The Horrible Truth About Virtue Signaling

Lloyd von Eblerhiem, last scion of House Eblerheim, rightful heir to the Stolen Fortune, vengeful servant of the One True God, and second stage initiate into the Holy Order of The Redeemer shoveled cold mud onto a a damp makeshift rampart together with his fellow captive Oswald Juventas, pirate of the Nine Coasts. The squalid primitives in custody of them insisted on erecting crude defenses at every filthy nomad camp they set. It had taken months of gestured pleading to convince the illiterate savages to take the sharpened battlement stakes with them from camp to camp to save on materials and labor. Whittling the damp deadfall in the fens along the river was wasteful by any measure.

“How long do you reckon they’ve been making these ridiculous defenses, Lloyd? How many years?”

“Not sure,” Lloyd grunted as he slung another gob of muck atop the mound. “From what I gather, the curse that blots out the sun and turns the wolves vicious has stood for the better part of five centuries.”

Oz whistled, low and long. “I’ve heard tell of whole civilizations rising and falling in less time.”

“Likewise. Kings and Emperors, great nations alike may coal or less and yet collapse all the while these stone-faced brutes blow their mud o’er the land.”

“You sure you got that quote right, Lloyd?” Oz asked.

“What quote?”

“Never mind.” Oz looked out over the cold moor, trying to see if anything stirred among the dense fog. He couldn’t see so much as a foraging raccoon. “You know, if they really wanted to slow down attackers, they’d give us our weapons back.”

“They might be worried that we would slaughter them to make our escape.” Oz moved around to the front of the rampart to install the final row of spikes.

With a disdainful wiggle of his mustache, Lloyd scoffed at the suggestion. “These rough mud-folk might lack for honor, but I am a loyal Servant of God. I would never stoop so low.”

“Yeah, yeah, Lloyd. I know, man. You’ve got your honor. You don’t need to virtue signal to me: it’s them that don’t understand you and your vows.”

Lloyd stuck the wooden blade of his shovel into the peaty mud. “What is ‘virtue signaling’, Oz?”

“You’ve never heard of virtue signaling? It’s when someone says something to let others around you know that you’re one of the good guys. You know, posturing.”

“If you wish to accuse me of posturing, Oz, simply accuse me of posturing. There’s no need to bastardize a perfectly good concept from the discipline of game theory.”

Oz froze in place to gawp at Lloyd, cypress stake halfway into the mud. “You and I have been prisoners of these tribesmen for the better part of a year now. This is the first I’ve ever heard you talk of academic theory.”

“Sir Selten taught courses on game theory. He insisted that in our roles as advisers to court, we needed to have a proper appreciation for the theoretical under paintings of intrigue, of coalition politics, of practical theories of war. That sort of stuff.”

“Did you just say ‘under paintings’?”

“Yes, the paintings that go under the text in the books.” Lloyd cocked his head at the irrelevant question. “The thing about signaling is that it has to be deliberate, targeted, and most importantly, expensive.”

“Go on.” Oz had turned his back on the ghastly fog to pay closer attention to Lloyd.

“Tell me, Oz: do you know what a shibboleth is?”

“I’ve heard the word, but now that you ask, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly what it means.”

“Commerce requires trust, does it not, Oz?”

Being a pirate, Oz had a keen interest in matters of trade. After all, without flourishing shipping traffic, he would be obliged to take to the sea in search of fish. “Trust, aye. Reciprocity too I’d wager.”

“So how do you get trust? Where does it come from?”

Oz thought on this for a moment as he drove the rampart spikes into the mud. “Repeat business, I suppose. Reputation.”

“Reputation works well when you know the players in the marketplace. You’re a sailor. You know anyone when you set foot in a new port?”

“You mean apart from my crew?” Oz grinned. “No, I reckon not.”

“So you can maybe ask around about who to trust for your next contract, but how do you know you can trust those people? It’s a nested dilemma, agreed?”

“Agreed, but you eventually have to trust someone, right? A little diligence can go a long way.”

Lloyd nodded, “that’s certainly true. Diligence in this case is extremely valuable, not just for the individual merchant, but for the integrity of the traders as a group, yes?”

“Yes. So what?”

“So what is that it’s valuable enough for specialists to do your diligence for you.”

Oz raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How does that work?”

“The trouble is that it’s very tempting to renege on one-time contracts, but far less tempting for repeat business. So if there were some way to mimic the long-term incentive structure for spot markets, you wouldn’t have to spend all that time and effort finding out who’ll stab you in the back while you’re not looking.”

