The term ideological is often slung about as if it were an insult. It typically implies that a person is set in her ways, or dogmatic. It also implies that those who don’t possess an ideology are fairer minded, more unbiased and more even-tempered. If only the ideological could cool off and realize that everyone has a point, we could meet in the middle, where there is no ideology at all, no iron principles by which to abide.
But an ideology is merely a set of ideas. Devotees of a faith have one; so do the political. Are scientific theories ideologies? Why not? An ideology is often thought of as the lens through which one views the world. Most people would consider, say, fundamentalist Christianity and classical liberalism to be ideologies: sets of ideas through which one interprets facts on the ground. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for example, also offers tools with which to understand the world.
But this is all semantics. We shouldn’t worry about whether some set of ideas is widely considered an ideology or not. What matters is the accuracy of our understanding of the world. While errors in our worldview are inevitable, we have a moral imperative to resolve them through a never-ending sequence of improvements. This applies to science, society, morality and any other domains to which reason applies. To better understand and improve the world, an ideology may be necessary. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter, so long as we solve problems.
Take classical liberalism. Surely this counts as a political ideology, especially in today’s culture wars. Through its tenets of economic freedom, individualism and a belief in and desire for progress, it provides its advocates with a vision of how society ought to be arranged, as well as how wealth is created. In other words, classical liberalism makes claims about both how a particular aspect of reality works (the economy) and about how people should act.
People will quibble with this ideology. Maybe classical liberalism isn’t as consistent as it appears. Maybe the economic side of the ideology is utterly false, and the Adam Smith-inspired invisible hand view of how markets work ignores some fundamental feature of human nature and therefore does not apply to the real world. Or maybe the whole idea of individualism is mistaken, or hopelessly naïve in a world of inevitable collectivism.
Criticisms of all sorts are levied at such an ideology, as well they should be. But simply dismissing classical liberalism as an ideology as such is no criticism at all—it’s an ad hominem attack applied to ideas.
This is also true of religions, scientific theories and moral philosophies. Whether their advocates are ideological makes no difference. That their advocates may be mistaken, on the other hand, is everything.
If an ideology is a coherent set of explanatory ideas, then the deeper our understanding of reality, the more ideological it will become. For, with every resolution of error in our scientific, moral and political theories, our worldview will grow increasingly unified and coherent. We already regard this as a good thing in the scientific domain. But the boundaries between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge are artificial—if consistency, problem-solving and the discovery of universal principles are valuable in science, then they are also valuable in moral and political philosophy.
The same applies to terms such as extremist, far left or far right. The implication of these epithets is that the holder of such far or extreme views is wrong by dint of the fact that his ideas are—well, what, exactly? Far from the center? Who decides where that is, and why would centrist ideas necessarily be the right ones? Reality does not care how we slice and dice it.
Consider the nonprofit Ideas Beyond Borders. Founded by Iraqi refugee Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, the organization is dedicated to “preventing extremism by empowering people across the globe with access to new ideas and fresh perspectives.” Much of their work involves translating books and articles and making them available to people in the Arabic world, who would otherwise never have access to such knowledge. Al Mutar claims that their “Global Conversations discussion forum has reached over 2.4 million in 120+ countries.” This is a clear step in the right direction.
But Al Mutar is not battling extremism per se, but bad ideas. The religious fundamentalism of Al Mutar’s birthplace is not an issue because it’s extreme, however defined. It’s problematic because it is false. The moral and empirical claims of the Muslim holy book—or of the Bible—are contradicted by other, superior explanations that our societies have discovered. As with classical liberalism, it is not the extremity of an ideology that we ought to care about, but its correspondence with reality or lack thereof.
Labeling an ideology or public policy far left or far right is a smear tactic, not an argument. The political axis is a human construct—what qualifies as far in either direction is a reflection of historical accident, not of the nature of economic, moral and political principles. For example, an open borders policy is often labeled far left. But such a policy is either correct or incorrect, according to the relevant explanations. Leftwing pundits call righties far right and vice versa. Implicit in such labeling is the idea that, if only one’s political opponents moderated their stance, perhaps they could be negotiated with. But why is the center so special? How presumptuous to assume that the principles of reality itself must rest at the exact midpoint of our fabricated political spectrum!
Ideologies can be composed of moral ideas, factual ones or both. While a political position is by definition a moral one (it is about what the government should do), it can also be informed by underlying ideas about economics, values, etc. (the facts).
The principles of nature, both moral and scientific, are by definition universal. How extreme, how absolutist of Mother Nature to operate by such timeless rules! As our understanding of reality deepens, it will appear more and more extreme and ideological to some. Because of the unity and coherence of the world, this will happen in science, morality, and politics. If we are to continue to solve problems in society, we must mature beyond dismissing ideas because they don’t fit the profile we would like them to have. Reality is austere, and so are our best explanations of it.
We cannot foresee future problems. But we can improve the methods by which we criticize ideas. We must aim our verbal assault at the errors of an idea, not the degree to which it is extreme or part of an ideology.