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Virtue signalling and moral decisions

_85403264_hi028879066In the discussion about how to respond to the refugee crisis, I have come across a new phrase: virtue signalling. Apparently coined by Libby Purves, it involves saying something that has moral appeal but without being founded on any kind of clear thinking. Up till now, when I have read Giles Fraser’s public pronouncements, the phrase ‘vacuous moral reasoning’ has come to mind, but now I have a new phrase to deploy.

Giles’ latest Tweets compare Britain and Germany’s responses to the migrant crisis:

Well, let’s take a look shall we, with the assistance of Robert Peston. Peston is as astute in his analysis as ever, and points out some challenging realities for Germany as it looks into the future, courtesy of the European Commission’s projections from its Ageing Report that was published earlier this year.

It projects that Germany’s population will shrink from 81.3 million in 2013 to 70.8 million in 2060, whereas the UK’s will rise from 64.1 million to 80.1 million…

It is probably relevant that the Commission forecasts that the proportion of the German population in 2060 represented by migrants arriving after 2013 would be 9%, compared with 14% in the UK. So Germany would be a lot less multicultural than the UK.

That’s worth hanging on to: Britain is set to have a larger immigrant population than Germany for a very long time to come. This all has massive implications for something that the Church is very familiar with for other reasons: population ageing and the pensions crisis.

As for the dependency ratio, the percentage of those 65 and over compared with those aged between 15 and 64, that is forecast to rise from 32% to a very high 59% in Germany by 2060. Or to put it another way, by 2060 there will be fewer than two Germans under 65 to work and generate taxes to support each German over 65.

Because people are living longer more or less everywhere, the dependency ratio is also set to increase in the UK, but by less – from 27% to 43%. Which still represents a massive increase in the burden on the younger generation of supporting the old, but not as great as in Germany.

So Britain’s population is already rising fast (we are set to become the most populous country in Europe) and Germany’s dependency on young people is going to be much more severe than ours.


Peston stops short of suggesting that this is the reason why Germany is welcoming refugees—but it certainly makes the implications of the decision very different from the implications of welcoming a similar number in Britain. That is why a Europe-wide quote system, which some have suggested, would never be feasible. Any shared European action would have to take into account the different current and future scenarios for different EU members states, and those scenarios vary widely, not least because of past policy and history. But it is also worth noting the relative merits of the two countries’ approach to the issue:

Angela Merkel is creaming off the most economically useful of the asylum seekers, by taking those that have shown the gumption and initiative to risk life and limb by fleeing to Europe. Precedent suggests they will be the ones that find work fastest and impose the least economic burden on Germany or any other host country.

By contrast, David Cameron appears to be doing what many would see as the more morally admirable thing – which is to go to the Syrian camps and invite children and the most vulnerable of refugees to Britain. But this version of living up to what the prime minister calls our moral responsibilities is undeniably more expensive in the short term than giving a welcome to the able-bodied refugees already in Hungary, Greece or Italy, and desperate to come here.

So it is worth reflecting on who is showing the most moral courage.


In a very helpful post on his blog, evangelist J John offers some alliterative advise on engaging with this issue: we need to be involved, intelligent, have integrity and include intercession.

Our compassion should also be intelligent. This is a crisis that needs to be addressed not simply by the heart but by the head. One of the problems of our image-driven world is that it often takes pictures or film to stir people into action but the results of such emotional outpourings may be no more than impassioned speeches that don’t actually achieve much.

I think I will stick with the Evangelist Canon rather than the Loose Canon on this one.


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7 Responses to Virtue signalling and moral decisions

  1. Paul Seymour September 8, 2015 at 10:10 am #

    This is one of your few none biblical blogs but for me I want to bring it back to a verse I can not get away from :

    For I was hungry & you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty & you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…’

    Then I start to think of the story the exodus and how Christ was a refugee and my normal high levels of cynisism fade.

