Virtue Signaling: Why Political Debates on the Internet Are So Often Pointless

By Dan Sanchez,

Have you ever noticed how frustrating it is to argue with people about politics on the Internet: like trying to use your head to knock down a brick wall? Well, keep in mind that the feeling is probably mutual.

But also consider the practical utility of that brick wall: the rational interest many people have in being close-minded and wedded to false beliefs. As economist Bryan Caplan has written:

“…irrationality, like ignorance, is sensitive to price, and false beliefs about politics and religion are cheap. If you underestimate the costs of excessive drinking, you can ruin your life. In contrast, if you underestimate the benefits of immigration, or the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution, what happens to you? In all probability, the same thing that would have happened to you if you knew the whole truth.”

False beliefs about economics and political philosophy may be devastating in aggregate, but for the individual the cost of choosing to embrace fallacy is negligible. So, as Caplan argues, it is perfectly rational for many to stubbornly cling to false but “emotionally appealing” beliefs. There are no individual, internalized costs that could possibly outweigh whatever emotional benefit the false belief might have.

Caplan wrote the passage quoted above in 2006. Last year, British writer James Bartholomew coined a term and crystallized a concept that is highly complementary to Caplan’s analysis: virtue signaling.

Virtue and Vanity

Most of what passes for political discourse on the Internet does not consist of actual attempts to persuade. Rather, the opiners are like preening birds, chirping for anyone within earshot to signal that, “I am a decent, virtuous person,” usually adding, “unlike the troglodyte rightwingers or degenerate leftists I’m denouncing.”

Such virtue signalling is socially profitable. When others in your social set detect that you faithfully subscribe to that set’s orthodoxy, they become better disposed toward you. This can result in professional, social, even romantic opportunities.

And just as holding a comforting false belief is rock-bottom cheap, so is expressing a socially-advantageous false belief.

But in addition to this rational interest, there is a compulsive, pathological component to virtue signaling as well. That part is baggage from the way we are all raised as kids.

Political Tattling

When children are free to learn from undirected experiences, they learn to conceive of truth as something that guides the successful pursuit of their own goals. But in the domineering, tightly-directed environments of school and the modern household, we condition our children to conceive of truth as received wisdom handed down by authority.

Children are largely deprived of the noble joy of discovering truths as revealed by successful action. Instead they are left with the ignoble gratification of pleasing a taskmaster by reciting an answer that is marked “correct.” And this goes far beyond academics. For the modern child, learning “good behavior” is not about discovering through trial and error what kinds of behaviors are conducive to thriving socially. Instead, it’s about winning praise and avoiding censure from authority figures.

Thanks to this conditioning, we have all become approval-junkies, always on the lookout for our next fix of external validation: for the next little rush of dopamine we get whenever we are patted on the head by others for being a “good boy” or a “good girl,” for exhibiting the right behavior, for giving the right answer, for expressing the right opinion.

This is why the mania for virtue signalling is so ubiquitous, and why orthodoxies are so impervious. Expressing political opinions is not about hammering out useful truths through the crucible of debate, but about signaling one’s own virtue by “tattling” on others for being unvirtuous: for being crypto-commies or crypto-fascists; for being closet racists or race-traitor “cucks;” for being enemies of the poor or apologists for criminals.

Much of our political debate consists of our abused inner children basically calling out, “Teacher, teacher, look at me. I followed the rules, but Johnny didn’t. Johnny is a bad boy, and he said a mean word, too. Teacher look what Trump said. He should say sorry. Teacher look what Hillary did. You should give her detention.”

You can’t expect much enlightenment to emerge from this level of discourse.

An Alternative Approach to Advancing Liberty

This may make the situation seem hopeless for advocates of the freedom philosophy. How can we convince the public about the virtues of freedom, when they are only concerned with signaling their own virtue and are so heedless of argument and reason?

One solution might be to focus on how the freedom philosophy can benefit people in their own lives individually.

For example, children thrive and develop wonderfully under freedom: when their parents adopt unschooling and peaceful parenting. Parents can deny this; they can cling to their false authoritarian beliefs about child rearing. But, unlike with public policy questions, being wrong on the question of parenting is extremely expensive on the individual level. Parents can choose to virtue signal that they, like all “decent” people, support public schools and condemn their kids to a decade-plus sentence of forced desk labor, but only if they pay the cost: ending up with alienated, stressed-out, frivolous kids with no spirit of enterprise.

