Realists and Idealists

Realists VS Idealists

Realists VS Idealists (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

At some point in time you have probably been taught that there is a difference between a realist and an idealist. There are two chief understandings of this perceived dichotomy. The common usage is a description of human behavior, often seen an explanation for political decisions. This is dependent upon the second philosophical usage, however, which largely denotes an epistemic stance. My argument is that the philosophical version is a false dichotomy, and as a result, the common version is not a very useful mental construct.

Usually idealists are understood to take action based upon what they want to see as an ideal theoretical end. Sometimes we call people “idealists” when we observe that they think big without adequately taking into account the steps needed to achieve their goals. They are dreamers and eternal optimists.

Realists, on the other hand, are thought to be more pragmatic in their approach. They tend to be more pessimistic about the world and what can be accomplished, but they are coincidentally (if not causally) more often correct and may even live longer.  Realists supposedly see the world as it is, and they act more pragmatically without looking outside of their personal sphere to accomplish lofty, theoretical goals.

In a philosophical context, the respective meanings are different but related. In one sense, realism and idealism can be understood as metaphysical interpretations that may apply to any field of philosophy. Within every interpretation is a claim about the existence of something and to what degree it exists independent of our knowledge. Therefore the discussion is rooted in the most primary forms of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology.

Generic Realism goes something like this: “ab, and c and so on exist, and the fact that they exist and have properties such as F-nessG-ness, and H-ness is (apart from mundane empirical dependencies of the sort sometimes encountered in everyday life) independent of anyone’s beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes, and so on.” So a theory of epistemological realism might make the claim that all things we know are generically real. This theory would be a subcategory of objectivism.

The theories in opposition to epistemological realism, labeled non-realist, are numerous. But the most widely referenced is—you guessed it—epistemological idealism. Plato was one of the first epistemic idealists, with his cave analogy and his famous theory of the forms. His key belief was that knowledge consists of “memories” that your “soul” recalls from its time in the underworld hanging out with the forms (which are supposedly perfect versions of all the “imperfect” knowledge we gather in the human world).

A more representative picture of current philosophical idealism can be seen in German idealists like Kant and Hegel, who are among the most influential. Kant posits that all we are capable of observing is the sense data we obtain through our experiences, and therefore, knowledge relies on a framework of universal, a priori truths in the human mind (like the logical implications of space and time) in order to understand our experiences. He divides these two understandings into two realms: the phenomenal (experiential) and the noumenal (transcendental).

Hegel accepts Kant’s belief that knowledge begins with our experiences, but he rejects the idea that we can know anything transcendental. He argues that we can only be skeptical of such things. Although, he does agree that our experiences are mediated through the mind.

Part of the reason I say what follows is because I know there will be no recourse from dead men: most of these epistemological debates are just an intellectual pissing match. Their differences about the nature of knowledge are essentially unessential, and only the things they agree upon, for the most part, are important. Realists and the various idealists all agree that we have experiences by way of the senses, that we analyze them with our brains, and by that general process we form “knowledge” (whatever its nature may be). Most of the disagreement results from a failure to clearly define knowledge and its characteristics. I suppose this makes me a semi-quietist.

Ultimately, generic epistemic realism and most forms of idealism are not actually in conflict. It may be that Kant’s framework of understanding is valid—that all we observe is sense data and that it is meaningful to (at least) distinguish between physical and nonphysical things. Perhaps Hegel is right that we should be skeptical about nonphysical things. In the end, it serves no purpose.

What idealists have mostly done is to bicker about the degree to which realism can(not) be proven. But they fail to deny (or sometimes even to observe) that realism must be assumed in the actions of every day life. Imagine living a life full of the worry that things will spontaneously phase out of existence of you pay them no attention. Along a similar line of thought, we make use of “transcendental” or metaphysical concepts all the time. We can disregard their idealistic origin should we so choose, but we must recognize their utility, for example, when we employ mathematics, geometry, and calculus to solve real-world problems.

The problem with this philosophical dichotomy is similar to its colloquial cousin. At most, “realist” and “idealist” could be used as labels for people who actually fit their narrow description. Almost all people, however, operate according to the simple, functional framework that I just explained and thus, would not be categorized as such. Even those who use them regularly typically concede that the dichotomy should be understood in terms of a scale, in which an individual may favor one disposition over the other.

This practice, even with the concession, is still dangerous because it pigeon-holes people into mental structures that limit their capabilities. If a person thinks he or she is predisposed to acting on ideals, then it will likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that person may refuse to take certain realistic issues into account when it would not be difficult to otherwise. And the related outcome is true of people who think that they are “realists.”

