Virtue Signaling: Religious & Secular

“Signal Theory” (one “l”)  is an engineering / mathematics term (see this wiki link).  But “Signalling Theory” (two “l’s”) is a term used in economics and evolutionary biology (see this wiki link) and is what I am discussing here.  In particular, humans sending subtle signals to each other about their virtues or moral uprightness — why they are trustworthy and good.

When we think of virtue signaling, religious signaling of religious people come easily to mind:

  • “I’ll pray for you”
  • “God Bless you”
  • “After going to church on Sunday …,”

Religious folks use these methods, consciously or not, to signal to themselves and others that they are moral, upright, trustworthy and more.  But such behavior is, of course, practiced also by religion-free people (atheists, agnostics etc).

Here are some secular methods people use to signal their virtues:

  • My Politics: (depending on the audience, declaring your political allegiance can have this affect.
  • My Diet:  Vegetarians often reek of this.  (I am a former vegetarian, see my confession here)
  • My Philosophy:  Talking about ethics and morality are a signal, no matter how false.  (see prev. post)
  • My Sports Teams:  Heck, even declaring oneself a sports fan can signal identity, bonds and allegiances (all part of morality).
  • My Consumption Habits:  Environmentalists, Recyclers etc use their positions as signals.

You see, we all try to signal our superiority in some way.  Religious folks usually include this signaling in their abstract package of religion as I illustrate in this diagram below (See this post). 

Functions of Religion

Religions folks package up their signals in religious garb in order to amplify their signal.  But even though secular folks also signal their virtues,  the insidious nature of religious signaling is that, for the most part, religions discourage the questioning of these packages — religions scorn on the questions of their values and doctrines.  However, secular folks, though still signaling, are much more open to discussing and questioning their signals.  Or at least that is my impression.  Or at least we should be able to question secular signaling without being shut down to quickly with taboo shame.

Question to readers:  Name others secular signals you can imagine.  What do you feel about my last claim?

— See my other posts on Morality here.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

4 responses to “Virtue Signaling: Religious & Secular

  1. I’m not sure why those things in your list are necessarily moral signals. If you’re a vegetarian, you might have good reasons for being one. You might not disclose that you’re a vegetarian unless you have too, such as when you’re eating at a function or you’re asked directly.

    I think talking about ethics is not really a signal but an intellectual exercise that we tend to do. We question our own ethics.

  2. @Cranium
    Yes, you are right:

    (1) BEING a vegetarian does not necessitate signalling any moral superiority at all. BUT, have you ever heard someone declare themselves vegetarian with an air of moral superiority or moral sensitivity. Indeed, many do it to make themselves feel good about themselves. Does this make it wrong? No, of course not. But it is important to recognize the signaling.

    (2) Discussing Ethics does not have to be a signal either, but it can. I will let you imagine the scenarios.

    Do you ever feel that you do or have done moral signaling?

  3. egyoung

    From your diagram…both behaviojr control and tribal bonding are aspects of a larger funtion : social control by the group in power. Zbut is ‘moral signaling’ the right term? We exchange signals about our position versus the univerze (likes, beliefs, affiliations, power, and preffered lifestyle) every time we interact with someone new or anew. Is moral signally not just a part of this larger signalling? If i signal that i,m not to be triffled with… Is itmeant as moral signally? Just wondering if the word itself ought not be revisited in your interesting blog.

  4. @ egyoung,
    We could organize these different functions in many different ways. This is just meant to illustrate the basket of functions.

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