Practical Idealism

Good Life

Being called an idealist is not usually a compliment in a world where wealth is the proxy for success, power and status.

Step four on the path to 'filthy riches' is to ‘avoid idealists’ according to Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, an ironic exploration of the mindsets behind hyper-capitalism, neatly disguised as a self-help book. Hamid's position on idealism sums up our world well:

“Surely ideals, transcending as they do puny humans and repositioning meaning in vast abstract concepts instead, are by their very nature anti-self? It follows therefore that any self-help book advocating allegiance to an ideal is likely to be a you’d do well to stay away, particularly if getting filthy rich tops your list of priorities...people so doing [spouting idealism] should be given wide berths too.”

Idealism transcends self. Wealth is individualistic.

In fact, it’s so hard to be an idealist today that Samantha Power (former US Ambassador to the United Nations in Obama’s presidency), ends the preface to her memoir ‘The Education of an Idealist’ with:

“Some may interpret this book’s title as suggesting that I began with lofty dreams about how one person could make a difference, only to be “educated” by the brutish forces that I encountered. That is not the story that follows.”

The fact that idealism is a hard position to hold is not a compelling case against idealism. Like Matt Ridley’s ‘rational optimist’, there is a strong case for ‘practical idealism’. First, history has shown that society is constantly widening its definitions of injustice:

“The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of existence, has passed into the rank of universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny.” - John Stuart Mill, 2003.

It follows that it should be highly practical to err on the side of history, and bias to idealism.

Where idealism falls down is in attachment to outcomes. The idealist who believes the world must match their reality will struggle:

“Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist — someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations.” ― Peter Senge

A practical idealist does not believe things will get better, but rather that they could, as Power writes:

“...My idealism has never been rooted in a prediction that things would get better.. It has been based on a simple belief that they could. History reminds us that nothing is foreordained…”

Isn't the very fact that things could get better argument enough for trying? This is the case for practical idealism.

“Sometimes, no matter what we do, events unfold in the wrong direction...sometimes, we believe we have had no effect whatsoever, and only months or years later learn that our actions offered encouragement to those deciding whether their struggles were worth enduring. Sometimes, we save lives. People who care, act, and refuse to give up may not change the world, but they can change many individual worlds.” - Samantha Power

Practical idealism is dreaming of a better world. Then taking steps to act. After all, our ambitions are only our dreams that have become familiar to us. Of course, we won’t always get it right. But to dream of a better world is to love the world, and isn’t that better than the alternative?

“It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world.’”- Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram