So far, this blog has explored why it makes sense to love the ideal (ethical roots such as a dedication to the pursuit of well-being for all) as well as the real (that which is given, the only state of affairs which one can truly value, since all others are mere nothings behind a fanciful mirage in the imagination). But how can one value the world as it is if one’s ideals lead to love of it merely as it could be? How can one value both the real and the ideal, if each is different from the other?
The second three-month round of my AmeriCorps experience has reached its end; stationed in Denton, Texas, we have had little work to do in terms of direct service to survivors. Indeed, I imagined my ten-month stint to constitute a flurry of labor in disaster areas, moving supplies back and forth between FEMA stores and disaster survivors attempting to piece their lives back together. On the contrary, the past three months have been spent in a government office building in Denton, Texas, with minimal meaningful labor or interaction with disaster survivors and affected communities. FEMA Corps as an ideal has been revealed as incongruous with FEMA Corps as something real. My concept of what is good, previously thought to be in tune with the world as it is, has been broken by this revelation into mutually contradictory fragments. How can I make sense of the world with such conflict between my reality and my ideal, and thus between my notions of what is good?
One response to a rift between real and ideal is the decision to ‘stick to principles’, regardless of one’s situation. What meaning is there, though, in an altogether futile life dedicated to denying the necessary and demanding the impossible? Another response would be to live ‘according to nature’, neglecting attempts at growth out of a current situation in order to affirm the status quo. But what meaning is there in a life with no further goal, no direction, no end? Both of these approaches, taken on their own, are missing something: in order to be meaningful, one’s ultimate concept of what is valuable must take the real and the ideal both into account, despite their tendency to conflict.
This reconciliation is possible because the real and the ideal conflict, not only with each other, but also with themselves. As is evident from the nature of the moral seascape, good intentions can lead to bad consequences, and vice versa, no matter how well thought-out those intentions may be. Likewise, an undesirable state of affairs may lead to a more desirable one; indeed, if nothing else, it must lead to a different one, one among multiple possibilities which might be pursued by any given moral agent(s). Additionally, one may adjust one’s ideals in light of new information regarding the world as it really is, without giving up on those ideals entirely; in order to be saved from futile aimlessness, they must line up with a possible trajectory of the world’s unfolding, which is itself enabled partially by one’s own actions. Ideals seem meaningless to the extent of their impracticability in reality, whereas reality only seems meaningful insofar as it enables one to act on ideals; they must be brought together, in constant mutual conditioning, in order to produce a dynamic concept of the Good, and thus a foundation for rationality itself, that makes any sense.
But if the real is made meaningful by its status as the means to an ideal end, are not then real people reduced to mere means as well? No, because to treat other people as mere means to an end is to deny the reality of their personhood in the first place. Any ideal which does not take into account the reality of other minds is as worthless and incoherent as an ideal which fails to take into account the laws of physics or logic. The treatment of people as objects is the mark of irrational idealism–the desire to bring about an ideal in ignorance of the real conditions from which it must unfold as a starting point. As a popular Christian saying advises, we ought to “Live in the world, not of it”; our ideals, according to which we act in the world, must not be predicated on wilfully ignoring the suffering of anyone (that is, living of the world but not in it). Anything that ignores the reality of other minds is a flight from reality and ultimately a denial of life.
Thus, we can come back to the Nietzschean language of affirmation and denial of life. Nietzsche’s philosophy may be seen as the result of Christianity’s highest values de-valuing themselves (to refer to his explanation of nihilism in Will to Power), but it appears that the Christian ethical ideal of love for one’s neighbor is, in fact, the self-negating fulfillment of Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of both irrational fate and immoral ego (that is, the dual affirmation I refer to as a love of the absurd). But Christian love as an ideal is only made meaningful by action in the real world; in this way, Christianity is fulfilled in Judaism, with its relative focus on living the Law and traditional injunction to “repair the world“.
I truly would like to act on my Judeo-Christian ideals in repairing the world, but it seems FEMA Corps is the best way for me to do this, given my current situation. Thus, in an attempt to follow right reason, I adjust my ideals, detaching myself from previous expectations in order to fully engage once again in the world as it really is. In doing so, my work becomes meaningful once again.
Comments and opinions expressed on this blog are my personal view only and do not reflect the official stance of FEMA or AmeriCorps.