Unlike with policy debates, parents actually have a direct, internalized stake in arriving at the right answer to the parenting question. Once parents accept that the freedom philosophy is true when it comes to their children, it will be easier for them to see how it is true for society in general. And children raised in freedom are more apt to recognize its virtues across the board as well. It’s hard to imagine an unschooled kid growing up to be an authoritarian adult.

Also, adults who have already been institutionalized by schools and made neurotic by domineering parents often imbibe a docile, dependent, permission-based mindset that holds them back in their career and in life in general. And they often find themselves gravitating toward unfree environments, routines, and relationships that compound the damage done in their childhoods.

Understanding the freedom philosophy (especially the character-building nature of liberty and the character-corroding natures of both power and servitude) can be an individual’s first step toward breaking free from these destructive mindsets and environments. (Indeed, even many libertarians have not deinstitutionalized themselves in this way.) And again, concerning this question, the seeker of self-improvement actually has skin in the game, and so has every interest in being open to a philosophy that can turn his/her life around.

This is the kind of approach that the exciting company Praxis has taken: using the freedom philosophy, deschooling, and the spirit of entrepreneurship to help launch the careers and change the lives of young people from all across the country.

Imagine a world-wide libertarian community that consists of fewer Internet virtue-signalers and would-be politicos, and an ever-rising number of entrepreneurial, wealth-building, value-creating, life-affirming individuals who astound and inspire all who know them. What exemplars of, and walking arguments for, the greatness of liberty such men and women would be.

Maybe freedom lovers should stop expending so much energy bashing our heads against the brick wall of policy disputation, and instead try the open door of appealing to self-interest: by promoting the freedom philosophy, not just as a political philosophy, but as a life philosophy.

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  • ICFubar

    Interesting concept. I try and not to get sucked into debates with individuals who shout mantra as being a great waste of time. While this idea of freedom philosophy seems a winner with the stated end goal of creating ‘entrepreneurial wealth building, value creating, life affirming individuals’, I would ask what is the expressed criteria for the wealth built? If the answer to that is the accumulation of wealth for its own sake as so much product is today then that freedom is misplaced or misspent. The economy we have today is predicated on wealth accumulation as its primary directive. Any life affirming may or may not be a by product of the investment or enterprise, mostly not if all aspects are studied. Life affirmation should be the primary axiom of the human economy to which all investment and enterprise is predicated on. If a business doesn’t support life systems or expand those systems or worse has negative results really what good does it do the human economy at either or both the physical and existential levels? If we apply this concept to the human economy on everything from money and its creation and purpose to popcycles we might see a real life affirming economy as a replacement for the old one we inherited.

  • Southernfink

    I would not say that political debates on the web are often pointless, it would be far more interesting if we could use this medium on the MSM during/following one of their propaganda sessions.

  • “Imagine… an ever-rising number of entrepreneurial, wealth-building, value-creating, life-affirming individuals who astound and inspire all who know them.”

    Many would argue that entrepreneurship and wealth-building are essentially life-denying activities, as long as our economic activity funds the 9/11 terror state.

    In September I intend to bring the global economy to a screeching halt, so that it can then be re-tooled, and war eliminated from its structure. Then wealth-building can finally be compatible with life-affirming values, and people of conscience can participate in this economy absent the deep misgivings from which we now suffer.

    • Denisejheck1

      <<o. ★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★✫★★::::::!fn407m:….,….

      • Thank you for your response, Denise Hijack.
        My hunger strike will begin on September 11, 2016, outside the World Trade Center PATH station. Shortlly thereafter, the fictional account of the 9/11 crime will cease to function as it has in political discourse.

        Recognition of 9/11 reality will lead us down the road toward accountability, truth, justice, peace and abundance, and the re-unification of the American people.

  • twinfishfour .

    In the age of information gathering, you have to be aware of what the person you are talking with consumes as “information”. In many cases, its propaganda, malnourished, but also a distrust of information sources that the person is not used to. Literate older people who consume MSM over a lifetime are pretty hopeless in my experience.

    Kevin Ryan and David Ray Griffin are remarkable examples of information consumers and middle men who have the skill to sort through a mess and deliver strong analysis. This is all too rare. What passes for mainstream media too often is not teaching good study habits or setting a good example.

    Commitment to particular ideologies tends to lead to polarization and unbalanced results. Virtues are best examined in a case specific format. Civilization is an asset that depends on social infrastructure, and ideologies have tried to claim their priorities for private property or social programs are an extension of civilization without really examining the local and centralized implications, and thus poor policy results, for example, when you look at particular cases.