Idealism is not great

I have a standing offer of a bottle of Laphroaig for anyone who can supply me with an objective and nontrivial explanation of any distinction between the nouns idealist and ideologue as used in the contemporary English language.

Explaining that conservative ideologues are a dime a dozen, as are progressive idealists, but there are somewhat fewer progressive ideologues and it is almost impossible to find a conservative idealist even when you really need one, will not get you the whisky.

However, there’s another meaning of idealist in English—a historical one. Idealism is actually a philosophical school. Or rather a number of philosophical schools. I find the term most useful as it pertains to the line from Plato to Hegel to Emerson to Dewey. (It sometimes helps if you think of them as evil kung-fu masters.)

Let’s capitalize the word Idealist in this sense, so that we know we don’t just mean a nice person who thinks the world could be improved.

An Idealist is a person who believes that universals exist independently. Specifically, in the modern sense, your Idealist believes in concepts such as Democracy, the Environment, Peace, Freedom, Human Rights, Equality, Justice, etc., etc.

What do these concepts have in common? One, they have universally positive associations. In fact they have no meaning without these associations. A statement such as “the Environment is evil” or “we must work together against the Environment” is simply not well-formed. It is the equivalent of Chomsky’s “colorful green ideas sleep furiously.”

Two, they are impossible to define precisely. It’s fairly clear that they have no meaning at all.

For example, John Rawls wrote a whole book called A Theory Of Justice which purports to be a rigorous rational derivation of the New Deal regime. The fact that this work appeared in the 1970s, whereas the coup it exists to excuse occurred in the 1930s, should clue you in to the difficulty of Rawls’ masterful performance. Of course, the Justice that Rawls so elaborately elucidates has nothing at all to do with the original English meaning of the word justice or its Latin basis, that is, the accurate application of the law. Rawls’ ideal is probably best given in pre-Rawlsian English as Righteousness.

But it would be rather hard to call a book A Theory Of Righteousness without provoking at least a snicker or two. We all know there is no objective definition of Righteousness. And in fact, if anyone can go through the Federal Register with a red pen and explain which of these wonderful regulations are and are not Just, according to Rawls’ “theory,” he or she may earn that bottle of Laphroaig after all. (Just a page or two will do—to demonstrate the method.)

The case of the Environment is similar. We all know sort of what the Environment is supposed to be. But as with Justice, we don’t have anything like a precise, objectively applicable rule for defining whether some action is good or bad for the Environment. For example, if we sell Golden Gate Park to Halliburton, as a combination condo subdivision and oil-services theme park, and give the resulting ninety billion dollars to the Wilderness Society so they can buy the entire island of Borneo and preserve it as orangutan habitat forever, is this good or bad for the Environment? Discuss.

This bizarre system of thought, which I hear may actually earn a mention in the DSM-V, is also entirely incapable of advising us on what to do when these ideals conflict. For example, suppose some action improves the Environment, but diminishes Justice? Or vice versa? Is this a good action, or a bad action? Discuss.

Idealists also recognize what might be called anti-ideals. These are just like the above ideals, except that instead of being good, they are actually bad. They have names like Violence, Inequality, Racism, and so on. One interesting quirk of Idealistic thinking, is that while ideals are typically used only as objects in the strange sentences these people form—such as “we must preserve the Environment”—the anti-ideals can be subjects, such as “Violence killed thirteen people in Iraq on Sunday.” Apparently this sort of universal not only exists independently, but buys explosives and plants them in dead goats—a remarkable feat for any concept.

A little while ago I explained that religion, if we define it as a system of belief involving anthropomorphic paranormal entities, cannot directly affect reality. A belief about the paranormal world can be the ultimate motivation for an action in the real world, but it cannot be the proximate motivation for an action in the real world.

A long string of recent books, by very distinguished thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, have informed us that religion is, basically, evil. That is, that the optimal level of religion in society is like the optimal level of mercury in your milk: zero. Since I have no beliefs about the paranormal plane myself, I am naturally quite sympathetic to these volumes.

However, consider the form of such a book. Typically it is a list of great historical crimes, together with explanations of how religion was the ultimate cause of such and such a crime.

Naturally after reading such a book, one feels slightly jaundiced toward religion. But of course an argument of this sort, even if all of its history is perfectly correct (which it usually is), goes nowhere at all toward convincing any reasonable person that religion is some unique peril.

For example, one could assemble a similar book consisting entirely of crimes committed by Jews. Or Norwegians, or Inuit, or Buddhists, or brown-haired people, or any nontrivial set of humans past and present. Even if such a text made no connection at all between the Inuit upbringing of the criminals it rightly condemned, and the fact that their victims were so often found with gaping harpoon wounds, the reader would probably infer one, and come to the conclusion that these Inuit criminals should have their children confiscated and sent to special educational centers where they learn only love for the walrus and for the whale.

The inductive method, in other words, is simply not applicable to the task of discovering essential criminality in philosophies or traditions.

But since philosophies and traditions, whatever their criminal or non-criminal nature, do seem to have a suspicious involvement in the tremendous mayhem of history, perhaps it’s worth looking around for another culprit.

My hypothesis, which any brave commenter is welcome to take a whack at, is that whether or not religion is the ultimate cause, the proximate cause of mayhem is generally Idealism. That is, when there is a problem with religion, in general the way the problem happens is that religion leads to Idealism, and Idealism leads to mayhem.

But since Idealism is perfectly capable of existing without religion—since, for example, most of your recent mayhem has been the result of nontheistic Idealist movements such as National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism—perhaps Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., with all due respect, are chasing the tail and ignoring the dog.

In fact, if the type of Idealism that is caused by religion is actually milder and less murderous than the nontheistic variants—a hypothesis that’s not at all improbable, considering modern history—attenuating religion may actually promote mayhem.

(Obviously this is a desperate plea for Andrew Sullivan to link to me again.)

Perhaps this week we’ll look a little more closely at some of these murderous Idealisms…