Ideals matter

I find the term “ideological” is used far too often these days as a pejorative, especially in politics.  I find this disturbing, because ideals are very important.

It seems that every time there’s a row at Queen’s Park or in Parliament, someone somewhere ends up accusing their adversary of being ideological, as if that were a bad thing.  Oddly, those on the political left use the term as often as those on the right (based on my very unscientific “survey” of listening to the news while driving to work).  Or perhaps not so oddly; after all, politicians are all aliens.

I suppose they’re trying to say that pragmatism was needed, and that being ideological is being the opposite of pragmatic, and therefore wrong.

While there may or may not be merit in that argument – depends on the specifics of each case – I’m entirely convinced that the only way to be pragmatic is to be ideological first.  That is, good pragmatism is built on ideology.

Ideals define our “perfect world.”  They don’t just represent things better than they are now; they represent the ultimate “best.”

Of course, ideals are by definition unattainable.  Perfection itself is a concept that has never been directly observed; it is only the logical limit of our ability to rank things on a scale from “worse” to “better.”  Still, ideals matter.

Ideals represent a fixed point.  Ideals don’t change; they are inviolate.  They are unaffected by context and situation and history and social whimsy.  And because they are fixed, we can use them as an “origin” from which to measure our progress.

No other state can serve this function.  Whatever we have now that we think is “better” or “worse” is relative to what we already know or have experienced.  As our knowledge and experience changes, so too change our assessments of what is “better” and what is “worse.”  But ideals, on the other hand, are fixed.  They are not subject to the relativism of our knowledge and experiences.

So when we consider whether some proposed action is “better” or “worse,” we can only assess this with respect to the way things currently are.  However, in the future, things will be different, and “better” may become “worse” as a result.  If we want to decide whether some action is really better or worse, we must first assess the current situation with respect to our ideals.  Then we must also assess the expected changes resulting from executing the action against our ideals.  Now, those two assessments can be considered far more rigorous measures of whether an action will improve matters.

This really isn’t as hard to do as one may think.  It is simply an exercise in decision-making and there are methods for going about it that will help increase the odds of making a good decision. (That doesn’t make it easy to do, but the complexity arises from the nature of the decision to be taken, not from the method itself.)  It won’t be perfect – we’re imperfect and all our actions are imperfect – so we may still make the wrong decision.  But at least we’ll know that the decision process we used was a good one.

In case you’re wondering, here’s a pretty simple way to go about making these kinds of decisions.

First, enumerate your ideals.

Then, develop a relative ranking of the ideals.  A method called pairwise comparison can be used for this.

Then you create a weighted decision matrix.  This allows you to evaluate the decision alternatives, with respect to your ideals, and taking into account your rankings automatically.

See?  It’s a simple method.  But it’s really hard to execute.  And more importantly, every stakeholder in the process must agree with every step of the process, or all bets are off.  I’m sure there are many pragmatists who are now laughing at me, because they’re convinced that such agreement is impossible.  And they would be wrong.

There are ways of going through the process multiple times, starting with simple situations and leading up to more complex ones, that will help develop the consensus needed to deal with very hard decisions.

It would take a long time to run this process.  But then again, isn’t it worth it?


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