Virtue signaling is good actually

The idea of “virtue signalling” has been mainstreamed as a way of criticizing performative displays of moral conduct. It’s often used by people when what they really mean is “hypocrisy”.

However, the signalling of virtue, far from being a vice, is an essential component of the very idea of morality. Morality is not, and never has been, a purely individual matter, but is negotiated through shame, honor, and acceptability in a community.

To put it as plainly as possible: it’s better for the world if you encourage others to do good, even if you make no effort yourself. Buddhism has always accepted that it is good to do good oneself and also good to encourage others to do good. Obviously it’s best to do both, so we can make a morality matrix, from best to worst:

  1. do good and encourage others to do good
  2. do good but don’t encourage others to do good
  3. don’t do good but encourage others to do good
  4. don’t do good and don’t encourage others to do good

Virtue signaling is incomplete, and can be hypocritical, but in and of itself it is good.

It is striking that there is no equivalent phrase for “vice signalling”, yet it is very much a thing. A recent example is the South Dakota governor Kristi Noem’s story of killing her dog.

The key point here is: why did she talk about it? She simply had to say nothing. It’s a deliberate choice, the advertising and promoting of one’s own vices as way of provoking and challenging those who stand for virtue. She got lots of publicity out of it, and lots of support from the kind of people who like killing things.

The idea of “virtue signalling” is a linguistic hack pushed by people who want to undermine virtue itself. It’s the same strategy as used with terms like “SJWs”, “political correctness”, “wokeness”, and so on. The purpose is to undermine morality, or at least the form of morality based on compassion, in favor of the morality of power. Here’s a good article about it.

I believe that the idea of “virtue signalling” stems ultimately from the philosophy of Rene Girard. Girard taught that all desire is “mimetic”, which essentially means that we want something because someone else wants it. You can see how this applies in morality: we want to do good because we see that others want to do good. By making it socially unacceptable to “signal virtue” we undermine the basis of morality itself.

That’s not, to be sure, what Girard was trying to do; rather, he was trying provide logical support for Catholicism. He was a French Catholic philosopher based at Stanford, largely unknown in wider circles, but to whom many of the alt-right thought leaders are devoted, notably Peter Thiel.

I think Girard’s ideas—whether used correctly or not—permeate alt-right circles in ways that those outside don’t notice. I happened to study Girard in my research on mythology, and now I commonly recognize his ideas among the alt-right.

The alt-right have picked up on this idea, among others, and are using it as a mimetic hack to undermine moral discourse. The very fact that you say you did something good shows that you are bad actually. Thus no-one can speak of goodness, and the social reinforcement for virtue is dissolved.

In Buddhism, our first focus is to do good. When we do, it’s good to speak of that to encourage others. If people get annoyed by that, that’s their problem. :pray:


Thanks for clarifying your views.

I think virtue signalling is neither good nor bad, it depends on the intent of the doer. All actions depend on the intent.

Lately I’ve been doing the “opposite” of virtue signalling, which is to do an action that I believe is appropriate, regardless of how it may be perceived by others, but without any intent, good or bad.

Any intent generates kamma, so the best course of action is to remove intent from the action, and simply do something because it is “the right thing to do.” Of course, the definition of right and wrong may depend on the perceiver, but I can only follow my own judgement.

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Hear! Hear! :pray: :yellow_heart:


I’m sorry, but this just isn’t possible. This is why virtue matters. Otherwise we could go up and down the banks of the Ganges slaying everyone.

‘Deeds should be known. And their source, diversity, result, cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation should be known.’ That’s what I said,
Kammaṁ, bhikkhave, veditabbaṁ …pe…kammanirodhagāminī paṭipadā veditabbāti, iti khopanetaṁ vuttaṁ.Variant: kammanirodhagāminī → sabbatthapi evameva
but why did I say it?
Kiñcetaṁ paṭicca vuttaṁ?
It is intention that I call deeds.
Cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi.
For after making a choice one acts
Cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti—
by way of body, speech, and mind.
kāyena vācāya manasā.


Thank you for writing (and sharing!) this. It’s quite timely.

Just one point:

I’m not understanding what mimetic desire has to do with it. As you say, that should reinforce the point that signalling virtue is a good thing to do: if we’re having fun doing good deeds, others will want to do them too.

No, the reason the term is resonating with wider Western culture as an insult goes back much further and deeper than one modern French philosopher.

There’s a strong current in Judeo-Christian morality that people should hide their virtue. Showing off your goodness is considered the “deadly sin” of pride:

when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you… But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret… when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father in secret…
~ Matthew 6:2-6

One who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses
~ Talmud Bab. Bava Bathra, fol. 9. 2.