The idea was intriguing, Oz admitted to himself. “I’m listening.”

“The temple provided proxy reputation services.”

“The temple? What temple?”

“The Hebrew temple. Temple elders would blacklist unscrupulous traders…” Lloyd paused for a moment to recall the old lessons, “or maybe they whitelisted the good ones, I forget. Either way, there was an implicit threat that if you cheated other Hebrews, things would go poorly for you.”

“That’s it? Seems pretty easy to lie your way around.”

Lloyd shrugged. “You might be right, but add to that other pressures, like an appreciation for group identity, stories of escaping persecution together, proper high holidays, and a bunch of other little things that cemented group identity, and you’ve got a pretty good system for keeping most potential defectors in line. Besides,” Lloyd added, “the point is more to prevent outsiders from cheating than insiders.”

“It is?”

“Think about it: you’ve got a ready-made stable of potentially gullible rubes ready to trust anyone who they think is one of their own. Disguise yourself as one of them, and make off with their cargo at virtually no risk. Sounds pretty good doesn’t it?”

“Sure, but it sounds just as good if you’re one of them than if you aren’t.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of a group identity, Oz.” He jerked a thumb towards their captors. “You think these savages want to eat turtle heads and drink frog water? They do it because the rest of them do it. They do it because that what their people do. Their system would collapse otherwise.” Lloyd smoothed the earth down in the space behind the rampart. “People are fond of their systems.”

“So that’s it? ‘People are fond of their systems’ sounds like what someone would say if they’ve never met a pirate.”

“Aw, come on. Pirates have their systems too. Just because you’ve never thought about it doesn’t mean it isn’t there, Oz.”

Oz shrugged again. “Maybe you’re right. But I thought you were going to tell me what a shibboleth is.”

“Right! Yes, thank you. The shibboleth was the word the Hebrew traders would speak to each other to check for impostors. Haircuts and clothes can be easily imitated, but the native Hebrew accent was nearly impossible to replicate for someone who hadn’t learned the tongue from the cradle. It was the keys tone holding the group identities distinct.”

Oz decided then and there that Lloyd’s penchant for Mondegreens provided more entertainment than confusion, so he promised himself that he’d stop mentioning them. “Okay, so they had a good way to check strangers for group membership, and this allowed the whole arrangement to work. What of it?”

“Well, the shibboleth was the signal: it was hard to reproduce, extremely valuable, and quite costly.”

“Costly? It’s just a word.”

“Yes, but to utter it properly, you have to be raised speaking Hebrew. You must forgo all other options. You have to actually be a member of the tribe. That’s what cost is, after all: the value of the next most attractive opportunity.”

“Sounds pretty subjective, Lloyd.”

“Cost and choice are always subjective, Oz.”

“So what you said about being a loyal servant of God…”

“Mere platitude. Any fool can utter platitudes. Platitudes do not a signal make. Visible commitment to the cause of HOLY RETRIBUTION is a signal. My Divine Sense would be a signal of His Favor, but only if you can see the way my eyes light up when I beg Providence.”

“Your eyes light up, Lloyd?”

“They can. You haven’t seen me do that before?” Lloyd activated his Divine Sense, opening himself up to witnessing unseen threats in the distance. “See? Silvery-pearlescent…” He scowled at something in the distance. “Alert the Indo. There’s something in the fog.” He gripped his shovel as if it were a longsword and looked around for a makeshift shield.

Oz sprinted towards the girl he had secretly taken a bit of a fancy to.

Moments later, the werewolves were upon them.

Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative

In 2004, I was 19, conservative, and a partisan for blogging in the then-raging bloggers vs journalists rivalry.

The incident that would eventually end Dan Rather’s career at CBS seemed to me the model of how bloggers would improve the news. A news organization is a relatively bounded thing with finite resources, even if it isn’t systematically biased. With the Internet, you only needed one person anywhere in the world with the skills or alertness (or both) to catch an error, and this could be communicated to everyone. It seemed obvious that this new, distributed feedback system would make news more accurate than ever before.

Moreover, it seemed obvious that there would be no place for the news organization in the new world. Who needed professional journalists when you had citizen journalists, with a wider range of qualifications? Foreign correspondents could be replaced by bridge bloggers, like Iraq the Model, who liveblogged the first free Iraqi elections.

