Perhaps the most common objection I encounter when debating or trying to explain my views to others is the charge that I am an idealist. This word is commonly used to describe someone who advocates utopian daydreams, but like all words it can be made to mean exactly what we intend it to mean. It can be used in a well-defined manner to describe a certain mindset or group of ideas. It is also a very convenient term that can be used to sidestep the merits of an argument rather than addressing them directly.
What is an idealist? What does it mean to say that something is ideal? In Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary there are two main definitions of the word ideal. 1) Existing as a mental image or in fancy or imagination only; lacking practicality. 2) A standard of perfection, beauty or excellence; often taken as a model for imitation; or an ultimate object or aim of endeavor.
In my experience the word idealist is most commonly used to coincide with the first definition. It is an insult aimed at denigrating people and their beliefs. It is associated with youth, ignorance, fantasy, gullibility, radicalism and an unwillingness to see the world as it "really is." Its opposite is practicality, common sense, or realism. This usage of the word can be very misleading. I fear we are far too prone to enlarge the first meaning at the expense of the second. For this reason I would assert that although the first definition is commonly understood, it is inaccurate.
If something cannot possibly be put into practice, if it only exists in some fanciful fairyland, or if it defies the nature of our existence then it is not ideal. Yes, that's what the first definition claims to describe, but if we use it that way we will inevitably become confused. The line between the impossible dream of the first definition and the difficult-to-achieve standard of perfection of the second will become blurred. The second definition is both more useful and more correct.
Utopian dreams of a world where there is no sadness, no want, no adversity or where human nature is somehow changed to be something other than it is are not only impossible, they are undesirable. Unpleasant experiences are an integral part of human life. If there were no pain, no sadness, no hunger and no desire, where would be the pleasure, the happiness, the satisfaction and the joy of achievement? If we were deprived of one side of the coin we could not know or appreciate the other. To completely eradicate life's unpleasantry would severely retard human learning and development and rob life of its meaning.
Similarly, creeds and dogmas which may seem desirable and possible, but which require the use of means that are contradictory to the ends they profess are not ideal. If civilization is to survive and progress, the means used are just as important as the desired ends. It is the means that tell us where we are headed. Just ask any one of the 100 million victims of world communism if the ends justified the means. Or maybe we could ask Madeleine Albright if half a million dead Iraqi children is an acceptable price for regime change. "By their fruits ye shall know them," is wise counsel indeed.
In this sense, those who we might call "idealists" in the first sense of the word (those who advocate systems and conditions that we would consider "Utopian") are not heroes, or do-gooders. They may be called delusional, unrealistic, or fanciful dreamers, but to call them idealists is a misnomer. What they advocate is not ideal. It is dangerous. The trick is discerning between what is really ideal in the second sense of the word and what truly is impossible and unachievable.
Here is where we run into problems. Just who is to say what can and cannot be accomplished? Where is the boundary between the unachievable and that which is difficult to achieve? Just what is impossible? Well, that depends on when and where we are talking about. In 1492 it was "impossible" for Columbus to fly to the Americas. But if we think about it, it wasn't really impossible. The method was simply undiscovered. In the early to mid 1900's, socialism (as embodied in the Communist movement) was widely thought to be not only desirable and practical, but inevitable. It seems the passing of time has a way of revealing the absurdity of what we thought was "pragmatic" and opening our eyes to the practicality of previously impossible endeavors.
In fact, "practicality" is used most often as an excuse and a justification. Rationalizing current behavior and defending the status quo is far easier than putting forth the effort to achieve the highest standards of excellence. New and different ideas, no matter how noble have always been dismissed as impractical and fanciful by those who feel threatened by them. In any system there are deeply entrenched, vested interests that will adamantly defend their privilege and position against change. When someone says "well, that sounds nice but it just isn't practical," what they are usually saying is that they don't feel that they would personally benefit from it. After all, if something really is ideal, why would we not want to pursue it?
Humankind's greatest advances in science, medicine, technology, philosophy and civilization are mainly the result of the dreams and aspirations of idealists. History is full of examples of brave and brilliant men and women who have challenged the injustice, inconsistency and narrow constraints of conventional wisdom and who defied tyrants and oppressors. These were men and women of ideals. They were not content to defend a flawed system when they knew something better was attainable. They refused to limit themselves to what their contemporaries considered "practical," but instead sought to prove the possibility of what was commonly believed to be impossible.
This is what we should mean when we use the term "idealist." It is to hold in one's mind certain ideals that one believes are achievable standards of perfection. It is to be an advocate of something better; something more just and humane than what currently exists. It constitutes a never-ending search for improvement. It is the relentless pursuit of new and better ways of thinking, living, cooperating and organizing. In short, it means to be principled, and such principles must be grounded in a correct understanding of human nature.
It is not a quixotic quest for some mythical bliss. An idealist does not seek to eradicate all injustice or to create a society free of crime. He understands that as long as men are rational beings with the ability to choose their own actions, there will always be some degree of cruelty and injustice. What he cannot and must not condone however, is this same injustice becoming justified and institutionalized.
He cannot stand idly by and advocate systems or conditions which contradict his principles. He may tolerate them, he may live under them, but he must work steadily to change them. He does not see the inability or lack of desire among his fellowmen to advocate or live up to high standards as proof of the "impracticality" of such standards. Rather he agrees with the words of Gandhi when he said: "A principle is a principle and in no case can it be watered down because of our incapacity to live it in practice. We have to strive to achieve it, and the striving should be conscious, deliberate and hard."
Perhaps never before have we been more in need of people willing to advocate high ideals and noble principles even in the face of ridicule or neglect by those with influence and authority. What the world needs are more champions of individual freedom, responsibility, persuasion and cooperation in opposition to the doctrines of coercion, collectivism, entitlement, envy and violence. We need fewer sheep who passively accept the world as it “really is” and more free-thinking individuals willing to see the world as it ought to be. What the world needs are more idealists and fewer pragmatists.
February 18, 2006