On Moral Idealism

I do not tell people what to think, but some lines of thought are better than others.

On Moral Idealism

This is an election year and I'm teaching government classes. I need to reflect on what I'm doing and what I'm supposed to do.

I do not tell people what to think, but some lines of thought are better than others. A lot of ideas can be expressed in the form of an argument but lack relevance or evidence. In the past, I've received papers which believe talking about government means demonstrating unqualified support for a candidate. Or that making a case means showing those you oppose know nothing.

I believe those papers point at a larger problem. People want to be serious about politics, but they don't know how. In a number of other endeavors, you show you're serious by learning to compete and win. In sports, in the job market, even in religion, people fight to win games, employment, and converts. Why should politics be any different? Why isn't it a good thing that cable news says anything it wants as long as people are motivated to vote for a party?

Our concept of politics not only lacks any defense against demagogues, but sees demagoguery as a legitimate means to an end. There's generally no sense that politics is about responsibility. That power implies doing your best for everyone, including the people you don't like. We don't try to win elections because winning is inherently good. We have elections because we do not have the perfect means for finding people who are capable, qualified, and motivated to serve the body politic. We conduct votes not because the law can cover any and all cases, but because we need to approve policies that empower others to act.


I feel like I'm saying something radical. I'm saying that what is serious is imperfect. A matter of uncertainty. We have tools which do not always work the way they should, and they should be questioned.

A lot of us are raised to believe the opposite. If it matters, then it should dictate logic itself. If it's worth doing, then it is worth doing without regard for the cost. These sentiments can cement into an unquestioned worship of authority and power. You'd think moral idealism would work the other way, that it would break order and structure. But the truth is that only a certain kind of moral idealism works that way. One of the things I most admire about MLK is how open-minded and informed he was. He's got kind words to say about young people who are more radical than he is, his thinking is deeply informed by history, he's always assessing his options and trying to find what he can work with. He's a moral idealist–in truth, he's a founding figure, bringing the U.S. closer to full democracy than it ever was–but his idealism is a vision of which he owns every part.

Most moral idealism does not work this way. Plenty of people do not question what they consider sacred. They impose it strictly on themselves and then everyone else; the sacrifices they believe they are making bind others. When it comes to elections, voting, and policy there's a sense of what's untouchable–our country couldn't possibly be like this, you're talking about some other place–and that sense has come to dominate everything. We can't talk about how legislation and institutions actually help or hurt people. Policy stands subordinate to considering ourselves "the city on a hill."


I'm still making resolutions for this year. I have resolved to talk about more than power and I have resolved to take better notes (i.e. be a better student).

Regarding teaching, I want my students to have a specific set of skills. I want them to effectively and empathetically communicate. I want them to take writing seriously, as if they're not just writing for my class but for other people. How do they want to be seen as approaching problems? Life?

I want them to maximize the opportunity of speaking inside class. They should always feel like they're worth hearing if they're treating others with respect. (They need to recognize that people who consistently make them feel like they're not worth hearing are engaging in abusive behavior.)

And I want them to have a skill that's both academic and civic. I want them to attend to the framework with which they pose questions and answers. I want them to listen as if it is a responsibility and explain why someone else thought the way they did.

It's just so obvious nowadays that we're flooded with conspiracy theories because conspiracy theories are a great way to never listen to anyone else. There's no way to have society, let alone a government, in those conditions.