Sunday, October 31, 2004

On the Merits of Idealism

In many of the circles I've associated with, there has been a certain cachet to embracing a stance of cynicism. The thought behind this seems to be that cynicism is an emblem that proves that one is wise in the ways of the world and not prone to naiveté. Idealism, by this view, is a kind of hopeful foolishness where one embraces futile wishes in the face of the evidence of the real world. Cynics, by contrast, are imagined to be level-headed people who realistically accept the harsh realities of a cruel and indifferent world.

I will freely confess that for many years I held just such a perspective on life. In my own experience, good intentions rarely amounted to anything and I found that when I expected the worst I was rarely disappointed. My cynical stance certainly seemed to be a better representation of the state of the world as a whole than that found in Utopian fantasies. I had a much easier time believing in dystopias.

It has only been in the last few years that I have to believe that cynicism is, its own way, every bit as naïve as the worst sorts of idealism. More over, I have come to a new appreciation of what idealism can offer when tempered with the proper perspective.

It is said that every cynic is a disappointed idealist. Certainly that was true of my case. When I was young, I had any number of political and social notions that were exceedingly optimistic. I liked to believe that people were, at heart, good and that most people, given the chance, would behave altruistically towards their fellows. By and by I came to see that such a hope for an altruistic human nature was not supported by the evidence. Humans are not angelic beings and, given every opportunity, we do, indeed, behave in a self-interested manner. History has proven, again and again, that attempts to form utopian societies founder against the rocks of human behavior. They may work for a time but, ultimately, they collapse due to the basic selfishness of the individuals who comprise them.

How then, is it, that have I come to reject cynicism and reestablish myself as an idealist?

One of the truism of cynicism is that people, being base entities, never change. How is it, then, that societies change? More to the point, how is it that societies ever progress? A little less than one hundred and fifty years ago, slavery, in my nation, was a legal institution. A bit over eighty years ago, there were still states where women did not have the right to vote. Forty years ago, black Americans were subject to a form of apartheid. How did these evils ever come to end? I found that a truly cynical worldview simply could not account for them without all sorts of ad hoc justifications that supposed that the proper confluence of wrongs could, sometimes, generate a right. The reality, however, is that a great many people working from a set of convictions that could only be described as idealistic fought long and hard battles to bring these events about. The path to improvement was rarely straightforward and often required a descent into the worst realms of human behavior (as evidenced by the church bombings that punctuated the civil rights movement's struggle), but that only serves to underscore depths of conviction that were required to bring about these changes.

There is such a thing as naïve idealism. Any view that thinks that people are going to be good for the sake of being good is bound to fail. Attempts to build systems around such hopes are not only unbearably optimistic but, often, dangerous. One of the basic failings of Communism was the assumption that people could be motivated to work for the good of the community without any compensation above the knowledge that they would be helping their fellow human beings without any desire for personal status or material reward. There are many reasons that Communism doesn't work well in the real world but central to the majority of its failures is the simple fact that people aren't like that. Communism turned out to be a Utopian dream and a real world Hell. Too often idealisms turn into ideologies which, in turn, lead to all sorts of evil. Ideologies tend to become perversions of themselves precisely because they enshrine ideals above mere reality. Once an individual or a group severs ties with reality, it becomes very easy to justify evil in the name of a cause.

But just as there is such a thing as a naïve idealism, so is there a naïve cynicism. The notion that human beings are uniformly bad and ultimately selfish is every bit as wrong as the notion that humans are uniformly good and ultimately selfless. Cynicism, taken to its logical ends, prevents us from striving to be anything more than we are because it denies that we have a better nature to aspire to. Too often, cynical anticipations become self-fulfilling prophesies. A cynic may well feel smug when good deeds come to naught but a world of cynics would be a world trapped by its own expectations.

I have come to believe that the major failure of idealistic philosophies is the perspective that Utopia is a place that can be reached. A naïve idealist who thinks that perfect justice can be obtained must either sink himself into a state of permanent self-delusion or succumb to an admission of error which can easily lead down a slippery slope towards a state of abject cynicism. An informed idealism, however, would see that the notion of perfect justice is no more obtainable that being able to reach the place called "up". However, taking justice as an ideal, one can move in the direction of it just as can move up without ever actually reaching "up".

Ideals are not real things. One does not have to be a cynic to appreciate this fact. This does not make ideals worthless as ideas. Even if we can not have perfect racial harmony, we can hope to achieve a minimal amount of racial disharmony. Although sexual equality may well be beyond our human capacities, we can strive to diminish the sexual inequalities that face us down to a negligible insignificance. All that is required to be an idealist is the belief that we can be better and that we should be better along with the willingness to stive to become better. Although the cynics of the world may well insist that such a task is perfectly futile, history is on the side of the idealists.

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