Virtual virtue is any mental, verbal or otherwise low-effort way of doing good.
For example, praying for Paris, or this new way of showing solidarity by superimposing a French flag on our Facebook pictures.
Virtual virtue is troublesome. To get a sense of it, picture going to a movie, identifying with the hero’s hard virtuous acts, walking to the car after, getting hit up for change by a homeless person, and saying “No way! I just saved the world from evil. I’ve already done my part.”
Virtual virtue has long been a troubling issue. Concern about it inspired Abraham’s rejection of false idols, the Christian iconoclastic movement (removal of icons from churches) in reaction to Islam’s icon-free religious success in the 1000’s, and Luther’s criticism of “frequent communion” by which he meant going to Church on Sunday, feeling all virtuous and indulging in vice the rest of the week. Empty gestures, for example recycling making people feel like their drop in the recycling bucket gesture is all the difference they need to make.
Virtual virtue is a virtue when, having identified with the side of virtue, we must follow through with other virtuous deeds. Salespeople, charities and con artists employ this effect: Get people to give you a little something, and then when you ask for more they’ll give it to avoid the cognitive dissonance of changing from generous to ungenerous. In this way virtual (inexpensive) virtue becomes a complement to real virtue: My little act of kindness compels bigger acts of kindness.
Virtual virtue is a vice when it’s a substitute for real virtue, as in the panhandler example.
We can also ask “Is virtual vice virtue a or a vice?” Virtual vice is imaging doing nasty things, playing violent video games, listening to violent music, identifying with anti-heros or watching violent porn.
Here’s the odd thing: It too can be a virtue, but is by opposite means:
Virtual vice is a virtue when it’s a substitute for real vice (doing it instead of doing nasty things in the real world), but is a vice when it’s a complement to real vice (it inspires nasty behavior in the real world.
And virtual virtue is the opposite: It’s a virtue when its a complement, not a substitute for real virtue, and is a vice when it’s a substitute, not a complement for real virtue.
Virtual virtue is virtue when it complements real virtue.
Virtual vice is a virtue when it substitutes for real vice.