The important thing for people to recognize is that there is no real utility to the mutual exclusivity between colloquial realism and idealism. They should strive to make use of both in concert, as our brains already do functionally according to a more accurate conceptual understanding.

The Morality of Moral Judgement I: The Metaphysical Junk

Making judgements can sometimes be a tricky thing, especially when making them about people. As human beings, we ascribe moral value judgements to actions (sometimes actions to which they shouldn’t be ascribed). Based on those actions, we compile them into broad judgements about an individual’s character. Because people fear mistakes in judgement, there has been a common theme in recent years that tells us, “Don’t judge.” This is wrongheaded. Judgements about people are critical to living the kinds of lives that we want. They allow us to befriend the people who will likely be a positive influence, while avoiding the people who would be detrimental. The key is to figure out how we make judgments and when to make judgements. The goal of this post is to provide an initial metaphysical framework that I will use in my discussion of the morality of moral judgement.

What the heck does this mean, this “morality of moral judgment” thing? I am referring to the general rules that explain when and how we should make moral judgements about one or more individuals. Although I use the word “morality,” my intention is not to say that making this or that judgement is good or evil. My intention is for it to be understood as morality-lite, in which the stakes are not that high, and right and wrong is determined by what is effective in helping one to reach a wiser life. The second usage describing a type of judgement, includes both the normal usage of morality involving good and evil and morality-lite. By “metaphysical framework,” I am referring to (or attempting to refer to) what exactly is going on when we make moral judgements. The following is what I will be assuming in this series.

There is a difference, as I hinted at earlier, between a judgement about an action and a judgement about a person. The second kind of judgement is derived from one or more of the first kind. If Jimbob throws a pipe-bomb into a circus resulting in a number of deaths and injuries, then I can judge that action on its own terms. All things considered, I would judge that action to be pretty darn immoral because it involves harming and/or extinguishing human life.

creepy clown

creepy clown (Photo credit: greenkozi)

From this, many would conclude that, therefore, Jimbob is an evil person. But what if Jimbob also volunteers as a firefighter? What if he protests the clubbing of baby seals? What if he is a wonderful husband and father that would never be expected to do something as erratic as chucking a pipe-bomb into a host of clowns?  Maybe he just had a really, really good reason to throw it. Suddenly, it isn’t so easy to label Jimbob as “evil” because there are actions he has done in his life that are good as well as bad.

The reason this can be so tricky is because our goal is to ascribe static traits to dynamic situations and somewhat indistinct personalities. There are a number of different ways in which people would ascribe to Jimbob a moral judgement (that may even stretch beyond those here). (A) They might call him evil, justifying it by saying that killing people overrules any possibility of labeling him as a good person; (B) they might call him good, arguing that his character shows that he wouldn’t do something so outlandish without a good reason; (C) they may call him neither good nor evil, with the explanation that (A) and (B) are inaccurate; or (D) they could call him both good and evil, emphasizing that he has proven that he is capable of both.

I believe that (D) is probably the most accurate of these options. (A) and (B) characterize Jimbob by a limited set of data, while (C) is a refusal to make any moral judgement. Although moral answers can sometimes be ambiguous, (C) simply does not provide an answer. The implication behind (C) is either that there is no such thing as morality, or Jimbob is among those who cannot be classified in this particular case. The first possible implication could be plausible if it is decided that the framework of morality is no longer a useful one (but we are assuming that it still is useful). The second, I suspect, would make it difficult to justify any punishment or praise for Jimbob’s actions because there would no longer be a connection between the moral action and the moral agent.

There is still another aspect that I haven’t yet included that is quite important. This is time. Until now, the judgements I have considered stretch across an undefined range of time. There is a problem in attempting to ascribe unchanging labels to ever-changing individuals. Answer (D) allows more flexibility when taking this into account. If individuals are both good and evil, the way we measure morality can now be measured in the form of a scale. Instead of a mere binary understanding of good or evil, we can ask how good and how evil individuals are. Thinking about it in this framework, I hope, should lead to more accurate moral judgements.

Let’s apply this to Jimbob. We can look at all of the things he has done over the course of his life, his “moral history,” if you will. We can take the good things: saving a grandmother from a burning house last week, spending quality time with his daughter making sure she studies and stays healthy, etc. Then we can take the bad things: the exploding clown incident, the inexplicable drunken brawl this weekend, and so on.

There are at least two key considerations that follow from analyzing things this way: 1) How do you measure the degree to which actions are right or wrong? 2) How do you compare the good and the bad with one another?

