Recently Alastair Roberts and I had the chance to do an email back and forth over an issue I’ve noticed increasingly often in the way that many are reasoning about issues of public ethics. Unsurprisingly, the discussion sprawled out a bit from there and brought in everything from the work of Jonathan Haidt to the bureaucratic state to the way that the internet shapes and constrains our reasoning. It’s a bit long, but hopefully enjoyable. My emails are in bold. Thanks for reading!

Alastair, here’s my basic observation. You tell me if I’m crazy.

In discussions of public policy it is very rare to find the online discussion beginning from a place of inquiry or a felt need to investigate further. There is a kind of instinctive assumption that we just know the good and so the main priority is then advocating for that good, shaming those who are opposed to it, etc. The name I’ve given this so far is “moral positivism.”

It seems like there are a number of things that likely feed into this. One of them is the assumption behind a lot of left-wing writing these days that most public problems aren’t necessarily moral problems, but administrative ones. Find the right public policy to realize the good and we’re sorted. That’s my biggest critique of the set. (This is, of course, a quintessentially modern way of approaching social problems and is precisely the sort of thing CS Lewis is attacking in That Hideous Strength.)

Another point is that I think the Overton window on certain issues has become incredibly small. If something can plausibly be framed as being the position in favor of equality or the compassionate position, then it’s almost impossible to make arguments against it.

There’s more feeding into it as well, I’m sure, but those are initial thoughts. What do you think?

Jake, first of all, thank you for the invitation to this conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation on the subject of Lent last year and appreciate this chance to have such an exchange again.that-hideous-strength

You remark upon the seeming absence of genuine open enquiry in discussions of public policy online, yet I doubt this problem is in any way exclusive to discussions of public policy. Rather than ‘discussions of public policy’, the key factor here may be the medium—‘online discussion’ itself. I’m unpersuaded that a culture of open enquiry is best understood as a creation of pure will or as a natural product of the nobler characters of its members. Such a culture typically requires certain material conditions and institutional and societal forms within which to thrive, and will shrivel without them. Perhaps one of the most pressing problems that we face in contemporary discourse is the dysfunctional ecosystem of conversation that the internet represents. Most people focus narrowly upon the ‘online abuse’ perpetrated by a minority of ‘trolls’, but the problem is much deeper than that: it is dysfunctionality of the standard ‘use’ of the internet that is the more concerning.

Time, space, and other forms of differentiation are essential ‘structural’ conditions for healthy intellectual discourse. When we are not given sufficient time we fall back upon our reactions, rather than learning to reflect and respond. It is the gift of time—and the discipline of taking it—that creates a window for reflection and deliberation and enables us to escape a form of discourse that is little more than kneejerk reactions and post hoc rationalizations.

In the speed of online discourse, where instant opinions are demanded of us, where takes must always be ‘hot’, the necessary time for such reflection and deliberation are seldom afforded to us. The claustrophobic social saturation of online media and our daily lives is another dangerous factor, producing conversations that lack necessary aeration, where participants easily get caught up in a shared ‘feeling plasma’ (to borrow Edwin Friedman’s terminology), think about issues in ways driven by reactivity to those on the other side of the political aisle and their instinct to herd with those on their own side, rather than in ways closely attentive to the issues themselves. Such social saturation encourages herd dynamics, conversations fuelled by unruly passions, and discourages introspection and private consideration—we need space and solitude in which to think.

These problems are compounded by the collapse of contexts online, making it harder to restrict access to certain conversations or to retreat from the conflict of discourse to realms of non-combative sociality. The result is seldom a democratic utopia, but a free-for-all shouting match, where the most extreme voices on various sides monopolize attention and where discord intrudes into all settings.

Considering the character of online discourse, I am often reminded of the underappreciated truth of Edmund Burke’s claim that a proper bridle upon the force of human passions within society is to be considered among our rights. The world of the internet—faster, more connected, more inclusive, more social, more intimate, more accessible, more immediate, etc.—promises great freedom, yet often places us at the mercy of unrestrained passions and places ever more onerous burdens upon our own reserves of self-control (I recommend Brad Littlejohn’s Reformation21 series on the seven deadly sins in the digital age).

On your further points, I have definitely witnessed the phenomena you describe, although I suspect they are effects of distinct and often contradictory tendencies in contemporary thought, resulting from the loss of a coherent moral vision. I wonder whether ‘positivism’ is the most apt term for what you are describing here: perhaps ‘sentimentalism’ or ‘intuitionism’ might be better. While positivism rests upon the supposed certitude of scientific modes of knowing, sentimentalism rests upon a more non-cognitivist trust in our emotional response to reality (however weakly that ‘reality’ is conceived). While positivists might rule claims of opponents invalid or dispute their empirical evidence, the emotional immediacy of contemporary moral sentimentalism can produce a far more vicious form of discourse.

