Feeling Good vs. Doing Good

President Obama and Pope Francis

How do you explain the fact that so many people support disastrous public policies? According to polls, a majority of young people want Bernie Sanders to be the next president. Yet socialist policies of the type advocated by Sanders reliably lead to basket-case economies such as in Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. Likewise, the welcoming of millions of Muslim migrants into Europe may well be an act of cultural suicide—the end of Europe as Europe. Yet those who oppose the open-borders policy are the ones who come in for the most opprobrium; they are dismissed as xenophobes, racists, and even Nazis.

What prompts people to rally around destructive policies? The answer, I think, is that many people make up their minds on the issues of the day not according to the facts, but according to how it makes them feel about themselves. No doubt, the “feel-good” factor has always figured into people’s decisions, but with the advent of the therapeutic society in the sixties and seventies, it became for many the main factor.

For example, in regard to questions of economic policy, such individuals don’t feel that it’s necessary to figure out what policies actually lift people out of poverty. Their focus is subjective, not objective. Their concern is not with what will help others, but with what will help them feel good about themselves. In the case of those of a more high-minded nature, this concern is often expressed as a desire to have a good conscience. Not that it’s a bad thing to follow one’s conscience, but having a “good conscience” is not quite the same as having a well-formed conscience. For some people, having a “good conscience” is just another way of massaging their self-esteem.

For many, the therapeutic norm has replaced the factual norm. It’s an historical fact that large scale Muslim migration paves the way for Muslim conquest. It’s a fact that 72 percent of current Muslim refugees in Europe are men. But facts are secondary for those whose main concern is their own self-image. Instead of asking what is the best and most realistic policy based on the facts, the question they ask themselves is “What position will make me feel good in my own eyes and in the eyes of my peers?”

Of course, most people don’t pose the question to themselves in exactly that way. Being honest with oneself is not always good for self-esteem and few people like to think of themselves as moral calculating machines. The question is more likely to be framed along the lines of “What is the compassionate thing to do?”

I’m not saying that there is no element of genuine compassion in these decisions. The problem is, it’s often a selective compassion. Take the controversy over admitting Muslim refugees to Europe. Even if compassion were the only standard of judgment, compassion for one party often comes at the expense of another party. Whom do you reserve your compassion for? Every increase in the Muslim population increases the risk of terrorist strikes against concert halls, sports stadiums, and shopping malls. Likewise, as the European refugee camps swell, so do the number of women, children, and Christians who will be victimized by their fellow refugees. How do you ensure that everyone is treated compassionately? Should your compassion be for refugees who seek shelter or for the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who have been victims of migrant crime? If you care about Muslims who are fleeing war zones, shouldn’t you also care about the Jews who are fleeing Europe in fear of the Muslims who are entering it? If you felt compassion for the drowned Syrian boy whose widely disseminated photo convinced Europeans to open wide the borders, did you also feel compassion for the boy who was raped by a Muslim refugee in a Vienna swimming pool?

Compassion is a two-way street. Quite clearly, it cannot be the only factor that guides our moral decisions. “Let’s act compassionately toward everyone” is not and never can be a practical policy agenda. This is not an argument against compassion per se but against those whose moral compass is set to whatever compassion is currently in fashion—those whose primary concern is not with right and wrong, but with their own self-image.

With that in mind, let’s consider the role of Catholic bishops in shaping consciences about world affairs. I wouldn’t say that the bishops merely want to feel good about themselves. That may be true in some cases, but I think we can assume that most bishops are looking beyond themselves and towards the greater good. On the other hand, the bishops’ habitual use of emotionally charged compassion language makes it difficult for the average Catholic to understand moral dilemmas as anything other than issues of compassion versus selfishness. The bishops are not inviting Catholics (and others who might be listening) to think hard about the issues involved and then follow their consciences; they are telling them, in effect, what they must do in order to have a good conscience. Thus, the bishops rarely talk about the refugee crisis in the context of Muslim persecution of Christians, Muslim anti-Semitism, immigrant crime, Muslim attitudes toward women, the Islamic doctrine of conquest through hijra (migration), or even welfare system overload. Instead, we are told that we must build bridges, not walls, that we must love our neighbor, that refugees are our brothers and sisters, and that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were once refugees in the land of Egypt.

What can one answer to that? All the good, solid reasons for slowing Muslim immigration suddenly seem heartless. Rather than think through the issue, Catholics will feel pressured to bow to the argument from compassion. Many, of course, won’t feel it as pressure since they are already predisposed in that direction. In this era of feel-good psychology and feel-good religion, hearts are always trumps.

I’ve written before about the phenomenon of dangerous compassion. Individual acts of compassion to strangers will usually carry some risks—risks that range from inconvenience to personal danger. But that is not what’s at issue here. Mass-scale Muslim migration involves a civilizational danger, not just a danger to those individuals who take refugees into their homes. It’s not just the individual good Samaritans who take on the risk, but the entire society, including those who prefer not to be good Samaritans.

To take on that sort of risk, you have to be pretty sure that you are right about your policy prescriptions. And it’s here, I think, that the bishops can be faulted. They seem overly sure that because they are on the side of the angels, the policies they endorse must be the right ones.

But personal compassion doesn’t qualify one as an expert on world affairs. If this is not clear in the case of the bishops’ enthusiasm for Muslim migration, consider their endorsement of the Iran nuclear deal. The Vatican wholeheartedly supported the deal. So did the USCCB. And they did so not by assessing the realities and risks of the situation, but by employing an arsenal of “hope,” “trust,” and “peace” language. For example, in a letter to Congress, Bishop Oscar Cantu, Chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace for the USCCB, urged Congressmen to support the framework, saying “It is vital to continue to foster an environment in which all parties can build mutual confidence and trust in order to work towards a final accord that enhances peace … now is the time for dialogue and building bridges which foster peace and greater understanding.”

Except, of course, that all the evidence has long shown that Iran can’t be trusted—that it plans to acquire nuclear weapons, that it eventually plans to use them to intimidate the “Little Satan” (Israel) and the “Great Satan” (U.S.), and that in the meantime it will use the billions acquired through the deal to finance its world terrorism campaign. Moreover, we now know that the Obama administration can’t be trusted either. In a long interview with the New York Times, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes boasts about how the administration deceived American citizens about the deal, feeding them the lie that Iranian president Rouhani was a moderate, and falsely framing the deal as a choice between peace and war.

In the light of Rhodes’s frank revelation, Bishop Cantu’s talk about “greater understanding” and “trust” rings rather hollow. It looks very much as though both the administration and Iran (which has more diplomats accredited to the Holy See than any other nation except the Dominican Republic) played on the bishops’ trust to get them to lend support to a reckless deal.

When the stakes are as high as they are in the Iran deal and in the refugee crisis, it’s not enough for bishops to fall back on the language of “trust,” “mutual confidence,” and “building bridges.” And it’s not enough for other Catholics to substitute a “feel-good” attitude toward world affairs in place of an informed knowledge of situations and the actors involved.

Catholic world leaders and Catholic Church leaders have proven that they can be as “innocent as doves” in regard to world affairs. What we need now is some assurance that they can also be as “wise as serpents.”

William Kilpatrick

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William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong; and Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Jihad. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Saint Austin Review, Investor’s Business Daily, and First Things. His work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com

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