• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.

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Ideals and Action

While the balance of reconciling ideals and practical action will never be fulfilled, we would do well to remember the importance of ideals in our everyday lives.

January 24, 2020
 
 

A persistent and somewhat vexing question for me is the relationship between ideals and practical action. Some combination of hardwiring, epigenetics and what I just find fun and interesting puts me in the camp of idealism -- loosely understood here as an approach to answering questions of ultimate meaning, purpose, what it means to be human, etc., with reference to an ideal we ought to strive toward.

For example, my idealism leads me to answer to the question of the morally right civic arrangement as a democratic system in which each participant engages in free and full discourse as the basis of self-government. For citizens in such a democracy to self-govern through free and full discourse, they need to have access to things like accurate information, education, health care, stable income. This implies nothing one way or another as to the government’s role in being the purveyor of such things, protecting a socioeconomic system that does, or the individual responsibility in their pursuit -- on that, I believe, there is legitimate debate.

With democracy as an ideal, it is not understood simply as a given -- the arrangement we happen to be in, so we ought to make the most of it. Rather, it is understood as an aim -- the arrangement we ought to strive toward and even fight for, the very reason there was a revolution that created the United States of America in the first place. When the body politic holds diverse beliefs about ultimate reality and matters of ultimate concern, democratic self-government requires interfaith cooperation -- so my idealism aligns me with my practical work at IFYC and our partnership with higher education.

That’s just one of many ways into the work of civic interfaith cooperation and leadership -- and it’s also just one of my own ways into it. I also believe that meaning in purposeful human life hangs on human connection, to each other, to a sense of being part of a larger whole that we are ineluctably, inexplicably, thrown toward. In other words, we are profoundly relational. It is through that relationality, that connection to one another, that meaning and enrichment in our lives derives. Mistrust, fear and disconnection corrode more than the basic building blocks of democracy -- they corrode the human soul.

Returning to the vexing part: the relationship between ideals and action. If we take ideals as guiding principles, the ongoing work of discernment is figuring out practical decisions they lead us to. How do I spend my time professionally and personally? How and which friendships do I cultivate? How do I raise my children? If you happen to be a U.S. senator this week, to convict the sitting president or acquit? The questions your own heart and mind lead you to are endless. This is universal territory, and even when we don’t answer the questions explicitly, we live their answers implicitly. Our lives are best understood as our answer to humanity’s most fundamental questions.

When I was studying philosophy more rigorously, I remember being struck by the fact that 13th-century Europe, in which Thomas Aquinas was prolific and highly influential, was one of constant warfare and conflict. Yet the sociopolitical realities hardly get mentioned in his writings. Looking at our dizzying sociopolitical times.

And so too now. In spite of deepening polarization and disagreement, I would gamble that most Americans agree that the last decade was one of rampant and disquieting change. In such a sociopolitical context, articulating and hewing to ideals is all the more urgent. Of course, higher education is a key locus for probing this terrain, especially as we live in a time in which fundamental ideals are on the table. I continue to be inspired by the practical work of our campus partners in pursuit of high ideals through interfaith cooperation -- in this religiously diverse, self-governing nation, it’s a crucial way to serve the civic good.

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