“Virtue Signaling” (2019) is a list of papers and analyses by Geoffrey Miller on the phenomenon of virtue signaling, as well as the issue that “runaway virtue signaling” can cause on freedom and freedom of speech.
We All Virtue-Signal
Let’s stop the game of pretending we do not virtue signal.
We all do.
Miller says that virtue signaling, albeit being a new term, goes back to millions of years, to the origins of human morality.
However, I might add, people do differ in the conspicuousness of virtue signaling, such as how heavily -and annoyingly- they virtue-signal, and on the topics they virtue-signal about.
We Virtue Signal Because We Sexually Select for Moral Virtues
Sexual selection is the key to understanding virtue signaling, says Miller.
To begin with, understand that humans appreciate both attractive bodies, as well as attractive minds.
And empirical research shows that many mental traits that are attractive, either are moral qualities, or also posses moral qualities.
So, which traits do men and women appreciate most?
On average, moral virtues preferences are stronger when it comes to long-term mate choice, rather than short-term choice.
But higher-risk ones, like pro-social heroism, might be equally attractive for short-term mating.
The moral virtues most readily explained by sexual selection are those most conspicuously manifest in sexual courtship and relationships, and consistently valued in mate choice across cultures. Courtship generosity is the most obvious example, with clear parallels to ‘courtship feeding’ by animals,
Miller also says that this type of generosity is direct at a non-kin and is not expected to be reciprocated. Hence, it qualifies as evolutionary altruism evolved through mate selection.
I personally think that the “not expected to be reciprocated” should be explained better, since their expected reciprocation is sexual access to the female reproductive system, but otherwise, he’s right.
Morality (Also) Evolved Through Sexual Selection
Miller says that his model of morality developed through mate choice is not meant to replace other models, but to complement them.
Many pro-social behaviors that were assumed to arise through kinship or reciprocity are now thought to have emerged as costly signals of individual fitness, favored by social and sexual selection.
Sexual selection also doesn’t work in isolation, but can “super-charge” other beneficial evolutionary processes by adding positive feedback dynamics.
For example, if a moral virtue becomes useful for social exchage reciprocity, or for kinship, then it’s possible -or likely- that our ancestors didn’t ignore it when it came to make choice.
Virtue signaling signals good-parenting, good partners, and good genes
In general, sexually selected costly signal advertise good genes, or good parenting abilities.
Moral virtues can signal both. A high mutation load impairs the brain’s ability to display sophisticated, empathic social intelligence.
Actually, moral virtue function as advertisers of three important traits:
- Good genes
- Good parenting
- Good partners
The research does not yet distinguish between the three, says Miller.
In my opinion, virtue signaling is about parenting and good partner/fidelity, and less about good genes.
Miller, being the good thinker that he is, also says that the sexual model of virtues makes for exceptions, including:
- Not entail that all sexually attractive mental traits are virtue
- Not all virtues are attractive under all conditions
- Some individuals may prefer more Machiavellian or aggressive traits, or traits that facilitate promiscuity
Cheap VS Costly Virtue Signaling
Virtue signaling can be categorized as:
- Cheap virtue-signaling: bumper stickers, talking, posting or sharing on social media, dating profiles, etc. it costs little or nothing to signal about, and it’s not very reliable
- Costly virtue-signaling: verifiable financial donations, changing to a lower-paying job in order to serve a cause, etc.
The costlier a signal is, the more trustworthy it becomes. Time is also a crucial variable to costs and reliability.
Many guys can be supportive and loving during courtship for example, but not all of them will stay that way during the marriage.
High-Virtue Individuals Pair Up With High-Virtue Individuals
If virtues are sexually attractive, as they seem indeed to be, then we can expect high-virtue people to pair up with other high virtue folks.
People don’t just observe, but sometimes actively probe others for their virtues (called in vernacular seduction literature “shit-testing“).
In species with social monogamy such as ours, individuals should assortatively mate with respect to virtues, because the competitive mating market should ensure that high-virtue individuals prefer each other, leaving lower-virtue individuals no choice but to settle for each other.
Virtue Signaling is Both Great, and Terrible
Miller says that virtue signaling represents both the best, and the worst of humanity.
