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Ideals are Not Enough

June 22, 2014

There is a man at my school, a man of great institutional authority who is a well-spring of continual optimism, high minded ideals such as “There are no problems, only solutions” , and yet… lacks authority. Why? Because he is not respectable. Because he is not charismatic.

This is not to say that the man dresses appallingly, or uses bad manners, or fails to be amiable and welcoming. No, the strange thing is that he IS all of this, but is still no authority. Why is this?

Because ideals are conjoined with sheer competence and ability. Because to be an idealist doesn’t make you a paragon of virtue. Because ideals are not enough.

Now, I do think that the lion’s share of our cultural woes can be traced to the fact that we don’t emphasize plain old virtue at all, for either sex. Society would be a hundred times better if all folks — men and women alike — sought to be people of real character.

We want a virtuous society. But, if we look at the history of virtue, we see that it is not solely ideals that matter. First came the Romans where martial courage mattered. Of course the noble ideal of fighting for the empire existed… but you were only accorded as virtuous if you survived. Then came industry and fortitude for the Romans. Virtue was tied up with industry – with competence, with results… not ideals. The Victorian Gentleman too echoed this sentiment. His industry, pluck, modesty… These were what mattered. And so it matters today for men and women. Look not to ideals, but actual conduct when assessing people.

At the heart of this are two principles.

Firstly, you have to compare ideal with ideal and method with method, as John Le Carre has Control argue in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. ‘You can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?’ Control says of espionage operations. And nor should you judge others by their actions but judge yourself by your ideals.

Secondly, one should live with a sort of moral pragmatism. This does not mean the ends justifies the means. It simply means that theology and preaching which does not actually encourage people to be an upstanding citizen and do some good is to be laid to the side. It means favouring pragmatic moral reminders.

Your old aphorism that ‘When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’ is useful in illuminating a need for different perspectives. It’s a simple principle that pays real results. The statement ‘your ignorance of the multiplicity of discursive structures leads to an ignorance of discontinuous epistemes’ is not going to change your actions. Your theoretical insight must be pared with application.

It’s great to have big, idealistic plans to build wells in Africa or change the whole political process. But oftentimes we only associate doing good with doing something big, and since we don’t know how to get started on a huge project, we end up doing….nothing at all.  Wouldn’t it be better for us to focus on things we can do? Like little acts of kindness?

Ultimately, one must start small. That person with their big African plans does nothing. That person who starts small and builds up their competence – the frame for their high minded ideals – can achieve. Competence, ability and achievement breed the actualisation of ideals.

And that’s that man I spoke of, with his dithering and lack of respectability, can’t present. His claim to virtue looks weak because he doesn’t have the fortitude and strength to truly back it up when challenged. This leads us to an important truth.

The cloak of virtue hangs very awkwardly on a person without fire and fight; it droops and sags when draped across a structure that lacks strength and firmness.

We all know amiable men and women who are grossly overweight or stutter., Who look like they’d get winded mounting a flight of stairs, or slink away in the face of speaking publicly. These people profess to be nice, perfect ladies and gentlemen of high ideals, but we don’t respect them as men and women, and not even as gentlemen or ladies either. As John Wayne’s character says in the film McClintock, “You have to be a man, before you can be a gentleman.” We invariably chuckle and cringe at the men and women who get this equation backwards.

Is it moral that this is so? Is it right that some students flagrantly defy that beacon of institutional authority? Of course not. But we must be pragmatic. A world where people are judged purely by the nobility of their ideals or the correctness of their moral philosophy is not our world. In our world there are dogs, savages, liars, brutes, ditherers and more. You are not going to convince them through thundering at them from the ivory tower of self-righteousness.

Instead, you shall convince them through the competence of your actions. You’ll be respectable and able. People will pay you a grudging respect for your good work, notice you for your abilities, pay heed to your knowledge. Through ability and charm you can become a figure people are attracted to. And as that figure, your actions – your principled actions of kindness, of good etc. – will reflect your ideals. And maybe, just maybe, others will pick up on this, and seeking to emulate what they see as good in you – ideal or no – and subconsciously emulate your ideals.

And that’s the point. Have your ideals. Debate your ideals. Live to your ideals. But if it isn’t working, focus on pragmatic steps to doing good.

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From → Foundations

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