With the now ubiquitous use of social media, we have come to democratise our ethics and publicise our convictions on at least a daily basis. The intrusion of a news event, the appearance of a public figure, the rise and ruin of a zeitgeist, the policies and politics of our current era, are all up for grabs, and are subject to our emotional approval or rejection. With the click of a heart, and the raising of a virtual thumb, we can signal to our world not only what we think, but what we think we ought to think. The dose of approval and belonging, of tribal identity, that this delivers can be intoxicating.
In this post I want to examine the idea of ‘virtue signalling’, of the public profession of virtues and values, of ideas and preferences, and to think through some of the devastating implications of how we make our minds up, and how we make them known. My contention will be that we are endangering virtue to an alarming degree, and allowing our conscience to be annexed by a committee of peers, rather than the higher concepts of truth and goodness.
Two consequences can be suggested that follow our communalising what we think and how we speak about what is good and right:
Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth century pastor, theologian and philosopher, has some important things to say about the essence, definition and adulteration of virtue. In his ‘A Dissertation Concerning the True Nature of Virtue’ he lucidly defines what his subject entails – ‘Virtue is the beauty of those qualities and acts of the mind, that are of a moral nature, i.e. such as are attended with desert or worthiness of praise or blame’ – and also shows some close counterfeits that fall short of their claims to worth. What is most interesting for our purposes here is the direction in which Edwards orients virtue – it can only ever be centred on, and situated in, ‘benevolence to being in general’. That is, virtue is not a merely personal matter; for something to be virtuous it must aim ultimately at the blessing and crediting of being per se. As a theologian, Edwards centres essential being in the person of God, and thus only what is benevolently inclined to his glory can be counted as truly worthy.
This means that much that looks virtuous, or is even consensually agreed on as ethical, may fall short in the end. Virtue cannot be privatised, not least because it does not find its terminus in the individual person or their welfare, but in the benefit of ‘being’ generally and, for the Christian, in the glory of God.
Edwards’ thinking here is strikingly similar to the Kantian idea of generalising one’s maxim, of firing the consequences of actions, ideas, and ethics, into a trajectory which shows their ultimate end and essence. This means that what is good cannot be merely defined within my private realm nor, Edwards contends, can tribal identities or minor networks claim to find virtue on an agreement or convergence of principles. This paragraph from Edwards is hugely significant to our discussion,
Let it be supposed, that some beings, by natural instinct, or by some other means have a determination of mind to union and benevolence to a particular person, or private system, which is but a small part of the universal system of being; and that this disposition or determination of mind is independent on, or not subordinate to benevolence to being in general. Such a determination, disposition, or affection of mind is not of the nature of virtue.
The importance of this statement is that it shows the fallacy of democratised virtue, of groupings granting morality to ideas or sentiments by force of conviction or by weight of numbers. Virtue simply cannot be determined in this way as it places what is good within the private realm of ideas, appetites, and vested interests, robbing it of its objective value and reality.
The modern application of this is deeply unsettling. Social media has conditioned us to set virtues by the standard of signalled virtues, to mistake a closed system for wide consensus, to make shared ideas the basis for ethical standards, and to bastardise the idea of truth in the process. Our value and virtue judgements have become almost entirely sensory and communal, a willingness to grant truth to what the majority are saying, to surrender the bigger claims and ends of what is right and real to the pestering voice of what is contemporary and common to a small group.
The result is devalued virtue, a set of morals which are built on the honeycombed foundations of simply giving cursory approval, and these ethics are then absolutised into a system which denies a voice to all who dissent. So long as my community and my coterie, my friends and my fraternity, are mutually signed up to what is true and virtuous then no external standard need be applied. The consequence of this is a radically shifted centre of gravity as to how we listen, speak, think, and decide, and to how we associate and disassociate ourselves from others. Whatever this shared moral is, it is not virtue by any recognised standard, and yet we have now come to mistake it for such.
The real-time application of this is nothing short of terrifying. In a closed system of inhibited virtue, the values by which its members live are highly problematic. If the moral foundation of a community, a society, or a nation, relies only on its own rationale, or worse its own unreasonable appetite for approval and acceptance, anything is morally possible, and dissent is practically impossible. The foundation cannot be questioned because it is located in a shared psyche, in the insecure network of mutually agreed ethics, which fears its own vulnerability to collapse if robust disagreement is offered. This means that those who sign up to an agreed network of values are less likely to question themselves, less likely to listen to others, and more likely to suppress difference. These are the seeds which mature into totalitarianism, and we have voluntarily bought shares in its renaissance.
This means that we now live in a social media world of information pornography. Like sexual pornography its ultimate end is selfish gratification, its working capital is gross exaggeration, and its outcome is relational disintegration. We are saved the hard work of forging meaningful connections with others through the convenience of watching our self-made world rouse itself against disagreement, we are titillated by the system’s ability to authenticate and vindicate itself, and we never have to look outside of our own desires or be regulated by the standards of another. This is how much of our debate, much of our decision making, much of our social engagement is now pursued, and the fallout for future generations will be devastating.
Our values are now ‘devirtued’, they are strongly held opinions with ephemeral foundations, they are marked by activism, by hostility, by tribalism, and not by reason, or an objective sense of right and true. Under these circumstances we have opened up a cognitive space where we no longer have to think, we just need to feel, where we don’t need to assent but to simply agree, where we can fall in line with the onward march of group priorities and identity politics without the meaningful engagement of conscience. We should no longer wonder how the early twentieth century with its industrial barbarities happened, we have internalised its virtue, and are now aggressively externalising its values.
Freedom of speech will be the first casualty of this cognitive artifice, but not its last. Freedom of thought will follow, compelled speech is but a breath away, and the surrendering of individual concerns and interests to political machinery is entirely possible.
As a Christian, all of this ought to give me pause. The calling of Romans 12:2 to not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of my mind in Christ Jesus, is going to demand something much more intrusive than the avoidance of vice, or the declaration of a moral bill of rights. The whole mechanism of how I think, how I decide, how I orient my life, is going to need a radical disconnection from the whole mindset of my surrounding culture. The Christian can no more reconcile him or herself to the calculations of modern morality, than they can to its conclusions. We will need to engage in the mortification of our sensory instincts, and in a fresh vivification of biblical insight and doctrinal co-ordinates which will orient us after God and his glory amid so many distracting signals, and siren-like voices in the culture. It will mean a complete renewal of mind and mechanism, a desire for the gospel redemption of the motives that underlie our conclusions, and a counter-cultural insistence on locating the trajectory of our view of virtue. In short, we are going to need God by his Spirit to deconstruct our assumptions and affections, and rebuild them in a godward direction. Anything short of this is investing in whitewash to improve the graveyard, or merely applying brillo pads to the outside of the cup.