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In defence of virtue signalling

Justin Portal Welby pays tribute to the martyrs  (NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

September 13, 2019 - 9:51am

This week, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited the site of the Amritsar massacre in India and prostrated himself on the ground in a gesture of public repentance. He said he wanted to acknowledge “the sins of my British colonial history”.

Perhaps predictably, the reaction has been mixed. Critiques include people asking why he didn’t address various other current atrocities and injustices in contemporary India alongside accusations of “virtue signalling”.

Colonial history is complex and contested, and the religio-politics of contemporary India perhaps even more so, but the immediate kickback was wearyingly familiar. Doing good is difficult. Doing it in public even more so, but some roles, not least national church leaders, require at least the attempt.

The accusation of virtue signalling has become the ubiquitous method by which our imperfect grasping towards the good is derided. In this atmosphere, why would we even try?

Philosopher Jonathan Rowson says virtues can be thought of as embodied values. Every business has a value statement, aspirational goals to aim for, but unless they are embodied and acted on publicly in concrete ways, they are just meaningless PR guff which feed the cycle of cynicism.

Virtue ethics, the school of ethics which teaches that what matters is not the utilitarian outcome of our actions but the kind of people we are becoming, also emphasises the need for character to be embodied in action. Virtue develops as we repeatedly choose the good over the selfish and venal, when we try and act as an imaginary “good person” would do, even while acknowledging goodness doesn’t come naturally.

Welby’s prostration on the ground to repent for his – our – ancestors atrocities is an imperfect act, but a powerful one. We are social creatures who need permission from others, and every public act of repentance, (or forgiveness, generosity, patience) helps create the conditions for others to follow.

But if we cry “hypocrite” or “virtue-signaller” at every attempt, letting our defensiveness and deep seated cynicism drive every response, we are contributing to a society where vice is more likely than virtue. And I don’t want to live there.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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