Virtue signalling – A Lesson From Buddhism

Buddha and Half a Pomegranate

THE Lord Buddha had announced that on a particular day he would receive alms with his own hands for the support of the poor and the unfortunate, and had begged all to come with whatever offerings they pleased. On the appointed day, Buddha sat at Rajagriha in a conspicuous place and began receiving alms.

First came King Bimbisara with gifts of precious stones and gold coins innumerable. Buddha received them with one hand.

Then came Ajatasatru with equally costly presents. The Lord Buddha took them also with one hand. After this several nobles, merchants and other rich men offered their gifts to the Enlightened who received them all with one hand.

Then came a miserable looking, poor old woman with half a pomegranate in her hand. She saluted the world-teacher and said, “Lord, I heard about your receiving alms only now. I had eaten half a pomegranate and had only this half left. I have nothing else in this world to give, so I brought this. Be pleased to accept it.”

Buddha stretched forth both his hands and accepted the half pomegranate. Bimbisara, Ajatasatru and the rest were astounded.

“Oh, Blessed One,” said Bimbisara, “inscrutable are your ways. Why did you receive this shrunken half pomegranate with both your hands whereas you received all our costly gifts only with one hand?”

Buddha smiled and said, “Oh, king, you have given costly presents but none of you gave a tenth of what you have, and this too you gave more for glory than from motives of mere charity. This woman gave her all and gave it willingly. That explains my action.”

Meaning From the Story

Let us examine what this means. It is generally accepted in most societies that it is a good thing to give to the poor and unfortunate and those in need for whatever reason. Stories abound in religions such as Buddhism and Christianity about it, and their leader’s views on such things. Buddha is then rightly asking for alms for those in need. Up roll the richest in society first with much pomp and ceremony and laden with riches, which they duly donate.

What the kings and nobles are attempting is what is now known as virtue signalling. This just goes to show it is nothing new, we just have an apt 21st Century term for it. This means “the conspicuous expression of moral values by an individual done primarily with the intent of enhancing that person’s standing within a social group. The term was first used in signalling theory, to describe any behaviour that could be used to signal virtue – especially piety among the political or religious faithful. Since 2015, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative characterisation by commentators to criticise what they regard as the platitudinous, empty, or superficial support of certain political views, and also used within groups to criticise their own members for valuing outward appearance over substantive action.” –Infogalactic

The kings and nobles aren’t really interested in the poor. They are concerned with being seen to be concerned for the poor. This so they can gain merit or virtue within their peer groups of the other kings and nobles. For them they equate the amount given to the amount of virtue. Hence by giving large sums that are relatively affordable for them they hope to be seen as somehow better than their peers. They can say “look how much I gave. Did you give as much?” The implication being if you did not then you are not as worthy.

Buddha is less than impressed and only receives them with one hand. This is significant in many ways. It is an almost dismissive gesture conveying that Buddha is not best pleased, and as if to say, “is that all?” It gives the impression that he is not giving it his full attention, as the kings and nobles are not giving their all in helping the poor. Buddha is wise to what they are up to and is trolling them.

The poor woman arrives having just heard Buddha is in town. She rushes straight over and gives whatever she has available freely. She has no vast riches to give and to her a piece of fruit will probably be a significant part of her daily diet. Nevertheless, she rushes over and freely donates it. This will significantly inconvenience her as she may go hungry for the rest of the day. Yet she didn’t hesitate to help those less fortunate than her and isn’t bothered what anyone else thinks. This is why Buddha accepts her offering with both hands, double trolling the rich. As he explains, and I have mentioned they are concerned more “for glory than from motives of mere charity.” Buddha sees straight through them and admonishes them.

The rich could easily have given more yet they didn’t. They weren’t really interested in charity but were interested in looking good in front of others. If called upon they would never inconvenience themselves by any real measure. They give content in the knowledge they will easily afford it and will not actually have to do anything to help poor people, or heavens forbid actually meet any.

