Our Sentimental Humanitarian Age

Our Sentimental Humanitarian Age

I mentioned last week that tomorrow I am moderating a panel, “How To Help The Poor: Religious Perspectives on the Least of These,” for the annual meeting of the Philanthropy Roundtable. I’ve been reading a sampling of the writings of the panelists — Brian Fikkert, Samuel Gregg and Yossi Prager — and came across this essay in The American Spectator by Samuel Gregg, “Our Sentimental Humanitarian Age.” I was so taken with it that I asked him if I could republish it for my blog today. He agreed and I want to encourage you to read it. I’ll be back next week.
I always thought it would be difficult to imagine a period in which the West would be more adrift than the 1970s. Being a child at the time, I was spared consciousness of most of that miserable decade. Thus far, however, the second decade of the 2000s seems likely to give the 10 years that spawned Watergate, stagflation, the Carter presidency, the Oil Crisis, Idi Amin, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Jim Jones, Pol Pot, the Red Brigades, and the Iranian Revolution (to name just a few of the star attractions) a serious run for its money as a byword for Western decline.
One everyday sign of this malaise is the fact that much of the West remains, as in the seventies, mired in what’s now called the Long Slump. And persistently unhealthy economies are usually symptomatic of an unwillingness to acknowledge deeper problems. Examples are most Western governments’ reluctance to accept that it’s game-over for the regulatory and welfare state as-we-knew-it, or to do something about the growing cancer of crony-capitalism.
Sometimes, however, an event occurs that highlights the more fundamental crises that bedevil a civilization. The rise of a movement as diabolical as ISIS, for instance, has surely underscored the bankruptcy of what might be called the sentimental humanitarian outlook that dominates so many contemporary shapers of the West’s cultural consensus.
Sentimental humanitarianism has several features. One is the mind-set that reduces evil to structural causes. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” proclaimed Rousseau in his Du contrat social. From this, many concluded that evil would disappear if the right people were put in charge to change the structures.
Sentimental humanitarianism also assumes that all religions are more-or-less the same and, given the right conditions, will vacillate their way towards something as innocuous as today’s Church of England. But as a wise recently retired pope once wrote, a major failure of imagination since the 1960s has been the disinclination to concede that there are “sick and distorted forms of religion.”
Despite its claims to take the mind seriously, sentimental humanitarianism is also rather “uncomfortable” (to use classic sentimental humanitarian language) with any substantive understanding of reason. It tends to reduce most debates to exchanges of feelings. You know you’re dealing with a sentimental humanitarian whenever someone responds to arguments with expressions such as “Well, I just feel…” or “You can’t say that,” or (the ultimate trump-card) “That’s hurtful.”
Outfits like ISIS — and Boko Haram, Nazism, and Communism — don’t, however, fit the sentimental humanitarian narrative. For such groups illustrate that not all of evil emanates from poor education, unjust structures, or the current fashionable explanation for all the world’s ills: inequality. In the end, the sick choice to behead someone — or kidnap people’s daughters, or incarcerate enemies-of-the-revolution in a Gulag, or herd Jews into gas chambers — is a free choice to do evil that can’t be explained away by the fact that others are wealthier than you.
The same groups also underline another truth that makes sentimental humanitarians uneasy: that some people and movements aren’t in fact amenable to “dialogue.” ISIS’s creed is submission: nothing more, nothing less. There’s nothing to discuss with ISIS except the terms of your surrender or degree of dhimmitude.
A third and even more controversial truth that upsets the sentimental humanitarian account of the world’s ills is that not all cultures are equally amenable to the values and institutions that promote freedom, dignity, and other goods intrinsic to human nature. At many universities these days, making such a claim is likely to mean you’ll be shipped off for diversity-sensitivity training. That, however, doesn’t make it any less true.
Consider, for example, the words of the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul whose flock has been murdered, robbed, raped, and scattered by ISIS. Speaking about the perpetrators to a Western audience, Archbishop Amel Shimoun Nona said, “Your values are not their values.” “Your liberal and democratic principles,” he added, “are worth nothing here.” In the face of such blunt remarks, your average sentimental humanitarian has little to say.
In fact, sentimental humanitarians invariably deal with such realities by ignoring them. Thus one ends up with situations such as the now-notorious Rotherham case in Britain: a situation in which authorities — out of fear of being labeled racist — failed to act in the face of over 1,400 young girls being sexually abused by men of Asian background over a sixteen-year period. When the town’s former MP was asked why he hadn’t addressed the matter, he admitted: “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat, if I may put it like that. Perhaps yes, as a true Guardian reader, and liberal leftie, I suppose I didn’t want to raise that too hard.”
The naïveté of the sentimental humanitarian creed is partly traceable back to the Enlightenment faith in progress and the nineteenth-century conviction that everyone will eventually evolve into nice, inoffensive Western liberals. One would have thought World War I would have disabused us of such illusions. But another reason for sentimental humanitarianism’s persistence is that it feeds, parasite-like, off the West’s Christian heritage.
Orthodox (small “o”) Christianity has always taken evil deadly seriously. The Polish philosopher the late Leszek Kołakowski once wrote that original sin is one part of the Christian faith that you don’t need to be a believer to accept. Why? Because, he said, the evidence for its truth lies all around us. While Christianity’s core message is that evil and death have been conquered, it also affirms that people can still choose evil, even to the point of their own damnation.
By contrast, what might be called “liberal Christianity” involves the steady distortion of such beliefs. Sin, for instance, is exteriorized away from man’s free choices and actions (i.e., things that make us different from every other species). Instead wickedness is almost exclusively reduced to unjust structures, while goodness is narrowed to abolishing inequality, stopping global warming, and establishing eternal universal peace through the United Nations. Thus salvation is steadily reduced to a this-worldly focus on perfecting social structures, which, being human, can never be perfect.
From liberal Christianity, it’s just a short step to secularized versions of the same viewpoint. Indeed, that’s the logical endpoint of this Christian heresy. Here one’s reminded of the story of the rather progressive clergyman who, in response to a question concerning where his views substantially differed from the New York Times editorial line on any given issue, struggled to identify any major point of dissension.
For all their claims to be open-minded, sentimental humanitarians — secular or religious — are remarkably resistant to acknowledging certain realities associated with a fallible humanity and an imperfect world. That helps explain the open-mouthed incomprehension with which they view groups like ISIS, or, even worse, the tendency to make excuses for people like Marx who infamously wrote in 1849, “When our turn comes we shall not disguise our terrorism.”
The good news is that previous periods of Western decay, such as the aforementioned 1970s, are often followed by years in which we witness the emergence of people willing to speak the truth about such matters. Reagan, Solzhenitsyn, Thatcher and John Paul II did much to wake us up from the resignation and happy-talk with which much of the West treated Communism during the 1970s.
Leaders, of course, aren’t everything. The bad news today, however, is surely the near-absence of any Western leader (Australia’s Tony Abbott being a possible exception) in the public eye who’s prepared to depart from the sentimental humanitarian script to speak directly about the deeper reasons underlying, for instance, soft-despotism’s relentless creep throughout our economies, or even more seriously, radical jihadism’s growth outside and within our own borders.
The sad irony is that the longer we stay in a sentimental humanitarian-induced sleep about such things, the greater the possibility that the nightmares we dread will become real.”


