Nassim Taleb Crushes The 'Merchants Of Virtue'

Tyler Durden's picture

Authored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb via,

I will always remember my encounter with the writer and cultural icon Susan Sontag, largely because it was on the same day that I met the great Benoit Mandelbrot. I took place in 2001, two months after the terrorist event, in a radio station in New York. Sontag who was being interviewed, was pricked by the idea of a fellow who “studies randomness” and came to engage me. When she discovered that I was a trader, she blurted out that she was “against the market system” and turned her back to me as I was in mid-sentence, just to humiliate me (note here that courtesy is an application of the Silver rule), while her female assistant gave me the look, as if I had been convicted of child killing. I sort of justified her behavior in order to forget the incident, imagining that she lived in some rural commune, grew her own vegetables, wrote on pencil and paper, engaged in barter transactions, that type of stuff.

No, she did not grow her own vegetables, it turned out. Two years later, I accidentally found her obituary (I waited a decade and a half before writing about the incident to avoid speaking ill of the departed). People in publishing were complaining about her rapacity; she had to squeeze her publisher, Farrar Strauss and Giroud of what would be several million dollars today for a book advance. She shared, with a girlfriend, a mansion in New York City, one that was later sold for $28 million dollars. Sontag probably felt that insulting people with money inducted her into some unimpeachable sainthood, exempting her from having skin in the game.

It is immoral to be in opposition of the market system and not live (like the Unabomber) in a hut isolated from it

But there is worse:

It is even more, much more immoral to claim virtue without fully living with its direct consequences

and this will be the main topic of the chapter: exploiting virtue for image, personal gain, careers, social status, these kind of things –and personal gain is anything that does not share the downside of a negative action.

By contrast with Sontag, I have met a few people who live their public ideas. Ralph Nader, for instance, leads the life of a monk, identical to the member of a monastery in the sixteenth century,

The Public and the Private

As we saw with the interventionistas, a certain class of theoretical people can despise the details of reality, and completely so. If you believe that you are right in theory, you can completely ignore the real world –and vice versa. And you don’t really care how your ideas affect others because your ideas make you belong to some virtuous status that is impervious to how it affects others.

Likewise, if you believe that you are “helping the poor” by spending money on powerpoint presentations and international meetings, the type of meetings that lead to more meetings (and powerpoint presentations) you can completely ignore the individuals –the poor is some abstract reified construct that you do not encounter in your real life. Your efforts in conferences gives you a license to humiliate them in person. Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison, more commonly known as Hillary Clinton, found it permissible to heap abuse at secret service agents. I was recently told that a famous socialist environmentalist who was part of the same lecture series abused waiters in restaurants, between lectures on equity and fairness.

Kids with rich parents talk about “white privilege” at such privileged colleges as Amherst –but in one instance, one of them could not answer D’Souza’s simple and logical suggestion: why don’t you go to the registrar’s office and give your privileged spot to a minority student who was next in line?

Hence the principle:

If your private life conflicts with your intellectual opinion, it cancels your intellectual ideas, not your private life


If your private actions do not generalize then you cannot have general ideas

This is not strictly about ethics, but information transfer. If a car salesman tries to sell you a Detroit car while driving a Honda, he is signaling that it may have a problem.

The Virtue Merchants

In about every hotel chain, from Argentina to South Africa, the bathroom with have a sign meant to gets your attention: “protect the environment”. They want you to hold off from sending the towels to the laundry and reuse them for a while, because avoiding excess laundry it saves them tens of thousand dollars a year. This is similar to the salesperson telling you what is good for you when it is mostly (and centrally) good for him. They, of course, love the environment but you can bet that they wouldn’t have advertised it so loudly had it not been been good for their bottom line.

So these global causes: poverty (particularly children’s), the environment, justice for some minority trampled upon by colonial powers, or some unknown yet gender that will be persecuted; these global causes are now the last refuge of the scoundrel advertising virtue.

But virtue is precisely what you don’t advertise. It is not an investment strategy. It is not a cost-cutting scheme. It is not a book selling (and worse, concert tickets selling) strategy.

