Virtue Signaling

On April 15th, 2015 Spectator writer James Bartholomew penned an article expressing his annoyance over Whole Food’s latest attempt to market itself as an empathetic global conglomerate. During his trip to the high-end grocery store, he noticed posters of poor African children with text highlighting the company’s effort on global poverty. Upon returning home, the writer conducted brief research and realized roughly 0.001% of the company’s profits are diverted toward international economic injustices.

Mr. Bartholomew labeled the practice of espousing virtues, but a lack of action virtue signaling.

One can hardly blame Mr. Bartholomew’s frustration over the ever-growing avenues of hollow altruism. This week the current administration will sign a tax bill proclaiming relief for those in financial need, while the legislation does the opposite. Alabamians, who largely champion family values and good faith, will likely elect an alleged, six-timed alleged child sexual predator.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and writer/actress Lena Dunham, two self-proclaimed sexual assault justice allies, who initially aroused initially strong responses supporting the ongoing national reckoning of rampant sexual assault, acted cowardly when confronted with such acts involved a colleague. Even in my field of impact investing and sustainable finance, my peers seem to spend more time on endeavors of self-adulation (i.e. conferences, interviews, and other speaking engagements) rather than making a difference.

Cognitively cumbersome as this all may be, we must simmer our social justice juices before taking out social media pitchforks and pink hats in attempt to shame those we deem inauthentic virtuous espousers.

Why? Because, trying to shake down the tree of every sanctimonious virtue signaler is an exercise in futility that deviates from the importance of properly understanding and acting virtuously.

For starters, what do we deem to be a virtue?

Christine Emba from the Washington Post beautifully outlines that virtue can be centered around, “self-discipline, responsibility, courage, honesty, loyalty, and faith.”

When trying to evaluate virtue I am reminded of the old idiom: that to manage something, it must be measured. Also, the idea from William Bruce Cameron that, “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

This a time where being properly virtuous is ever prudent. The problem, however, of villainizing the counterfeit virtuosos lies within attempting to constructively quantify one’s honorability.

Further, when society attempts to attack an organization or individual for lacking one of these aforementioned traits of virtue, we ultimately get entangled into a shame game with no real winner or productive conversation that addresses the moral ill at the core of the problem.

There is a harmful irony, when debating the merits of virtue, that many attacks on honesty are dishonest and many criticisms regarding one’s faith often come from many who are unfaithful. And sadly, many of the attacks on the issue from loyalty come many who are utilizing that line of reasoning to sound morally superior. In short, they’re not even loyal to their own method of rationalization

Make no mistake, strong virtues should be desired. But I am hard pressed to support the idea of virtue signal shaming on two additional accounts: first, navigating the conversation of verifying virtue authenticity always eventually devolves into a dialogue around ego and tribes. In addition, finding the exact formula and/or figure who perfectly and seamlessly represents all the traits Mrs. Emba highlights is a rarity.

So, what can we do?

First, we can read between the lines with respect to virtue signalers. For example, when a politician’s moral compass only revolves around cutting taxes without any nuanced explanation of the consequences, one should be worried. Nor should one be surprised when a large majority of voters in a state who champions Christian beliefs (but are on the wrong side of history of every civil rights issue) support a pedophile.

Lena Dunham and Congresswoman Pelosi have long been vocal advocates of sexual assault justice, but have also shown a propensity to be more callously group-thinkers than thoughtful individuals. Admirers of the entertainer and public servant should withhold shock given their fruitless high character gesturing.

And in traditional finance, there has long been a practice of celebrating justice by a paltry allocation of resources towards social initiatives. I should know better in expressing optimism that the same community, with the same players, act any different under the guise of “impact investing”. When these efforts have mostly been empty gestures.

Additionally, we can also expand on Mrs. Emba’s list of virtues. We should value virtues like prudence and temperance with respect to our nation’s challenges. We must reintroduce the meaning of love and respect into our conversation on masculinity, equality, and justice.

Above all, we should be highly acquainted with the exact instances to evoke certain virtues. Mankind should uphold humility in the face of pride, kindness against envy, calm when confronted with fear, patience counter to anger, and diligence against lethargy. And in times of hardship and turmoil, one must display the virtue of courage.

Because as the virtue saint, Maya Angelou, once proclaimed, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

So, let’s start with suspending our outrage over the action of high end grocers and gain valor to speak out against the bad actors and action pervasive in our culture.

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