Sentimental Humanitarianism Plagues the West
A false conception of virtue dominates the hearts and minds of our elites.
Modern virtue is insufferable. “Virtue” now means almost the exact opposite of the older Christian or classical idea. A person can now regard himself as virtuous simply for emoting, “standing with”, or making the right consumer choices. This virtuosity, achieved with ease, is broadcast to the world in the form of lawn signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and social media posts.
The older Christian ethic holds that our interactions with our neighbors (the people near us), however tedious or burdensome, and our own personal conduct constitute the real measure of our virtue. Our neighbors are often not of our choosing, and it is with those people—the curmudgeon next-door, the overly talkative parishioner, the underperforming coworker—that genuine virtue is cultivated.
The struggle to overcome our lower selves in mundane, day-to-day interactions and labors forms our characters through habit—an idea that predates Christianity and extends back to Aristotle. This morality cannot be branded and sold. There is no allure of visiting exotic places with the pretext of “helping others”, no Teslas or expensive “sustainable” clothing to aid our effort, and no chorus of Tik Tok videos to sing our praises. Instead, this older Christian understanding of the ethical life is a quiet, humble, and sometimes difficult existence at the same time that it can be supremely joyous, peaceful, and meaningful.
The moral-spiritual ethos of modernity, what Harvard professor Irving Babbitt (1866-1933) called sentimental humanitarianism, is the heart and soul of modern secular progressivism, giving what would otherwise appear to be a cold and materialistic philosophy the veneer of “compassion” and the appearance of having humane motives.
Sentimental humanitarianism arose as a serious competitor to Christianity around the time of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. While its ascent has been gradual, in the last half-century it has arguably become dominant even within Christianity, its erstwhile adversary, and of course in the mainstream secular culture. It can be detected in almost every aspect of life in the West: children’s television shows, product packaging labels, advertisements, corporate training modules, the mission statements of colleges and universities, academic research agendas, journal publications, homilies, papal encyclicals, the framing of the news by the corporate media, political campaign platforms, state of the union speeches, all the way to U.S. foreign policy. It touches the intimate and the quotidian and is the default imaginative framework through which Western man views himself and the world.
Sentimental humanitarianism is one of the most sinister products of the romantic imagination. Babbitt is indispensable for understanding this cast of mind and imagination that has to a great degree governed the modern world. Sentimental humanitarianism, Babbitt contends in Democracy and Leadership, presents as a “fraternal feeling” for mankind and a desire to help the downtrodden, but lurking beneath these feelings of pity, benevolence, and brotherhood is the will to power and a desire to control. Here my focus is on the more prosaic and merely “theoretical”—if not theatrical—side of sentimental humanitarianism, but the end result of adopting such a worldview in practice is a dystopian and totalitarian nightmare. “What Carlyle wrote of the [French] Revolution,” Babbitt says, “has not ceased to be applicable: ‘Beneath this rose-colored veil of universal benevolence is a dark, contentious, hell-on-earth.’”
As Babbitt so clearly saw, sentimental humanitarianism was responsible for the crusading idealism that led Woodrow Wilson to drag America into the First World War, under the delusion that engaging in this Armageddon would bring about universal peace and democracy. Others, especially Claes Ryn, have traced this connection between idealism and violence. Here I want to illustrate the more subtle manifestation of sentimental humanitarianism that has taken over the imagination of the West and has supplanted an older understanding of virtue, replacing it with a cheap and dangerous doppelgänger that is alluring both because it is so easily attained and bestows on the believer a sense of righteousness.
Sentimental humanitarianism is one of the most sinister products of the romantic imagination, which has replaced our older understanding of virtue with a fake and dangerous doppelgänger.
To show the extent to which sentimental humanitarianism has seeped into even the most mundane aspects of life, look at the label of just about any food item you buy—even if you aren’t in Whole Foods, the mecca of sentimental humanitarianism. Take a bag of coffee, for example. It will probably be labeled with something that nods toward making the world a better place through “sustainable”, “equitably-traded” coffee beans.
Behind this marketing is practically the entire ethos of sentimental humanitarianism. It implies that: 1) the coffee beans that this brand is selling were produced without harm to the physical environment and by treating the farmers “fairly”; and that 2) consumers will unreflectively prefer something labeled “sustainable” or “Fair Trade”, which assumes that 3) consumers will intuitively feel that they are helping the environment and being charitable and fair toward others. Underlying all of this is the now-universal assumption that consumer choices have moral weight.