Now I have wondered why, by the Lindy effect, there was no mention of what is called virtue signaling in the texts. How could it be new?

Well, it is not new, but was not seen as particularly prevalent in the past. Indeed, let’s check Matthew 5 and 6.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.


“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Unpopular Virtue

Virtue without courage is an aberration: in fact you see cowards endorsing a public face of “virtue” as defined by the mainstream media, because they are afraid of doing otherwise. Their cowardice leads them to avoid association with, say anti-Al Qaeda in Syria because some Saudi shill (or some AlQaeda promoter like Charles Lister) will accuse them of Putinism, racism, anti-democracy, or some accusation that will cause ostracism.

The best virtue requires courage; accordingly it needs to be unpopular. If I were to describe the perfect virtuous acts, it would be to take currently frowned upon positions, those penalized by the common discourse (particularly when funded by lobbyists). Like fighting the Monsanto claims, and promotion through shills that they are “saving the children” with their poisonous products, so anyone opposing them becomes easily described as a baby killer.

The more costly, the more virtuous the act?—?particularly if it costs you your reputation. When integrity conflicts with reputation, go with integrity.

Other Virtues

True virtue lies in being nice to those who are neglected by others, the less obvious cases, those people the grand charity business tends to miss, those causes that are not (yet) promotional.

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Croesus's picture

"“protect the environment”.

I hate when that crap comes from the 'mouths' of companies like Comcast (who send me 10-15 pounds of junkmail every year).

They preach about "sustainability", but are WAY more wasteful than I've ever been.

runnymede's picture

saving the planet

for the childrens

New_Meat's picture

today's word is "feckless."

toady's picture

The thing about virtue is that it can't be defined 100%... individuals and groups can be virtuous on one subject and complete assholes on others.

Kayman's picture

Worn out old Media whores talking virture. It is a sickness that can't be cured.

Never One Roach's picture
YouTube thought a giant American flag wasn’t 'advertiser friendly'


Youtoob prefers being a vehicle for jihaidst advertizers.

Alt Right Girl's picture

Talking about virtue in this era sounds a bit SF.

Kinda like looking for a woman that saves her virginity for marriage. Easier to find Seth Rich murderer than that.

Leaked Classified FBI Memo Shows #SethRich had DNC Emails on His Laptop

Chuck-Norris's picture

Merchants and virtue in the same sentence.

Must be a joke.


ThirdWorldDude's picture

The joke's ultimately on us because almost every public talking head today is a "merchant of virtue". Though, this can be easily detected by any sane mind following sane logic, since the omnipresent moral bigotry that dogooder bullshitters "excercise" at present is oh-so-transparent (like public and private positions on different matters and similar behavior...).


Stuck on Zero's picture

I read this editorial and Al Gore cam to mind.

Endgame Napoleon's picture

This is another great Tyler article. There is a long, preachy tradition aligned with this sort of thing in America, a millenarian impulse. The trendy, secular virtue signalers do not see themselves this way, but they have a lot in common with the missionaries of the 19th century who were so strident about converting the natives, telling them they had to abandon their traditions and natural ways. It was just sold as virtue under a different set of beliefs.

bobdog54's picture

Virtuous on one subject but not all is a zero, you either live in high integrity or you don't, IMO.
I know no one, personally, whom is 100% virtuous but I know several (not many) whom work diligently to do the best they can to be in high integrity at all times.
I believe the bell curve on integrity continues to move from center to the lesser side as we humans move thru time.

Koba the Dread's picture

"Feckless" -- "lacking feck"

Croesus's picture

@ runnymede:

Seriously...I'm not an 'environmental whacko', but I do make a conscious effort to not be needlessly wasteful, so I tend to try to get as much use out of things, before they go in the trash.

We're at "Peak Hypocritical Bullshit" when it comes to corporations and their "Sustainability Initiatives".

New_Meat's picture

frugal is a true virtue--no one "signals" it, either.

DownWithYogaPants's picture

Hot damn that makes me a saint then!

I am tight as a frog's ass.  That's water tight.