    All of your points could be right, Germany could be wicked as to be only looking out for itself, although I don’t believe that, we could have more of an ethnic mix than Germany but thats partly caused by having a commonwealth and having been a nation of empire. The Germans may have a massive pension deficit but our own is not good and we have a bigger health service to maintain etc. Yes having refugees and migrants coming here may put some stress on services but the evidence is we profit from them coming.

    But all of the last paragraph is not the main point and no emotionalism will not help but the question to any Christian is when I was hungry and thirsty did you feed men when I was without home did you give me a home?

    • Ian Paul September 8, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Paul. Please note that I nowhere suggest ‘Germany is wicked and only looking out for itself’. What I am suggesting is that Giles Fraser is completely naive and misleading in claiming ‘Britain is wicked and looking out for itself; Germany is selflessly responding without regard to the consequences.’

      I have no doubt that the Germans are very acutely aware of the impact. Because of their falling population, they actually have a substantial housing surplus, and because the Euro benefits their economy at the expense of the poorer members of the Euro, they have a current account surplus—which they cannot simply spend because that could stoke inflation.

      Here’s a comparison: someone with a full house not offering a home, and someone with several spare rooms offering to take someone. You cannot compare the two simply by looking at the actions, without considering the relative impact on the two situations. That is what Giles is unhelpfully doing.

      On the use of biblical examples, in my previous post I offer this comment:

      The most common text that I have seen flying around is Matt 25.40: ‘Whenever you did this for the least of these my brothers, you did it for me’. But, read properly in context, this parable of Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with helping refugees—at least not in the way we are being challenged today. Jesus uses the term ‘brothers’ and ‘the least of these’ to refer to his disciples (see Matt 12.48–50); since the ‘Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt 8.20), Jesus expects his followers to experience at least something of the same; and the notion of reward for those who care for Jesus’ followers has been introduced previously, in the context of facing pressure and persecution (Matt 10.42, where the recipient of kindness is referred to as ‘one of these little ones who is my disciple’). Rob Dalrymple offers an extended study of the correct meaning of this passage. The daft thing is that there are plenty of other places to go to shape our response to those in need—not least the parable of the Jericho road in Luke 10.

  2. James Byron September 8, 2015 at 10:53 pm #

    I’m sure that enlightened self-interest’s a factor in Germany’s decision, but there’s plenty other ways it could attract immigrants, and plenty risks to inviting in so many unknown displaced persons at once. Principle, likely informed by the nation’s past, must play a sizable part. So on this, I don’t think Fraser’s being naive.

  3. David White September 9, 2015 at 6:11 pm #

    Hmmm.
    The European Commission’s Aging Report 2015 is not about the morality of accepting refugees, but about the financial burdens of the aging of the population in years to come. It uses the 2013 Population forecasts, which depend (at least in part) on guesses as to how people will behave over the next 45 years.Robert Peston knows that population forecasts are notoriously difficult and is careful. But it is a long step from the Aging Report even to the nuanced implications of your blog.
    It is well-known that the indigenous German population is entering steep decline, because its birth rates have been far below replacement levels for many years. But UK birth rates are also well below replacement, albeit not as low as German levels. Although increasing longevity masks what is happening within both countries, both UK and Germany could be expected to have the economic scope to accommodate and benefit from inward migration, Germany more than UK. It is then strange that the figures on which the Aging Report is based suggest that UK will host greater net immigration than Germany. I have not been able to grasp from the underlying 2013 Population forecast just why the able and independent-minded statisticians of the European Commission expect this to be so.
    You are careful to say that Robert Peston is not just imputing self-interest to Angela Merkel’s readiness to accept refugees. But I am afraid that the tone of your blog as a whole suggests that this is indeed the implication. O dear. I rather like your blogs on the whole.
    We need to be very cautious about basing conclusions as to what we should do in today’s crisis on long-term demography. The current wave of refugees is not so much about the pull of demography as it is about people’s desperation to escape a dire situation, one in which we are not entirely innocent. Their numbers, although large, need to be seen in comparison with the very large net migration that has taken place over many years and that will continue, whether we like it or not. And we need to be realistic about the possibility of stopping people who are desperate. However high a wall we build, there will always be a ladder which is high enough to reach over it.
    Compassion does have its place. It is a value that stands alone. But it also relates to self-interest. People received with compassion may find it easier to adapt and become good citizens.
    There are some 3 million Syrian refugees spread across Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where they lack scope for normal economic activity and personal fulfillment. What a problem of bitterness and disaffection is being laid down for the future!
    The first consideration therefore is not the relative dependency ratios in Germany and in the UK in 2060 under particular demographic hypotheses, but how we should contribute to managing today’s humanitarian crisis. Virtue signalling? Vacuous moral reasoning? Anything that helps us confront reality is to be welcomed.

