Hunger. Poverty. Disease. Violence. Even during a time that has been called the “most peaceful era in human history,” millions of people continue to suffer throughout the world from what I believe to be preventable afflictions. We already produce enough food to feed the world’s approximately 795 million malnourished individuals. Wars that seem intractable continue to ravage countries across the globe, from Syria to Mexico to Myanmar, despite the horrors these wars inflict on civilians. Six in ten Americans today don’t even have $500 in savings to cover a potential emergency situation, while the wage gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow past pre-Depression era levels.
This is not a rosy picture. Recent discourse has left millenials disillusioned with existing institutions, and with little reason for optimism. Many believe that humanity’s problems are so deeply entrenched that they are unsolvable, and have given up the fight, as evidenced by my generation’s diminished voter turnout and lack of community engagement in comparison to that of our parents.
But why do I believe these afflictions are preventable? Why do I remain optimistic about the potential of humanity? There is a case to be made for idealism.
The argument is often made that human nature makes us intrinsically selfish, competitive beings constantly jockeying for profit at any and all cost. Humans, many believe, are so awful to each other because it is in our very nature. We’re rational and competitive. At least, that’s the explanation we give ourselves when we think about allocative dilemmas. We have enough food to feed the hungry, but it’s a big, bad world out there and it would be naive to think that humans could ever share, or collaborate, or act in each other’s interests. We throw our hands in the air in exasperation, sigh about the state of affairs, and give up. After all, realists tell us that life is a zero-sum game.
I’m not sure I buy this argument for two reasons.
First, the very concept of human nature is transient and constantly shifting. On the individual level, many priests and monks overcome their supposedly innate sexual desires through vows of chastity. Cultural norms shift on a larger scale, as well. Interracial marriage, for instance, was illegal in the United States until 1967. Of course, there are still pockets of the country in which interracial marriage is frowned upon, but it has more or less become a generally accepted occurrence rather than a taboo. People are certainly capable of changing their minds on fundamental issues, so human nature in and of itself is not necessarily fixed.
Second, the existence of collaborative institutions and phenomena disprove the idea that humans are fundamentally selfish. In fact, there are many scenarios in which individuals have elected to stand in solidarity, uplift each other through collective action, and increase the size of the metaphorical pie instead of stealing each others’ slices. Despite the challenges it faces, the mere existence of a public education system shows that we’re capable of creating societal institutions that work for the greater good. If we were purely selfish and profit-driven, much of the human experience as we know it would not exist.
Let’s look at a story that will help us understand this concept.
In her book, “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?” Swedish journalist Katrine Marcal highlights a crucial gap in our traditional understanding of the individual. She asks us to imagine a scenario in which two men are stranded on an deserted island — one of them has a bag of rice, and the other has 200 golden bracelets. Although the golden bracelets would have held a high value in urban society, the context on this island is different, and the rice is far more crucial to survival. Conventional economic models would tell us that the two men would trade, or perhaps that the individual with the bag of rice could refuse to trade with the other at all given the high value of his goods.
The scenario would be analyzed transactionally, as an interaction between two people who seek to maximize profit at all costs. But, as Marcal aptly points out, “these stories never allow for the possibility that two people abandoned on a desert island would start talking to each other, that they might be feeling lonely. Scared. Might need each other. After conversing for a while, they’d realize that they had both hated spinach when they were children and had uncles who were alcoholics. After discussing this for a while, they’d probably share the rice.”
Ultimately, Marcal poses a valid question.
“That we humans can react in this way, doesn’t that have economic importance?”
This plausible scenario is just one example of why I have faith in humanity. It may seem small, but large-scale change always occurs on the individual level before it completely reshapes society. I’m not saying that we can solve all of the world’s problems by holding hands and singing songs, but I do believe in the fundamental good in humans and our tendencies, as social creatures, to show love and care for one another. We should keep these impulses in mind when setting overarching societal goals, as a guiding philosophy if not a pragmatic short-term ideal.
More crucially, we must not conflate pragmatism with defeatism. We can continue to wrestle with the immediate implications of our actions and ask ourselves what makes for effective institutions. But we must not resign ourselves to defeat — that would be the most dangerous mistake of all. That’s why I’m an idealist. When presented with seemingly intransigent challenges on a day-to-day basis, we cannot afford to use perceived impracticality as a reason not to act. Dismissing the potential of an idea, or an entire ideology, simply because we think it “cannot happen” or is unlikely, is a shortsighted approach. Idealism, in this regard, is not just an abstract concept but rather a value through which we should view our decision-making and how we allocate our time on a daily basis. If we lose our audacity, our faith, that deep down, there is inherent goodness in humanity, we will lose our reason to fight. Our dreams of societal and individual freedom cannot be realized through defeatism veiled as practicality.
The philosopher Herbert Marcuse, I believe, put it best.
“Through its mere existence,” he writes, “defeatism betrays the possibility of freedom to the status quo.”