The Trouble with ‘Idealism’: Reflections on Intellectual Vocation and Moral Reasoning

Kwok Kian-Woon

This is a shortened version of a lecture delivered to university students in early November 2010; as with the lecture, this essay is meant to stimulate further discussion, and it does not represent the views of any institution that the writer is affiliated with. For the sake of brevity, I cite sources in the text, and I have not included the bibliography of recommended readings that was provided in the original lecture.

I. ‘Idealism’

Idealism is troubling and troublesome. In confronting the trouble with idealism I attempt to make a case for a troubled idealism as part of one’s intellectual vocation. This, in a nutshell, is the thrust of my argument.

Here I refer to ‘idealism’ in two broad senses of the word. First, I use the term in a sense related to ‘the pursuit of ideals’, a perspective that certain principles or standards are worth trying to achieve. An ‘idealistic’ person develops an attitude or takes action oriented towards changing ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be’. Pursuing ideals necessarily involves making value-judgments about the ‘good’ and its ‘worth’ as something to be striven for in one’s conduct or in social life. However, it may not necessarily involve judgments about whether and how the good can be realized under an existing set of social conditions – although these questions would have to be confronted by those who attempt to achieve what they truly value (and this is a point that we’ll take up later).

Indeed, ‘idealism’ is often pitted against ‘realism’ in the sense that is often found in everyday speech, especially in the commonplace admonition: ‘Don’t be so idealistic – get real, you’ve to be practical!’ This rebuke may be uttered in a variety of ways (sincere or sarcastic, well-meaning or condescending), especially on the part of older persons or those in authority with the implication that the young are inexperienced, immature, and ‘do not know better’. An idealist is ‘high-minded’; she or he pursues ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated’ ideals, but is out of touch with ‘reality’ and not ‘down to earth’.

The second sense of ‘idealism’ is set in opposition to ‘materialism’. In academic discourse, these constitute two apparently contrasting modes of social inquiry, the former, as in Max Weber’s work, focusing on the role of ideas in history (e.g., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) and the latter, as in Karl Marx’s analysis of the dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production. This is not the place to delve deeply into the perspectives of the two theorists, both of whom made seminal contributions to modern social science. It may suffice to suggest the gist of their perspectives by referring to a few oft-quoted passages in their works. Marx (1818-1883), for example, famously says:

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859).

In other words, human consciousness – as expressed in ways of life, ideas, values, customs, laws – is fundamentally shaped by the material or social-economic conditions of human existence, in particular, the ownership of the means of production and the organization of human labor. In propounding ‘historical materialism’, Marx emphasizes the ‘materialist basis’ of historical change; historical epochs are marked by the predominant way in which material production is socially organized.

For Weber (1864-1920), writing in the shadow of Marx, the significance of ‘material interests’ in motivating human action could be almost taken for granted. At the same time, he offers a newer perspective on ‘the role of ideas in history’:

Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men’s conduct. Yet, very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest. (From Max Weber [FMW], Oxford, 1958, p. 280).

On the one hand, Weber emphasizes the combination of both ‘material and ideal interests’ in ‘pushing’ human conduct towards one direction rather than another. On the other hand, he argues that there are instances in which the specific ‘ideas’ have been crystallized into compelling ‘world images’ that could capture the imagination of whole groups of people or resonate with their life experiences – and steer the course of human action differently.

To be sure, Marx’s concept of ‘ideology’ may be interpreted as allowing for ideas to play a determining role in the lives of men and women – and, indeed, Marxism as a political ideology has been taken up as a program of social transformation in different parts of the world, with consequences that can be evaluated from various viewpoints. For that matter, we can think of other instances in which ideas has been systematized by thinkers into ‘isms’ and advocated by political leaders in the course of mobilizing populations towards the attainment of new collective goals. What Weber suggests, however, is that this process isn’t confined to the sphere of politics; ideas that have made a significant impact on the course of human history have germinated from unlikely sources (e.g., religious traditions) and they could ‘interact’ with ideas from rather mundane sources (e.g., economic behavior).

II. The Trouble with Idealism

As it happens, the two senses of ‘idealism’ are interrelated. For example, a person who is ‘idealistic’ (read: ‘unrealistic’ and ‘impractical’) is often criticized as one who is not facing up to ‘material reality’, including concerns about making a living and improving one’s socio-economic status. (Interestingly, the flip side here is that ‘materialism’ in everyday speech is synonymous with ‘consumerism’, an excessive preoccupation with material possessions). Likewise, academics who have dedicated themselves to studying and sharing ideas, are often disparaged as removed from the ‘real world’ and isolated in an ‘ivory tower’. Hence it is not uncommon for policy-makers to shrug off an idea or perspective as merely academic, i.e., as having little or no practical relevance or significance. And the criticism is often extended to intellectuals as ‘men and women of ideas’.

Why is idealism troubling and troublesome, and for whom? In the first place, idealism is troubling and troublesome for everyone because it orientates one beyond ‘what is’ and towards ‘what ought to be’. Idealism holds out the possibility that ‘things could turn out differently’ and ‘for the better’ – and that such a possibility is worth exploring, and this may lead to taking action in questioning the ‘is’ and working towards the ‘ought’. Idealism carries an obligation on the part of a person not to behave like a passive bystander in any given situation that may require some moral judgment and perhaps also social intervention – and that is not only troubling for oneself but may be troublesome for others, too. That the ‘passive bystander effect’ is common enough is attested by many phrases that are often used in everyday life, such as the following in English (which may have their equivalents in other languages): ‘Turn a blind eye… Bury your head in the sand…Ignorance is bliss… Conspiracy of silence…Nothing to do with me…Nothing I can do about it…Avert your gaze… None of my business…Remain neutral… Don’t want to get burnt…Don’t rock the boat… I’m only following orders…Won’t make a difference anyway…’ (Stanley Cohen, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities & Suffering, 2001, Blackwell, pp. 1-2, 70).