If you do not share a person’s vision of the good, the problem is less with your reasoning or ethical theory than it is with you. Consequently, moral sentimentalists routinely pathologize opponents as hateful or driven by fear and malice. This perception will rapidly shrink the Overton Window and will also tend to demonize those whose positions don’t fit within it. As Steven D. Smith has observed, terms such as ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ are vague ‘hurrah words’, whose meaning and import is lazily and falsely presumed to be self-evident (e.g. ‘equal marriage!’). They serve to smuggle the dogma of our moral sentiments into the conversation, commandeering the force of high principle, while leaving their inherent tendentious assumptions unexposed to critical examination.

One of the effects of such moral sentimentalism is to blind us to the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘right’, denying or neglecting the role of deliberation (it also encourages a blinkered reliance upon ‘empathy’, which is another matter worthy of discussion). Moral sentimentalism tends to operate in kneejerk emotional judgments that it weakly rationalizes. It typically fails to grasp the distinction between the values upheld by the ‘good’ on the one hand and the ‘right’ of specific obligations laid upon us or appropriate courses of action to pursue in a given situation on the other.

This sort of moral sentimentalism is widely displayed, for instance, in many current responses to the Syrian refugee and migration crises. (Ed. note: We covered the refugee crisis in a podcast, a main page post, and Alastair has written on it for Reformation21.) Facile emotional appeals to misreadings of the nativity story, questionable interpretations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the supposed analogy with the Jews fleeing Hitler, our gut reactions to pictures of drowned toddlers, and other such things substitute for the difficult discriminating labour of forging wise and workable policies in response to a huge problem with a peculiarly knotty form. A surprising number of people conflate a natural and appropriate love and concern for people in extreme need with advocacy of their favoured policies. It is important to pry these things apart and to create space for deliberation once more.

The other tendency that you describe—the supplanting of moral concerns by administrative ones—relates, I believe, to a different set of impulses within contemporary society. This set of impulses is utilitarian, pragmatic, and technocratic and seeks to rationalize and control human life and society. The scribes of this religion are social scientists, who transpose conversations about morality into investigations of quantifiable utility and the maximization of desired outcomes. Its priests are social technicians and engineers, who seek to establish laws, techniques, methods, procedures, and protocols for every conceivable occasion, dispensing with any need for human judgment, prudence and discretion, sovereignty, ad hoc arrangements, or private resolution of conflict.

This utilitarian (and bureaucratic) vision has powerful infected and debased our moral vision and discourse. Its faith in the power of and concern for the appropriate form of technique displaces traditional discourse about morality. For instance, much contemporary sexual education frames sexual relations narrowly in terms of utility in achieving pleasure and appropriately ‘safe’ and ‘consensual’ technique, dulled to the fact that such relations might be a fittingly moral concern.

Another illustration of this impulse can be seen in our growing reliance upon government, law, and other authorities to supervise and regulate and mediate our basic relations as a society. This is perhaps especially seen in recent debates about freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Anything that might disrupt the predictability, efficiency, or universality of society is looked upon with suspicion. Rather than trust the resolution of most actual and potential conflicts to private discretion and prudence, compromise, the exercise of civility, ad hoc accommodations, workarounds, and social norming, we look for legislation and petition officious agencies to involve themselves on our behalf and regulate for all such events. This, by the way, is related to the problem with much ‘political correctness’, less the claims and practices being proscribed (many of which are indefensible incivility) than the reduction of the civil realm to one of political and legal regulation and impersonal technique.

Two issues arise from these points that I would be interested to hear your thoughts upon. The first concerns the connection and interplay between our moral sentimentalism and our bureaucratic utilitarianism and how we are to communicate in the moral climate that they create. I suspect both are ways that our society seeks to compensate for the lack of a coherent moral vision and that they are tangled together in significant ways. To what extent do you believe moral sentimentalism and bureaucratic utilitarianism are visible in the Church, not just the world? How are we to go about challenging these models of morality and replacing them with Christian alternatives?

The second issue concerns the relationship between the faith in impersonal technique and technology that drives our bureaucratic utilitarianism and the specific technology of the internet. I believe that the internet is a form of technology that differs in a crucial ways from most others, in that it is on account of its socially constitutive nature. Rather than just being a medium that society uses for communication, it has become a medium of society itself.

The result is the extreme intimatization of technology and the conversion of human interaction and society into routinized forms amenable to technical processing and regulation. However, my opening remarks suggest that the technology of the internet has generally proved to be a failure when it comes to facilitating and encouraging healthy discourse and that what we need is the reintroduction of much of the friction, the slowness, the distance, and the differentiation that the utility and efficiency-driven internet has supposedly delivered us from. How are we to challenge our society’s faith in technology and technique? How ought we develop a healthy relationship with our technology?

