Virtue signalling is not pretending

After watching a single video by H. Bomberguy, YouTube started recommending a bunch more, like this one:

For those who don’t care to watch: H. Bomberguy makes humorous and informative videos mocking anti-feminist youtubers.  This particular video addresses the concept of “virtue signalling”, apparently a buzzword in the alt-right/manosphere.  The alt-right accuses their opponents of “virtue signalling” as a way of saying that their opponents are just doing things to make themselves look good, possibly to get women to have sex with them.

I am not nearly as entertaining as H. Bomberguy, but I want to address a point he missed: signalling is a real concept in game theory, and the alt-right clearly doesn’t understand what it means or how it works.

In game theory, signalling is a strategy that effectively communicates information about yourself.  In the case of virtue signalling, it is a way of effectively communicating that you have virtue.  Note the word “effectively”.  That means, if you signal virtue, you probably actually have virtue.

Why is signalling effective?  Well, you could lie about your own virtue.  But the whole point is that lying is costly.  The more costly a signal is, the more effective it is at weeding out liars.

The particular phrase “virtue signalling” was popularized by a 2015 article in The Spectator.  This article clearly also doesn’t understand signalling:

If George Osborne says he wants a higher minimum wage, then to keep your ‘positional good’ as a person who cares more about the low-paid than others, you have to demand a higher minimum wage. So there is a bidding war. If he wants £7, you want £8. If he wants £8, then you up the stakes to £8.50 or — to hell with it! — £10! You will not be outbid when it comes to your kindness.

In the scenario described, advocating for a higher minimum wage is costly, because you lose support from conservatives, and public will complain if you fail to hold to your promises.  Thus, advocating a higher minimum wage effectively communicates the truth that you care more about low-paid people.  Yes, it is virtue signalling, and that is a good thing because it indicates real virtue.

Of course, there are things to criticize about virtue signalling, particularly when people signal badly, or are bad at reading signals.  The Spectator article claims quite correctly that when Whole Foods has a sign saying “values matter” it doesn’t mean shit.  It doesn’t cost much for a supermarket to put up a sign like that.  And when Nigel Farage claims he is not a racist, that also doesn’t mean shit.

I’ve previously talked about signalling in social justice language, and there are some critical things I could say in that area too.  First, you have to make sure that you’re reading signals correctly.  Signals don’t follow a coherent set of rules, they follow constantly shifting conventions.  Second, I think there is too much emphasis on teaching other people to signal correctly.  The value of signalling is precisely that it is hard to do.  Telling someone that they should stop saying “the gays” is not nearly as important as telling them to not to think of gay people as a monolithic group.

According to the alt-right, virtue signalling is a way of getting women to have sex to you.  Having sex with women doesn’t sound like a desirable outcome to me, but I still maintain that virtue signalling is a good thing when done correctly.


  1. Siobhan says

    According to the alt-right, virtue signalling is a way of getting women to have sex to you

    You know, when you put it that way, it sounds like the alt-right would consider flirting to be virtue signalling. I mean I get their whole shtick is internal buzzwords that lose all meaning outside the manosphere, but like, I’ve never picked someone up by specifying that I’m a good person. I don’t donate to charities because I’m looking to get laid, I donate to charities because my ethics compel me to when I’ve got the means. That I want to get laid is usually a separate conversation altogether.

    I suppose assuming everyone else is as conniving and manipulative as they are tells you a lot about their psyche.

  2. says

    According to the alt-right, virtue signalling is a way of getting women to have sex to you.

    Christ, those fuckwits are sooooo obssessed with getting sex. I’m not saying that sex isn’t great fun, but, jesus they take it past the point where it’s got to be fun.

  3. says

    PS – I bet the alt right consider sticking a $20 in a stripper’s garter is “virtue signalling”
    Oh, wait, no, that’s libertarian redistribution. I get so confused.

  4. says

    This bit reminds me of a point made by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu about culture and class. Lots of people think that a taste for opera or poetry is just a way of showing that you’re superior to ordinary people. Such preferences do have class implications, but what marks somebody off as “cultured” is not claiming to like Wagner or Rilke. It’s actually liking Wagner or Rilke. Which is why it doesn’t really help to sit through the Ring cycle. That’s just posing and people can tell, just as they can tell (eventually) that you’re just posing if you make pro-feminist noises but continue to be a dick.

