My Watchmen post below generated some interesting combox feedback, much of which I agree with. Thinking about the subject further, it occurs to me that there might be yet another factor at work in the phenomenon I described.
In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (building on some ideas of Michael Tanner) puts forward a brief but illuminating account of sentimentality. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background. Sentimentality thus involves having one’s emotions “on the cheap” – enjoying them, as it were, without paying the costs they entail. For that reason, Scruton says, it is a vice.
I would suggest that the following behavior patterns are pretty clear signs of sentimentality in this sense:
“Doing something” about “world hunger” by making (or buying) records like “We are the world,” watching Live Aid, etc., while knowing or caring little about what actually causes food shortages or what actually happens to emergency food supplies sent to Third World countries.
Badmouthing capitalism while collecting gigantic paychecks (actors, pop stars, etc.) or otherwise living comfortably off of the capitalist system (professors, students, etc.)
Thinking that the following sorts of behavior evince great virtue: voting a certain way; going to a political rally; signing a petition; sorting one’s garbage into different bins; driving a Prius; sticking an anti-Bush sticker on the bumper of one’s car; etc.
Thinking the following sorts of behavior are not particularly virtuous: refraining from sex until you are married; staying married for better or worse, richer or poorer; not aborting a baby despite the fact that it was unplanned, will be an inconvenience, is disabled; etc.
Expressing outrage over the plight of the people of this or that war-torn country when doing so might cause political damage to some conservative politician, but ignoring them otherwise; denouncing proposals actually to do something about their plight (e.g. economic sanctions, military action), while offering no concrete alternatives.
Believing it takes real courage to “stand up” to an evangelical Christian who publishes a book or gives a speech, while refusing to say anything that might offend a jihadist who slits a throat or blows up a pizzeria.
Weeping over the cramped conditions inside chicken coops and dog kennels while heartily approving of those who kill and dismember fetuses.
Suppose there were people prone to this sort of vicious sentimentality – purely hypothetical I know, but let’s just pretend. Is it possible they might also be prone to the following sort of cognitive dissonance?
Thinking movies like Watchmen present us with deep moral quandaries and characters whose motives and actions, however horrific, we must seek to “understand” rather than either “condone” or “condemn.”
while, at the same time
Thinking that the decisions made by the Bush administration in the face of the threat of future 9/11-style attacks, the persistent flouting by the likes of Saddam Hussein of a series of UN resolutions, etc., represented no moral difficulties at all but only evil, evil, evil.
To ask the question is, I think, to answer it.