Making the dubious claim that the product is “ethical”, these virtue-slogans are just one of the countless appeals to the idea that the perceived interests and needs of a very distant people or abstract concept (“the environment”, for example) are supremely important and deserving, at the very least, of our feelings of pity, and probably also our money, and that we have a moral duty to be concerned about the plight of unknown peoples or about abstract concepts.
To give another example from the aisles of your local grocery store, consider a bottle of kombucha. This fermented tea is all the rage among the health-conscious, and its labeling almost invariably screams messages of sentimental humanitarianism: “Kombucha is our daily act of gratitude dedicated to helping people live happier, healthier lives”, one bottle proclaims. “Each day we are thankful for the opportunity to craft this sacred gift. May every sip encourage you to appreciate your blessings and give kindness back in return. With peace and gratitude, —GT Dave”. The front of the bottle is decorated with swirling tree branches peppered with feel-good words: “hugs”, “sunrise”, “friends”, “the earth”, “freedom”, and “love” dot the bottle.
Another kombucha bottle reads: “You are meant to shine in the light and the darkness. Like the sun and the moon, you are here to bless the world with your brilliance.” I wish I were making this up. While this label may make us simply roll our eyes at its message—you are perfect just as you are, and in fact, you can radiate your joyous existence to others to make their lives better too—it further entrenches the modern Rousseauean revision of the idea of virtue. The latter becomes something that concerns feelings and emotionalism rather than actual practical substance.
These kombucha bottles even go so far as to suggest that drinking the product is akin to a spiritual act. Using the language of “gratitude”, “the sacred”, and “blessings”, it is hard to miss that what they are really selling is a New Age Religion. Drinking kombucha as “our daily act of gratitude” is presented as a replacement for the Christian idea of gratitude for “our daily bread”.
The coffee and kombucha labeling can be written off simply as a marketing technique, but the overwhelming number of instances of exactly this type of appeal not only from marketers but also from politicians, pastors, celebrities, academics, and ordinary people indicates something about our shared understanding of what it means to be a good person. It means dwelling on the “well-being” of the self and on the abstract (and therefore non-threatening and also non-burdensome). Note that this new kind of virtue can be acquired simply through feel-good emotions and empathy. A person can feel moral for having a sense of “gratitude” in the most abstract sense or “sending thoughts and prayers” to distant places in the name of The Cause.
Under the spell of sentimental humanitarianism, a person can feel moral for having a sense of “gratitude” in the most abstract sense or “sending thoughts and prayers” to distant places in the name of The Cause.
Sentimental humanitarianism begins with an abstraction—“Fair Trade” for example—but the sentimental humanitarian does not allow the complexities of the real world to remove the veil of pleasant illusion. To assess whether or not Fair Trade, for example, is more “ethical” in practice than the alternative, it would be necessary to look into a whole host of factors including the experience of individual farmers, unintended consequences, and long-term outcomes.
As it turns out, Fair Trade is at best a mixed bag. While it does provide some additional funds to farmers in the Third World, the true beneficiaries of these extra revenues are not the farmers themselves but the community co-ops, which often use them to improve facilities. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does not directly elevate the livelihood of the farmers and their families. It does not lift them out of poverty. Moreover, the migrant laborers—the poorest of the poor in the Third World—see little benefit from the Fair-Trade program.
Finally, another factor to consider is that Fair Trade coffee can be of lower quality than non-Fair-Trade coffee because of the economic incentives involved. Farmers can be driven to sell their lower-caliber beans to the Fair-Trade buyers, a market in which they are guaranteed a minimum price. They then reserve their higher-quality coffee for the open market, where they can command a price above the Fair-Trade minimum (which ends up serving as a price ceiling rather than a price floor for these higher-quality beans). The devil is in the details.
Clearly, the issue is a complex one, and we should not give ourselves a pat on the back for spending extra on “sustainable” or “ethically sourced” products until we know the particulars. The label means nothing.
However, refusing to pay more for an “ethical” product makes one seem stingy or selfish in this modern world of abstract virtue. There is a certain embarrassment that comes with publicly (or perhaps even privately) declining to support The Cause. Consumers are pressured to buy something about which they actually know very little other than the vague association of the logo with an impression of do-goodism. A person can grab a bag of coffee and walk back to his exclusive downtown condo with a smug feeling of satisfaction for having made a consumer choice that carries no real moral weight.
