The Honor Blog
Today is: Apr 10, 2020
Post From: May 28, 2018
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 criminals.
Indeed, 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 landlords.
This is true of a great many decisions made by government. As I 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.