Geoffrey Miller‘s Virtue Signaling is a compilation of some of his work. All pieces are relatively popular and accessible. In addition to sexual selection this tackles problems related to virtue signaling and balancing reasonable perspectives in speech. The Coddling of the American Mind was a clearly written thesis. Miller’s book is a little different to that.
Indeed, it is a bit of a hodge-podge. I would have been grateful for him drawing out the themes a bit more. Clearly Miller’ interest in what we might now call virtue signaling, as he says, has been been with him for all his career. The book is a collection of compiled articles which means linkages can be confusing. Where the book is at is best is when he discusses virtue signaling and balancing reasonable perspectives. I would not be as strident as he is. That said, it seems fair to argue that there are perspectives that need to be included. The concern that some perspectives are being overlooked in policy at US institutions seems worth considering.
Early Work On Evolution And Sexual Selection
Miller gets the book going with his older work which suggests, amongst other things, that sexual signaling is involved in the development of human morality. This seems like an interesting idea. I don’t really have the capacity to make very insightful comments. Yet, it makes sense that people would try and impress potential partners with their morality. As he says this desire to impress with your virtue can lead to some of the best and worst parts of humanity.
People incur significant costs to do what they think is best which surely makes humanity better. That said, the overexuberance that some show in enforcing morality can cause problems. Overall, I don’t have a major problem if people get to meet partners when doing the right thing. If people protesting against Apartheid found relationships then good for them. If you do the right thing and get rewarded that seems like a good thing.
The fact that most people don’t spend all the rest of their lives struggling for the good causes they followed in their youth is a shame. Still when looking at humans it helps not to expect them to be too perfect. If sexual motives meant students tried to improve South Africa even if this went away after they found a long-term partner then great as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think that conflicts with Miller’s views. Virtue signaling — for instance, protesting against something that isn’t directly related to your life and you can’t do that much about by yourself — might be seen negatively on occasion but it can do some good.
Virtue Signaling And Balancing Reasonable Perspectives
When he is more specific and more likely to impact everyday life is when Miller discusses who gets to be considered in discussions of free speech. Miller argues that vague, e.g., ‘don’t offend anyone speech codes’, are a problem for people who think differently. On the face of it this seems a reasonable concern. I have not been involved in setting a speech code. As such, I would value hearing how this is dealt with when this happens.
The problem of fitting in with a vague policy, Miller argues, is also a concern for international students and scholars. Miller raises specific concerns. For example, in their graduate seminars international students “may be expected to maximize their ‘class participation’ grades… without having any idea what they are allowed to say” (Miller 2019). This is a tough balancing act, when you move somewhere you know that things are a little different and you expect to change your language a little.
I think it is often reasonable to expect people to change their words to avoid giving offense. That said, how much is too much? When do we ask people to lose themselves? I know when I came to the US I heard some of the language and was surprised. In most ways I would say that the US academic language I heard is more careful than everyday British English. Yet, I was surprised to hear some insensitive terms related to people with disabilities were used by otherwise very careful and well-meaning Americans.
The point is that it isn’t always clear to everyone what is okay. US people who really mean well could easily get into trouble in the UK and vice versa. (I’m obviously perfect so no worries for me). This can only be a greater concern when moving between less related cultures and speaking in a different language. That we all, especially non-native speakers, write out and memorize every word that can be used, when, and by whom is clearly impractical. So what to do?
Life is challenging. Even if you don’t agree with Miller, and I suspect I don’t on a very significant number of issues, we should be able to address his concerns in a thoughtful fashion. Worrying about people from different cultures, or who think differently, is an important thing to do.
Read: Geoffrey Miller (2019) Virtue Signaling: Essays on Darwinian Politics & Free Speech, Cambrian Moon