Alastair – Thanks for this. A few thoughts in response:

First, I think the sort of moral sentimentalism you’re describing certainly exists in evangelicalism. The response to the refugee story on evangelicalism’s left wing has been shot through with moral sentimentalism. (I’m still not convinced that “positivism” is a bad term, if only because “positivism” doesn’t sound quite as demeaning as “sentimentalism” and using a potentially insulting term to describe the error, particularly given the nature of this particular error, may not be wise.)

You can also see it in a lot of discussions about sex ethics, I think. (It’s probably in itself telling that what conservatives frame as questions of sexual ethics are often framed as questions of inclusion by more liberal evangelicals or post-evangelicals.) To take one example, my friend Tyler Huckabee explained why he not only supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, but also supports full ecclesial inclusion of people in same-sex relationships in this post.

At root, his argument is an appeal to compassion or perhaps more precisely to empathy, which on its own can quickly turn into the sort of sentimentalism you’re describing. There have been attempts at more substantial arguments for inclusion of same-sex couples, of course, but I am generally unimpressed by them and don’t see them having much purchase with people. (Daniel Kirk’s recent argument is one example that I found particularly lacking.) The far more powerful argument is something along the lines of what Tyler is describing with his work at Safe Haven; it’s looking at another human being made in God’s image who is suffering and wanting to do something to help them and feeling like the theological answers we have are not adequate, often because we have never seen those answers tested in the sorts of severe circumstances in which we suddenly find ourselves.

Turning to the topic more broadly, it seems to me that there are a few things to note about this issue more generally. First, there is a felt lack of agency that we often have in more bureaucratic, industrial societies. You sometimes hear this described as being powerless but often we don’t even notice the problem enough to be that explicit about it. But there is a certain malaise many of us feel; we could leave our work, neighborhood, or church tomorrow and we strongly suspect that little would change. And this isn’t necessarily through any fault of our own, it is simply a product of living in a machine-like society in which the settings of the machine are determined by a relatively small group of people. So there is a natural and understandable desire to do something when we confront injustice but we seldom know how to even begin doing meaningful work. So social media activism and campaigning for an unquestionably good cause (rather than arguing for the morality of the cause) has a natural appeal to many.

There are other things that compound this problem as well. Though it is more cynical than I would prefer, Hans Fiene’s piece on Selma envy is worth discussing on this point. Many millennials grew up on stories of the Civil Rights movement and similar freedom struggles and yet today we feel as if our work doesn’t even change something as small as our neighborhood or office. So it’s not just that we sense our own lack of agency; we also grew up hearing stories of people who changed the world in stunning and beautiful ways. We are bothered by our own lack of agency, but also by the relative lack of agency we feel when compared to the heroes we grew up rightly revering.

Finally, there is another problem that feeds into this that’s related to your comments on the internet. Part of the reason that the internet functions as a society unto itself in the way you describe is how it provides the technological tools necessary to fully realize the sort of individualism that has been implicit in the post-Christian west all along. We have no community apart from those we choose as autonomous individuals—which is precisely the sort of community the internet is very good at creating. It’s the tool perfectly designed to complement the desires and values that have been in our society for some time.

Toward that end, posts on social media can easily slip into little more than a way of constructing that ideal self that you wish to be and that you wish for others to see. In this situation, social media posting that is taken by others as an occasion for discussion or even debate will be taken by the person posting as a personal attack. This makes it very difficult to discuss complex issues because often on social media discussion is not the goal.

With regards to whether this problem exists in the church, I think in America evangelicalism has often tended to trail just behind popular culture like a dog out on a walk reluctantly following its master. So I think you can easily identify all of these things within evangelicalism. Certainly the use of social media as a kind of self-creation is there—and it exists on both the left and right as anyone who followed Mark Driscoll’s social media presence can attest.

I also think the lack of agency is a real problem many people experience, particularly as churches tend to get larger and larger and, as a result, more and more bureaucratic. The main thrust of much of the writing on pastor-theologians, after all, has been about protesting this movement toward the pastor as a kind of chief executive of a midsize business.

I think challenging these models requires, to begin, a movement back toward smaller societies. The loss of agency doesn’t just cause us to feel powerless, it also robs us of a sense of identity. That, of course, means that the loss of agency is closely related to the atomized individualism that rules the day in the post-Christian west. So one large piece here is moving back toward smaller social bodies in which there is real agency and the real capacity to be known by people intimately apart from the idealized self we try to construct on the internet.

In the church this means a movement toward more church planting and may also mean more bi-vocational pastors as we will need to figure out a way to pay the pastors necessary to create a much smaller pastor-to-lay-person ratio in most of our churches. It also means that American Christians need to think about ways of limiting the physical space in which they live their own life—can they reduce the physical distance between where they live and worship or live and work, for example? Can they begin walking rather than driving to appointments? These habits will not only help us to know our area better and develop a greater level of agency and intimacy with neighbors, they will also cultivate a certain turn of mind in us that is slower and more patient as we become accustomed to the pace of walking rather than driving, I think.