I participated myself, rounding up blog posts and articles on the war, the economy, and the new media debate, and adding my own commentary. I imagined myself as a member of a new community which would eventually include varying contributions from most citizens in most countries of the world. Those contributions would add up to a well-oiled distributed feedback system that caught errors at a faster rate than they were made.

Time has not been kind to that vision.

Continue reading “Against the “Post-Truth” Narrative”

Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

Tending the Liberal Garden

Featured image is The Courtyard of the Hospital in Arles, by Vincent van Gogh – repr from artbook, Public Domain 


Adam rightfully calls our attention to the “tragic liberalism” of Jacob Levy. This style of liberalism is tragic because the legitimate values of the polity are incommensurable, plural, and inconsistently applied due to the inevitable diversity of the political body. These features lead to “irresolvable tensions.” These tensions are tragic not only because they are a constant, Sisyphean feature of the human experience, but because all attempts to navigate the tensions invariably hurt the legitimate interests of real human beings. We live in a world of trade-offs.

To take a frequent example Adam and I have used, the individualist concerned with liberation will desire to impose a certain level of uniformity on the populace for the sake of the disadvantaged members of society. A closed society like that of the Amish will face interference from without aimed at liberating those individuals perceived either as oppressed or at least as insufficiently capable of making and acting on informed decisions about their membership in the community. But this imperils the very existence of those sorts of communities, which individuals have genuine reasons to value that have nothing to do with the desire to dominate others. And a universalist imposition will hamper the discovery potential of a more federalist approach that affords such communities wider latitude. Both partisans in a political dialogue about how much to interfere in such communities are reasonable.

Continue reading “Tending the Liberal Garden”

In Praise of Partiality in Science

We all grow up with an image of science as a pillar of truth and nothing but truth. This ideal is so deeply embedded in us, that the very idea that scientists should take responsibility for the normative aspects of their work is anathema. Of all the things I have written here on Sweet Talk, my series on this subject provoked the most ferocious responses by far.

But science itself is far more than just truth. Elizabeth Anderson thoroughly dismantles the notion that it is. Our very ability to discern the whole truth, according to her, depends heavily on what we would call normative values, rather than value-neutral considerations. The whole truth is not a representation of “every fact about the phenomenon being studied.” If it were, it would “end up burying the significant truths in a mass of irrelevant and trivial detail.”

Theoretical inquiry does not just seek any random truth. It seeks answers to questions. What counts as a significant truth is any truth that bears on the answer to the question being posed. The whole truth consists of all the truths that bear on the answer, or, more feasibly, it consists of a representative enough sample of such truths that the addition of the rest would not make the answer turn out differently.

Anderson’s whole truth can only be determined by honing in on what is significant, an inherently value-laden concept. And that significance is determined by the questions we ask, which are based on our interests. Continue reading “In Praise of Partiality in Science”

Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

Continue reading “Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy”

If by Identity Politics

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about identity politics. All right, here is how I feel about identity politics:

If when you say identity politics you mean the cultural relativism, polylogism, the automatic and unappealable guilt of the white man by the Original Sin of his oppressive tyranny, that engenders antagonism, essentializes individuals by race or gender, destroys discourse with accusations of tone-policing and mansplaining and foists upon us unwanted self-understandings, calls forth a new age of identity-based segregation, yea, literally constructs a new hierarchy of privilege-checked domination to put in chains the pale old masters; if you mean the evil spell that topples the freedoms of speech—yea and to offend—and of association into the bottomless pit of safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions and mattress marches, white fragility and the male gaze, problematizing and Twitter shaming, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say identity politics you mean solidarity, diversity, the realities of present bigotry and discrimination and the legacy effects of ancient oppressions, the idea that our experiences diverge according to the identity groups to which we belong—chosen and unchosen, plural and overlapping—and that to ignore these differences is to paper over injustices—designed or emergent—in rote thrall to a bland ideal of equality that can perpetuate injustice; if you mean activism led by those who know where the shoe chafes; if you mean more deeply plumbing our social well of knowledge by really listening to the testimonies of groups historically ignored; if you mean a rejuvenated liberalism which magnifies our differences not to erect walls between us, but to illuminate the path to a more genuine equality of dignity achieved in our contextual lives and not just in abstract blueprints; if you mean realizing the benefits of diversity, which are the necessary conditions for that Open Society welcoming to individuals of all sexes and genders, races, religions, nationalities, peaceful political ideologies, and body types; if by identity politics you mean loosening up the grand narrative of history’s victors to include alternative and conflicting interpretations, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.