Wednesday, November 07, 2007

You Can't Have It All

Though I think this Duck of Minerva post on "certifying idealism" comes down a little hard, this paragraph is very wise and deserves repeating:
[T]he conjoining of "certifying" and "idealism" troubles my Weberian sensibilities to no end. If we are doing anything at all for our students -- and this applies broadly to everyone in the academy, I think, but perhaps especially to those of us who teach about politics -- we ought to be pressing them to deal with the conflicts between their ideals and the means of implementing those ideals. We should also be pressing them to deal with the fact that not all idealistic value-commitments point in the same direction, that not all normatively desirable ends can be accomplished all at once, and that in the end not all ideals can be rationally reconciled -- in other words, our students need to be appraised of the failure of the Enlightenment project of bringing all values together under the common head of Reason, and of the consequent need for hard and perhaps un-rationalizable choices and commitments.

Not everything that falls under the metric of "good" can be accomplished at the same time. Trying to do that usually leads to more harm than good, either because it engenders quiescence in people who refuse to do anything unless it can be done perfectly (which means nothing will ever happen), or because it encourages people to jettison values that really are important wholesale because they see them as barriers to the "ultimate" project (be it fostering the revolution, increasing liberty, reducing the size of government, securing the nation, or what have you). It is, of course, true that the opposite is true as well: people can be too quick to compromise and never take a stand to demand more than the bare minimum, and political movements can spin their wheels if they get stuck in an endless cycle of aimless, small-scale demands without any sort of larger vision of what they want to accomplish. But this interplay merely reinforces the point: mediating between those poles is tough, it will inevitably resist formula, and the best strategy is not a naive belief that one can be a messianic figure for political change, but rather acquiring the social and political agility necessary to make the world a better place.


ProfPTJ said...

Of course, coming down hard is one of the consequences of taking a Weberian stance on these issues: articulate an ideal-typical distinction, then watch it get muddier in practice.

Some discussion ensued over at LGM.

David Schraub said...

Well, I meant more that I think you're a bit too harsh on the concept of "certifying idealism". I think one can certify idealism in the sense that one can signal to NGOs, "I'm serious about this cause, I'm different from the 400,000 other undergraduates who wrote letters for Amnesty International, I'm committed to this movement and am not just doing this as a one year thing before I go to law school."