The best, because he argues that virtue signaling is how we developed empathy and caring for others, and the worst because it drives censoring, ostracization and, albeit Miller doesn’t say it, it also drives what I call “shame attacks“.
Men Are Bigger Signalers
Miller says that men are bigger virtue signalers.
This is because men have higher variance of reproductive success, meaning they are more likely to have both fewer offspring than the average woman (possibly zero), or far more.
So men are predicted to allocate more energy, time, and risk to mating.
That’s why men are more likely to be over-represented among pro-social heroes who risk their lives, as well as among revolutionaries and political rebels who fight for a better world
There should be more conspicuously super-virtuous males (such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.), but also more virtue-deficient males (such as Vlad the Impaler or Stalin).
Mating is Eugenics – Random Mating is Stupid Mating
It pays to be choosy because the genetic quality of your mate determines half of the genetic quality of your offspring.
Mate choice is simply the best eugenics and genetic screening that female animals are capable of carrying out under field conditions, with no equipment other than their senses and their brains.
Plus, I would add, if you keep hanging around the mate, it also determines your quality of life.
We generally accept that ‘ought implies can’ when we judge moral acts. We don’t expect the poor to donate to charity (…)
However, when judging the morality of whole persons in real relationships, we are rarely so forgiving. When the fitness stakes are high, we hold people morally accountable even for faults that are not their own.
Political Orientation as Virtue Signaling
People use political orientation as a proxy for other people’s character.
Usually, people read political orientations like this:
- Liberal: caring, and empathic. Good for child care and relationship-building
- Conservative: ambitious and self-interested. Good at protecting and provisioning
Miller says that men use political conservativism as a (subconscious) tool to advertise their social and economic dominance, or their propensity to acquire social and economic dominance.
And women use political liberism to advertise their nurturing abilities.
I agree with Miller, and a staunch female Republican would come across as less feminine (same for combative Democrat though, since ideological fervor is more of a male thing).
The shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age, says Miller, is not so much about rationality, but as a better advertising tool for the increased social dominance and earnings power.
My Note: Misses on short-term VS long-term sexual signaling
I think something Miller is missing here is about short-term and long-term different types of signaling.
Liberal political philosophy tends to be more forgiving, or more embracing, of sexual expression. And that’s why most young guys hide their conservativism, and that’s why liberalism tends to be more popular among young folks: it’s a time in life for sexual experimentation. People settle down later in life, and later in life, it makes more sense to be conservative.
Read more on this popular forum thread:
Why People Espouse Nonsense Causes for Virtue Signaling
Miller says that mating is a social game, and what’s attractive depends on the environment:
This is called frequency-dependent selection in biology, and it is a hallmark of sexual selection processes.
So if in the social environment the “hot issue” talked about happens to be “the female repression in Rwanda”, then people will latch onto that topic to virtue signal, and they will forget about the homeless down the street, or the women in the city’s abuse shelter that they could go and help right now.
And when a sufficient number of people shift about virtue-signaling towards a certain topic, say, for example, enough people decided that apartheid was the acid test for one’s heart, then it becomes impossible to be apathetic about apartheid without also signaling that one is apathetic about helping others.
Communication is Personal Advertisement
Old theories of languages and communication postulated that language developed to share information.
But that is not the case.
Dawkins and Krebs in 1978 argued that it would be odd for animals to evolve ways of giving away useful information to their rivals. Communication in that sense would be altruistic, and it is very difficult for altruistic behaviors to evolve.
Since then, it became clear that most messages animals send are not messages about the world, but about themselves.
Current Virtue Signaling Punishes Neuro-Diversity
Recent virtue signaling is all about diversity and acceptance.
And yet, by virtue signaling’s own code of conduct, Aspergers, low EQ folk (“systematizers”), and people with social intelligence are punished and ostracized.
Since virtue-signaling rules are fuzzy, change quickly, and require high EQ to understand what’s acceptable, “offensive”, and what’s “safe to say”, people with low EQ struggle to remain within the rules.
The result is that they are marginalized, especially in universities, and either quit, or silence themselves.
This is a net loss for society, since many of the world’s geniuses are on the autism-Asperger syndrome, including Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, Albert Einstein, and Elon Musk.