Not so much pride - of course the pride could be also involved -, but simply generally speaking the higher spiritual practice is against our selfish and egoistic inclinations. So one should to do good things and keep quiet about them, as well it is good to have as much wholesome qualities as possible, but desire to be known as having them, is rather ambiguous. From social point of view it could be classified as good,*but from the most important point of view, namely one who practices Dhamma for the sake of nibbana, desire to be known as one who possess wholesome qualities itself is an obstacle. And I hope you agree with Suttas …

“When it was said: ‘This Dhamma is for one with few desires, not for one with strong desires,’ with reference to what was this said? Here, when a bhikkhu is one with few desires, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be one with few desires.’ When he is content, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be one who is content.’ When he resorts to solitude, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be one who resorts to solitude.’ When he is energetic, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be energetic.’ When he is mindful, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be mindful.’ When he is concentrated, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be concentrated.’ When he is wise, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be wise.’ When he delights in non-proliferation, he does not desire: ‘Let people know me to be one who delights in non-proliferation.’ When it was said: ‘This Dhamma is for one with few desires, not for one with strong desires,’ it is with reference to this that this was said.

AN 8.30

The bhikkhu then said to him:

“Friend, the Blessed One declared that you possess seven astounding and amazing qualities. What seven? ‘Bhikkhus, Hatthaka of Āḷavī is endowed with faith. He is virtuous and has a sense of moral shame and moral dread. He is learned, generous, and wise.’ The Blessed One declared that you possess these seven astounding and amazing qualities.”

“I hope, Bhante, that no white-robed layman was present?”

“No, friend. No white-robed layman was present.”

“That’s good, Bhante.”

Then that bhikkhu, having received almsfood at the residence of Hatthaka of Āḷavī, rose from his seat and departed. After his meal, on returning from his alms round, he approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, [and reported to him all that had happened].

[The Blessed One said:] “Good, good, bhikkhu! That clansman has few desires, since he does not want his inner wholesome qualities to be known by others. Therefore, bhikkhu, you should remember Hatthaka of Āḷavī as one who possesses this eighth astounding and amazing quality, that is, (8) fewness of desires.”

AN 8.23

But since - let’s be realistic - not so many people are really interested in nibbana, Venerable Sujato’s idea that virtue signaling is good, generally is not necessarily mistaken since it promotes attitudes and qualities which society recognises as wholesome.

There is only one catch here, ideas which are recognised by modern society as wholesome are sometimes quite different than ideas about what was recognised as wholesome by the society 100 years ago.

For example Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexual relationship. Presently virtue signaling is to say that “I don’t see any thing wrong with homosexuality”. 100 years ago, as a social phenomen, virtue signaling was the real force as it is today, but most certainly it didn’t consist in this particular "signaling ".

Therefore Venerable Sujato should little bit more elaborate the idea that virtue signaling is good, since I believe some cases of the virtue signaling taken from XIX century would actually horrified him.

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Good encouragement Bhante!

I shall not be afriad to “show off” the studies I made into the dhamma as a monk then. Haha. Just hope that it does not feed my pride.

Just a brief taste: my vassa as samanera in 2021: finished 4 nikaya. 1st vassa as bhikkhu in 2022: jataka stories 2nd vassa as bhikkhu: dhammapada stories.


Yes, which is why they want us to stop doing it.

At a deeper level, it comes back to the Nietzchean idea of the death of God and the overthrow of all values. They see modern secular values as a perversion of true morality, one that is headed for disaster and which deserves to be undermined. In a way this aligns with Girard, as he also thought there was a need to reassert “traditional” values (see also Peterson, and other serious thinkers).

Yes, there is a tradition of this going back to the Bible; it originates from a Catholic thinker, that’s kind of the point. But I don’t think it has become so mainstream for that reason; it’s from Girard. Like I said, he’s a major influence. Having said which, I haven’t done a deep sociological analysis of the origins of the idea, so I may well be wrong.

Sadhu! That’s great, it makes me happy, and proud to have such a companion in the Dhamma.


I have felt for my self that it is really impure, burdening, dukkha, to make some public statement with doing moral deeds. Living like one is examplary…pfff. Oh man, that is really dukkha. Being so self-aware. So goal-oriented.

If we are concerned with dukkha, its cause, its cessation, i do not see why such things would be good and must be promoted.

I do not even want to talk about a moral deed if it is in fact just business, an investment, expacting this and that in return. It is also very easy to see that Buddha did never teach that merit leads to Nibbana. That is a wrong view. Merit is supportive but no cause.

I do not feel that it is evil to deal with moral as a kind of business or trading, but still i feel one can question is this even moral? Why does a person have no shame for this? I have. I feel it is shameless to be so strategical.

I see, this is the “they” you’re talking about.

I guess I’m not too worried about the radicals. There’s always radicals. I’m more interested in why mainstream people are picking up these ideas…

Congratulations! :blush:

I thought it was about being free from suffering.

