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.’”
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