New_Meat's picture

fooled me ;-)  Them yoga pants don't make the ass look too tight.  Pants are, tho

Rufus Temblor's picture

Definitely.  Their Green initiatives are also sickening.  They seek to have government subsidize inefficient technologies for their personal gain, all the while pretending to environmentally friendly.

PGR88's picture

Being frugal, avoiding waste and trying to be efficient are millenia-old virtues that have nothing to do with bullshit virtue-signalling cult environmentalism

runnymede's picture

Apologies if I came across critical. 100% not my intent.

I believe the climate change narrative is the 'virtue' hockey stick they will attempt to beat us over the head with into submission. It's the ultimate control mechanism---got to central plan all activities or we all die. We may not be at peak hypocritical bullshit. I think the ridiculousness is just hitting its stride. Every day it seems like there's a new frontier broken in narrativology and the masses just keep buying it. The BS will not stop until it is no longer effective and not a day sooner. Some day it will be a bridge too far. I have no idea when that will be, but it will turn on a dime when it does. But for now it is truly stunning what the traffic is willing to bear.

Solio's picture

Where did the children go?

vulcanraven's picture

Seen on /pol/:

"Virtue Vultures"

chubbar's picture

WTF is up with this bullshit??? Trump lifts the restrictions on Refugee immigrants? Christ, that's all we need, Trump caving to the fucking the insane "no borders" left wingers!

blue51's picture

, Trump caving to the fucking the insane "no borders" left wingers! No .  He is caving to the Dept. of State , and that is controlled by the " Deep State " .

any_mouse's picture

Verizon was always going on being green to make the millennial employees happy. Reducing paper usage, etc.

In the USA.

Selling phones manufactured in China.

factorypreset's picture

+100.  I get 3-5 pieces of advertising mail from Verizon and Comcast each week.  Want to save me money?  Stop sending crap through the mail and lower my bill from the savings of not sending me crap in the mail. 

Never One Roach's picture

The system is very messed up ... we need to work every day to Make America Great Again:


Liberal Federal judge in Virginia tosses out life sentences for DC sniper Malvo who intentionally killed 10 people

McLEAN, Va. — A federal judge on Friday tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings.

Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three over a three-week span in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region.

His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was executed in 2009.



chubbar's picture

Wow, so many causes to cite, so little time. Too bad none of the special snowflakes who live this type of bullshit everyday will have the opportunity to read this article and realize what complete fucking hypocrites and losers they really are.

meditate_vigorously's picture

"They want you to hold off from sending the towels to the laundry and reuse them for a while, because avoiding excess laundry it saves them tens of thousand dollars a year. This is similar to the salesperson telling you what is good for you when it is mostly (and centrally) good for him. They, of course, love the environment but you can bet that they wouldn’t have advertised it so loudly had it not been been good for their bottom line."

My wife could tell you that whenever I encounter this kind of dishonest, I essentially point out the same thing.

Krungle's picture

"It is immoral to be in opposition of the market system and not live (like the Unabomber) in a hut isolated from it"

It is also basically illegal to live outside the "market system." If you buy a piece of property to escape the system, you have to deal with local regs about what kind of house you can put on your own property, whether or not you can be off-grid or have to use local utilities, etc. You cannot legally live off any other land because it is either privately owned or owned by the government. Even if you did manage to squat in government forest or something, you need a permit to hunt, or else you're breaking another law. I could go on with this, but the point is that you cannot say it is immoral to do something that simply isn't possible.

That all said, yes, Sontag, like many "liberals", was a huge hypocrite. But the criticism should be more that it is immoral to virtue signal and make no attempt whatsover to free yourself from the system you are criticizing. You can oppose a system that you are powerless to escape and take what actions you can to resist, imperfect though they may be. You cannot oppose a system and then rub shoulders regularly with the masters of said system (which is precisely what people like Sontag and other useless celebrity types routinely do). 

Le_Zabroso's picture

You can buy land and live in an RB, or another type of non-permanent building. You can get goats and chickens and grow potatoes. Where there is a will there is always a way, and yes ------> if you are a Starbucks Marxist you are full of shit.

any_mouse's picture

But it is still possible. It will be a life of hardship and suffering by the power of the state applied to force you to conform.

