IDEALISM, IDOLATRY AND IDEOLOGY Radical Bleeding Heart image


It is sometimes said that we all have an ideology. That is not true. We all have values and various plans for realizing those values. If we behave rationally — if we are pragmatic — then the plans are always subordinate to the values. If the plans do not work — if they do not help us to realize our values — then we discard them and try something else. But when the plans take precedence over the values, when they are pursued for their own sake, they become ideology. When that happens, we may actually wind up abandoning our real values for the sake of a fantasy in the form of an ideology.

Ideology vs. Values. Does that seem odd? How can we abandon the things we value? In truth, of course, this is a case conflicting values, where one set of values overwhelms another. Idolatry, as we said earlier, absolves us from responsibility for our own decisions [*]. And since the idol (or ideology, in this case) replaces the actual goal, it gives us the illusion that our primary values are actually being met.

If this is hard to understand, think about people who struggle with their weight. They want to be skinny, but they also love to eat. They have conflicting values. One way they can deal with this is to follow a fad diet (usually actually a succession of fad diets). The fad diets do not work, in the sense of keeping off the pounds, but they provide the dieters with the illusion that they are really doing something to loose that weight. These folks want to eat what they like and still get thin; this way they eat what they like and pretend to loose weight. When their values conflict, they find it is easiest to satisfy one of the values with a fantasy. They only fool themselves, but that is who they want to fool.

Ideology is like that. And just as with the phony diet, the more furiously we pursue the ideology, the more convinced we are that we are actually accomplishing something.

Authority. We are all guilty to a degree, but the conservative mind-set is decidedly idolatrous. Conservatives despise nothing more than having to think for themselves. That is why they make an idol of Authority. They have a terror of individual responsibility, despite their rhetoric. Bowing to authority absolves them of taking responsibility for their own decisions. Or having to think. Or having to deal with learning the facts.

In addition to blinding us to the facts, like other forms of idolatry, ideologies are a great hindrance to resolving conflicts between factions with differing values. Values can differ without necessarily being in conflict. When they are unencumbered by the straitjackets of ideology, it is often possible to find ways to satisfy many different values. For instance, that is what some try to do when they seek a common ground between the pro-choice and anti-abortion factions by looking for ways to reduce the number of abortions without making them illegal. It is not easy, but when ideology gets in the way, it is impossible.

Another example: the decades-old “war on drugs” is, from an empirical point of view, a huge, colossal, obvious failure. It destroys lives, increases crime, corrupts our police, and has done nothing whatever to reduce the use of drugs. A different approach is obviously called for, but a blind commitment to the ideology of punishment has thus far proved to be an insuperable barrier. The present system provides enormous profits for criminal gangs, who thus have a huge incentive to get young people addicted to drugs. Removing that powerful incentive would be a major goal of a pragmatic approach to reducing drug use, but the “anti-drug” crowd will not allow it.

Of course, sometimes ideology serves to hide values. At least some of the anti-drug and anti-abortion crowd may stick to their ideologies because they love punishment: they like to hurt people who are different from themselves. People naturally prefer to present themselves as moralists rather than as sadists.

Sometimes ideology is intellectual nonsense. The Republican obsession with tax-cuts is an example. If cutting taxes is always good, then taxes themselves are always bad. The sensible thing would be to eliminate them entirely. Not only would that mean the end of government and the probable end of civilization, it would be the end of money and the modern economy. Yes, the existence of money, at least according to some economists, depends on the existence of taxes. So the questions we should be asking are: How much tax is necessary? Are the taxes being spent wisely? and Are our taxes fairly implemented? If being fiscally conservative means being careful not to waste money, those are indeed legitimate questions. But it is much simpler just rail against taxes — even if that makes no sense.

Anti-Ideology: Pragmatism. N.B. Just in case it is not clear from what we have just said about it: pragmatism is not, as some people like to imply, about having loose or flexible values (or no values at all). It has nothing to do with values themselves; it is about how those values are implemented. A pragamtist can be a puritan or a libertine, a vegetarian or a cannibal. A person can have extremely strict and demanding values and still be a pragmatist. Someone who hates abortion and wants to end it more than anything else in the world can be a pragmatist. If a law designed to end abortion in fact had no actual effect, the pragmatic pro-lifer would call to abandon the law and try something else. She would not blindly defend it merely because it was anti-abortion.

But just as liberals are not the only possible pragmatists, do not imagine that conservatives have a monopoly on ideological folly.

The classic statement of the way ideology becomes a means of avoiding ethical responsibility is in Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951)