  4. James Bartholomew September 10, 2015 at 11:28 am #

    Just a small point : the phrase ‘virtue signalling ‘ was first used by me in an article in The Spectator.
    Regards, James

  5. Adrian Beavis September 10, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

    I completely agree with Paul Seymour. Jesus saying, “I was hungry, naked, thirsty” and also the Good Samaritan make it abundantly clear we should do all we can to those who are fleeing their country with their lives. David Cameron doing the bare minimum (and only doing so having been dragged kicking and screaming to do anything) is not someone showing any moral courage on this issue (although you can certainly argue that what he has done is a good thing).

    But I have a real problem with the underlying suggestion in your last two posts that somehow the UK has plenty of reasons to not do more/do the bare minimum. You quoted extreme right-wing MEP Daniel Hannan in your last post, and now you quote a suggestion that Germany are taking refugees because they want to “cream off the best” for economic reasons (as if Syrian refugees are on some graduate programme!!) – Germany since the war have a deep and profound commitment to taking refugees, partly due to their sense of guilt at the holocaust, it is not a self-interested economic move.

    The underlying sense from your last two posts is that this whole issue is really about 1/ “have we got room/infrastructure to cope” (you even mention this as a key question in your reply above), 2/ is there really any reason for us to do more. Well this is really about an extreme humanitarian catastrophe (the biggest displacement of people through war since WW2) and those who have the energy and ability to run far away from the conflict are doing just that. Do we have enough room – well the answer to the last question is a RESOUNDING YES WE HAVE ROOM (the UK developed robust regional strategies decades ago to cope with the population rising to 80m). So we certainly shouldn’t take more that 13 million refugees.

    The real questions is, would Jesus tell us to do more? I find that an extremely easy question to answer, and an extremely challenging question to put into practise, so the tendency is to want to rush away and catch up with the priest and Levite.

    • Ian Paul September 11, 2015 at 9:07 am #

      Adrian, thanks very much for your challenging comments. Some brief responses:

      1. You are more than free to disagree with my reading of Matt 25—but to do so you need to give some reasons why the explanation I gave is wrong. We are very much into an era of saying ‘The Bible says which I feel it must be saying’ and if you go down that line, then you have little response either to radical feminist readings or (in the other direction) to rapture/dispensationalists. Both strongly ‘feel’ that their readings are right.

      2. I have never suggested that Britain should do the bare minimum. What I have said is that

      a. you cannot evaluate the ‘moral courage’ of two approaches without exploring the consequences, and

      b. to claim that THE Christian response is ‘Take them all’ is not much more than facile moral posturing.

      Both kinds of claim rely on a highly selective approach to both theology and the facts on the grounds, and we need to do a lot better when considering complex international moral issues. For another piece of background, watch this. http://www.upworthy.com/trying-to-follow-what-is-going-on-in-syria-and-why-this-comic-will-get-you-there-in-5-minutes?g=2&c=ag And let’s also talk about our arms trade which is currently supplying Saudi’s bombing of civilians in Yemen—contributing to an displacement as large as this one.

      3. Yes, this is a massive civil displacement. And what is the best response? To take in a million people, exacerbate inequality in Britain, and destroy the future of Syria? That’s not a very obvious solution.

      4. Does Jesus want us to do more? Of course. Would Jesus make simplistic pronouncements on social media, and claim that this was the only way? I find that an extremely easy question to answer…!

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