Kierkegaard, “the public”, and the vices of virtue-signaling: The dangers of social comparison


Concerns about the dangers of social comparison emerge in multiples places in Kierkegaard’s authorship. I argue that these concerns—and his critique of the role of “the public”—take on a new relevance in the digital age. In this article, I focus on one area where concerns about the risks of social comparison are paramount: the contemporary debate about moral grandstanding or “virtuesignaling”. Neil Levy and Evan Westra have recently attempted to defend virtue-signaling against Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s critique. I argue that these defences fail and that a consideration of epistemic bubbles and echo chambers is critical to seeing why. The over-confidence to which they give rise exacerbates certain vices with the potential to do moral, social and epistemic harm: I focus in particular on self-righteousness (complementing Kierkegaard’s discussion of envy). I then argue that Kierkegaard’s contrast between the religious category of the “single individual”—the genuine person of “character”—and the person who effectively appeals to the authority of some version of “the public” deepens our understanding of why we should reject defences of virtue-signaling. It helps us to distinguish between two kinds of virtue-signaler (“superficial enthusiasts” and “cleareyed cynics”), both of whom contribute, in different ways, to the negative impacts of the vice of self-righteousness. Contrary to Levy’s claim that virtue-signaling is virtuous, I conclude that typically it is closer to vice than to virtue.


Kierkegaard, virtue, vice, social comparison, virtue-signaling, epistemic bubbles, echo chambers, self-righteousness

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