O fons Bandusiae, splendidior vitro … cras donaberis haedo, the ancient Roman poet Horace declares in Odes III.13. (“O Bandusian spring, clearer than glass … tomorrow you shall be offered a goat.”) Horace is referring to the custom of offering animal sacrifices to the gods of nature. Fail to make the appropriate offering and the god in question might not give you a good harvest or—as in this case—supply you with cool, clear water during the hot summer months.
The ancient Romans believed in a whole raft of gods, who were responsible for everything that happens, and on whose good will humans depended. Religion was transactional: it operated on the principle of do ut des: I will give you this (chicken or goat or ox) so that you give me that (clean water or a good harvest or victory in battle). But why did Horace feel the need to write a poem about such an everyday practice?
In Horace’s day, a good Roman was expected to exercise pietas (piety), which required maintaining an appropriate relationship with the gods and performing the expected rites. In publishing this poem, Horace was telling his audience that he was a pious man who knew how to behave. The Roman poet, Catullus, probably had a similar purpose, when he declared in a poem that he had performed his brother’s funeral rites prisco quae more parentum tradita (“in the old way handed down by our parents”).
Displaying one’s fidelity to the norms of society is perfectly reasonable: indeed, it makes sense that we would have evolved an innate psychological tendency to do so. For most of humankind’s time on earth, life was unremittingly hard and dangerous, presenting us with a huge number of natural hazards, including many carnivores eager to make us their prey, so one’s chances of survival would have been dramatically improved by banding together with others. A single early Homo sapiens, on her own, would stand little chance against a mammoth, but a band of humans could turn that same mammoth into enough food to last them several days.
This need for cooperation partners presented a problem: how to decide with whom to co-operate. For example, someone who agrees to join a hunt but does not bother to turn up, or someone who runs away at the first sight of the prey, would not be much help. Nor would one probably wish to hunt with people who, upon success, grabbed the best, most nutritious pieces of the animal for themselves.
It was the need to find reliable co-operators that drove the evolution of human morality, according to researcher Oliver Scott Curry, who calls this theory morality as cooperation. His analysis of over 60 societies across the globe suggests that all of them prize the same seven moral virtues to one degree or another, that all of those virtues tend to motivate behaviour that promotes co-operation, and that none of the 60 societies praise those who transgress against those values.
A society needs a moral code to promote cooperation, but it also needs to motivate people to adhere to that code, and help them evaluate who can be relied on to do the same. If one is about to undertake a potentially dangerous project, it is useful to have advance evidence that one’s colleagues will act well and as expected. In a small, simple society, in which one has spent all of one’s life with a small band of people, one will develop a good understanding of who can and cannot be trusted, based on their past behaviour.
In a larger, more complex society, however, one cannot evaluate the reliability of all one’s potential co-operators based on experience alone, because there are too many people, some may be newcomers, and some may hail from societies with somewhat different moral norms. Under those circumstances, people also need a way of signalling that they follow the same moral code. Traditionally, this signalling has been accomplished through rituals and symbols.
Rituals—sets of usually formalised actions—are often performed in public, allowing one to show one’s devotion to a particular cause to those in attendance, and sometimes to those not present (for example, if the ritual leaves physical evidence behind, such as well-tended flowers at a family gravesite).
Rituals generally impose a cost on their participants, whether spending an hour of one’s free time attending a church service, sacrificing a goat instead of eating it, undertaking a long and dangerous journey (like the one Catullus took in order to perform his brother’s funerary rites), or the self-flagellation that members of some Christian sects perform. By incurring a cost, a person provides additional evidence that her devotion to the moral code in question is sincere.
Symbols that are used to signal allegiance to a moral code may sometimes be discreet and sometimes obvious. If the moral code is unpopular in the wider society, symbols will tend to be displayed more discreetly. For example, early Christians signalled subtly to each other by tracing the outline of a fish in the dust on the ground. If one’s moral code is widely socially accepted, symbols will tend to be displayed more obviously. For example, many modern western Christians wear a cross.
Every newly created movement or ideology tends to develop its own set of rituals and symbols, sometimes by adapting older ones. For example, during the French Revolution, there was a short-lived attempt to replace Catholicism, first with the cult of reason and then with the cult of the supreme being, and adherents to these cults were required to engage in communal worship and rest every ten days (instead of on Sundays as Catholics do). Thus, the movement gave its adherents an opportunity to display their allegiance by adapting the familiar ritual of regular church attendance.
In our more secular, science-oriented time, many societies no longer use belief in a supernatural entity as an anchor for their moral codes, but they still have moral codes and ways to display adherence to them. Indeed, we may need virtue-signalling norms even more now, since the internet has dramatically increased the number of interactions that are not based on in-person experience with others.
As I have argued elsewhere, those who promote intersectionality are attempting to create a new moral code. If that is true, one would expect adherents to find ways to publicly signal their adherence to the code. Given the decline in church attendance over recent decades, those signals are unlikely to be based on religious rituals or symbols.
Taking the knee seems to be an early attempt at such a signal. At first, this ritual was mainly performed in Europe by footballers and race car drivers; after the murder of George Floyd, it became a widespread practice in the US among politicians and activists attending public events. In Europe and the US, sporting events have long offered a space for public signalling, such as the singing of national anthems. In Europe these days there are few other public rituals, due to the decline of organised religion. In some parts of the US, there may be more in-person opportunities to signal adherence to a common moral code because of the American tradition of pledging allegiance to the flag in some schools and before some local government meetings.
The internet has provided a new space in which people can signal adherence to a moral code, and there are signs that it is being used for that purpose. For example, some social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, allow one to add symbolic messages to one’s publicly visible biography, or change one’s profile picture to display symbols such as a Pride flag or the black square that was briefly used to symbolize solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is less evident that social media has developed any rituals—set, formalised activities in which adherents can publicly take part to signal their allegiance. However, social media posts that express appropriate sentiments about certain publicised events can be seen as a form of ritual. Such expressions have no fixed form, but can contain certain ingroup words, phrases or images that signal adherence to a code. They are arguably an adequate substitute for ritual, in that they satisfy the same requirements: they are public, they can be made regularly, and they require people to incur at least a slight cost—the time it takes to compose and post their views—and some additionally choose to invest further time addressing the responses they receive.
Using the internet to signal adherence to a moral code has both advantages and disadvantages. It is an advantage that the cost incurred is relatively low: a Facebook post costs nothing and takes much less time than, say, going to church. Internet virtue signalling also enables a far greater reach than was available to previous generations, who could signal their allegiance only to those who were physically present or who would encounter physical signs left behind, such as pictures drawn in the dust or flowers on a grave.
The low cost of internet signalling is a disadvantage in that this can make it less convincing. It’s easier to evaluate a person’s level of commitment when the costs incurred are variable and can be much higher. For example, does a person attend church daily, weekly or only at Christmas? The ease with which one can display one’s beliefs on the internet does not provide that kind of evidence. This might explain why people who display allegiance to intersectionality on the internet tend to express themselves in extreme terms: those who wish to signal that they are particularly dedicated must comment on ever more recondite issues to signal that they have incurred the higher time-cost of greater research.
Some see symbols such as flag icons in people’s social media bios and actions like taking the knee at public events as strange, modern innovations. The ancient Romans no doubt felt that way when they saw the first Christian symbols. But the only thing that’s new is the particular form the rituals and symbols take. Those who are inclined to oppose these new rituals and symbols might ask themselves whether they would object to the follower of a long-established faith engaging in rituals and displaying symbols that, similarly, signal adherence to her moral code.