In response to (1), there is a clear difficulty here in attempting to think quantitatively about something so qualitative. However, I would contend that if we want to have a moral discussion, then there isn’t really a choice. We already attempt to discover the degrees to which something is good or bad. We may as well try to be as scientific as we can (which includes retaining a healthy dose of skepticism). As for (2), I think this is the kind of question we would need to ask if, for example, we were to decide whether or not to continue dealing with someone. Although this is an important question, providing an answer goes beyond my scope here, but we may be able to zero-in on something resembling the truth in later posts.

Examining Objectivism

I consider myself an Objectivist-sympathizer I suppose. I don’t adhere to all of the conclusions of Ms. Rand, but I do agree with the most important tenets. I began studying Objectivism in more detail during my junior year of undergrad thanks to a friend, and it has been extremely uplifting and positive. I just recently purchased a copy of Philosophy: Who Needs It?, but it is sitting on the back burner.

What is Objectivism, Ayn?

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

There are five components to the study of philosophy in the Objectivist view: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics. Metaphysics and Epistemology form the basis for understanding Ethics, while it, in turn, serves as the basis for Politics and Aesthetics.

Metaphysics is the study of the universe at its most primary level, and it begins with three axioms: existence, consciousness, and identity. These axioms are supposedly justified by the notion that one must accept and use them in order to make an attempt at denying them.

Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we know. There is no a priori knowledge according to Objectivism, or knowledge prior to experience. We can only know things after we differentiate the data from our perceptions and integrate them into concepts.

Ethics is the study of what is right and wrong. Objectivism tells us, contrary to popular belief, that selfishness is the primary standard for what is virtuous rather than altruism. If you are looking for a heavy discussion, look no further. (I prefer to point to the difference between self-sustenance and self-sacrifice.)

Politics is the study of what makes an effective society. Objectivism focuses on maximizing freedom, minimizing coercion, and protecting individual rights by proposing something of a minarchist society. This would be a society in which there is only a central justice system, police, and military in order to properly restrict the use of physical force.

Aesthetics, according to Objectivism, is the study of art as human value-judgments about human nature and other things. As you may guess, philosophically subjective art is not very cool apparently.

I have spent some time studying different philosophers, but Ayn Rand struck me as quite unique. This may be due to the way she presents her arguments. It is very blunt and straightforward, atypical as far as most philosophers go. One interpretation is that a reader is meant to think through the arguments as an individual, so all information is written as it was meant it to be written. It is not completely unfounded to believe she wrote the way she had with strict purpose, for someone as purpose-driven as she.

Ayn Rand was influenced most by Aristotle, but she borrows from a few other philosophers as well. Her biggest target for criticism would probably have to be Kant. Yet, she seems to have made an enemy of just about everyone because she has taken issue with all forms of faith, essentially all political parties, and anyone remotely resembling a relativist or subjectivist. I have seen her sometimes treated as a joke by academics.

Although Rand has her quirks, there are some very very big ideas to draw from her work. Not many have attempted to construct an entire model of human understanding from the ground up. Few attempt to live their lives without faith in its entirety. And VERY few attempt to argue that selfishness is better than altruism. But the most intriguing thing, is her astounding success. Millions of people read her work. There is good reason for it.

There is one main concern I have with Objectivism apart from any philosophical challenges I have (I will attend to those at a later date). This is that, as a movement today, pure Objectivists are very strict about the idea that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is a “closed” system. This means that if Objectivist principles are altered in any way, shape, or form, the altered system cannot be called Objectivism.

The reasoning behind this I think is perfectly legitimate. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy alone. If it is not left in its pure form, then it should no longer bear the same name. I don’t think that it should be an open system necessarily. What I take issue with is how individuals in the movement have applied this principle.

To be a legitimate Objectivist means that one must accept the system in its entirety. This means that anyone who is studying this philosophy must weigh the desire to be called an “Objectivist” against the very important practice of challenging the system. As a result, I will never call myself an Objectivist because there are a number of ideas I disagree with. But I am perfectly content with that. I would rather follow a unique system of my own creation.

I believe the most successful systems rely on constant challenge and revision. This is the way science works. Conclusions are tentative and liable to change. Ayn Rand touted science and even believed that human knowledge is an open system, but her most ardent followers tend to treat her work as an exception to the rule. It pains me to say this—and I say it in the most non-confrontational way that I can—but treating her work as sacred text is hardly different from treating the Bible as sacred text.

Nevertheless, Objectivism is something worth studying. If you disagree with the tenets, it’s worth discussing.