Virtue-Signaling: Moral Cowardice & Intellectual Poverty

The necessity of social capital

Social capital is an umbrella term that became popular in academia during the 1990s and entered the public lexicon after Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone. Google’s definition for social capital is:

The networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.

While Putnam uses social capital in a macro-societal sense, I believe the term is useful when describing micro, person-to-person interactions. 

Humans are social creatures. Our emotions are regulated based on how we perceive our current social standing to be relative to our peers. We compete with our peers for social supremacy and our sense of well-being – rightly or wrongly – is fundamentally tied to these inner rankings. 

Obviously, there are many types of social capital but all forms are tangible or intangible resources that allow beneficiaries to advance, or improve his or her standing, in a network of relationships, which are often housed within larger meta-networks, such as schools, political parties and churches. 

Social capital is a lubricant that greases the ladders of social hierarchies. Put another way, it’s a necessary ingredient for social mobility. Words, whether used publicly or privately, are important variables in the equation that determines an individual’s amount of social capital. Since the dawn of the internet and smartphones, the weight of these variables, relative to other factors in the equation, has increased greatly because every gaffe is immortalized on Facebook and YouTube. People want to impress their bosses, make their friends like them, make their significant others laugh and gain respect from their peers. Actions and words are the only behaviors that can achieve these wishes and, as a consequence, grow social capital.

Robert Putnam

Virtue-Signaling: Low-Cost Bids for social capital

Virtue-signaling occurs when a person declares allegiance and/or support to a concept, group, cause or belief that his or her affiliated social networks hold in high esteem. When a person toes the party line, they are rewarded with an injection of social capital. 

Virtue-signaling is nothing new and it’s not even a bad thing in moderation. The problem comes during times of social tension, particularly during times of polarization, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

People don’t want to be perceived as being on the wrong side of an argument, even if they have doubts. The desire to appear to be on the right side of an issue creates an escalation effect where people compete for virtue supremacy. When a person voices his opinion on a subject, it’s often a way to proclaim loyalty to the social groups that he belongs to, which is tantamount to making a bid for increased levels of social capital. 

And as we’ve seen throughout history, one of the easiest ways to curry favor with a tribal faction is to condemn that faction’s enemies. Humans want so badly to be part of a grand cause, something greater than themselves, but just as powerful, is the need to make other people believe that each of us is a virtuous and consequential person. Life is one big job interview and a person is constantly vying for their social peers’ approval and acceptance.

The need to be perceived as virtuous is part of human nature. However, like many natural impulses, the urge to virtue signal can cause destruction, especially when mob mentality amplifies the madness.


Do you think COVID-19 pandemic has been complicated by harmful virtue-signaling?

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