Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Superheroes and sentimentality

My Watchmen post below generated some interesting combox feedback, much of which I agree with. Thinking about the subject further, it occurs to me that there might be yet another factor at work in the phenomenon I described.

In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (building on some ideas of Michael Tanner) puts forward a brief but illuminating account of sentimentality. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background. Sentimentality thus involves having one’s emotions “on the cheap” – enjoying them, as it were, without paying the costs they entail. For that reason, Scruton says, it is a vice.

I would suggest that the following behavior patterns are pretty clear signs of sentimentality in this sense:

“Doing something” about “world hunger” by making (or buying) records like “We are the world,” watching Live Aid, etc., while knowing or caring little about what actually causes food shortages or what actually happens to emergency food supplies sent to Third World countries.

Badmouthing capitalism while collecting gigantic paychecks (actors, pop stars, etc.) or otherwise living comfortably off of the capitalist system (professors, students, etc.)

Thinking that the following sorts of behavior evince great virtue: voting a certain way; going to a political rally; signing a petition; sorting one’s garbage into different bins; driving a Prius; sticking an anti-Bush sticker on the bumper of one’s car; etc.

Thinking the following sorts of behavior are not particularly virtuous: refraining from sex until you are married; staying married for better or worse, richer or poorer; not aborting a baby despite the fact that it was unplanned, will be an inconvenience, is disabled; etc.

Expressing outrage over the plight of the people of this or that war-torn country when doing so might cause political damage to some conservative politician, but ignoring them otherwise; denouncing proposals actually to do something about their plight (e.g. economic sanctions, military action), while offering no concrete alternatives.

Believing it takes real courage to “stand up” to an evangelical Christian who publishes a book or gives a speech, while refusing to say anything that might offend a jihadist who slits a throat or blows up a pizzeria.

Weeping over the cramped conditions inside chicken coops and dog kennels while heartily approving of those who kill and dismember fetuses.


Suppose there were people prone to this sort of vicious sentimentality – purely hypothetical I know, but let’s just pretend. Is it possible they might also be prone to the following sort of cognitive dissonance?

Thinking movies like Watchmen present us with deep moral quandaries and characters whose motives and actions, however horrific, we must seek to “understand” rather than either “condone” or “condemn.”

while, at the same time

Thinking that the decisions made by the Bush administration in the face of the threat of future 9/11-style attacks, the persistent flouting by the likes of Saddam Hussein of a series of UN resolutions, etc., represented no moral difficulties at all but only evil, evil, evil.

To ask the question is, I think, to answer it.


  1. Sentimentality is typical of the emotional falseness that is a defining characteristic of neurosis. It distinguishes liberalism from other forms of leftism.

  2. As a former leftist and a former athiest, I heartally concur with Ed.

    BTW Ed, do you detect a similar vein of thought within our Church which approves no end of the Church involving herself in 'social justice' issues but moans whenever the Holy Father does something to regularize the situation of a certain traditionalist group named after the successor to Leo XIII ?

  3. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs

    Hmmm. This may explain some of the strange, contradictory feelings I experience while kicking my little pup, Masoch-by-Proxy, around the yard to let off steam...

  4. That's part of it, Jack -- as are hypocrisy, malice, and hatred of tradition. To put it mildly.

    BTW, in answer to your question on an earlier thread, I should have part II up sometime this week.

  5. Dear Edward,

    I've recently been reading and enjoying your blog, and was quite disappointed by this post. The list of examples here seems to be rather a laundry list of things you don't like about the left. Some of the items have in common a sort of grandstanding posturing with no beneficial effect, where the moral outrage is an end in itself; that's fair. But I'm left scratching my head as to what on earth "thinking that refraining from sex until marriage is not particularly virtuous" has to do with this.

    Similarly, I hope you will admit that it is just this kind of sentimentality to derive a sense of virtue from anti-Clinton (or anti-Obama) bumper stickers, going to "tea party" rallies, signing pro-life petitions; or to believe that it takes real courage to denounce militant Muslims who don't care about your little town far from the symbols of power. I don't see how your concept of sentimentality can have any consistency whatsoever without including these; but they go unmentioned.

