Tag Archives: signalling

Covert virtue – the signal that doesn’t bark?

An attitude I often come across is that if you do a virtuous thing, it is impolite to blow your own trumpet about it. ‘Give privately!’ is the catchcry. Even those who are open about their good deeds are likely to hold a special admiration for anyone they discover has been secretly helping others for years, and never even mentioned it.

I asked around and apparently this norm exists because when you go on about your altruism, it calls into question  your motivation. Perhaps you made that donation just to be able to show off your virtue and wealth to everyone else, rather than being motivated by ‘pure’ compassion. Someone who only cared about helping others would apparently keep their hands busy, and their mouth shut.

I think the reality is the complete reverse. A culture of ‘private altruism’ has some seriously perverse effects, and anyone who really cares about doing good in the world should be working to undermine it.

Firstly, it means we are less inclined to talk about and share the information we have about which causes are most valuable and effective. Given that donations to charity and other approaches to making the world a better place vary in cost effectiveness across many orders of magnitude, this is a huge loss.

Secondly, if people can’t gain social acceptance from altruistic acts, those acts will tend to be crowded out by alternatives that are unavoidably conspicuous – impressive cars, holidays, degrees and so forth – that will do a better job of signalling how rich, noble and interesting they are. On top of this, people will become biased towards conspicuous but ineffective ways of helping others. It’s easy to keep a (very valuable!) bank transfer secret, and pretty gauche to post the receipt on social media sites. But flying to Africa to help build a school, or signing up to a Facebook group? Everyone will find out about that! Sadly, signalling ‘arms races’ over conspicuous consumption and slacktivism, rather than ‘effective altruism’, are exactly what I observe around me.

In light of this, private giving, far from being consistent with a pure and virtuous motivation, is actually deeply suspicious. Someone who really cared about helping others as much as possible, and was making substantial sacrifices to do so, would want to bring up the fact whenever they could get away with it, in order to draw attention to the merits of their cause and prompt others to join in. Those who ‘give privately’, must care more about blindly following harmful social norms – or more likely, getting extra admiration for their deeds when people ‘accidentally’ discover what they have secretly been up to. This could be a ‘signal that doesn’t bark.’

So next time you do something good, find a way to shout it from the rooftops, especially if the act is particularly big, valuable or easy to do discreetly. If anyone tries to call you out for ‘showing off’, politely explain why the pure of heart have no choice.

Update: Here’s an amusing video on the topic. (HT David Barry)

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