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Bhante, the Levy article is quite interesting and informative; I had never come across the term “virtue signalling” until it popped up in these threads. (Moreover the article is not sitting behind a pay wall :heart_eyes:) There’s a lot to unpack. A couple of reactions:

In fact, there is experimental evidence that people express moral outrage in order to signal virtue, but that the outrage they express is nevertheless real.

This captures, for me, what happened across some elite US university campuses in the last two weeks re: calls for an immediate cease-fire. Let’s assume Levy’s framing is in play. IMO for many of the students this is low-cost virtue signalling. Granted, I’m simplifying this for the sake of my comment. But, by and large, that’s what it looks like to me. I appreciate Levy’s framing because it gives me a more neutral way of reflecting on the protests – one’s head is in the sand over here not to have seen images or streaming of students in their protest attire, body posturing, hurling verbal (and other) lobs, etc. Whereas a tenured professor joining the protests is high-cost virtue signalling.

It would seem the virtue signalling has promoted morality (for lack of a better phrase) because Pres. Biden – with some measure of Congressional support – just paused the 2k-ton bomb shipments. Of course, there are many pundits who’ll argue he did it because he’s “weak” or fears losing young people’s vote in November. Whatever. Correlation is not causation but I’m just trying to read the tea leaves. This comment is nothing more than a thought experiment.

Gossip’s role in solving coordination problems accords well with Tosi and Warmke’s claim that the primary function of public moral discourse is improvement in beliefs or the world. By drawing your attention to A’s bad behavior, I bring you to have better moral beliefs about A and their character (and perhaps secondarily about the kinds of acts or omissions that constitute bad behavior), and I set the stage for improving our society by allowing us to place pressure on A together. However, as societies become more complex, the functions of moral discourse diversify, and signalling comes to play an increasingly central role.

He builds on this to get us to current online culture:

Of course, one may fear that in the contemporary environment (especially on social media, in which talk seems to be cheap and the hard to fake signs of emotion are not perceptible) virtue signalling is no longer hard to fake. This is an issue to which we will return.

Surprisingly --or not, I dunno :face_with_monocle: – this brings me full circle to the AI discussion. You alluded to this in the Stochastic Parrotts essay about Morality: AI can fake a platform for discourse about public morality; i.e, it can fake virtue signalling (oxymoron) while rendering useless the socially intelligent and “grooming” – if not depressing – role played by gossip (and public shaming, ostracizing, etc., which you mention in the OP). That is, people don’t learn how to create and sustain discourse about public morality because AI will do it for them (ostensibly). But AI can only shape the discourse based on how it’s been programed and with what data, fundamentally.

As an aside, a shout-out to the references to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book and I’d also mention Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World by Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

My side-reference to AI is not virtue-signalling here (what Levy calls “piling on”) … well, maybe it is and I’m just deluded. Anyway, I was discussing with my spouse this morning how an AI financial adviser could help young people these days in the capitalist global north, as they are set up to fail by being expected to save money now if they intend to support their medical bills into their 90s. But that’s only the case because the capitalist global north (of which I’m a member, obviously) forced the obsolescence of family elders who traditionally coached young people in life matters.

Oops – looks like my Samsung keyboard is set up for doubling the l in signaling :face_with_thermometer:

:pray:t2: :elephant:

An additional aspect I’d like to highlight is that it is legitimately helpful for people to signal their virtues so that others can identify them more easily. For example, a teacher with a pride flag is practically assisting students in answering the question “which teacher should I talk to first about an LGBTQ+ issue, such as changing the name and pronouns I use in school”.

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This seems very off to me. The categorical statement that virtue signaling is good is wrong. I will signal opposition to this thread and all the seeming agreement with OP. Virtue signaling is not categorically good. There are many cases of virtue signaling that are not only not good, but are in fact completely non-beneficial and serve only to increase suffering with no redeeming qualities.

Doing good is good. The supposition here is that virtue signaling is good. Why? Because it is good to do good. But that begs the question. I mean by this a very specific logical defect in the argument presented.

It is possible to do no actual good, but signal deceptively that you are doing good and hoodwink people into this deception. Why do people do this? To brandish their reputation in subservience to ego. That is not good. That is what the criticism known as ‘virtue signaling’ is meant to point out or at least that is how I’ve understood it.

It is also possible to honestly believe you’re doing good, but not actually do anything beneficial at all. It is also possible to honestly believe you’re doing good, but to do something actively harmful (with no redeeming qualities) as well.

The biggest driver of bad virtue signaling that I’ve seen is righteous indignation. Someone responds to some outrage by communicating righteous indignation/anger thereby signaling that they are superior to the perpetrators of some outrage. No good comes of this. This is a form of virtue signaling that is not at all good or beneficial to my mind.

