When we accuse someone of “virtue signaling”, we mean that they’re trying to make a showy display of how good they are — how pure their intentions, how spotless their record, how woke their views —, without necessarily doing the work to be good. We don’t like it because we want people to represent themselves authentically, so that we can judge them for what they really are, not what they’ve mis-represented themselves to be.
But as Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith think tank points out, the term “virtue signaling” is problematic. To “signal” is to provide credible information. A bank might situate its offices in a big grand building to signal that it has lots of money. It wouldn’t be able to afford the fancy building if it didn’t. When we separate the signal from the noise, we’re locating the valuable information in the sea of static. But when we accuse someone of “virtue signaling”, we want to say that the information they’re providing is not credible.
Justin Tosi, a philosopher at Michigan, offers a better term: “moral grandstanding”. To “grandstand” is to seek favorable attention, and the term doesn’t carry the implication that one’s displays are credible.