A second proposal that is closely related to the first is that we also need to be creating our own institutions or participating in the existing evangelical institutions. It is actually not particularly hard to do the latter. Thinking only of my own story, basically every contact I have in major Christian institutions has come about either through the free blog I used to write on a domain or from my relationship with Matt Anderson, which started with my sending him a single email.

Many of these Christian institutions that can seem so far removed from typical lay people are actually very small when you get to know them and fairly accessible, particularly in the age of the internet when contacting strangers is incredibly easy. Even the former idea of creating our own institutions is not as difficult as many might think; my wife runs a dance studio here in Lincoln that has a growing reputation with local Christians for the simple reason that her studio is not hugely competitive and has a more friendly, collegial atmosphere.

These things are rare in the dance world and the parents of my wife’s students often note how refreshing the feel of her studio is compared to others they have sent their daughters to. And much of that difference in my wife’s studio is down to her own background as a dancer who was taught at the Briarwood Ballet in Birmingham AL at Briarwood Church. So the institution my wife is currently building is itself buoyed by her relationship to other already-existing Christian institutions. I also think about the rise of Christian study centers at American universities in the past 25 years.

Even as American universities have grown more hostile to traditional Christian belief, we have also seen this study center boom across the United States. I myself was a beneficiary of one such center while living in Minnesota and I know there are many other great centers across the United States.

Anyway, I think I have written enough. Do you want to respond with your thoughts and we’ll wrap things up?

Thanks, Jake.

At the outset I should clarify that, in referring to moral ‘sentimentalism’, I was primarily referencing meta-ethical theory. Although the phenomenon we encounter in evangelicalism is seldom attended by a carefully articulated second-order meta-ethical basis, its ethical practice would seem to demand such a theoretical rationale and, given the extreme cognitivist cast of positivism, that doesn’t seem to be the most accurate descriptor.

While the unconsidered popular form of moral sentimentalism that we are describing is fairly naïve, moral sentimentalism can come in far more sophisticated forms. For instance, I am sure that, like me, you have benefited greatly from interacting with the work of Jonathan Haidt, whose account of ethics is largely classifiable as ‘sentimentalist’ (although he works with a much larger palette of ‘sentiments’—disgust, gratitude, guilt, respect, fear, group pride, sense of betrayal, etc.—than the people we are discussing, who often seem to focus on empathy to the exclusion of practically everything else).

Unfortunately, the practical moral sentimentalists we are currently discussing seldom have given much attention to meta-ethics, which makes public moral reasoning with them incredibly difficult as, not only do they process their ethical positions in a rather different manner, but on account of their form of moral processing, those positions are not very amenable to rational challenge.

You are right to identify the presence of moral sentimentalism in much discussion of sexual ethics. However, here I would add that the ‘sentimentalism’ isn’t just sentimentalism in the technical meta-ethical sense, but sentimentalism in a more general sense. The ‘ism’ here is important too. Moral sentiments are a very significant part of our moral processing and we should not dispense with them. However, they are best understood as symptoms to be attended to, understood, and carefully addressed, rather than prescriptions to be followed. They are like the taste buds that give us some initial, yet only semi-accurate, sense of whether or not something is good for us to eat. The problem with the sort of sentimentalism we are discussing is not that it attends to our sentiments, but that it puts them into the driving seat.

If there is one thing that sentimentalism instinctively recoils from, it is intense and sustained exposure to human suffering, discomfort, and pain. Many of us have close friends or family members who are LGBT persons and our natural empathy for them can come into painful collision with Christian teaching on the subject of sexual identities and practices. I think most of us can recognize the feelings that motivate a position like Tyler’s, because we also experience them. Nor do I believe that these feelings are unhealthy: such discomfort may be the most immediate cost of being present to people bearing difficult burdens and the first step we take in sharing their weight. When saying ‘no’ to homosexual relations is something that we can do without even minimal cost to our feelings, there is probably something seriously wrong.

Moral sentimentalism’s insistence that we should say ‘yes’ to homosexual relations and same-sex marriage appears to be the loving option to many. However, an unbridled and unchecked empathetic instinct can be an incredibly dangerous thing. Empathy can be subtly selfish as it privileges the management and optimization of our own feelings over the well-being of others. As empathy recoils from other people’s bad feelings, it pushes us to tell everyone what they want to hear and holds us back from saying things that might hurt people or make us feel people’s anger or dislike. Obliging falsehoods seldom stand alone, but tend to accumulate to the point where we are deeply invested in far-reaching and dangerous lies, which is exactly what we see in the case of LGBT-affirming approaches.

