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.

One thought on “The Horrible Truth About Virtue Signaling

  1. I think you need a distinction between “ability” and “commitment” signalling. Ability signalling is what Bryan Caplan talks about regarding education: performing actions which are especially easy or cheap for you to perform, and would be difficult or expensive *for other people*.

    This is different from commitment signalling, where one performs actions which only make sense if one is genuinely committed to a cause, person, or group. These are the kinds of signal which have to be costly in order to be credible. For example, buying an expensive engagement ring only makes sense if one is genuinely committed to marrying one’s lover.

    These are not exhaustive of signalling, by the way – I have yet to work out how to integrate wealth signalling into the account. It may yet turn out that “virtue signalling” can be a useful concept – we should not expect virtue to fall neatly into the category of either abilities or commitments, since it involves both good judgement and good will.

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