SALT LAKE CITY — Depending on who you ask, Sen. Mitt Romney showed moral courage on the floor of the U.S. Senate during impeachment — or exhibited calculated moral grandstanding.

Although Romney said his religious faith compelled him to vote to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power and many people praised his speech, others not only denounced his vote but questioned his motives.

“His actions have nothing to do with ‘principles,’” conservative Florida podcaster Dan Bongino tweeted Feb. 16, while former Time magazine editor Richard Stengel wrote, “One person of moral courage can make a majority.”

The difference in how Romney’s eight-minute speech was received reflects not only the nation’s political divide but also an increasing tendency for Americans to dismiss others’ deeply felt convictions as self-promotion. On social media, people flag “virtue signaling,” not virtue. This is indicative of a larger problem: that we don’t believe what others say, Jane Coaston wrote in The New York Times Magazine.

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But it’s also because there’s been an increase in what the authors of a forthcoming book call “moral grandstanding,” which Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke describe as the use of moral talk for self-promotion.

The term may be recent, but the practice is ancient. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warned people not to sound trumpets to alert others to their good deeds. But doing so is a common human tendency, psychologists say.

“There’s a lot of good research on this. We think well of ourselves, maybe better than we should, especially when it comes to morality, and we like other people to think this about us, too,” said Tosi, co-author of  “Grandstanding: The Use and Abuse of Moral Talk,” which will be published by Oxford University Press in May.

Research has also shown that people are quick to dismiss virtuous acts by others, said University of Michigan professor David Dunning, known for his research on self-perception.

“What we’ve found is that if you present people with a selfless act, they’re very quick to come up with a selfish reason for it. But they don’t do the reverse. If you give people a selfish act, they’re not very good at coming up with any selfless reasons for why the person might have done that thing,” Dunning said.

British writer James Bartholomew popularized the term virtue signaling in a 2015 essay in The Spectator in which he derided people and companies who aggressively advertise that they are “kind, decent and virtuous.” But the term has since become a common accusation on social media, especially across partisan lines.

So how can we discern whether someone is demonstrating true virtue, or simply posturing in hopes of getting attention or making ourselves look good? There aren’t any specific words that can tip us off to another’s deceit or self-aggrandizement, but there are words we can use to check our own motives, ethicists and researchers say.

Holier than thou?

Dunning, whose work with fellow Cornell University professor Justin Kruger resulted in the identification of a cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, showed that people believe their cognitive abilities to be greater than they actually are. This self-deception also extends to morality and is exacerbated there, he says.

The gap between reality and perception exists because moral behavior can be ambiguous and also because it’s more controllable than intelligence. Overestimating our competence and morality is also a way we try to influence our own behavior; however, “We miss just how powerful external forces will be,” Dunning said.

But the biggest reason is because morality is so important culturally. Human interaction depends in large part on the amount of trust we have in each other, Dunning said.

“This is true the world over, that for other people, the primary question we have is, are they moral or not? Are they selfless or not? Can they be trusted or not? This is the preeminent judgment we have to make about other people,” he said.

As such, human beings have a primal need to demonstrate their morality, or trustworthiness. And the internet has made this easier, and also more complicated.

“This is all hard wired into us. We’re all born grandstanders,” Tosi said, adding, “Social media makes it easier for us to do so, and it makes it harder to avoid other people when they’re doing so.”

Tosi, an assistant professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, and his co-author Warmke say that moral grandstanding is a problem, however, because it can undermine legitimate moral conversation, which is important in society. “We want moral talk to work well; we don’t want other people rolling their eyes when people start talking about justice and the right thing to do. But if everyone’s grandstanding all the time, that’s what we’ll get,” Tosi said.

‘I am profoundly religious’

Romney voted to convict Trump on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, but not the second article, obstruction of Congress. Prior to the votes, he gave a speech in which he said his religious faith informed his decision. “As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise ‘impartial justice.’ I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential,” said Romney, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The president later accused Romney of using religion as a “crutch” and said at the National Prayer Breakfast, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.”

That’s the wrong thing to do when another person professes a deeply felt conviction, religious or otherwise, Tosi and others said.

“You probably shouldn’t go around calling people out for grandstanding. We think it’s a very important phenomenon, but it’s not something that’s good to individually police,” Tosi said.

Marianne Jennings, a professor emeritus of legal and ethical studies in business in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said that while it’s important to engage with each other on issues, it’s important to do from the other person’s perspective, and to refrain from challenging their motivations. Using language like “To be fair” — followed by some understanding of the other person’s position — can help to reframe a contentious exchange into a productive one. “I tell my students, take a 360-degree perspective, no matter how much it pains you, no matter how much it hurts,” Jennings said.

She also tells her students to wait 24 hours before responding to something complex and emotionally charged. “Give yourself 24 hours to talk it out, think it through. You might even have to crack a book on an issue. But you build credibility with a thoughtful response. If your response reflects that you understand what the other side feels, that’s when you win hearts.”

Charity over cynicism

It’s not only Romney’s words that prompted discussion, but also their delivery. Less than a minute into the speech, after saying “faith is at the heart of who I am,” Romney looked down at his hands and was quiet for 10 seconds before resuming. The extended pause prompted some news outlets to describe the senator as “choked up” and “emotional.”

Writing for Politico, filmmaker Greg Whiteley said he watched the speech looking for signs of inauthenticity using skills he has developed in over a decade of making documentaries, including one entitled “Mitt.”

Having spent time with Romney and his family over the course of six years, Whiteley said he has a good eye for noticing when the senator did not seem authentic or, as Whiteley put it, discerning “genuine moments and those that were too self-aware and conscious of the camera.”

He concluded that, despite critics who said Romney’s speech was calculated and expedient, “accusations that he acted for any reasons other than those he gave simply don’t jibe with the honesty I witnessed.”

Tosi, who had not watched the speech before being asked to by the Deseret News, said he didn’t notice any “major alarm bells” that Romney was grandstanding.

“I think I understand why people might read a lot into that pause, but who knows what he’s thinking about there. It’s a little surprising to me that people have seized on this particular speech as grandstanding, given how it compares to other rhetoric around the impeachment issue. 

“I will also say, though, that I think politicians are under a lot more pressure than the rest of us to moralize, because so much of their livelihood depends on people thinking they’re good,” he added.

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In their work at Cornell, Dunning and his co-investigator Clayton Critcher, now at the University of California, Berkeley, said that “attributional cynicism” is at work when people ascribe selfish motivations to selfless acts. There is an antidote to that, Dunning said. “Humility is a good thing. I do think that we should practice a little bit more attributional charity, if you will, toward others.”

Jennings, at Arizona State University, said much the same: “There has to be a little bit of graciousness.” Jennings said she wished Romney had thought more about how his vote might affect others who share his faith and said “a whole cascade of other issues” might have followed from his vote, some detrimental to those who share his faith.

“I look at it and think, have you thought through the the consequences for your religious faith if you do this (vote to convict) and the president fails,” she said. “The very definition of the ethical mind is the ability to see the impact of your actions and decisions on other people.’’ But when it comes to a person’s justification for what they’re doing, whether or not you believe they are grandstanding or expressing sincere belief, she said, “Give them the point. You can’t really argue with that.”

And, as Dunning says, “When it comes to morality, we all tend to think we’re exceptional. By definition, we’re not. We’re more like other people than we think. So a little charity is the thing to think about.”

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