Consider a world where 80% of people are Conformists, 10% of people are Righteous, and 10% are Reprobates.  The Conformists are epistemically and morally neutral, so they believe and support whatever is popular.   The Righteous are epistemically and morally virtuous, so they believe and support whatever is true and right.  The Reprobates are epistemically and morally vicious, so they believe and support the opposite of what the Righteous believe and support.  In Dungeons & Dragons terms, the Conformists are True Neutral, the Righteous are Lawful Good, and the Reprobates are Chaotic Evil.

What happens?  There are clearly two equilibria: one good, one bad.  If the true&right is popular, then the Conformists and the Righteous have 90% of the vote, so the true&right prevails.  If the true&right is unpopular, then the Conformists and Reprobates have 90% of the vote, so the false&wicked prevails.

Now suppose that in this world, you are trying to assess an individual’s virtue.  In the good equilibrium, identifying the virtuous is hard.  Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo is genuinely virtuous.  The vast majority support the true&right out of sheer convenience.  Identifying the vicious, however, is easy.  In the good equilibrium, all supporters of the false&wicked are vicious.

The mirror image holds in the bad equilibrium.  Identifying the virtuous is easy: Everyone who supports the true&right despite their unpopularity is virtuous.  Identifying the vicious, in contrast, becomes hard.  Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo truly qualifies.  The vast majority of supporters of the false&wicked don’t support it out of conviction.  They support the false&wicked to fit in.

This model is admittedly a gross oversimplification.  But it conveys important insights about people’s characters. 

1. Conformists have good effects when the true&right is popular, and bad effects when the false&wicked is popular.  But the difference in underlying virtue between good and bad societies is small.  No individual chooses what’s popular in his society.  So if you’re a conformist who simply supports whatever is popular in your society, the key fact about your character is that you’re a conformist, not what you conform to.

2. On the plausible assumption that most real-world people are basically conformists, you can’t accurately assess virtue by studying people’s views in isolation.  You have to look at their unpopular views.  Believing true&right things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine virtue.  Believing false&wrong things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine vice.

Consider, for example, the fact that almost all Americans now oppose Jim Crow laws.  Is this a strong sign that they’re more virtuous than Southerners in 1960?  Not really.  After all, how many modern Americans would still oppose Jim Crow if they grew up in a Jim Crow society?  Only unpopular positions on Jim Crow reveal much about your character.  Opposing Jim Crow in 1960 shows great virtue, especially if you live in the South.  Supporting Jim Crow in 2013, similarly, shows great vice: You’re willing to become a social pariah rather than betray the cause of evil.

On many issues, of course, the truth is unclear.  Holding an unpopular
view with a 50% chance of truth doesn’t say much about your character.  But there are plenty of clear-cut cases, too – and the more you know, the more there are.  If you want to decipher virtue and vice from people’s positions, these clear-cut cases are your Rosetta stone.

Hansonian caveat: If my analysis were well-known, then conformists might strategically adopt unpopular views in order to signal their virtue.  Perhaps this already happens to some extent, explaining complaints about “moral posturing” and “moral preening.”  But human desire to fit in is so strong that this probably isn’t a major factor in the world.  People primarily posture and preen by poetically defending the popular.  If you defy your society to embrace the clearly true&right, you’re probably doing it out of virtue.  If you defy your society to embrace the clearly false&wicked, you’re probably doing it out of vice.  And as Zoidberg says, “You’re bad, and you should feel bad.”