Stoicism and Virtue Signaling

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In this article, I specifically redefine virtue signaling to make a point. I give virtue signaling a positive meaning since in my experience people who are often accused of virtue signaling are likely intending to say, defend, and do the right thing.

Often, we hear people complain about others who virtue signal. But what is virtue signaling? Virtue signaling is usually a form of argumentation and rhetoric that defends the dignity or rights of classes of people considered underprivileged, whether they are people of color, women, homosexuals, trans, or non-binary. When individuals signal their virtue, they are intending to educate people about an unjust power imbalance between those who are privileged and those who are underprivileged. After all, virtue is not just something that should be important to one person, it should be important to everyone.

I contrast virtue signaling with what I consider to be vice signaling. Vice signaling is a rhetorical strategy that attacks virtue signalers merely on the basis that virtue signalers are virtue signalers. In fact, vice signalers define virtue signaling as an attempt of a person who virtue signals to score social points, pat themselves on the back, or advance their status in their in-group. In fact, painting someone as a virtue signaler is an ad hominem attack that does not address the issue of justice the virtue signaler is concerned about.

Why call it vice signaling?  It is vice signaling because by attacking virtue signalers as dishonest about their motivations, but not attacking the virtue signaler’s arguments, then vice signalers defy the virtues of wisdom and intellectual honesty. Since the strategies of the vice signaler are against virtue, then they are participating in vice. The vice signaling strategy does not add to the dialogue, it subtracts from the dialogue. Vice signalers might have a point that some virtue signalers out there are just pretending to care but whether a virtue signaler pretends to care is beside the point, especially if there is no evidence of pretense.  The vice signaler needs to address the virtue signaler’s arguments rather than attack the virtue signaler themselves.

Vice signaling is not merely a problem because the vice signaler is being vicious but also because of immediate negative consequences. Vice signaling derails discussion, it poisons the dialogue, it even harms the underprivileged because it stifles dialogue meant to address unjust power imbalances in society. |

Musonious Rufus, Epictetus, Cato the Younger, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca were virtue signalers during their time. Musonius Rufus believed that everyone regardless of gender were endowed with reason during a time when women barely had any more rights than children. Cato put his virtue on full display when he vowed never to live under Julius Caesar as dictator. We do not indubitably know all the ancient Stoics’ true intentions. Maybe Epictetus really did virtue signal because he wanted to increase his social approval and increase turnout at his school. But we will never know, and it is counterproductive to speculate. We should be thinking about what we know about Epictetus, his arguments, and his sound conclusions.

One pernicious quality of a vice signaler is their anger and disgust. Vice signalers attempt to conceal their anger and disgust but it is easy to spot their hatred spilling over in the form of snide remarks, ad hominems, vitriol, and trolling.  One way to respond to vice signalers is to help them see wisdom by discussing the issues with them objectively and without bias all the while without counter-attacking their character. If the attempt is fruitless, then there is no choice but to ignore them.

By Jess W

JW has a B.A. in Philosophy from Drury University. JW has practiced philosophy for years after graduating Drury U, though he hasn't pursued philosophy as a career of choice. JW eventually learned what Stoicism was really all about and decided to adopt virtually all of its precepts. It's served JW well and has helped him through his journey through a life of ups and downs.

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