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An ideal is a principle or value that an entity actively pursues as a goal and holds above other, more petty concerns perceived as being less meaningful. The term is applied not only to individuals but also to organizations large and small, from independent churches to social activist groups to political parties to nation states and more. An entity's ideals usually function as a way to set firm guidelines for decision making, with the possibility of having to sacrifice and undergo loss being in the background. While ideals are fuzzy concepts without that clear-cut a definition, they remain an influential part not just of personal choice but of larger, civilization-wide social direction.
In the broader context of ethics, the very terms are inherently tied. Philsopher Rushworth Kidder has stated that "standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as 'the science of the ideal human character'". Whether based in religious traditions or fundamentally secular, an entity's relative prioritization of ideals often serves to indicate the extent of that entity's moral dedication. For example, someone who espouses the ideal of honesty yet expresses the willingness to lie to protect a friend demonstrates not only devotion to the different ideal of friendship but also belief in that other ideal to supersede honesty in importance. A particular case of this, frequently known as 'the inquiring murderer', is well-known as an intellectual criticism of Kantianism and its categorical imperative.
The general belief in ideals is called ethical idealism. A particular insistence on holding to ideals, often even at considerable cost, is known as moral idealism, and an individual advocating such a belief is frequently labeled as a moral idealist or just as an idealist.
Background and history [ edit ]
Terminology [ edit ]
The term "idealism" and the related labeling, whether self-applied or otherwise, of individuals and/or groups as being "idealist" or against such people has a certain complexity to it. In the sense of metaphysical thought, "idealism" is generally described as centering around a particular view of objective reality versus the perception of reality as well the nature of if potential knowledge exists independently to humanity or whether knowledge is solely tied to experiences in the mind. Even within that particular intellectual sphere, the stamp of "idealist" as placed on particular philosophers attracts considerable controversy.
In colloquial language, the term "ideal" is often applied loosely, with varying circumstances getting described as such in highly different contexts. For instance, in cooking the descriptions of certain ingredient portions, heating temperatures, preparation times, and the like are often labeled as "ideal" or otherwise. Such uses of the term are also highly distinct from the historical and social concept of having an "ethical ideal" as such.
Historical development [ edit ]
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Multiple philosophers have remarked that human beings appear to, by instinct, behave in a matter without ideals and general morals of any kind. David Hume, for example, declared people to be inherent "slaves" to their passions.
In terms of broader discussions on ethics, many classical European philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke have famously argued that strong moral standards on individual choice exist based upon standards of rationality that can be found through logical analysis by reasonable observers. Specifically, instrumental principles based on satisfying one’s desires make up the basis for ideal ethics through Hobbes' approach. External principles existing in the discoverable state of nature outside of human experience yet possible to tease out through personal study constitute Locke's background source for ideal ethics.
In both Jewish ethics and later Christian ethics, the holding of moral ideals over personal convenience and even otherwise perfectly logical expectations is frequently praised. Golden rule based moral standards involve restrictions such as holding back the quest for vengeance by the wronged such that punishment only gets applied in a limited, specific fashion; this example being later evaluated as the tit-for-tat strategy in game theory. In terms of Christianity, the teachings of the Gospels and particularly the setting forth of clear-cut principles on the Sermon on the Mount constitute an extension of the golden rule; individuals, under Jesus' exhortations, are called to hold to the ideal of treating other people even better than they rationally expected to be treated back. Specific phrases such as 'turn the other cheek' have come about in terms of moral instruction to effectively convey this idealism.
While Western nations have widely retained these influences, in practical terms a great many powerful rulers and prominent thinkers since the fall of the Roman Empire have pushed back on higher notions of idealistic ethics. Many have done so based on little other than expediency. However, whether explicitly in words or explicitly through deeds, more cynical figures have counter-argued from points of view that can broadly get labeled as "moral relativism". As the arguments have went, human beings constitute little more than crude matter and cannot reasonably be held to act in any sort of larger principle; survival remains their core instinct such that civilization functions as a thin veneer over base instincts. The debate about the possible lack of goodness inherent in mankind and its capacity to hold to ideals is prominently displayed in The Grand Inquisitor, with the fictional confrontation between Jesus Christ and a outwardly Christian appearing leader who actually holds cynical views attracting great attention since its authorship by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1880. While the titular inquisitor rationally argues for the relativist view that people seek safety and security over higher callings, Christ surprisingly kisses the aged, emotionally distant leader on the lips; while still holding to his views, the moved inquisitor allows Christ to leave freely.
