themselves - they are "virtue signalling", because they
do not face the consequences of their opinions.
It should be clear that this is immoral - that this is
not an honorable thing to do. It is morally wrong for the
city of Seattle to strip landlords of the ability to protect
themselves and their families from physical threats, not to
mention the business threats faced by small-business
This is true of a great many decisions made by government.
discuss in my book, collective action always requires
careful moral reflection, because it ALWAYS compromises the
freedom of members. This example reveals the power of that
difficulty - government gives some citizens the ability to
force others to bear the consequences of their beliefs.
Stated another way, government is the perfect vehicle
for virtue signalling - for creating the appearance of
virtue without bearing its costs.
Blevins, Ethan. Smug Seattle to mom and pop landlords:
Criminals are welcome! Your rights not so much.
Fox News, May 21, 2018.