What counts as virtue among Western elites? As Aristotle teaches, if you can identify what a society considers to be virtuous or good, you can understand the moral outlook of that society’s institutions, from its schools to its foreign policy. One needs only to study any gathering of American elite culture to see that virtue, traditionally centered in personal character, has become redefined as public sympathy for humanitarian causes. When watching any cultural awards program, for example, one is treated to a parade of “beautiful” souls voicing support for myriad progressive causes. This moral preening has become so commonplace that a term has developed to characterize it: “virtue signaling.”

The West’s moral outlook is now animated by the widespread belief that virtue is measured by one’s professed sympathy for causes such as combatting homelessness, extending civil rights for various protected groups, and decrying poverty in far-off places. The more publicly ostentatious one is in attaching oneself to these causes, the more virtue one is assigned by our elite culture.

Yet the continuing sex scandals of our elites are (pardon the phrase) laying bare the inadequacy of this definition of virtue. In Hollywood and other elite institutions, puffed-up paragons of “virtue” reign, but backstage are characters such as Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer, people wholly lacking self-control, decency, moderation, temperance, and civility. In short, many of “the beautiful souls” who have been telling us how to live are reprobates–or protecting them, either tacitly or directly. While there are many perfectly praiseworthy philanthropies and social causes, the glib dismissal of personal probity and the substitution of a moralistic public commitment to “society” and “the world” has corroded our understanding of morality.

We might simply chalk this up to the everlasting tendency of human beings toward hypocrisy. Yet something more insidious is at work: Over the past 300 years, Western culture has overthrown its traditional understanding of virtue and replaced it with an ersatz morality. This revolution has allowed personally vile people to claim the loftiest moral standing while, in their daily lives, freely treating those around them with gross disrespect and abuse. The Clinton Foundation is the cleverest and most cynical exploitation of this perversion of virtue: associate yourself with a smorgasbord of progressive causes while grabbing as much money as you can. Solving the world’s problems is less important than the moral approval associated with one’s public commitment to solving them. In short, morally substandard and self-aggrandizing human beings are the very people who are now regularly engaged in moral preening.

Traditional moral philosophy once recognized that, within each individual, there are two selves. The human soul is made up of a range of impulses, desires, and passions, but there is also a voice in the soul that works to control these impulses and desires. St. Paul described this duality as the “law of the flesh” and the “law of the Spirit.” Virtue, traditionally understood, belonged to the individual who performed the inner work required to overcome unjust desires and shape his temperament according to something higher in his own nature. A person of character must subject impulse to self-control. Confucius put it this way: “That wherein the superior man cannot be equaled is simply this—his work which other men cannot see.”

This traditional understanding of virtue as inner ethical work is all but gone. Morality is no longer understood as reforming oneself, thus making oneself a better member of society, but as wishing to reform society. This new morality of social conscience has replaced the virtue of St. Paul and Aristotle, which combined an awareness of the darker side of our humanity with an effort to overcome it and develop our higher humanity. Though moral progress was possible, human flaws dictated humility and ruled out moral pretentiousness.  

A central intellectual figure in the re-definition of virtue was the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rejecting the definition of virtue as ethical work and personal effort, Rousseau took precisely the opposite position: men are born good and virtue requires no ethical work. Goodness is found in spontaneous emotion, in sentimentality, and in instinct. Rousseau finds it in the noble savage, the “natural,” pre-social man who is untouched by the trappings, rules, and admonitions of civilization. For Rousseau’s strain of Romanticism, traditional checks upon impulse and desire are not virtues but vices. In Rousseau’s legacy, the irreverent and vulgar Bohemian emerges as more natural and good than the refined and polite gentleman. Virtue ceases to be a matter of character and personal action. It becomes an emotional sympathy with the plight of the downtrodden; the admirable are those who foment societal revolutions not those who master themselves. As the famous Harvard scholar Irving Babbitt remarked of Rousseau: “He was the inventor of that cant-phrase, ‘goodness of heart,’ which is everyday used as a substitute for probity, and means little more than the virtue of a dog or a horse.”

Rousseau’s understanding of morality has, of course, had great appeal in the West, for obvious reasons. His morality does not require that one train oneself to avoid very pleasurable vices; one can throw personal restraint to the wind and assume the mantle of virtue simply by attaching oneself to an approved “idealistic” social movement. Under the Rousseauistic notion of morality, one can, as Hollywood knows, simultaneously be vile and virtuous. Western theatergoers have, for 150 years, affirmed Rousseau’s ethics by cheering for Jean Valjean, the thief and ex-con in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, whose revolutionary fervor for the poor washes away any personal failings.