Relevance for the World Today

As mentioned virtue signalling is nothing new. But it does seem to be increasing, especially among celebrities and politicians and particularly on the left. There now seem to be an endless number of people trying to get seen to be doing the right thing for an ever-expanding number of causes. Among them are supporting refugees, black lives matter, feminism, transsexual rights, a whole host of LGTB+ groups, vegans, climate change, being anti-Trump, fuel poverty, Brexit, nuclear weapons, free Tibet etc, etc.

And just like the story of Buddha the modern-day virtue signallers appear to care more about how they look to others than the causes they espouse. Like the rich kings, nobles and merchants they put on a show to appear worthy of merit. Like them to do not give their all. In fact some give nothing at all, while urging others to take a course of action which they will not take themselves as it will inconvenience them. With many it seems the more they talk about it the less they actually do. (Reminds me of New Labour.) We’ve all seen the semi-deranged awards speeches and hashtag campaigns. The latest was #metoo and #timesup over sexual harassment primarily in Hollywood. Women dressed in black at the Baftas and Oscars awards to highlight the cause. It is suspected by those in the know that many of these women knew exactly what was going on and said nothing. Some of those alleged to have been abused who spoke out were pilloried. But hey, wear a black dress. It cost nothing and achieved nothing. It will be forgotten in a few weeks. But it allowed millionaires to feel good about themselves and show how wonderful they are to the rest of the world.

Another classic example are millionaires asking us to donate money for certain fundraising events. This is usually in the form of a video with sad music playing, the celebrity looking on in a troubled manner towards some starving orphans. Celebs who earn multi millions annually ask us to “please give generously.” They tell us “when I was in Haiti/Africa/generic trouble country…” Most of us couldn’t afford the plane ticket. Those with “refugees welcome” signs are doing the same thing. You can be sure they are comfortably well off, own their own home and will not be living in an area where refugees will be housed. They may make off the cuff remarks like “I would definitely take in a refugee”, but I have yet to meet, see or hear of any of them taking one in. It is cheap and easy to wave a flag or wear a T-shirt. It is something else to back up your words with real, meaningful action.

Cited examples of virtue signalling towards certain issues include:

  • changing social media avatars to support a cause
  • participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge or similar
  • faux outrage
  • celebrity speeches during award shows


These are things that cost little or nothing and don’t take up much time. It is the essence of what the rich were doing in the original story. Unlike the poor woman they are not spontaneous or heartfelt. They are calculated and premeditated. They are designed to show the virtue signaller in the most positive light. Now some of these causes may have some individual merit. But the virtue signaller is jumping on the bandwagon. They will have forgotten about the cause after a week or two and moved on to the next trendy campaign. Sticking around for the long haul is not for them. Taking action to make a change in their daily life that would inconvenience them certainly isn’t. And heaven forbid they really meet anyone they are campaigning for, let alone have live with them. This is why you find many virtue signallers backing causes in faraway places that they don’t have to visit, like Haiti or Africa. Best left to charities. And we know how well they do. (Or not.) They less they actually have to do the more they will crow about it.

My own feeling is that charity is an action carried out because you know or believe it is the right thing. It doesn’t have to be flashy or big. You don’t have to tell everyone else about it and make a big show of it.  After all, if the action is right why worry about others? A colleague I used to work with gave 5% of his wages to charity. I didn’t find out until about five years after I started working with him. He wasn’t bothered what anyone else thought. Others try and make a difference by buying food from a source they approve of with regards to animal welfare (regular readers of the blog know what I mean here) or buy UK only products as much as possible. It may cost them more in time and money, but they feel it is worth it. Now I’m not saying you have to run out and start doing these things. But they are examples of things that will actually make a difference. In the recent bad weather caused by snow and ice many people helped others out without having to be asked or having it splashed across TV and the internet. Farmers cleared roads and gave lifts. Shop keepers waded through snow to get food or medicine to the elderly. For me it is these daily constant small acts of kindness and charity, unlooked for and unrewarded, that constitute real merit and worth. We should maybe try to be a bit more like the woman with half a pomegranate rather than the high and mighty for whom it is an easy virtue.

© Jonathon Davies 2018

(Using information from Infogalactic and photos from Flickr under the Creative Commons Licence.)