Along with the categorical statements, the morality matrix is quite incomplete and does not capture the complexity of possibilities around virtue signaling. It is quite possible to think you’re doing good, but not actually do any good at all. And then signal this one way or another. It is also possible to do good and then subsequently signal in a way that has no beneficial result along with many more possibilities.

Reading a bit of the paper linked (but certainly not all of it yet) I see the author backs off the categorical claims in the title and in this OP and states a rather different supposition: that we shouldn’t necessarily fear being labeled as ‘virtue signaler’ nor let such a label prevent us from actually being virtuous. But this is a much different supposition to the categorical statement that, “Virtue signaling is … in and of itself … good.” It isn’t.


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Not under the original post’s meaning of virtue signalling:

They wouldn’t do good, they wouldn’t actually help the student (any more than any other teacher), they’re only encouraging others to do that.

If their intent of putting a flag there is to help them, then that’s clearly not virtue signalling, but it’s signalling that they can actually help them, not because they necessarily want to encourage others to support this.

There is definitely a difference between ‘virtue signaling’ an inherently negative and critical term, and modeling virtue, being virtuous, something quite different.


Well said.

Then the wanderer Dīghanakha went to the Blessed One and exchanged greetings with him. When the courteous and amiable talk was finished, he stood at one side, and he said: “Master Gotama, my theory and my view is this: ‘I have no liking for any’.”

“This view of yours, Aggivessana, ‘I have no liking for any’, have you no liking for that too?”

“Even if I had a liking for this view of mine, it would be all the same, Master Gotama, it would be all the same.”

“Well, Aggivessana, there are plenty in the world who say: ‘It would be all the same, it would be all the same’ and who yet do not abandon that view and do cling to some other view; and there are few in the world who say: ‘It would be all the same, it would be all the same’ and yet do abandon that view and do not cling to some other view. -MN 74

The view that it is appropriate to act without intention is an intentional action.


For the OP.

Good behavior is often unpopular, but when the scope becomes self-referential, it may have nothing to do with that former good behavior at all. So, a person should exercise some tact when taking the time to talk about virtuous behavior, which may actually not be so virtuous.

Nowadays the world thinks differently, but I’m of the belief that repeated good behavior, without much explanation, is more inspiring than trying to convince someone it is beneficial. It is harder and may take a bit longer, but the effects are more lasting. There’s a caveat to this head-down approach, however, because you do want others to learn that virtuous behavior is good! The persistent element is always a matter of curiosity for those around us. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been hounded or questioned about being honest or diligent - “why do you do it?” They ask, and that is when you have the opportunity to describe why you choose that way of behaving. That is when you talk about the benefits. When your family, friends and colleagues are so curious or frustrated that they NEED an explanation. That’s when they will actually hear you. Not when it is unsolicited.

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Then there’s two kinds of virtue signalling. It’s the difference between:

“It would be better if the world didn’t have this problem, but I also have/do this problem.” (Like talking about your own and the world’s desire and suffering)

“It would be better if the world didn’t have this problem, but I’m going to vaguely imply that I don’t have this problem or pretend like I don’t when I actually do.”

And if they don’t have this problem and are doing good, it would not fit the given definition.

If we look at the intentions these probably came from, it’s clear the first one encourages others/begs for the world to be better, and the second person may want the world to be better, but it is also probably egotistical, which would create more harm:

It’s a form of lying.

It manipulated people’s perceptions of the world and into having better perceptions of you.

It’s sophistic, how could you know what’s better if your intention is approval, especially without knowing it to some degree either experientially or logically.

It’s therefore unencouraging to see people lie about what they stand for. And people can tell that it’s a hidden lie by the way you say things and your actions over time. They may even become averted to what you stand for. For example, seeing a mask supporting politician not wearing one in public. Or seeing a respected monastic actually full of bad qualities, and they’d have a worse perception of monasticism even if in theory, that’s not at all what it’s about. In these cases, it’d be quite unencouraging to most, even if it’s technically fallacious to judge the theories behind their virtue with just one person, but that’s gonna happen.

At this point, you could fall back on the morality matrix and say that what I’m describing belongs to the fourth: it does no good and it’s not encouraging.

However, what I’ve described is also the most common meaning of virtue signalling that I’ve seen, so we’re either disagreeing on the meaning, or society’s phrasing of this term is vague and lacking.

The first case of someone admitting their problems is also not necessarily encouraging either. It may be if they say they are actively improving or developing this, but then this may be categorized as (partially) doing good.

For me it means an attitude more of “look at me, look at how wonderful I am”. That’s the times when I use it. However, like “woke” its just used as a snarl word these days for “any policy left of me which I don’t like”. Echo-chamber is another one.