Virtue now means thinking the right thing, rather than doing it

'Mother Teresa devoted herself to virtuous pursuits but was attacked for her beliefs' (CNS)

Ed West, in his ruminations about the recent Conservative victory in the general election, points to a moral phenomenon of our times: virtue signalling. Please do read the Spectator article which is a clear and cogent exposition of the subject.

Once we all believed, and acted as though we believed, that words were cheap, and actions were what counted. People were judged to be virtuous by their deeds, rather than their words. The titans of the Victorian age had solid achievements justifying any claim to virtue. Most of them, like Lord Shaftesbury and the other great philanthropists, both here and in America, were profoundly pious people, and almost all dedicated themselves to good works for the sake of good works, rather than for the sake of fame and recognition. It is interesting to note how many of them were evangelicals and Quakers, given that Protestantism emphasises faith rather than good works. (But more of that later: the Protestant attitude to good works is complex.)

Now everything has changed. If Lord Shaftesbury were alive today, he would not be at the centre of national life, but at its margins, held in contempt and ridicule for his Christian beliefs. I am not just thinking of the obvious point that Lord Shaftesbury would not have been a fan of gay marriage, but that he was also an early exponent and strong supporter of Zionism. That alone would mark him out as a wicked person in contemporary eyes.

Attention has shifted from deeds to words. To be regarded as virtuous it is necessary to hold virtuous opinions, that is to say those that accord with the current “narrative”, rather than to do deeds of virtue. Consider the case of Mother Teresa, who devoted herself to what are traditionally considered to be virtuous pursuits, such as serving the poor. But no charitable action on her part could defend her from the attack on her beliefs led by Germaine Greer, backed up by Christopher Hitchens. What really rankled, as Greer made clear, was Mother Teresa’s implacable opposition to abortion, and her refusal to keep quiet about it. As with Mother Teresa, so with St John Paul II. He too became an object of scorn and hatred to many because of his pro-life stance, being denied the Nobel Prize, and criticised for “having blood on his hands”. Of course the charge against St Teresa of Calcutta and St John Paul II was that they impeded access to contraception and abortion; but given the absurdity of this charge, it should be clear that it was the beliefs of the Saints that made them so abhorrent to people like Dr Greer.

I noted above that the Reformation debate about good works is nuanced to say the least, but that debate – whether we are saved by faith or works, or both – does shed some light on our contemporary situation. The Protestants revered Henry VIII and his children, Edward VI and Elizabeth, as “virtuous princes” because they promoted true religion. The Catholics took not inconsiderable pleasure in pointing out that Henry and his two younger children were, to varying degrees, cruel, capricious, vile-tempered and greedy. This situation, where belief trumps practice, is still with us, as we can see from the anti-Catholicism of Hilary Mantel, who has made a hero out of the Protestant Thomas Cromwell, at the expense of the saintly Thomas More. Cromwell believed the right things, and this faith whitewashes his venality and corrupt legal practices.

The truth of the matter is simple, and it can be seen in the wise words of Our Blessed Lord: “By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). A person’s actions tell us what sort of moral person they are. The adoption of various beliefs and their loud proclamation as a way of virtue signalling is nothing but moral posturing. People who never, or hardly ever, do anything good, noisily take up positions which the prevailing consensus regard as virtuous, in order to cover up their own moral vacuity. This is just the latest form of good old fashioned hypocrisy.

Go back to the example of Thomas Cromwell: he engineered the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn, he despoiled the monasteries, he enriched himself, he destroyed countless works of art – but he was anti-Catholic, and thus a good person. His anti-Catholicism, which cannot be doubted, wins him a pass in modern eyes, just as it did in contemporary eyes. One is held to be virtuous not by what one does, but by what one hates. As then, so today: all the people who rose up to protest at the visit to these shores by Benedict XVI, were indulging in the same moral posturing as Cromwell. Nor is moral posturing confined to the chattering classes: even the government does it. It supports “equality”, ergo it is good; it supports the wasting of money on overseas aid, ergo, it is good; and so on.

What has happened, of course, is that he word “virtue” has changed its meaning. We now count as good those who proclaim themselves to be good, who hold right opinions. But good consists in doing right, and virtue is the habit of doing the right thing, a habit that builds up character. But we have jettisoned the substance of morality, and kept some moral terms, hollowing out their meaning, as Elizabeth Anscombe was the first to observe, back in 1958.

The result is moral confusion.