It’s a virtual truism among moral thinkers that for an act to be moral it has to aim at the proper ends and select the best means.

The latter typically involves the conviction that moral actors may not, in William James’ memorable phrase, “take a moral holiday.” Which is to say that one shouldn’t select the easiest path possible just because it’s easy, nor should a person choose an act whose primary benefit is that it allows the actor to feel good about him or herself.

Sentimentalism is a constant threat to ethical living. Such was a central insight of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), a Harvard Professor of Romance Literature and incisive critic of his own culture –so much so, in fact, that he was widely regarded as a pariah in his own day and his reputation has not rebounded much since.

Babbitt focused on the importance of the imagination in shaping the possibilities of both moral and political action.[1] In that sense, he distinguished sharply between what he terms “the idyllic imagination,” that which substituted a dream world for the reality of everyday experience, and “the moral imagination,” that which took both reality and human beings as they are, attentive to their inherent possibilities and limitations. To invert a line from Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities, Babbitt was more interested in real possibilities than possible realities. [2]

Babbitt believed that one of the greatest challenges to living a genuinely ethical life is “sentimental humanitarianism,” which operates out of the idyllic imagination and encourages acting on “expansive appetite.”[3]

Babbitt’s arguments against sentimental humanitarianism may be said to have two aspects. The first is his conviction that it allows persons to feel moral without actually having to be moral.[4] Before scheming to “change the world,” the truly moral person will understand that morality means first and foremost improving one’s self.

The second argument against sentimental humanitarianism is that it substitutes dreams for reality. It wants to celebrate universality in a way that obviates particularity. It wants peace without sacrifice and justice without having to harmonize their own souls.

Babbitt was especially concerned with the ways in which humanitarians understood “service.”

Concerned with “the progress of mankind in the lump,” the humanitarian treats service as a reification of his inner life. Such a notion, he argues, “is not enough to chain up the naked lusts of the human heart.” It turns people into crusaders whose expansive appetites try to remake the world. In short: they lack humility. 

“The unit to which all things must finally be referred is not the state or humanity or any other abstraction, but the man of character. Compared with this ultimate human reality, every other reality is only a shadow in the mist.”

There can be no service, properly speaking, without leadership, and leadership must always involve a quality of will that first and foremost is attentive to the formation of character and the power of example. Only organizations directed by such persons will be capable of doing good in this world, Babbitt claimed. It’s a thought worth pondering.


[1] He argued that morality largely involved a disciplining of the will with regard to the material provided by the imagination.

[2] In terms of action itself, Babbitt stressed the quality of will that restrained our impulses, whether imaginative, active, or the passions. Babbitt predicates his beliefs on what we might call “the dualities of life.” We live in a world which contains both base and noble purposes. We live in the tension of mortality and immortality. We try to navigate the simultaneous oneness and manyness of things. And we do so operating out of a nature that itself contains dualities between our better and lesser selves.

[3] One might think of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as one such expression, particularly once set to Beethoven’s music.

[4] Babbitt believed that the “ethical will” divided between those who were morally strenuous (like the Buddha, Christ, and Socrates) and those who were morally indolent (like Rousseau). Once characterized in this fashion it becomes obvious that the ethical life will always involve self-discipline, self-restraint, and purposeful action.