The moral sentiment of the sentimental humanitarian variety deals in abstractions which permit easy branding: “sustainable”, “Fair Trade”, “LGBTQ friendly”, “safe space”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Follow the Science”, “I Stand with Ukraine”, etc. The logo or insignia is uncritically taken as a substitute for reality: a green leaf means this company cares about the environment or a rainbow flag means this company cares about non-heterosexual people. The concrete ways in which sentimental humanitarians feel as if they are acting or “striving for change” include such trivial and banal acts as changing a Facebook banner, publicly lamenting the condition of faraway peoples, or sounding the trumpet about making “sustainable” (and usually very expensive) consumer choices. To tout a slogan or put up a lawn sign is to have gone a long way toward being a “moral” person under the sentimental humanitarian dispensation.
In sum, the virtue signal is not tantamount to virtue—far from it. We can never really know whether we are doing good or harm unless we are able to gauge the proper context and effects of our actions. The closer to the action we are, the more confident we can be that we are accomplishing what we hope to accomplish. Sending money to a charity in which we personally know and trust the people involved increases the likelihood that our money is going where we intend—and yet, even this is perhaps not the most commendable action. Sending money is easy. Working for the charity itself puts us closer to the action. Nevertheless, doing good does not need to be of an organized, bureaucratic kind.
Yet nonprofits and other charities have proliferated in modern times even as the world continues to become a less humane place to live. Official charities have a way of making us feel good and of giving us a shortcut to a moral life. They often take a very real and intractable challenge, such as cancer or war or the misuse of natural resources, and then try to ameliorate that problem by “raising awareness” and money. Some nonprofits are better than others, but how often are we able to gauge their impact? Part of the problem is that the practical action and the intended goal are incommensurate. If the goal is an abstraction, then our actions can never really lead us closer to it.
Ground zero of sentimental humanitarianism was the French Revolution, which transformed the older Christian and classical concept of virtue from one rooted in personal action and responsibility to mere political virtue-signaling. Robespierre, one of the architects and later victims of the Revolution, believed that terror could be an emanation of virtue so long as it is in service of democracy. This illustrates the dramatic transformation that the concept of virtue underwent during that time. It took on a new and progressive political dimension and came to be synonymous with supporting the whims of the revolutionaries. “Virtue” became a very plastic concept.
During the French Revolution, the Jacobins turned virtue into something that must be publicly confessed in order to be considered authentically held. An entirely new taxonomy was born to support this secular-political understanding of virtue.
Professing the new revolutionary faith in liberty, equality, and fraternity became a requirement of “good citizenship” in the revolutionary society and afterward. One had to show one’s wholehearted approval of the social and political changes, however gruesome and unjust they were. The Jacobins turned virtue into something that must be publicly confessed in order to be considered authentically held. To question the trajectory of the revolution—to express a desire to continue worshiping the God of one’s ancestors or to refuse to adopt the new politically-correct language mandated by the revolution (to be unwilling to address one’s fellows as “citizen” rather than as madam or sir, for example)—became a criminal act. An entirely new taxonomy was born to support this secular-political understanding of virtue.
What became state policy in the French Revolution has remained a part of the Western tradition to some degree ever since. From language to the symbols we must display (“She/Her”, “LGBTQ Ally”, “In This House We Believe...”, etc.), it is important to exhibit devotion, however perfunctorily, to the ever-shifting public philosophy of the Western zeitgeist. Remember the yellow “Livestrong” bracelets or the children of Darfur? Yesterday it was Black Lives Matter and “This is What Feminism Looks Like” t-shirts. Today lawn signs declare “love is love” and “support for” Ukraine. Many of these displays become embarrassingly passé as the sordid underbelly of The Cause is revealed—Lance Armstrong’s doping, feminism shirts being made by women in sweatshops, the co-founder of BLM grifting millions, aid money to Ukraine disappearing into a vortex of corruption, etc.
The sentimental humanitarian may object to this argument, asking if it is not indeed virtuous to care about the fate of the physical environment or the people of Ukraine and to donate one’s time or money accordingly. The answer is, not really. It is not moral or virtuous simply to feel empathy toward a distant and abstract people or condition. Even the unreflective act of donating money has become an easy substitute for “morality”. To be sure, empathizing with the suffering and desiring the well-being of people and the planet is normal and human. But to imagine such feelings or emotions to be the same as moral character is to deceive ourselves. Fixating on parroting the political slogans and the cause du jour saps our will and leaves precious little time to act in ways that truly can make our lives better in the communities in which we live.