Empathy is also a very selective and inconsistent impulse. We tend to empathize far more strongly with people like us, or with people we consider relatable. Perhaps the true test of our empathy will be seen in our capacity to be emotionally present to persons such as those who struggle with paedophile desires, whose desires naturally seem monstrous to us. Being emotionally present to such a person will typically require deep wilful commitment to resist our instinctive response, and the nerve to live with unrelieved emotional woundedness. It is deeply painful, as there are no easy obliging lies to enable us to relieve the struggle and the emotional discomfort this occasions; the rationalizations that might appear to work in the case of homophilic desires are seen to be hollow in such cases, where an unchosen sexual orientation is clearly a profoundly disordered reality. Empathy is cheap in cases when we can lightly affirm people’s sexuality. The true test of our empathy is whether we have the nerve to be emotionally present to people who cannot be so simply affirmed (and celibate persons with paedophiliac desires are in great need of our compassion, even though our empathetic impulse naturally recoils from them).

Empathy is also a focusing and parochial trait, which tends to concentrate our vision on certain figures to the exclusion of others. It concentrates on persons whose feelings are most immediately perceptible to us, on those who are personally connected to us, those who are like us, those who are relatable to us, and those who are visible to us. Empathy privileges their feelings and perspectives over those who are less relatable to us. Where other feelings and perspectives come into conflict with those of people we find more relatable, empathy tempts us to ignore or to demonize those who possess them.

An example of this impulse can be seen in the way that many romantic films, by absorbing in the perspectives and feelings of two lovers, blind us to or encourage us to rationalize the harm that they cause to other characters along the way. The tunnel vision of empathy also means that its sense of the relative degree of wrongs is highly distorted and not a reliable basis upon which to determine a wise course of action.

The instinct of empathy also sparks outrage at the harm done to certain persons and is a trait that powerfully feeds our hunger for vengeance and disproportionate punishment. The empathy that we feel for one group of people can lead us to strike out at anyone who hurts them. The disproportionality of empathy-driven judgment can be terrifying. The tenderness of heart that empathy has for one person can lead it mercilessly to attack anyone who hurts that person, denying the supposed aggressor any empathy whatsoever. The partiality and violence of empathy are good reasons to be wary of treating it as a reliable guide.

You describe our ‘felt lack of agency’ within a machine-like society, where people are rendered fungible—‘we could leave our work, neighborhood, or church tomorrow and we strongly suspect that little would change.’ Yet this machine-like bureaucratic society may just be the necessary obverse of our idealization of the autonomous self-expressive consumer and the negative freedom fuelled by unfettering choice and maximizing efficiency: the autonomous consumer has as its counterpart the automated society. In our pursuit of autonomous freedom, we try to minimize the stake that society has in us, yet at the cost of minimizing any stake that we might have in it. We want the feeling of belonging without the corresponding duties and limits upon our autonomy.

This afflicts us on several levels of our existence. For instance, as Nicholas Carr argues in his recent book, The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us, we increasingly find computers, machines, and automated processes unburdening us of the fulfilling human tasks of developing skills, forging memories, and exercising judgment (the same logic which applies to models of bureaucratic and technocratic government). Although we are ever more ‘empowered’ by our technologies, we sense that this may come at the expense of the loss of considerable dignity of agency and labour, and the attenuation of our personal grip upon and relationship to the world. Rather than possessing genuine power of direct action in the world, we have become largely dependent upon empowering processes and technologies.

Trying to act or seek human meaning and justice in such a world is a depressing experience, as so much that formerly belonged to human discretion, sovereignty, and judgment has been outsourced to mindless processes, to which human beings are rendered subservient, forced to function according to a machine-like logic themselves. Almost anyone who has had the experience of ringing a call centre to resolve a problem will know the frustration of trying to achieve positive results in a process where human discretion, responsibility, and sovereignty has been outsourced to the unreasonable and resistant logic of the machine or the mindless bureaucracy. In such a context agency can be habitually surrendered to the automated logic of protocols, procedures, techniques, and scripts, denying the agency both of the person seeking help and those ostensibly there to help them.

The dearth of agency that you describe in today’s social justice movements is also important to note. What has especially struck me about this latest crop of movements is how lacking they are in the assertiveness of direct agency and how dependent they are upon the ‘rational control’ of the machine-like society. The primary focus of most contemporary social justice movements does not seem to be upon developing their own agency and capacity for independent and confident assertion of self, but upon appealing to other agencies to institute ever new forms of rational control on their behalf in ways that accent and normalize their dependency, weakness, and vulnerability.

In place of a sense of wariness, of an oppositional—even if not necessarily antagonistic—relationship with higher agencies in society, and a sense of our need to guard our independence and foster our own forms of agency to uphold our interests, we see a growing sense of radical dependency upon such agencies to resolve all of our problems and disputes. The mode of such agencies is typically that of rational control: social justice calls for new laws, procedures, policies, and greater supervision, for the machine of bureaucracy to take ever greater responsibility for the ordering of human society. This approach often meets with success; the society of rational control desires our dependency and lack of agency. Such a society can do much more with people who are weak, driven by passions, fearful, and lacking in assertiveness than it can with those who have well-developed individuality and a capacity for confident assertion. For instance, the state prefers to deal with autonomous individuals with private and sentimental attachments, rather than with something like the traditional family: a private interpersonal unity with a public face.

I believe that you are right to see the internet as facilitating and accelerating a sort of individualism to which we have been tending for some time. Some might argue that ‘individualism’ is an inappropriate term with which to describe the internet, where the ‘social’ is prominent. However, the social dimension of the internet is not that of a formed and structured society with well-differentiated selves (genuine individuality), but is one which tends to draw increasingly undifferentiated and atomized individuals into mass dynamics. Beneath the veneer of ersatz individuality of the postmodern identity consumer and its narcissism of small differences in its fragile bespoke identities, on the internet our differences really don’t make a difference. The structured order of society is flattened—on Facebook we are stripped of public personhood and all relate as peers and contemporaries, interchangeable children of a shared rational order. In such an order, we are highly susceptible to herding and cycles of imitation (it is unsurprising that ‘memes’, ‘virality’, and firestorms of outrage are so characteristic of such a society).

A movement back to smaller societies is necessary as you suggest, not because smallness is virtuous in and of itself, but because human agency and community are limited and focused and can easily become attenuated when caught in systems and structures that value such things as universality and hyper-efficiency. We should not underestimate the scale of the conversion that this would require of us, though. In pursuing such societies we would be flying directly in the face of the deep logic of contemporary society, a logic that has, to a great extent, become second nature for each of us. Overcoming it will entail a sort of painful and ascetic practice, probably quite far removed from the sentimental communitarianism that would be envisaged by many.

Alastair, I’ll wrap things up.

First, I’ll concede the point on “sentimentalism” after reading your clarification.

Second, I think the inter-relationship between expressive individualism and a bureaucratic, mechanistic society is one of the most important things for any thoughtful Christian to understand as we think about the shape of the future in the west. And since I can’t express that relationship better than you have above, I’ll just refer readers guilty of tl’dr’ing us back to your paragraph beginning “You describe our ‘felt lack of agency…”

Third, I think traditionalists who can articulate the inter-relatedness of expressive individualism and a mechanistic society can probably make a more persuasive case to the non-authoritarian left. Left wing folks who are critical of SJWism (which is the bubbling-beneath-the-surface issue that much of this discussion is addressing) may be able to be co-belligerents with a thoughtful conservative traditionalism that emphasizes the importance of small, local social bodies and the need for local, more immediate knowledge when resolving certain social problems. We might, in other words, be able to articulate a kind of Localist v Authoritarian conflict that would transcend conventional left wing v right wing political disputes. Of course, if you think about this too long as an American you will get depressed upon realizing that the polling leaders in both parties for the 2016 presidential election belong squarely to the “authoritarian” camp, but if we take a longer view perhaps this approach can have some appeal with our neighbors and friends who might otherwise look at conservative traditionalism in a much less friendly way.

Anyway, we’re now closing in on 6000 words so I’d best wrap things up here. Thanks for doing this. I’ve enjoyed it.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).


  1. I have a lot of thoughts about this post. It certainly touches on many things that are true. But I’ll choose just a section to respond to, as I think most of my thoughts are concentrated here.

    > Turning to the topic more broadly,

    But you don’t. Not really. “more broadly” is still thinking about Sex-and-Babies. Sex-and-Babies issues do not define, nor encompass generally, Public Policy or Public Discourse. In fact the great majority of Public Discourse has nothing to do with either of these things. But it is pretty clear these things are still what you are thinking about. Public discourse is primarily about sidewalks, traffic congestion, the park, paying for maintenance of school buildings, etc… Perhaps it is the channels you tune to that paint your image of Public Discourse. Respectfully, there is little “more broadly” represented in your views; your “broad” is still a pretty narrow slice of issues.

    > there is a felt lack of agency that we often have in more
    > bureaucratic, industrial societies.

    Again, I suspect this is the personal selection of environment. I was there once. Only I now know many people who feel ample agency to be content; achieved by choosing to participate in substantive rather than theoretical ways. And they would love more company, meanwhile I hear a lot about people feeling detached and burdened by malaise.

    > we could leave our work, neighborhood, or church tomorrow and we
    > strongly suspect that little would change.

    Is that actually a bad thing? That means the institutions and community are confidently established and vital enough to not depend on a single person. That can be malaise-inducing, or it can be freedom. Perhaps in this malaise there is a note of Vanity – a desire to be centrally important.

    > And this isn’t necessarily through any fault of our own,

    Or it pretty much is.

    > it is simply a product of living in a machine-like society

    Or it is living in a nation of 300 MILLION people on a little world shared with nearly 7 BILLION people. Speaking as someone who works in IT – on big very complicated machines – and who also engages in Public Policy discussions not centered around Sex-and-Babies… there is nothing machine-like about our society. It only looks that way when viewed from a sufficient distance. The “machine” of society is slow, imprecise, fickle, comprised of overwhelmed people making decisions on limited information, arguing, pondering, conflicted, disappointed, and enthusiastic. Things that happen Suddenly, really did not happend suddenly. It is nothing like a Machine – it is gooey, weebly-wobbly, and sometimes blitheringly complicated in a way no Machine can even approximate. Its primary substrate is still relationships: knowing a guy who knows a guy who can call a guy, who maybe might be the guy you need.

    Personally, coming from a mechanist-mailaise to where I am now… the power and connectivity people who are Nobodies [which certainly includes me] can accumulate and exercise is pretty amazing. I wonder mostly if people have simply forgotten how; if that is what the Internet and Social Media have robbed us of, it creates a faux-world of seemingly such scale as to be impenetrable. But unplug and it is shocking how easy it is to get a senator to take your call.

    > which the settings of the machine are determined by a relatively
    > small group of people.

    No, it isn’t. Again, your view of Public Policy and Public Discourse is decidedly non-broad.

    I’ll skip down to this statement: “””The primary focus of most contemporary social justice movements does not seem to be upon developing their own agency and capacity for independent and confident assertion of self””” … I think this is also telling how Theoretical this is. The Social Justive movement I talk to recently was about a guy in a wheel-chair trying to figure out how to get up the hill, from this house, to the bus stop…. Yes, will involve dealing with the local and state Machine, as they own the right-of-way [streets, sidewalks, rail crossings,…]. But it is certainly about a mans sense of Agency and Independence – there is not enough space of resources for all 300 MILLION Americans to live in a village, and he doesn’t want to ask neighbors for help everytime he wants to go somewhere – that robs him of dignity. The Machine, and living in a ‘mechanistic’ city is all about his Agency and Independence.

    Sorry, that was longer then I expected.


  2. “””It also means that American Christians need to think about ways of limiting the physical space in which they live their own life—can they reduce the physical distance between where they live and worship or live and work, for example? Can they begin walking rather than driving to appointments?”””

    As a positive aside – I would love a Christian community that was more focused around this type of premise. However, to have that discussion requires not being OBSESSED with these other issues. The Christian communities need to figure out how to make room for these -actual – Life-Style discussions. Life-Style has very Moral component, I believe everyone agrees on that.

    I have so many times watched that discussion – relevant, local, and substantive – derailed by someone bringing in those Big Issues. It just gets drowned out; and the hostility/anger of Big Issue people pushes people out of the discussion.

    > Many of these Christian institutions that can seem so far removed
    > from typical lay people are actually very small when you get to
    > know them and fairly accessible

    The very same thing is often true of Secular institutions. It is encouraging how often Institutions of either stripe are excited that you called; it means someone cares about what they do. And they are populated by human beings.


  3. The above is really a lamenting over present times between two friends. On the one hand, there is the expressed disdain for both emotional reasoning and the reliance on structural dependency. On the other hand there is a longing for the reintroduction of moral reasoning so long as that reasoning doesn’t have an emotional base such as on empathy or basic principles such as equality and freedom. But there is a problem in that the lamenting that takes place seems to feed itself by what it opposes and what it supports.

    The first topic to cover is the inadequacy of internet conversations to examine today’s issues–can’t disagree there. But let me suggest that the structure of internet conversations is the culprit. For unless they are strictly monitored to weed out abusive comments, the internet can hurt public dialog because of the anonymity of those commenting and because of how websites become ideological ghettos. While the former encourages trolling, the latter encourages group think and a defending one’s turf trtibalism. Both practices make legitimate public discourse doomed from the beginning. Should note that when the monitoring of websites includes censoring of views, not behaviors, this also hurts public discourse.

    The next topic is really a collection of topics that can be grouped under the heading of emotional reasoning. This includes moral sentimentalism, empathy, and the use of basic tenets like equality and freedom. But what makes the concerns over these topics problematic is the opposition to bureaucratic and structural solutions. This is supposedly solved by an appeal to morals that implies an external source–another authority figure besides gov’t. Though I can agree that reducing problems to being merely structural is often inadequate because the moral factor is not addressed. The discussion on the inadequcy of the internet to act as a public forum should tell us that an inadequate structure can nurture and exasperate the immoral tendencies that already exist. So just as Capitalism can foster rather than inhibit the growth of greed, so the internet can do the same for those bent on exercising verbal abuse on others. Such tells us that reducing our solutions to relying on moral appeals alone will be as inadequate, if not worse, than relying on structural changes alone.

    What I find most distressing about the exchange above is the disparaging statements made about empathy and tenets like equality. Yes, they have their limits and can be abused. But they are also appealed to in the Scriptures in ways that apply to the refugee situation. In addition, think about the kind of world we would have if empathy and equality were never appealed to.

    Well, I hope that I have at least somewhat accurately provided a summarized comment on the exchange above.


  4. I have to ask why pragmatism gets such a bad rap from you guys. It strikes me that your antipathy toward it reflects an inability to envision a Christianity apart from a Christendom. After all, conservative evangelical moralizing is no less positivist than that of the evangelical left, the SJWs, the BLM protestors, and the like. In fact, I don’t tend to see conservative evangelicals as being any different from these other groups. From my vantage point as a staunch two-kingdoms Calvinist and political pragmatist, all of you are social idealists (sentimentalists) who believe that it’s an injustice that the culture doesn’t valorize your ideals.

    By contrast, the pragmatist recognizes the inherent difficulty of creating a meaningful narrative for 300+ million people, and is content with a culture of spontaneous self-organization and creative destruction. In fact, I’m rather suspicious if ideals, as I have little faith in fallen people to select the right ones. In that sense, the purpose of the bureaucratic state, if it’s functioning properly, is to ensure that self-organization and creative destruction can occur with efficiency, so that those ideals that foster human flourishing can rise to the top. After all, if you look at Europe, the more”traditional” cultures tend to lag behind the more pragmatic countries in every index of human flourishing. The fact that the Norwegian petroleum fund is managed with greater transparency and less corruption than the Vatican Bank says a lot about the limits of tradition for tradition’s sake.

    I do agree with you on the need for smallness. The form that that takes in our present context is yet unclear. In the past, smallness was simply imposed upon us. So, the terms of our cultural engagement were established by the values of a certain critical mass of people within our corners of the world.

    I grew up in a town in Indiana where much of life centered around high school basketball. But neither my parents nor I cared much for basketball. Even so, they and I faithfully attended high school basketball games throughout my childhood. It was what you did to plug into the community life in our small town. In fact, my dad showed up to basketball games more consistently than he ever showed up to my soccer matches. My high school’s gym sat nearly 10,000 people, and was nearly full for almost every home game. But in 20 years’ time, that’s all come to an end. A few hundred people show up to games today. As someone who never cared much for basketball, I think it’s probably good that kids today don’t feel the social pressure to spend every Friday and Saturday night in the winter in the stands of a high school gym. But sometimes having few choices is a good thing. Sometimes we’re just not wise enough to choose well if we’re given too many options. In some ways, it was probably good for me that I was given the stark choice between pretending to love basketball or being a loser.

    I think we’re slowly learning to recognize that building smallness on our own is more difficult than it seems. And it’s easier to do if you move within a space that’s more dense with social capital. This has led many to long for the days of expertly imposed smallness. But simply longing for the past isn’t going to bring it back. Once you have knowledge of the outside world, it’s hard to appreciate the merits of an externally imposed smallness. That probably explains why high school basketball attendance in Indiana is less than 5% of what it was just 20 years ago. But nothing has risen up to replace it. Instead, people in rural Indiana just sit at home on Friday and Saturday nights and watch Netflix.

    So, I tend to see the sentimentalism as a way of trying to create smallness. In some ways, they recognize that, in our Schumpeterian culture, equality is elusive. Increased efficiency also means that it’s easier for the better connected and the smarter folks to transfer wealth to themselves at others’ expense, which thereby makes it harder for those on the outside to build institutions that permit them to create smallness on terms that are meaningful to them. Ross Douthat address this point well in his editorial, “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.”

    These are tough questions with no easy answers. And social and economic populism only exacerbate the problem, as it further alienates elites from the masses. Yes, we need localism. But localism, as we have traditionally known it, depended to a large degree on our inability to communicate effectively with people who were any more than a few miles away. It’s not yet clear how we can do that in a world where everything is local (and therefore nothing is).


  5. […] Moral Sentimentalism and the Mechanised society at Mere Orthodoxy […]


  6. Alastair,

    I am rather late to join this discussion, but I am absolutely delighted to find someone with a bad word to say about empathy. By itself, empathy is plainly a grossly inadequate approach to any complex moral problem, not least because we find it so difficult to distinguish between what a person is genuinely feeling and our possibly self-indulgent emotional projection onto that person. I have had first hand experience of this in my parish where people in September 2015 were too ready to identify their instinctive emotional response to the Syrian refugee crisis, especially as symbolised, by the drowned toddler, as the only legitimate approach for a Christian. If I disagreed even mildly with this approach, I was not merely deluded but a radically inadequate Christian outside the fold of polite discourse.

    By December 2016, we have had too much horrible evidence that love and sympathy alone cannot be the only basis of moral action in such a human tragedy. Especially when well-protected religious leaders such as Pope Francis urge a policy on the world (“Receive them all as Christ Himself”) for which they will bear no personal consequences. Everything from the large scale sexual assaults on women across Europe to multiple terrorist attacks and a massive surge in the crime rate in Germany falls on other people. The rhetoric of so many religious leaders falls too readily into a cheap form of populism which may look good on tomorrow’s headlines, but evades the really difficult discernment.


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