At Work & Public Square

Acton U: “Sentimental Humanitarianism” Is the Worst Temptation in Our World Today

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Dr. Samuel Gregg kicked off Acton University on Tuesday night in Grand Rapids with a lecture entitled “Truth, Reason, and the Quest for Equality.”

According to him, the worst temptation in a post-modern world that does not trust truth is sentimental humanitarianism.

Originally, clergy and monks established universities because seeking truth was synonymous with seeking God.

Harvard’s motto is Veritas which means “truth.”

Oxford’s motto is Dominus illuminatio mea which comes from the opening of Psalms 27 and means “The Lord is my light.”

Just as monks came together in monasteries to pray, they intended people to come together to learn and seek God at universities.

Today, our post-modern world doesn’t trust veritas or reason. Postmodernity says the ultimate reality is unknowable at worst and a social-construct at best. As a result, we have sentimental humanitarianism.

Sentimental Humanitarianism: A Dangerous Temptation

Gregg argues that sentimental humanitarianism:

  • Reduces most debates to exchanges of feelings. Common responses to disagreements are “you can’t say that” or “that’s hurtful” or “that offends me.” But in quoting British novelist Ian McEwan, Gregg says there is nothing virtuous about being offended.
  • Is naive of human nature. It assumes everyone is of good will. Rather, Gregg says we have to acknowledge that there are some groups of people in which rational conversation is not possible.
  • Doesn’t take free choice seriously. It claims all evil emanates from bad education and unjust structures, but this is hardly the full story. Evil is a free choice of each individual, and Gregg says it’s not something that can be explained away by the fact that someone is wealthier than you.

Sentimental Humanitarianism and Equality

Sentimental humanitarianism greatly influences the way our culture thinks about equality. Popular opinion is that economic inequality is unjust and we must do whatever we can to stop it. It is the root of all social ills.

Christianity, on the other hand, says sin is the root of all social ills. Many forms of inequality are not unjust in the Bible. Some forms are actually very just and intentional, like the example in the parable of the talents. Economic inequality is not the same as poverty.

Gregg pointed out two different cases that are illuminating to the nature of economic equality:

  • Global economic inequality has been in decline since the 1980s, more than any previous time in history, because Eastern Asian nations are growing at rapid rates and the poor are becoming wealthier.
  • Economic inequality is declining in Venezuela because totalitarian law is causing the wealthy to flee the county, the middle class to suffer, and the poor to become poorer, but at a slower rate than everyone else.

Which situation would you prefer?

There is nothing virtuous about economic equality for its own sake. The Christian-Hebrew understanding of equality is not about the obliteration of difference, it’s about human dignity.

While Gregg recognizes that sentimental humanitarianism is rooted in good intentions, he says it’s dangerous because it raises emotions over reason.

The anecdote? Gregg says, “truth”.


Because ultimately, it sets us free.

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