Rousseau’s destruction of the long-held definition of virtue has had disastrous effects on Western institutions, from the family to organized religion to government. But consider the impact in just two areas of American life: education and foreign policy. Elite higher education in the United States in the early 19th century entailed a curriculum that sought to reinforce the traditional understanding of virtue. Students read the classics, such as Plutarch’s Lives and the Bible, with the goal of becoming gentlemen who had the character, temperament, and knowledge to serve as national leaders. This earlier tradition of higher education was tarnished by class-based snobbery, overt racial discrimination, and the denial of opportunities for women—deficiencies that could have been corrected over time without throwing out a traditional understanding of morality. But the latter is precisely what the most famous reformers of higher education did.  

In the late 19th century, Harvard President Charles Eliot sought to align the university mission with Rousseau’s understanding of virtue. The goal of higher education was not to produce leaders of superior character and probity, but to address social causes. “Service” to the nation and to mankind, not character, became the goal of higher education. Harvard, Eliot thought, must produce leaders who could run large companies, unlock the secrets of the atom, and find ways to alleviate the plight of the “lower classes.” Courses in the great Western classics that taught students about their own nature as moral beings became “electives” while courses designed to equip mankind for both scientific and humanitarian endeavors became the heart of the university, as it is today.  

In politics, the re-definition of virtue in elite universities as “service to humanity” has produced a leadership class that believes American domestic and foreign policy is only “moral” when it involves humanitarian goals and crusading. American foreign policy, particularly in the post-Cold War era, has been characterized by self-glorifying and self-aggrandizing rhetoric about America’s global commitment to the great causes of democracy, human rights, international institutions, and the rule of law. Speeches by American policymakers have the same moral flavor as that perennial speech at the Oscars by a narcissistic Hollywood star claiming the mantle of virtue through an ostentatious display of his or her exceptional social conscience. The foreign-policy elites of both parties proclaim America as the “exceptional” nation, with no need to second-guess its actual behavior on the world stage, virtuous by the very nature of its noble pedigree. One may characterize this strain of foreign policy thinking in various ways, but “conservative” is not one of them.  

The now century-old American foreign policy rhetoric, from Wilson’s commitment to make the world “safe for democracy” to George W. Bush’s goal of “ending tyranny in our world,” can only be described as virtue signaling. The yawning gap between our leaders’ moral preening and the concrete reality of our foreign policy was on full display in the flowery rhetoric and action of the president who launched the war in Iraq. Hubristically, he asserted that the “urgent requirement of our nation’s security” was to restore human rights and dignity given to all people by the “Maker of Heaven and earth.” The practical reality was gruesome for the Iraqi people and the soldiers who fought there, with thousands of dead and the unraveling of Iraqi society.

Bush asserted that America’s beautiful soul has the potential to redeem the world and that our foreign policy is the very handmaiden of the Almighty. Implied was that restraint in foreign policy does not apply to such a god-like nation and only those countries with non-beautiful souls—the not-so-exceptional ones—need to have their foreign policy circumscribed.

Yet, like the ersatz virtue of Hollywood, the reality of American foreign policy is not quite so morally lofty. America’s boastful virtue signaling against dictators, for example, has killed tens of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Syria, created a zombie state in Libya, and may some day instigate a nuclear war with Russia. As in Hollywood, at the forefront of American foreign policy are prideful proclamations of sympathy for the oppressed in other nations, but backstage one finds the droning of innocents and whole nations reduced to terrorism, famine, and anarchy.  

It is an enormously welcome development that a plethora of realist scholars of foreign policy are emerging at prestigious places such as Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Notre Dame to point out the real-world consequences of this hubristic foreign policy. Desperately needed in diplomacy and national security policy are men and women of sagacity and real-life experience who can take the place of the crusading humanitarians.    

Those wishing to change American foreign policy should also recognize the genuine appeal of our elites’ moralistic tone. As Aristotle recognized, all human beings and societies aim at “some good.” It is the highly dubious, even perverse moralism of our current foreign policy of redeeming mankind that needs to be replaced with a genuine morality and the realism that is indistinguishable from it. For a realist foreign policy to have broad appeal, particularly among young people, it must offer a persuasive account of the true nature of morality and a vision for foreign policy grounded in that sounder morality. Our leaders must begin to distinguish between real virtue and shoddy, destructive, ersatz virtue both in themselves and their nation.  

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.