There is a subtle yet important difference between idealism and realism. An idealist imagines what an ideal world would look like and then takes steps accordingly towards that ideal world. A realist, on the other hand, sees the world as it really is now, and considers how to improve it, one step at a time. Are you an idealist or a realist?
An idealist might decide to eat less meat because she thinks that her diet is unsustainable, and in an ideal world the average person would be eating less meat than she is. However, a realist might decide to cut out meat all together, not necessarily because he thinks it is wrong to eat meat, but because eating less meat will have more of an impact on the real world.
While a realist might just simply avoid listening to One Direction, an idealist knows that One Direction wouldn’t exist in an ideal world, and so would campaign to see their music banned from the airwaves.
A realist lives a life that responds to the real world around her. An idealist instead first thinks of what a perfect life would be, and then tries his hardest to live it.
A realist thinks a posteriori. An idealist thinks a priori.
Which do you think is better?
Pret A Manger, the high street sandwich shop, recently made an idealistic decision. It was well known that Pret used to donate their extra food to vulnerable people in the hyper-local area around their stores, thus responding to the very immediate, ‘real’ needs of their neighbours. However, Pret recently decided to modify this process to limit donations to registered and trusted charities. This coincided with the idealistic decision to strive for a more holistic response to the problem of homelessness by addressing a number of its causes and symptoms - not just hunger.
Was this a good decision? Should they have stopped donating to their hyper-local communities? Should they be realistic, or idealistic? You may be tempted to say ‘both!’ to this question. But sometimes both are too expensive, and one must be favoured over the other.
For instance, in government, a realistic reaction to poverty is to give money to those in need in the form of benefits. A more idealistic reaction would be to tackle the causes of poverty through legislation. The tension between the two political philosophies reared its head in the recent Inquiry into Food Poverty and Hunger (see SCM’s response to it here). On a national scale, it would be too expensive to react in both a realistic and idealistic manner. Yesterday I met with John Glen, Member of Parliament for Salisbury, who is part of the All-Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. When asked what the most practical reaction to the nation’s food poverty should be, John Glen said ‘I don’t believe that if every benefit was delivered in full on time you’d reduce the use of foodbanks’. As such, rather than prioritise a reformation of the benefits system, the inquiry’s report emphasises the establishment of a ‘Foodbank Plus’ model, that offers a more holistic service to users. This imagines how best to achieve an ideal world, rather than respond in the most immediate manner.
And so I have been wondering; was Jesus a realist, or an idealist? Did Jesus write a manifesto for a perfect world to work towards? Or did he teach an ethics of how to live within a dysfunctional world? I think more of the latter than the former. ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘give to the needy’ are very realistic propositions. How could an idealist say ‘you will always have the poor among you'?