    I was hoping, and saw some signs, that your blog would be a place of thoughtful philosophical reflection with insights valuable to those who don't happen to share your political leanings (as, say, Front Porch Republic is). In this post I see what begins as a potentially interesting reflection on the concept of sentimentality, degenerating into a way of scoring cheap political points. If you aspire to be a Daily Kos of the right, well, I can't stop you, but I'm not interested in reading any further. (I don't read Daily Kos either, for the record.)

    Sincerely, Amod.

    P.S. I was surprised to read in your previous post that Rorschach was considered the moral centre of Watchmen. It seemed to me that he, like Ozymandias, was being presented as ambiguous at best; Nite Owl and Silk Spectre were the ones shown as genuinely moral.

  6. Maybe I saw a different movie.
    Nite Owl and Silk Spectre were the moral center?
    They just had their blood-lust under (slightly) better control.

  7. "Moral centre" is a bit strong; I don't think the movie really had such. But they did seem to be presented as the most moral characters in the movie, certainly much more than Rorschach. I can't think of any leftist who would have approved of Rorschach's actions if a real-life person were to have committed them; at most, they made for an enjoyable fantasy.

  8. I don't think it's totally accurate to regard Watchmen and other flicks as "just fantasy". I'm a comic fan myself, and the idea that comics in general (not just more "serious" comics like Watchmen, but even more typical stuff like the day to day Marvel universe) doesn't often involve commentary or presenting, subtly or not, a political viewpoint.. that's nonsense.

    (In fact, I only recently became a comic fan. Politics was one reason for the delay: Whenever I picked up a random comic at the comic store, I inevitably grabbed something with political preachiness to the extreme. I somehow managed to get ahold of a Swamp Thing where Swamp Thing never showed up, and it was just a one-shot tale of some ludicrous caricature of some evil right-wing guy slapping the lesbianism out of his ex-wife, beating up on liberals, then becoming president with the warning that "this could happen".)

  9. Amod Lele,

    First of all, yes, conservatives are also sometimes guilty of sentimentality in the bad sense of the term Scruton describes.

    Second, what is more difficult:

    A. Refraining from fornication, determining to stay in an unhappy marriage no matter what, keeping an unwanted baby, etc.


    B. Not judging people who fornicate, get divorced, abort their babies, etc.

    I submit that A is obviously much harder. But liberals tend to see greater moral virtue in B. Hence liberal morality is to that extent much easier than conservative morality and thus much more likely to lead to sentimentalism in the bad sense in question. For to focus on subjective attitudes and feelings (of tolerance, compassion, etc.) as definitive of virtue rather than difficult overt behavior (especially behavior requiring that one fight one's feelings) just is to be sentimental in the sense in question.

    So, that's why I gave the example in question. A reasonable person might still disagree with the claim I'm making, but I don't think it amounts to a Daily Kos-style rant.

    Third, you are right that it is easy for some guy out in the middle of Kansas (or wherever) to denounce militant Islam. But my point wasn't "See how virtuous conservatives are for denouncing militant Islam!" My point was that it is silly to think it _courageous_ for a liberal to denounce evangelical Christians, especailly if that same liberal minimizes the dangers of militant Islam, accuses those who criticize it of being bigots, etc.

    Finally, the reason I suggested that Rorschach might be the intended moral center of the movie is that he is the only one who always does exactly what he thinks is right and is always willing to pay the price, including death. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, by contrast, though they seem almost as wary as Rorschach is of what is done at the end of the movie (to keep things vague for people who still haven't seen it) do nothing to try to stop it, certainly not at the risk of their lives. Indeed, it seems they end up after everything that happens living a life of yuppie comfort -- not something I imagine anyone, including Moore and Gibbons, would regard as particularly heroic.

    That's my take, anyway -- I might be wrong.

  10. This was a great post until it devolved into a liberal-bashing game. Get real, Ed, sentimentality and hypocrisy don't belong to any political party. Do you really think that all people on the left are sentimental, and no people on the right are? If so, you're even more of an ideologue than I thought.

    To take a simple example, criticizing some features of capitalism while benefiting from it is hardly any kind of logical or performative self-contradiction. At the very least, it's no more contradictory than a libertarian or anti-statist conservative working for a college that receives state and federal funding - which, the last time I checked, included most libertarian and anti-statist political philosophers with academic jobs.

    To take another example, liberals frothing at the mouth about how Bush was a "fascist" is no different from conservatives whining about how Obama is a "socialist." Both of them are ridiculously over-simplified and verge on abuse of the English language.

