If you want to learn to about virtue ethics you have to start with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. It is not an easy read and understanding Aristotle is hard work. But there is a shortcut: You can put a copy prominently on your book shelf and memorize a few key quotes to impress your friends. Chances are good that they know even less than you about virtue ethics and are so easily fooled by your apparent intellectual prowess. Of course you are misleading your friends and you do not really know anything about the topic.
Something similar is going on today in regards to virtuous behavior. Virtue is hard work too. No one wakes up one day and decides to be virtuous. It takes effort. Virtue is not just a state of mind or belief. Virtue realizes itself through actions. These actions take time, effort and energy. Of course being and acting virtuous is something good in itself. The effort is not in vain. Even if no one notices the virtuous person can let his mind rest in peace knowing that he is doing right thing.
But we are human beings living in society. Naturally we not only want to be virtuous but we also want to be seen as such. The moral philosopher Adam Smith talked about this at length in his book The theory of moral sentiment and there is a nice quote too:
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love.Adam Smith: The theory of moral sentiment (1812 ed.)
Someone can be lovely by being virtuous because a virtuous person is a natural and proper object of love. I should explain that “love” here should not be conflated with our modern notion of romantic or familial love. Maybe respect, admiration, sympathy and esteem describe this notion of love better. But a person can also be lovely by pretending to be virtuous. By putting virtue up on the bookshelf of life without having ever read it.
What does this have to do with “accessories”? Our society is based on consumption. We define ourselves by the things we buy and the places we can afford to live in. That is not necessarily bad. We can enjoy buying new things and still be and act virtuous. There is so much more to life than consumption after all. But remember that acting virtuous takes time and effort and that people are inclined to just pretend to be virtuous in order to be lovely. That is where modern consumption comes into play.
The idea is to be virtuous by consuming in a virtuous manner. Buying organic food, recycled shoes, fair-traded coffee and all the other products proclaiming that “you can do something good by just buying our brand new sustainable sweatshirt that is 100% cruelty free, vegan and contains 50% up-cycled ocean waste … please share a photo of yourself with our product in social media under the hashtags #iamagoodperson #lookatme #Iambuyingsustainablebrands”.
Now there is nothing wrong with sustainable products, recycling, decent working conditions and so on. But transferring virtue onto the act of buying something is just lazy. Conscious consumers are not proper objects of love (that is good persons) just because they buy organic cotton shirts and tell others about it on Instagram. It is very easy to pretend to be virtuous especially on social media. Things are being made into accessories of self-proclaimed virtue. But it does not make the buyer virtuous but vain.
And now we have arrived at that modern buzzword: virtue signalling. Consumption was always a way for people to show off their wealth and position in society. It used to be pretty obvious when people were talking about their big house, second car and brand name clothing. Today’s conscious consumption fulfills a similar role. “Primitive” materialism is out of fashion. People now showcase their wealth by buying expensive sustainable brands and their position in society by differentiating themselves from the uneducated masses who buy cheap mass-produced goods. It is materialism in new clothes.