Indeed, he has a point, see a video analyzing Elon Musk EQ:
Miller speaks from first-hand experience, as he says that he has low EQ, and is a mild Asperger.
Indeed, Miller himself fell for the virtue-signaling trap.
He says about his own coming out, which I thought was funny:
It’s different to ‘come out’ as aspie in a public forum. Nonetheless, I thought, we aspies have a moral duty to stand up for our rights against the censorious normies, and if that costs me a little embarrassment, so what? I’ve got tenure.
- Male parental investment is partially explained through courtship generosity
Says Miller (I paraphrase for brevity):
Courtship generosity may include much of paternal effort that is usually assumed to arise through kin selection (‘offspring’), since most divorced fathers reduce their paternal investment as soon as they are cut off from sexual access to mothers. Thus, what looks like simple paternal investment is ongoing courtship generosity to maintain sexual access to the mother.
- Virtue-deficient individuals may fall into a vicious circle
Miller says that individuals who don’t possess the attractive virtues may seek alternative and more predatory mating strategies that put them on a vicious circle path.
I paraphrase him for brevity:
Individuals lacking the sexually-attractive virtues should more often pursue ‘alternative mating strategies’, just as animals with lower-quality ornaments tend to do. This may include increased use of short-term opportunistic mating, deceptive affairs, sexual harassment, sexual stalking, and/or sexual coercion. If so, we might predict vicious cycle effects in which initially virtue-deficit individuals fail in the mating market, and adopt increasingly desperate and exploitative alternative mating strategies, which further undermine their virtues.
- Modern virtue signaling of “gender/racial equality” and “diversity” is contradictory
Two major dogmas of recent virtue-signaling, the “gender equality” and the push towards “diversity’ are contradictory, notes Miller.
If genders and races were the same, then diversity would make no sense. And if someone seeks diversity because it’s good, which Miller agrees with, that means that genders, races, and people in general, are not the same.
Interpreting single’s ads through evolutionary psychology lenses:
If a young woman places a single’s ad stating “SHF, 26, seeks kind, generous, romantic, honest man”, we might translate this in evolutionary terms as “single Hispanic female, 26, seeks a healthy male of breeding age with a minimal number of personality disorders that would impair efficient coordination and parenting in a sustained sexual relationship, and a minimal number of deleterious mutations on the thousands of genes that influence the development of brain systems for costly, conspicuous, altruistic displays of moral virtue.”
Deep wisdom and lots to learn, as usual from Geoffrey Miller.
- What does Miller think today? We’re not sure
In the introduction, Miller says that he has changed his mind on some of his early publications, but doesn’t say which ones.
I respect Miller as an author, that’s why I picked up his book, and I wanted to know what he thinks today, since the belief is that usually -but not always- people tend to move towards higher clarity of thinking over time, and closer to reality.
- Evolutionary cost of language was sharing information?
Miller says that the evolutionary cost for language is telling useful things to non-relatives, which in turn allows their genes to prosper at the expense of one’s own genes.
But I disagree. The fact that you can tell useful things, doesn’t mean you have to, or that you will.
Great book, I learned a lot.
The first part was the most wisdom-dense, in my opinion.
The Google memo bit felt more in-between manosphere talk and Miller’s usual higher-quality, enriching wisdom.
But still good.
And I didn’t necessarily share all the enthusiasm for “neuro diversity”, especially when Miller included introverts (quoting Cain) and psychopathy (quoting Dutton) in there, but I can see his point, and still largely agree with it.
- Miller, G. F. (1996). Political peacocks. Demos Quarterly, 10 (Special issue on evolutionary psychology), pp. 9-11.
- Miller, G. F. (1998). Book review of ‘The handicap principle’ by Amotz & Avishag Zahavi (Oxford U. Press, 1997). Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(5), 343-347.
- Miller, G. F. (2007). Sexual selection for moral virtues. Quarterly Review of Biology, 82(2), 97-125.
- Miller, G. F. (2017). The Google memo: Four scientists respond. Quillette, Aug 7
- Miller, G. F. (2017). The neurodiversity case for free speech. Quillette, July 18
- Miller, G. F. (2018). The cultural diversity case for free speech. Quillette, February 16