The advent of the "Age of Enlightenment", which in large part centered around the application of rational-based principles such as the scientific method upon human nature, caused increased interest in ethical philosophy as a field of study. Notions of "benevolence" attracted widespread attention in terms of governance, with leaders exhorted to act based on idealistic principles and to particularly champion causes such as the facilitating of the arts, increased educational efforts, effective stewardship of national resources, and the like. This movement increased trends away from absolute monarchy and dictatorship towards that of constitutional monarchy and republican government. The scientifically based, forward thinking viewpoint about human nature became later known as "classical liberalism".
Modern Western philosophy in terms of its discussion of ideals largely takes place within the framework of Enlightenment thinking. As per the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, itself an evolution from the earlier American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, many theorizing academics of the 19th century and the 20th century have set forth an optimistic view of humanity; all individuals by nature of their mere existence are thought to have been born inherently good, inherently equal, and inherently free. A defining inflection point of this trend is the experience of World War II and the Holocaust, with the experience creating a sort of dualistic approach to ideology in which capitalistic democracy centered around classical liberalism is inherently pitted forever in struggle with tyrannies centered around mass misery.
Recent debates and discussions [ edit ]
In applied ethics [ edit ]
The specific philosophical school known as "applied ethics" frequently involves discussion over ideals and the desirability of holding to them or abandoning them, depending on the context. In some theories of applied ethics, relative importance gets given to such social orders as a way to resolve disputes effectively. In analysis of legal theory, for instance, a judge is sometimes called on to resolve the balance between the ideal of truth, which would likely advise hearing out all evidence, and the ideal of fairness, which would likely advise seeking to restore goodwill between individuals regardless of specific findings during a particular case. Said judge may also have to consider the principle of the right to a speedy trial as well, which places limits on the previous two ideals given the time involved in ferreting out case details.
In an August 2005 address, philosopher Richard Rorty remarked upon the "moral idealism common to Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity" and the related notion of strictly specified principles through the lens of applied ethics, asserting to a group of business professionals,
[I]ndividuals become aware of more alternatives, and therefore wiser, as they grow older. The human race as a whole has become wiser as history has moved along. The source of these new alternatives is the human imagination. It is the ability to come up with new ideas, rather than the ability to get in touch with unchanging essences, that is the engine of moral progress.
Appeals to idealism in practice [ edit ]
In politics [ edit ]
Ideals have played a role in politics for millennia. For example, iconic Greek statesman Pericles famously presented an ideal-based view of the Mediterranean world. In 431, shortly after the Peloponnesian War had started, his 'Funeral Oration' made to commemorate fallen soldiers, described for posterity by the historian Thucydides, presented a view of Athens and the city-state's broader civilization that emphasized a sense of cleverness and open-mindedness that Pericles believed gave it the strength to rise to different challenges. Other early historical figures known for appealing to ethical ideals in their oratory include Roman statesman Cato the Elder, the figure's commentary on Hellenized values leading to his moral appeal among supporters. In contrast to what he saw as decadence spreading into Rome and nearby areas from elsewhere, Cato articulated support for what he labeled as traditional Roman ethics.
Most political revolutions draw support from the mass appeal of a certain moral idealism in contrast to the doctrines of those holding power, having the various grievances with the status quo created from real or perceived misrule spark ethical debate. During the French Revolution, the rhetorical principles of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (English: "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood") got raised to the status of clear-cut ideals, the new nation-state constituted a sort of grand experiment in what became in de facto and later de jure a new religion. Many political movements in modern times center themselves upon multiple ideals found to be reinforcing. A recent example is the peace movement and the opposition expressed worldwide to warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as elsewhere.
In many cases current and historical, one finds instances in which proclaimed ideals simply aren't lived up to by various figures while in office, despite claims made by the officials before taking power and since attaining it. In British English, politicians openly changing their opinions in defiance of previous assertions about their ethics are labeled as making a "u-turn". In American English, a similar individual will be pejoratively called a "flip-flopper". While different, the terms mean the same thing.
Idealism in the context of politics has attracted criticism from multiple fronts. A prominent example is philosopher Gerald Gaus, the author of The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society, and his argument that an overriding emphasis on ideals causes individuals to wish for impossible political perfection and thus lose their sense of what constituents practical policy advocacy as well as logical choices during elections. Gaus makes other warnings such as that people can lose their sense of how much has already been achieved and how well current situations have become in certain circumstances.
In traditional achievement [ edit ]
In a less abstract sense, famous private individuals can be thought to embody certain ideals due to multiple factors such as their courage, intelligence, reliability, and the like. Although really existing, these moral examples can establish a link between dry intellectual principles and broader issues found in regular people's decision making. Naturally, even the famous possess complex and multi-faceted traits and to be considered an ideal usually constitutes a necessary simplification process; with only a few traits on prominent display, they are an easy archetype from which one can mimic.
