Empathy and sentimentality: the rise of virtue signalling

Sunday 23 October, 14.00 - 15.30 , Cinema 3 Emotional Intelligence
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The public is constantly made aware of suffering, cruelty and injustice all over the world – whether prompted by a photograph of a drowned Syrian boy on a beach, footage of people tortured and murdered, or closer to home, the plight of people whose lives are ruined by addiction, sexual abuse or social deprivation. What is the ‘right’ way to feel when confronted by such things? Most people agree that a good person does not only act so as to benefit others, but is moved emotionally by their joys and sufferings. At the same time, might people who ‘feel the pain’ of others be displaying a sentimental reaction, devoid of any real moral worth? In an age of instant reaction to world events, disseminated within seconds on social media, it is easy to present oneself as heroic for having the right feelings – to engage in ‘virtue signalling’ - and to gain instant admiration for it. When someone points out that people are sometimes responsible for their own suffering, or that being a victim does not mean you are virtuous, or that merely claiming to be a victim does not imply that you really are, he can expect to be denounced as an unfeeling bigot. But what if he is right?

For example, most addiction treatment programmes insist that addiction is an illness and not a vice. Yet critics point to the failure of such programmes to produce lasting results, and put this down to the fact that addicts are not encouraged to make hard moral choices. Similarly, critics of ‘welfare dependency’ argue that well-intentioned attempts to help those in need sometimes keep them in need. And in these days of costly investigations into ‘historic’ sexual abuse, sceptics wonder whether all complainants are reliable witnesses. Such tough and sceptical reactions are often seen as ignorant and uncaring. They fail to respect the feelings of the people criticised, or to acknowledge the terrible reality of their suffering. But what if their less sentimental approach actually helps people more than virtue signalling?

Oscar Wilde defined sentimentality as ‘the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it’. We may display our feelings about the suffering of migrants or the socially disadvantaged, but if we aren’t prepared to make costly and useful sacrifices to help them, our feelings are empty. Can we avoid being sentimental without abandoning genuine compassion? Or is criticism of sentimentality more often an excuse for not caring at all?