Geoffrey Miller wrote a fascinating book called Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. The general idea behind it:
Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter—a fact that renders “materialism,” a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.
In other words, people don’t buy Rolexes (or even fake Rolexes) because they love the watch; they buy the Rolex because it alerts people to their wealth and status. Granted, this does not explain every purchase we make, but it does explain a lot.
Of course, the products you own are not the only way to signal your worth to other people. Belonging to certain organizations (the Peace Corps, missionary groups, the Hell’s Angels) and being in certain professions (NBA player, fireman, hedge fund manager) also sends signals about your traits and values.
However, these things also have a certain cost to them. For example, missionaries often spend a lot of time in hot, dirty, unappealing locales to do their work. Firemen not only have to train to make life and death decisions, they have to work in dangerous environments under difficult circumstances.
Most people don’t want to go that far to make themselves look good to other people. So, how do you let everyone know you’re virtuous without having to do anything of substance? Easy! Virtue signal on the Internet!
How easy is it? How fast can you type out a tweet saying, “Free medical care should be a right” or “How can anyone approve of separating children from their parents on the border” and then send it out to your followers?
That is all it takes… which is why tens of millions of people do it every day. That leads to a different problem: with so many people sending out empty virtue signals, how do you stand out and show your virtue amongst the masses?
Again, EASY! You ramp up the rhetoric even further and take it to extremes. “Free medical care should be a right! So should free housing and a living wage!” “Anybody who supports separating kids from their parents on the border is a Nazi! We should just release the kids and the parents into America right after we disband ICE!”
You can take this to an almost infinite level and many people do because there is no real cost to virtue signaling.
On the other hand, real virtue is often expensive in a variety of ways. Mother Teresa lived in slums in India. She had to deal with the bottom of society and given her limited resources, make difficult decisions about medicine and housing that she was criticized for relentlessly, mostly by people doing nothing for people in poverty. MLK was jailed for his beliefs, watched by the FBI and endured endless threats to his personal safety before he was assassinated. Bill Gates is a very rich man, but giving away 28 billion dollars of his personal fortune so far is not a small thing. Maybe he’ll never miss it, but if his circumstances change one day, that 28 billion he gave away could make an enormous difference in how his life plays out.
On a more ordinary level, tithing 10 percent of your income stings. Giving up hours of your free time every week to volunteer for a cause is no fun. Even educating yourself on an issue and attempting to suggest plausible real-world solutions takes time and usually gets you kicks in the butt from purists content to virtue signal instead of giving pats on the back.
This cost for real virtue vs. cost-free virtue signaling has consequences in the real world. It’s easy to demand that we take down Confederate statues, but does it feed anyone’s child? Does it alleviate poverty? Does it stop crime? Does it actually make anyone’s life better in any meaningful way? No. Yelling about children being separated from their parents on the border doesn’t ultimately fix anything because Trump’s executive order will likely be found illegal by the courts and then we’ll either just release every illegal alien with a kid into the United States or we’ll go back to the old policy. There is actually legislation that would fix the problem, but Democrats find it easier to virtue signal than to take care of the problem long term. Some people will pat you on the back for yammering on about “white privilege” or “how men are awful,” but does that actually improve anyone’s life or does it just create more strife so a few people can publicly try to get a gold medal in the “Wokeness Olympics?”
We now live in a society where most people don’t feel like they actually need to DO anything to solve problems because they already showed how committed they were to dealing with those issues by sending out a tweet or publicly supporting some piece of legislation. Too many Americans have replaced the idea of real virtue, which takes work, sacrifice and dealing with difficult issues, with fake virtue that’s quick, painless and easy. In the end, this makes us much less virtuous than the past generations of imperfect Americans who struggled to deal with issues in a fair, moral and effective way. Sometimes they failed. Sometimes they didn’t live up to their own values. Sometimes their prejudices and ignorance kept them from making the best decision. But at least they were down in the trenches trying to make something good happen in the real world instead of trying to get credit for virtue that they hadn’t earned.