Our sentiments, that is, our emotions, are often quite powerful, moving us from the heights of love to the depths of disgust. Quite obviously, there is nothing wrong in having emotions just as such, nor would we, at least speaking for myself, wish to live emotionless. Emotions provide an existential density to reality, a thickness, and often a motive force to move us from complacency to action. Nor are emotions, just as such, impediments to knowledge or objectivity. We tend to know those things we care for, those topics we find of interest, and emotions can give us an initial “hook” into reality, an access point. At the same time, emotions can distort our view, prompting us to self-deception, unfairness, special pleading, and smug complacency. In between these options, we discover, in part, the drama of our moral lives, namely, the ongoing struggle to order our passions, to discipline, educate, and elevate our emotions.

Sentiment, thus, is an ordinary, often welcome, aspect of human life. Sentimentalism, on the other hand, which my trusty Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary states initially was used in a “favourable sense . . . characterized by or exhibiting refined and elevated feeling,” but is now understood as being “addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion,” is not as welcome. Sentimentalism is a disposition of persons to be “governed by sentiment in opposition to reason.”

At Public Discourse, we try always to be governed by reason, and not merely reason, but right reasonrecta ratio—which, admittedly, requires patience, deliberation, and clear thinking. Our cultural moment, alas, exhibits marks of profound sentimentalism, and thus confusion, emotionalism, and superficiality of thought.

For instance, the Alabama Supreme Court has very recently ruled that cyropreserved embryos—frozen embryos—are “unborn children” under the law, prompting howls of protest and much handwaving about the varying views of different religious traditions on the question. Well, sentimentalism aside, and following reason and reason alone, of course an embryo is a human being and an unborn child. That’s what embryology—the science—says, as Christopher O. Tollefsen explains in his essay, “Location, Location, Location” for Public Discourse this month. Let’s be governed by reason, not sentiment.

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In a similar way, Kristen Collier reminds medical schools—she teaches at one—that it is profoundly unreasonable to treat the human being, and medical students remain in that class, as no more than “a bio-reductionistic machine.” This isn’t true, nor is it in keeping with how reason works, and a better anthropology is available to us. 

Lest you think our commitment to reason entails cold-bloodedness, Mark Bauerlein explores the task of literature in educating the young, arguing against those who view “poems and stories” as nothing more than “fluff.” Not at all, since they can give us access to “powerful events” through which to gain understanding of ourselves and others, and the truth of things.

Further, reasonable people can and do often disagree about things, even important things, and we hosted a powerful exchange on the meaning, purpose, and limits of free speech at universities between Yoram Hazony and Robert P. George, even as Myles McKnight, this year’s Public Discourse fellow, raised objections to Joel Alicea’s understanding of popular sovereignty.

Much to think about. Love is always intelligent, never mere sentiment, and hard thinking is an ally of goodwill, it turns out.

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From the Archives

These are only a handful of our essays, and the archives—now spanning fifteen years—are replete with morally serious argument and reflection. On the topic of medical ethics, consider taking a look at Charles C. Camosy and Brian Bird on euthanasia, and Cole S. Aronson on so-called “gender-affirming” surgeries, which are anything but reasonable. 

What We’ve Been Reading around the Web

Our contributing editors suggest the following as worth a click.


Here’s to right reason!

R. J. Snell


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