Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dictatorship of Sentimentalism

Pope Benedict started his pontificate by coining the phrase "The Dictatorship of Relativism." He was pointing out the irony of the fact that Relativism who's sole raison d'etre was to oppose anyone imposing any idea on anyone else was actually being imposed as an idea on society today. This was very insightful and unfortunately still happens a lot. Really anyone who says anything intelligent about faith or morals should be prepared for a chorus of responses along the lines of "don't impose your ideas on anyone else." It is quite sad.

Yet I was thinking there is another dictatorship active in today's society. That is that of sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is when you base your moral philosophy on human emotion. Whoever gives the most moving sob-story wins the day. This is common as well. You talk about abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia and many people have been hugely influenced by somebody somewhere allegedly being hurt by those big bad Christian moralists. The question is then framed around, "Do you care about these people or do you not?"

That is a terrible way to do moral reasoning for a lot of reasons. One being that sentimental arguments can contradict. You could make someone feel sorry for the adulterer. You could also make someone feel sorry for the faithful spouse who is cheated on. It is easy to manipulate people's emotions. 

Another way this kind of moral thinking fails is in dealing with dissenters. If you reduce the question to "do you care" then what is your reaction to the people who continue to hold the other position. They must not care. So you immediately get very strong rhetoric accusing people on the other side of hatred. They almost never actually hate the people in question. Yet sentimentalism requires that be the only reason they hold the position they hold. If they admit any exception then they move from emotional ground to rational ground. The two don't mix. Sentimentalism must crush logic because it  can't compete with logic. It is a far less reliable guide to the truth so it has to declare the rational person to be a monster. 

So letting your love and compassion guide you will lead you to develop hatred and disgust for another people group. Emotion is a two-edged sword. Yet it gets worse. What happens when the band wagon goes too far. Human movements always go from one extreme to another. Eventually their hatred for the other side will get so harsh you can't stomach it. For some that will take longer than others. That is when sentimentalism gets really harsh. As soon as you jump off that band wagon then you become the one that does not care. You are now the hater that has been so demonised in your mind. 

The trouble is because your initial acceptance of the sentimentalist position was not principled then you can't find any principled way out. It is like any sin. Even when you realise how wrong it is it is difficult to stop. This is especially true when we don't want to stop completely but just want to stop the most extreme consequences. It does not work like that. Just like an alcoholic can't cut back a little but must attack the power of his addiction at the root. So too someone addicted to sentimentalism must go back and reconstruct their morality based on sound principles. The same principles the church has always defended. All of them, not just the ones you find appealing. That is hard to do.

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