How did the state gain control over the land?

DontWorry's picture

For your own good, or course.

Cordeezy's picture

Yeah i wonder what happens when they have to join the real world. Do they continue this advocacy?

New_Meat's picture

snowflakes don't believe that there are things like honor and morality.  Skittles and unicorns, on the other hand ...

vietnamvet's picture

"If a car salesman tries to sell you a Detroit car while driving a Honda, he is signaling that it may have a problem." ... you mean like the Cheeto-In-Chief saying he'll drain the swamp, while filling his cabinet with banker, "intelligence", and corporate slime?

SummerSausage's picture

Mattis, Kelly, Carson, DeVos, Zinke, Pruitt, Zinke - which of these are '"intelligence" and corporate slime?'

Honus's picture

Not very well formulated, but an obvious strike in a new direction by Taleb. I look forward to more along this line of thought.

Le_Zabroso's picture

Not enough big words for you?

Arnold's picture

Virtue signaling that you don't virtue signal is virtue signaling.

mary mary's picture

This is the best piece I have read in ages.  The advice from Matthew is something I try to practice all the time.

Epictetus also writes about this.  And Lao Tzu (not Sun Tzu).

I think virtue is something you can only demonstrate, not something you can order others to practice.  And I think that anyone who admonishes others to do something which benefits him, claiming that he is just trying to help everyone be virtuous, is at least a bit Reptilian.

Åristotle's picture

Though courage is concerned with confidence and fear, it is not concerned with both alike, but more with the things that inspire fear; for he who is undisturbed in face of these and bears himself as he should towards these is more truly brave than the man who does so towards the things that inspire confidence. It is for facing what is painful, then, as has been said, that men are called brave. Hence also courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant. Yet the end which courage sets before it would seem to be pleasant, but to be concealed by the attending circumstances, as happens also in athletic contests; for the end at which boxers aim is pleasant—the crown and the honours—but the blows they take are distressing to flesh and blood, and painful, and so is their whole exertion; and because blows and exertions are many the end, which is but small, appears to have nothing pleasant in it. And so, if the case of courage is similar, death and wounds will be painful to the brave man and against his will, but he will face them because it is noble to do so or because it is base not to do so. And the more he is possessed of excellence in its entirety and the happier he is, the more he will be pained at the thought of death; for life is best worth living for such a man, and he is knowingly losing the greatest goods, and this is painful. But he is none the less brave, and perhaps all the more so, because he chooses noble deeds of war at that cost. It is not the case, then, with all the excellences that the exercise of them is pleasant, except in so far as it reaches its end. But it is quite possible that the best soldiers may be not men of this sort but those who are less brave but have no other good; for these are ready to face danger, and they sell their life for trifling gains.

galant's picture

When people lost sight of the way to live

Came codes of love and honesty,

Learning came, charity came,

Hypocrisy took charge:

When differences weakened family ties

Came benevolent fathers and dutiful sons,

And when lands were disrupted and misgoverned

Came ministers commended as loyal.-

Laotzu, 5th century BC

Bricker's picture

Living underground is my virtue. My 9 container underground house has never paid one cent in building fees. I paid a back hoe operator 40 bucks an hour and 10,000 to keep his fucking mouth shut.

“Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.”
Henry David Thoreau

any_mouse's picture

Containers are not designed to be placed underground. They are optimized to be stacked corner to corner.

Bricker's picture

says you?

I live like Rockefeller

Free internet, windmill and off the grid


PGR88's picture

What about drainage?  Even in a desert, a big rainfall will make your live miserable, especially when living in a rusting box.

Arnold's picture

And rust through.
Ask me how I know.

RopeADope's picture

Is anyone surprised by the behavior of these people?

The corporate Dem sociopaths started dropping f-bombs after that study came out on Jan 15th examining the relationship between honesty and swearing.

They consistently invalidate their humanity with masques.

fishpoem's picture

"The America I live in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through." Millionairess Susan Sontag, explaining why she detests America and can only live in New York City.