  1. Fred: If you are going to take a week off and insert a replacement article – this is a good one. Powerful acknowledgement of this reality that was everywhere evident as I visited this week with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, human victims of what can only be described as emanating from people with a heart of darkness.

    • Steve – Heart of Darkness is such a good description. Mike Gerson’s column on Jack Kemp recounts his inability to admit the existence of evil due to his Christian Science upbringing. He should have lived to see this.

  2. Sadly your blog of today correctly illustrates the pitiful lack of reality and leadership in our culture in the U.S. and around the world. Sentimental Humanitarians are prevalent in our schools, churches, government, sports etc etc to protect the fashionable “Political Correctness” and never let the light of the Truth or reality seep into our actions, words and particularly our thoughts to make certain no one is offended. If we are just nice caring Sentimental Humanitarians the evil and dysfunction around us will surely disappear.

  3. Fred,
    Your observation that sentimentality rather than concrete reality is at the root of so much policy prescription, including in philanthropy, is well placed. The contest between objective and subjective truth began with Eve when she yielded to the deceitful temptation to eat the fruit to gain wisdom so that she, like God, would know good and evil. The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision embeds subjective determination of good and evil into our Constitutional jurisprudence holding that all people have a fundamental right to marry whom they please. This right, according to the court, rests on three subordinate rights: to dignity, to autonomy, and to identity. Simply put: for each to decide for one’s self who and what they are regardless of nature’s assignment of one’s sex. These same three rights will not be extended well beyond gay marriage. The first words ever penned in the founding of America were that “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Now, there is no such thing in our law as self-evident truth. One’s own sentiments *are* the truth and the law for one’s self . And no one’s truth is more true than any other’s truth. Subjectivist philosophy is nothing new. What is new is that it is no longer a passive philosophy but a fountain of fundamental Constitutional rights. It will pervade all social and legal institutions in our society in the years ahead. It has for years been disrupting churches. It pervades philanthropy as “sentimentalism” with little regard to objective reality. I see the consequences of this in life and death terms from my own experience delivering healthcare to millions of poor Africans as so much money is spent based on ideologies and relationships rather on objectively best practices; this increases the death toll among the world’s poorest people. In it’s most extreme manifestation throughout history, subjectivism–the lack of self-evident truth–has seized whole societies and led them to commit the world’s most hideous crimes. The land of Luther became a land of mass murder. When societies recognized no higher law over the sentiments of those in power, they always pave the way to Hell with the best intentions–i.e. their sentiments. America is well on its way down that path. I’m waiting for the great humanitarian arguments that will surface as we Baby Boomers become too costly to keep alive. “Mercy”, it will be called, as we are involuntarily euthanized.

  4. Excellent. Has anyone noticed the thunder-clapping silence in the domestic public square regarding any what used to be termed in the Cold War era “the war for the hearts, minds and souls” of people? The secular West is utterly bankrupt in this area with nothing to arm itself with.


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