    By the way, if actually being virtuous, i.e. respecting your partner and treating them well, really does make it more likely that you’ll get laid, exactly how is that an objection? Even Kant, who famously insisted that we ought to do the right thing just because it’s right, believed that in a rational world virtue should result in happiness.

  5. says

    You know, I had the idea that they mean it as a kind of pseudo-virtue signalling; like when the Bible talks about hiding in a cupboard to pray if you mean it, versus ostentatiously going to temple and making a big show of piety without actually doing anything virtuous.

    Maybe, like Fred Clarke was writing about the use of “SJW” recently, some of them may mean it that way, but the majority have lost of all contact with the contextual meanings of words and just say it like it’s totally divorced from any theory.

  6. Ganner says

    The way I interpret it, these are shitty cynical people who don’t really believe in virtue or goodness. They think everyone is shitty and cynical and selfish, or at the very least hopelessly naive about the reality that almost everyone is shitty and cynical and selfish. So being a good person isn’t actually virtue, it’s just a tactic. And they’re really really when you act like you’re better than them for being a good person when they’re being a shitty selfish asshole because they know, really, you’re a shitty selfish asshole too but lying about it for status. What it really comes down to is that shitty selfish people don’t like to be told or made to feel like they’re shitty selfish people. So they convince themselves everybody’s as shitty as they are.

  7. says

    I didn’t know who Fred Clark is, but I looked around and guess you’re referring to this post.

    I find that Know Your Meme is a really good source for these claims–for instance the article on “SJW” notes that usage spiked when gamergate launched. Hard to say we imagined it when we have data. Oh, and here‘s the one on virtue signalling.

  8. drken says

    Virtue signaling is a way to criticize a statement/action that somebody has taken by questioning their motives. “Oh, you don’t believe that, you just want everybody to think you do so they think you’re a good person”. Yes @Ganner #6, it is cynical. I personally find myself doing it when there’s a public dust-up about something involving racism or sexism and some of the people making public statements seem like they’re preening with their outrage a little more than necessary. I don’t think they’re not being sincere in their general opinion of the incident (although they may be), but at some point it became more about “here’s how offended I am at this” than “what happened was offensive”. Of course, whether or not I believe the messenger’s sincerity is irrelevant to the actual problem at hand, I usually try not to use it as a counter-argument.

  9. laurentweppe says

    I am not nearly as entertaining as H. Bomberguy, but I want to address a point he missed: signalling is a real concept in game theory, and the alt-right clearly doesn’t understand what it means or how it works.

    Duplicitous right-wingers stealing expressions and jargon they don’t understand nor care to learn the sense. In other news, the sky is blue, puppies are adorable, and cats are hellspawns conspiring to enslave Humanity.


    Christ, those fuckwits are sooooo obssessed with getting sex. I’m not saying that sex isn’t great fun, but, jesus they take it past the point where it’s got to be fun.

    French corsairs fought for money
    English sailors fought for honor
    American alt-righters fight for sex

    We all fight for what we don’t have.

  10. says

    But how much do motives matter? It’s probably a good thing if politicians support an increased minimum wage entirely for selfish motivations. Might be the easiest way to get a politician to ever do it.

  11. drken says


    If politicians support a higher minimum wage, reproductive freedom, and marriage equality because their constituents would vote them out (the selfish motivation) if they came out against any of those things, then I’d say the system works. All 3 of my congresspeople are for those things, I’m sure some of those positions are purely for political expediency. Robert Heinlein said it best: “Never appeal to a man’s better nature, he might not have one. Appeal to his self interest, it gives you more leverage”. He wasn’t much for gender neutral pronouns, but he had point. I have no expectations of my elected officials “doing the right thing”. I’m not saying they don’t, I just don’t expect if of them.

    I have no serious problems with virtue signaling in and of itself. It’s just that sometimes, when I hear some celebrity or pundit talking about how terrible (or good) something is, I can’t help but think they’re more interested in making sure i know how offended they are than they are actually offended. But, virtue signaling has probably raised more money for charity than anything else, so I’ll live with the occasional eye roll.


  1. […] “Virtue Signalling” is one of those terms commonly used by the Alt Right – another example of the Americanisation of UK politics and culture since the rise of Murdoch and associates. But more depressing than that is the brazen hypocrisy of those final paragraphs. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *