Totalitarian Sentimentality – by Roger Scruton


[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the American Spectator.]

Conservatives recognize that social order is hard to achieve and easy to destroy, that it is held in place by discipline and sacrifice, and that the indulgence of criminality and vice is not an act of kindness but an injustice for which all of us will pay. Conservatives therefore maintain severe and — to many people — unattractive attitudes. They favor retributive punishment in the criminal law; they uphold traditional marriage and the sacrifices that it requires; they believe in discipline in schools and the value of hard work and military service. They believe in the family and think that the father is an essential part in it. They see welfare provisions as necessary, but also as a potential threat to genuine charity, and a way both of rewarding antisocial conduct and creating a culture of dependency. They value the hard-won legal and constitutional inheritance of their country and believe that immigrants must also value it if they are to be allowed to settle here. Conservatives do not think that war is caused by military strength, but on the contrary by military weakness, of a kind that tempts adventurers and tyrants. And a properly ordered society must be prepared to fight wars — even wars in foreign parts — if it is to enjoy a lasting peace in its homeland. In short conservatives are a hard and unfriendly bunch who, in the world in which we live, must steel themselves to be reviled and despised by all people who make compassion into the cornerstone of the moral life.

Liberals are of course very different. They see criminals as victims of social hierarchy and unequal power, people who should be cured by kindness and not threatened with punishment. They wish all privileges to be shared by everyone, the privileges of marriage included. And if marriage can be reformed so as to remove the cost of it, so much the better. Children should be allowed to play and express their love of life; the last thing they need is discipline. Learning comes — didn’t Dewey prove as much? — from self-expression; and as for sex education, which gives the heebie-jeebies to social conservatives, no better way has ever been found of liberating children from the grip of the family and teaching them to enjoy their bodily rights. Immigrants are just migrants, victims of economic necessity, and if they are forced to come here illegally that only increases their claim on our compassion. Welfare provisions are not rewards to those who receive them, but costs to those who give — something that we owe to those less fortunate than ourselves. As for the legal and constitutional inheritance of the country, this is certainly to be respected — but it must “adapt” to new situations, so as to extend its protection to the new victim class. Wars are caused by military strength, by “boys with their toys,” who cannot resist the desire to flex their muscles, once they have acquired them. The way to peace is to get rid of the weapons, to reduce the army, and to educate children in the ways of soft power. In the world in which we live liberals are self-evidently lovable — emphasizing in all their words and gestures that, unlike the social conservatives, they are in every issue on the side of those who need protecting, and against the hierarchies that oppress them.

Those two portraits are familiar to everyone, and I have no doubt on which side the readers of this magazine will stand. What all conservatives know, however, is that it is they who are motivated by compassion, and that their cold-heartedness is only apparent. They are the ones who have taken up the cause of society, and who are prepared to pay the cost of upholding the principles on which we all — liberals included — depend. To be known as a social conservative is to lose all hope of an academic career; it is to be denied any chance of those prestigious prizes, from the MacArthur to the Nobel Peace Prize, which liberals confer only on each other. For an intellectual it is to throw away the prospect of a favorable review — or any review at all — in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books. Only someone with a conscience could possibly wish to expose himself to the inevitable vilification that attends such an “enemy of the people.” And this proves that the conservative conscience is governed not by self-interest but by a concern for the public good. Why else would anyone express it?

By contrast, as conservatives also know, the compassion displayed by the liberal is precisely that — compassion displayed, though not necessarily felt. The liberal knows in his heart that his “compassionating zeal,” as Rousseau described it, is a privilege for which he must thank the social order that sustains him. He knows that his emotion toward the victim class is (these days at least) more or less cost-free, that the few sacrifices he might have to make by way of proving his sincerity are nothing compared to the warm glow of approval by which he will be surrounded by declaring his sympathies. His compassion is a profoundly motivated state of mind, not the painful result of a conscience that will not be silenced, but the costless ticket to popular acclaim.

Why am I repeating those elementary truths, you ask? The answer is simple. The USA has descended from its special position as the principled guardian of Western civilization and joined the club of sentimentalists who have until now depended on American power. In the administration of President Obama we see the very same totalitarian sentimentality that has been at work in Europe, and which has replaced civil society with the state, the family with the adoption agency, work with welfare, and patriotic duty with universal “rights.” The lesson of postwar Europe is that it is easy to flaunt compassion, but harder to bear the cost of it. Far preferable to the hard life in which disciplined teaching, costly charity, and responsible attachment are the ruling principles is the life of sentimental display, in which others are encouraged to admire you for virtues you do not possess. This life of phony compassion is a life of transferred costs. Liberals who wax lyrical on the sufferings of the poor do not, on the whole, give their time and money to helping those less fortunate than themselves. On the contrary, they campaign for the state to assume the burden. The inevitable result of their sentimental approach to suffering is the expansion of the state and the increase in its power both to tax us and to control our lives.