Why is idealism troubling and troublesome for ‘intellectuals’ in particular? For one thing, although it can’t be said that any thinking adult is a ‘non-intellectual’, the very idea of an ‘intellectual’ is embedded with elements of ‘idealism’. The intellectual does not wholly accept an existing state of affairs and does not behave like as passive bystander. This quality or ethos is manifested in many traditions. For example, Theodore de Bary has this to say about two exemplars of the Confucian tradition: ‘Confucius traveled the twisted road that lay between easy accommodation and total withdrawal’ and ‘no one [other than Mencius] has exposed more forthrightly than he the danger of cooptation that lay in the ruler-minister relation or the seductive ease with which officials could fall into the obsequiousness of servitors or slaves, awed by autocratic power’ (The Trouble with Confucianism, 1991, Harvard, pp. 8, 15). The same ethos is reflected in Edward Said’s definition of the intellectual:

At bottom, the intellectual…is…someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling but actively willing to say so in public (Representations of the Intellectual, 1994, Vintage, p. 17).

Ideally, intellectuals have a responsibility to resist, on the one hand, accommodation or cooptation and, on the other hand, withdrawal from public engagement. I say ‘ideally’ because one can imagine that any intellectual may fall short of fulfilling such a responsibility in any given instance

III. Intellectual Vocation and Moral Reasoning

Indeed, ‘falling short’ of intellectual responsibility does not stop at accommodation to the status quo or withdrawal from public engagement. Even if an intellectual strives to question conventional wisdom, she or he must be engaged in a process of moral reasoning about both ends and means. Consider this popular saying that is directed at idealists who set out do good or to achieve the good: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Consider, too, this troubling question: ‘Does the end justify the means?’ This question is often asked when the achievement of apparently desirable ends has entailed the use of morally problematic means. (See e.g, Steven Lukes, Marxism and Morality, 1987, Oxford).

In addressing these questions I draw briefly from Max Weber’s two speeches delivered before students at Munich University in November 1917 and January 1919: ‘Science as a Vocation’ and ‘Politics as a Vocation’. To begin with, the very idea of ‘vocation’ (Beruf) suggests that an intellectual’s work is not reducible to a profession, occupation, career or job; it is imbued with a sense of inner calling. Weber is keen to make the distinction between science and politics as two spheres of intellectual life. For Weber, value judgments – such as those that inform political convictions – cannot be scientifically proven. In this respect, Weber does not subscribe to a kind of scientism that claims no limitations to the applicability of science. For Weber, therefore, the scientist or scholar teacher should not use his or her position as a teacher to advocate a partisan stand. At the same time, however, scientific objectivity does not equate moral indifference. As Fritz Ringer say, ‘Weber’s science could reveal connections between actions and their consequences, and expose logical inconsistencies in an agent’s principles and value commitments….’ (Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography, 2004, Chicago, p. 255).

In this perspective, what can bring science and politics together as related spheres of intellectual life is a process of reasoning that considers both moral principles and the consequences of human actions. In particular, Weber clarified the thrust of such a process of reasoning in his discussion of two types of moral conduct, one oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and the other an ‘ethic of responsibility’. While the former places emphasis on the purity and integrity of one’s moral convictions, the latter carries the responsibility of taking into account the foreseeable consequences or, in retrospect, the unintended consequences of the means that one employs to achieve a moral end. Having made the conceptual distinction between the two ethics, however, Weber argues that the two should not be taken as mutually exclusive positions: on the one hand, a deep concern with one’s ultimate ends should not be automatically equated with irresponsibility, and on the other hand, a concern with the consequences of action does not necessarily imply ‘unprincipled opportunism’. Weber’s words are worth quoting in full here:

However, it is immensely moving when a mature man – no matter whether old or young in years – is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ That is something genuinely human and moving. And every one of us who is not spiritually dead must realize the possibility of finding himself at some time in that position. In so far as this is true, an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility are not absolute contrasts but rather supplements, which only in unison constitute a genuine man – a man who can have the ‘calling for politics’ (FMW, 127).

IV. A Troubled Idealism

In lieu of a proper conclusion, I offer a few tentative closing remarks. Intellectuals are condemned to be troubled. If ‘idealism’ is in a sense ‘built into’ an intellectual vocation, it has to be a troubled idealism, one that is sustained by active intellectual effort that combines rigorous humanistic and scientific scholarship and lucid moral reasoning, transcending scientism and partisan politics. This, in turn, has practical implications for both social analysis and social change today. On the one hand, our humanistic, scientific and interdisciplinary imagination comes alive in the understanding of social structure and human agency, history and biography, the macro-structural contexts of social forces and the micro-existential contexts of everyday life. On the other hand, we affirm that individuals – individual reflexivity, individual responsibility – do matter, and even more so in a world that would have us believe otherwise.

Kwok Kian Woon is a sociologist who is also an active participant in Singapore civil society.

One thought on “The Trouble with ‘Idealism’: Reflections on Intellectual Vocation and Moral Reasoning”

  1. For further reading, one could consider this article:, which explores the problem of moralism, where actions are “characterized as either fulfillment or violation of duty” in relation to an ideal set of moral principles, and the line where the pursuit of a virtue may become oppression.

    Just a thought.

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