Can Virtues be Bad?

Christians have turned to virtue ethics in recent years, away from principled ethics

Have you been accused of virtue-signaling? Or guilty of it? Accusing someone of virtue-signaling is the latest way to dismiss calls for racial or social justice. Like the term “politically correct,” this diverts attention from the issue at hand and tries to destroy the credibility of the presenter. Virtue-signaling as a slur has a sharp bite for Christians. Talking about virtues is our language. Perhaps we have a role in preventing misuse of the language to harm others.  

A simple definition of virtue-signaling is the public expression of opinions to demonstrate that you are a good person. The term “signaling” comes from the study of communication between organisms, like a peacock’s tail signals his fitness. Virtue-signaling can describe a superficial show of support for good causes or a holier-than-thou attitude – similar to the description of a hypocrite in Biblical language. The term may have value when it flags a contradiction between public posture and real-life practice, such as the casual use of “thoughts and prayers” for victims of gun-shootings without taking any action to prevent violence. It has become a pejorative buzzword on social media to dismiss challenging arguments, such as its growing use to cut off debates about accepting diversity or to discredit calls for action on climate change as a moral issue.  

How We Approach Ethics
On a deeper level, my reflections draw on my study and interest in public ethics. Christians have turned to virtue ethics in recent years, away from principled ethics (called deontological ethics in academic terms). Virtue ethics focus on the character of persons as the most important factor in public morality rather than the search for rules or universal norms. The revival of virtue ethics explains the current emphasis on character formation in education and faith formation in churches. Both virtue ethics and principled ethics reject utilitarian ethics, the other major school of thought, which is described in common language as “the end justifies the means.” Ironically, current initiatives rooted in virtue ethics often resort to utilitarian approaches, such as supporting political leaders who are not virtuous to get a judge in place who might reverse abortion laws in the U.S.  

In my analysis, virtue ethics is inadequate to guide our common life together. One can’t assume that good people automatically lead to good outcomes. I’m not surprised to see it become a slur. The Reformed branch of Christianity, nursed on total depravity, might understand that. Relying on moral principles also has limitations, and, while it is not popular to say in church circles, I think there is a place for utilitarian ethics. If discussion about “virtue-signaling” results in deeper thinking and more maturity in our approach to public ethics, some good may come from it. In the meantime, I hope that Christians who move in circles where the term is used can find ways to stop the growing use of this lazy put-down, for the larger good of seriously engaging ethical questions. But don’t be surprised if you become the accused when you try. 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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