As the state takes charge of our needs, and relieves people of the burdens that should rightly be theirs — the burdens that come from charity and neighborliness — serious feeling retreats. In place of it comes an aggressive sentimentality that seeks to dominate the public square. I call this sentimentality “totalitarian” since — like totalitarian government — it seeks out opposition and carefully extinguishes it, in all the places where opposition might form. Its goal is to “solve” our social problems, by imposing burdens on responsible citizens, and lifting burdens from the “victims,” who have a “right” to state support. The result is to replace old social problems, which might have been relieved by private charity, with the new and intransigent problems fostered by the state: for example, mass illegitimacy, the decline of the indigenous birthrate, and the emergence of the gang culture among the fatherless youth. We have seen this everywhere in Europe, whose situation is made worse by the pressure of mass immigration, subsidized by the state. The citizens whose taxes pay for the flood of incoming “victims” cannot protest, since the sentimentalists have succeeded in passing “hate speech” laws and in inventing crimes like “Islamophobia” which place their actions beyond discussion. This is just one example of a legislative tendency that can be observed in every area of social life: family, school, sexual relations, social initiatives, even the military — all are being deprived of their authority and brought under the control of the “soft power” that rules from above.

This is how we should understand the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama. To his credit he has made clear that he does not deserve it — though I assume he deserves it every bit as much as Al Gore. The prize is an endorsement from the European elite, a sigh of collective relief that America has at last taken the decisive step toward the modern consensus, by exchanging real for fake emotion, hard power for soft power, and truth for lies. What matters in Europe is the great fiction that things will stay in place forever, that peace will be permanent and society stable, just so long as everybody is “nice.” Under President Bush (who was, of course, no exemplary president, and certainly not nice) America maintained its old image, of national self-confidence and belligerent assertion of the right to be successful. Bush was the voice of a property-owning democracy, in which hard work and family values still achieved a public endorsement. As a result he was hated by the European elites, and hated all the more because Europe needs America and knows that, without America, it will die. Obama is welcomed as a savior: the American president for whom the Europeans have been hoping — the one who will rescue them from the truth.

How America itself will respond to this, however, remains doubtful. I suspect, from my neighbors in rural Virginia, that totalitarian sentimentality has no great appeal to them, and that they will be prepared to resist a government that seeks to destroy their savings and their social capital, for the sake of a compassion that it does not really feel.

Roger Scruton, the writer and philosopher, is most recently the author of Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum).

  • Gylippus

    An excellent, wholly accurate summary. The self-delusion and/or lack of self-awareness is monumental. And self-righteous, indignant, and entirely hypocrital moral preening is the foil that makes it possible. Few Liberals could survive the psychological shock if they were to come face to face with the havoc, suffering and destruction that their policies engender (except for the actual sociopaths). Thus they become hostile to the truth and cling to comforting fantasies. Some are well-meaning but shallow thinkers, but many are outright moral cowards, unable to face who they truly are.

  • suprkufrb

    I believe that your argument could be very neatly summarized in the words of the immortal G.B. Shaw -“a man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart; a man who is still a socialist at thirty has no brains.”

  • Robert Bernier

    Some in the Left have made allies with the devil.
    The Left has betrayed its own principles of universal human rights and equality when it has put its lot with that of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian Ayatollahs and their bagmen in Hamas and Hezbullah. More about correcness at :

  • Robert Bernier

    The traitor is the plague.
    “A NATION CAN SURVIVE ITS FOOLS, AND EVEN THE AMBITIOUS. BUT IT CANNOT SURVIVE TREASON FROM WITHIN..” – CICERO. Jews who defame Israel are the most pernicious tools in the war against Israel and Jewry, those who, to paraphrase Cicero, move among us freely, teaching our young, their sly moral equivalence, which equates Israel with its tormentors, heard in the halls of government itself. They preen and strut as supposed devotees of “peace” and “justice.” More at :

  • semus

    A few thoughts.

    “Under President Bush (who was, of course, no exemplary president, and certainly not nice)” – Wrong this conclusion was a big blunder. I have many problems with George Bush, and even more with senior, but I don't agree with either of these statements.

    Also Obama said he didn't deserve the Nobel Prize, but he doesn't believe that. He is a completely dishonest man who hides his true feelings, which are pretty dark.

    You didn't distinguish between the truly good people who have been fooled by the left, and the true left, there is a difference. You only scratched the surface of this pernicious determined enemy of freedom, and the disdain they have for people.