    Sentimentality is a vice, but so is being a moral simpleton.

  11. Your comparisons between 'liberal' and 'conservative' morality, besides only vaguely mapping onto the actual moral beliefs of most people, have the disadvantage of being overly charitable towards conservatives and basically caricaturing liberals. It sure is easy to argue against people when you can make up their positions to be as ridiculous as you want, huh?

  12. Oh, but it's okay, because you admit that conservatives "sometimes" are guilty of sentimentalism.

    I wish I could belong to this select political ideology that seems largely immune to ordinary human vices.

  13. Ah, I've been wasting my time. Amold already said it all.

  14. "Do you really think that all people on the left are sentimental, and no people on the right are?"

    Of course not. I've already said otherwise. Anyway, you'll notice that I've been focusing on "conservative _morality_" vs. "liberal _morality_," as opposed to "conservatives" vs. "liberals." Since fewer self-described conservatives these days actually try to live by a conservative morality, what I have to say applies to many of them as well; and since there are political liberals who live fairly conservative personal lives, what I have to say would apply to fewer of them than it might seem.

    All the same, the point remains that a morality that emphasizes tolerance is bound to be both easier and more likely to lead to sentimentalism than a morality that emphasizes self-control. Is there more to the liberal morality/conservative morality difference than that? Sure, but that's surely a major part of it -- certainly it's not absurd to suggest that it is.

    Anyway, I respectfully suggest you and Amod calm down a bit and actually try to address the point instead of whining about "liberal bashing." To criticize something isn't necesarily to "bash" it.

  15. The problem is that those who practice self-control (as opposed to tolerance), so often want to subject the Other to that same control by fiat.
    I would rather be allowed to make my own mistakes than to be "saved from myself" by the legislated imposition of YOUR moral standards.

  16. Rodak,

    First, the point has nothing to do with anyone trying to impose a moral standard by force of law. The point has to do with the demanding nature of the standard itself, and holds even if the standard is not enforced by law.

    Second, what you say does not in any case address the issue at hand, viz. whether a conservative moral standard is (a) more demanding and (b) less likely to foster sentimentalism.

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  18. That which I'm referring to also holds whether or not it is imposed by law. It becomes more problematic, however, when it is imposed by law. An example would be the irrational "war on drugs," which--although being anti-drug often has a sound practical basis--is (I believe) largely waged on the basis of sentiment.
    In the beginning, it was felt that the "right sort" of people just didn't do that kind of thing, etc.
    But when social pressure fails to quell the enthusiasm for, say, marijuana, or single malt scotch, those self-controlled individuals who find the use of weed or whiskey repugnant almost inevitably seek to legislate against its use. The result for us is a prison population so large that we can't build enough cells to keep up, while drug use goes on unabated.
    If the self-controlled could just remain self-contained, everything would be hunky-dory.

  19. Thanks a lot for this insightful post and for your further answers.
    Is it really so that B is easier than A? As far as I am concerned, I live a life of self-control and contentment. God helped me insofar as my children are wonderful and I did not have even to think about an abortion. So, for me A has always been relatively easy and natural (it makes me feel good to think I will never cheat on my husband, maybe as good as someone else would feel while cheating on him!). On the other hand, my father left my mother (a wonderful person, as he also admits) because of a student of him. She then managed to get a baby (this does not mean that my father did not contribute, of course, but she explicitly lied about her alleged impossibility of getting pregnant). My sister and I lernt to love our step-mother and our half-sister. A week after she became full-professor (through our father's constant support), our step-mother left him for another man (who also had left his wife and their two adopted children for her). Short, I cannot forgive her. For me, non judging her is far beyond my moral abilities.
    Since I am referring to so many people (especially my half-sister), I hope you will understand my reasons not to write my name.

  20. Dr. Feser,

    I'm sorry, but can't conservatives be just as sentimental as liberals? I mean, how much appeal to sentiment do you think goes into the anti-abortion movement? Just as much (if not more) than in the animal "rights" or environmentalist crusades.

    I'm not saying this to vindicate liberals or condemn pro-choice PR tactics, merely to point out that vice is not the domain of any one political faction.


    Yes, of course most self-controlled people want others to practice self-control! That's because temperance is virtuous, and the purpose of society (and government) is to inculcate, preserve, and fortify virtue. (For more, see Aquinas' Treatise on Law, esp. I-II:92:1.)