In Islam, for instance, the life of the prophet Muhammad is held up as "ideal", yet all of his words and deeds must be interpreted for believers through the lens of his life's broader path.
One famous example in the Anglosphere of a self-described "starry-eyed idealist" is television personality Fred Rogers. Known for hosting the iconic program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers later stated that he started out "bursting with enthusiasm for the potential I felt that television held not only for entertaining but for helping people." His widely praised work in children's television and broader advocacy for social progress in the U.S. brought him a variety of honorary degrees and esteemed awards,. The latter includes a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
Complexities around ideals [ edit ]
Ideals versus virtues [ edit ]
Given the complexity of putting ideals into practice, not to mention resolving conflicts between them, many individuals choose to narrowly pick a certain group of them and then harden them into absolute dogma. Political theorist Bernard Crick has stated that a way to solve this dilemma is to have ideals that themselves are descriptive of a generalized process rather than a specific outcome, particularly when the latter is hard to achieve.
The line between an ideal and a virtue is difficult to access given that both are fuzzy concepts. In general, some philosophers have argued that an ideal usually constitutes something more inherent that one can make a habit while virtues, instead, necessarily involve going above and beyond regular decision making in order to actively strive for something, constituting a behavior that's inherently highly difficult to turn into a regular practice.
Relative ideals [ edit ]
Robert S. Hartman has contended that since, colloquially, labeling an entity as ideal means that something is the best member of the set of all things of that class, therefore the term has particular implications when used in an ethical context. For example, the ideal student is the best member of the set of all students in exactly the same way that the ideal circle is the best circle that can be imagined of the class of all circles, according to Hartman. Since one can define the properties that the ideal member of a class should have, Hartman has stated, the value of any actual object can be empirically determined by comparing it to the ideal. The closer an object's actual properties match up to the properties of the ideal, the better the object is to Hartman. Thus, a bumpy circle drawn in the sand is worse than a very smooth one drawn with a compass' aid, but both are better than a regularly made square.
For Hartman, the world in general presents a situation in which each particular entity ought usually to become more like its ideal if possible. This entails that, in ethics, each individual should analogously to become more like the hypothetical ideal person, and a person's morality can actually be measured by examining how close they live up to their ideal self, in Hartman's view.
Fictional examples of morally idealistic figures [ edit ]
Anime frequently features characters acting out of broader desires to assist others, with a strong sense of moral idealism guiding their actions. A prominent example is protagonist Kenshiro of the Fist of the North Star franchise. Known for his incorruptible nature and ironclad sense of determination as well as massive physical strength, his catchphrase of "you are already dead" has became a sort of internet meme.
Anglosphere comic books often incorporate conflicts between traditional heroes and heroines, ones who act out of a sense of altruism and cling to strict sets of ideals, with antiheroes and other morally ambiguous individuals that still feature prominent superpowers. A particular example that's attracted international commentary is the tension between Superman, one so bound by ideals he's been nicknamed the 'big blue boy scout', and groups such as the Elite, who face little qualms engaging in actions such as murder and torture. Discussing the animated film Superman vs. The Elite, one movie critic opined that Superman faced his worst nemesis of all in "public opinion", with a cynical populace finding it harder in a terrorism-influenced world to be optimistically idealistic. Other characters of a similar type include Nightwing, with a commentator remarking that "while Batman fights in the name of vengeance, Nightwing does it because it’s the right thing to do."
Multiple forms of media in terms of filmed and serially televised production have portrayed issues surrounding ideals and characters facing tests of their personal ethics. The fictional universe of the Star Trek franchise has traditionally aimed to portray humanity in general through the lens of idealistic morality. However, this has changed with the new tone of more recent productions such as Star Trek: Picard.
In terms of music, particular examples of songs promoting a particular view of strident ideals include "A Cockeyed Optimist" from South Pacific, a Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers written musical, and the similar "Be Optimistic" from Little Miss Broadway, a Harry Tugend and Jack Yellen written movie. As well, songs discussing drug use often involve condemnations of pushers and lamentations of the problems around substance abuse in the context of exhorting the listener to live an ethical life. The straight edge movement and related sub-genres of punk rock have particularly attracted much attention in this context. Fans of positive hardcore specifically are known for promoting song lyrics emphasizing camaraderie and shared sense of purpose.
See also [ edit ]
References [ edit ]
- Rescher, Nicholas (1987). Ethical Idealism: An Inquiry into the Nature and Function of Ideals. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520078888.
- Deb, Sopan (February 20, 2020). "'Star Trek: Picard' Season 1, Episode 5 Recap: Resistance Is Revenge". The New York Times. Retrieved April 1, 2020.