  • jacob

    Admirable article, telling it the way it is and devoid of the stupid rethoric liberals love so much to flaunt for the consumption of ignorants, morons and brainwashed idiots, an article that shoud be rubbed on the nose of our “President” and his Chicago gang…

    I've known these people since high school and can identify them just by their words
    their promises and what we are to expect from them znd this is precisely what we are facing nowadays in this country.

    Lets hope the coming election removes the Democrap majority from both houses of Congress, as time is already pasee for stopping OBAMA's Juggernaut

    And by the way, what happened with OBAMA's birth certificate issue as ruled by that Federal Judge ??

    Has it been swept into the Pacific Ocean Marianas depth by our rotten media ??

  • The_Inquisitor

    “And this proves that the conservative conscience is governed not by self-interest but by a concern for the public good. Why else would anyone express it?”

    This puts the finger on a big problem with conservatives. They are ashamed of any trace of self-interest.

    Moreover, since when is a concern for the public good not in one's self-interest?

  • Brad

    This is so succint and I hope it will help convince some friends of mine about the motivations of Conservatives, versus those of Progressives.

    Thank you for this article!

  • FBastiat

    Obama deserves a comparison with Mao and Lenin about as much as he deserved his Nobel Peace Prize. This is really on par with Chomsky's comparing Reagan to Hitler (Culture of Terrorism, p. 255).

    Both are not merely wrong, but obscene.

  • jacob


    Sir :
    This Nobel Prize award to OBAMA in nothing but ass kissing on part of the
    Nobel Prize jury.
    It suits him as much as it did ARA-RAT…

  • USMCSniper

    Altruism, which is described as the Liberal's Golden Rule of Ethics, and is defined in the as “selfless concern and sacrifice for the welfare of others”.

    The word derived its origin from French word autre which means other, in its turn derived from Latin alter “other”. Its origin can be traced to French philosopher Auguste Compte, the founder of positivism, who believed that men had a moral duty or obligation to serve the interest of others of the “greater good” of humanity.

    Compte illustrated this view in his Catechisme Positiviste, which states that: the social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of natural rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of a priori obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This “to live for others”, the definitive collectivists formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. Man must serve all of Humanity, who we are entirely.”

    Compte’s ethical doctrine now called Altruism is based on the concept of service, that “man must serve”, and that he should live for others and live only according to what is the “greater good”. Determined by who is unanswered?

    His philosophy became part of society’s ethical norms. It was also adopted as a political rubric by developing countries, particularly those subscribed to democracy. And it remains today.

    All ideologies like Liberalism, Socialism, Communism and all Collectivisms conform to the principles of altruism as their basis. Socialism and Communism in effect openly advocate that men must live for others, and that service must be dutifully given to the central government.

    Rational self interest has two major enemies. The first is the mystic who advocates the primordial and medieval theory that man should sacrifice himself to the supernatural. The second is the collectivist theory that man should sacrifice himself for the sake of other men. The second is known as “altruism,” which is not a synonym for kindness, generosity, or good will, or charity, but the doctrine that man should place others above self as the fundamental rule of life.

    Both are advocates of self-sacrifice which is suicidal, in either version, have never demanded consistency. They have not asked men to sacrifice their wealth, goods, pleasures, goals, values, and ideas as a matter of fundamental principle. Even the saints had to eschew such a course, which would be tantamount to instant suicide. The moralists of self-lessness expect a man to go on functioning, working, achieving — else he would have no values to give up. They expect him to exercise his mind for his own sake and survival, and then to deny his judgment as the spirit moves them. They expect him to be ruled by whim, the whim of any collective authority or beneficiary, whenever it injects itself into the process and demands to be paid off.

    Unless the American people recognize and reject this con game of altruism, they will lose their freedom.

  • CowboyUp

    Good point, most seem to believe what the dp says about them and are ashamed of themselves. I'm not a thief, so my self-interest doen't go against anybody but thieves.

  • WFB2

    “… the life of sentimental display, in which others are encouraged to admire you for virtues you do not possess. This life of phony compassion is a life of transferred costs. Liberals who wax lyrical on the sufferings of the poor do not, on the whole, give their time and money to helping those less fortunate than themselves….
    Exactly. Reminds me of the definition of a liberal as “a person who makes himself happy by giving you the shirt off someone elses back”.

  • WFB2

    Thanks Sniper for the added commentary.

    You wrote “All ideologies like Liberalism, Socialism, Communism and all Collectivisms conform to the principles of altruism as their basis.”

    Yes, but these ideologies all rest on altruism by proxy: They stand aloof and detached but fulfilled by the act of directing others to sacrifice in their behalf. See the definition in my post above.

  • Kevin Stowell

    I'm not so sure they're well-meaning. They really have to bury their heads in the sand to hang onto the delusions that they actually do good. I agree with you, however, that it is a great article.