Unfortunately, confronting the very real and difficult challenges that we face right in our own homes and neighborhoods has come to be seen as secondary or tertiary behind “bigger” problems of the globe. We could really use much more of what neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan derided in the 1990s as the “prosaic and mundane” morality of ordinary Americans—that is, an ethic that makes us shoulder our own day-to-day duties and communal responsibilities. Like Kagan, Arthur Brooks fantasized about the American people turning toward “higher, more demanding principles and virtues”, by which he meant concerning ourselves with the problems of distant places such as Iraq. There is, as we here see, a real connection between something as seemingly harmless as “ethically-sourced coffee” and a foreign policy of interventionism.
Given the power of sentimental humanitarianism, confronting the very real and difficult challenges that we face right in our own homes and neighborhoods has come to be seen as secondary or tertiary behind “bigger” problems of the globe.
When we lose sight of the necessary concreteness of actual ethical conduct, it is easy for the imagination to take flight and lose itself in grandiose visions of saving humanity. Such dreams are not simply idle and unrealistic but in fact profoundly dangerous. Idealism, as Babbitt notes, has a way of leading not to peace and brotherhood but to conflict:
One is finally led to the conviction that the contrast between the ideal and the real in this movement is not the ordinary contrast between the willingness of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh; that on the contrary this particular field of union among men actually promotes the reality of strife that it is supposed to prevent.
This is not, Babbitt argues, because—although willing—we are weak and unable to be fully devoted to the Cause, as the communist utopians often claimed, but because built into the very nature of abstract idealism, fueled by sentimental humanitarianism, is the need for controlling others.
The abstract ideal of the sentimental humanitarian is by definition a uniform and monopolistic goal and requires a Procrustean and total implementation. But human beings are complex creatures, not easily rationalized into collectives and five-year plans. People have their own personal desires and motivations that will always collide with the vision of the dreamer. This may manifest itself in a relatively harmless way such as farmers skirting the regulations of the Fair-Trade industry, or it may result in mass starvation as the countryside is pillaged by the state of every last grain of wheat in order to meet a national quota. And if you think this could only happen in the Holodomor in the twentieth century, take a look at what is happening to Dutch farmers right now in the name of an abstract state agenda in the Netherlands.
So predictable are the outcomes of abstract, idealized visions that there could be said to be a Law of Idealism at work. This law dictates that all efforts to bring humanity closer to a state of brotherhood will come to naught; they will invariably result in conflict and suffering to a greater or lesser degree as the real and particular circumstances of life interfere with the dream.
There is a real connection between the desire for something as seemingly harmless as “ethically-sourced coffee” and a foreign policy of interventionism abroad. The very nature of abstract idealism necessitates controlling others.
Euro-Atlantic foreign policy “experts” too would do well to take into account this law before they lobby for sending military forces on another foreign mission of “liberation” or to defend abstract international norms. Whether it be to Iraq, Ukraine, or Taiwan, the outcome will be the same. The concrete steps of military action in the real world are unlikely to produce the desired abstract political outcome (American-style democracy, “liberal” norms, or intra-societal “diversity”). The longing for universal brotherhood, unity, “democracy”, environmental purity, or some other abstract ideal is no sound guide to practical action. Such wishful thinking, therefore, cannot achieve in real life those aspirations that ostensibly justify steps taken in their name.
The actual result will be dictated by the action taken, not the abstract goal in mind. War will have the same result that it has always had, humanitarian and democratic posturing by its proponents notwithstanding. Violence, chaos, and civil strife will be the order of the day, as always during and after times of war.
The real danger of sentimental humanitarian virtue-signaling—whether it be the democratist posturing of Western leaders or parading one’s “sustainable” clothing—is the temptation to cajole others into adopting those same beliefs not through the power of example but through force of one kind or another.
As a nation whose current elites regularly draw on a secular version of Christian universalism to justify their new crusadism abroad, America might learn from one of the greatest opponents of sentimental humanitarianism: Jesus Christ. Do not give the appearance of fasting or sound the trumpet when giving alms, Christ warned. That is to say: no virtue-signaling!
Genuine virtue is trying to make oneself better and leading by example.
U.S. President John Quincy Adams understood this well. He translated this Christian teaching in his famous 1821 Fourth of July Address, declaring that America ought not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy but, instead, to “commend the general cause [of freedom and independence of all nations] by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.” Indeed, Adams went even further in his admonition: he called on his compatriots to abstain “from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which [they] cling”.
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Great essay. In the end, I’m convinced all of modernity is just an amalgamation of Christian heresies.