09/15/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

Impossible Ideals


Early in the Jewish tradition, being good meant following certain rules. Neither understanding nor obeying the rules was too hard. Moses said,

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may do it. (Deut 30:11-14)

Perfection was neither required nor expected. One did not aim at perfection, but rather at being good enough -- surpassing some minimum moral threshold. When one fell short, one made expiation by ritual sacrifice (Lev 4 and 5). As A. C. Epstein says, "The wages of sin ... was a goat."

By contrast, a few centuries later, Plato upped the ante and moved the goal posts on Moses by maintaining that one should aim at perfection. Plato's Socrates says that the ideal person and utopian society may be

laid up as a pattern in heaven where he who wishes can see it and found it in his own heart. (Republic 592b)

Jesus seemed to urge people to aim at perfection when he said,

You shall be perfect (teleioi), just as your Father in heaven is perfect (teleios). (Matthew 5:48)

But this passage is not definitive. Jesus was quoting a verse in Leviticus: "You shall be kadosh to me, for I the Lord am kadosh" (Lev 20:26). But kadosh is best translated "holy," and teleios is better translated "complete" or "fully actualizes one's potential" rather than "perfect." Thus, Jesus may not actually have been demanding perfection.

Over the years, as they went their separate ways, Christianity and Judaism have each included both perfectionist and non-perfectionist strands. Perfectionism and non-perfectionism each have pros and cons; each is best for some people and some peoples. Currently, perfectionism holds sway. It is alluring. Why not try for the stars? I shall argue that idealization is theoretically superfluous and practically pernicious.

Impossible ideals are superfluous

Perfectionism seems theoretically necessary. Don't we need ideals in order to evaluate things, and thus to have a goal? No. When we say, "That is a good chair," we are not saying, "That approximates an ideal chair." We don't have an ideal of chair in mind. Indeed, we have no idea of what the ideal chair looks like. Is it upholstered? Does it have arms? Legs? Back? Wings? Yet we typically have no trouble seeing and saying that some chairs are good, and others could be improved by the addition or subtraction of this or that. Similarly given the relevant information, we have no trouble determining that some people have good character traits, and others need certain character-tweaks without reference to the ideal of a Perfectly Good Person.

How? We use different methods of evaluation in different contexts. Sometimes we use functionality. "Abigail's can-do attitude is better than Beauregard's negativism because it enables her to accomplish more." In other cases, we use a non-ideal standard. "Cornelia is a better cook than Dorkimer because Cornelia's cooking is more like my mother's cooking."

Impossible ideals are pernicious

Aiming at ideals can be useful, but they have a dark side. The problematic effects of ideals of beauty have recently been much discussed. Ideals of character are similarly problematic.

Ideals put people on narrow paths and retrofit them with blinders. While focusing on a single, specific ideal, people miss wonderful things that are not on the path to that ideal. Eunice spends her life frustrated because she does not have her dream body instead of enjoying the great body that she does have. Similarly, Fitzwilliam is frustrated because he is not a superhero instead of appreciating the sweet, funny, overall-wonderful guy that he is.

Ideals can be daunting; they can cause imperfect perfectionists to give up. Those who don't give up, may be damaged even more. Ideals can induce low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, etc. Parents worry about the impossible standards of appearance set by Barbie dolls; we should also worry about impossible standards of behavior set by character ideals.

Ideals are cultural creations, yet pose as absolute standards. Thus they further privilege the already-privileged, and further disadvantage the already-marginalized. The "ideal woman" used to be white. Hence the need for the "Black is beautiful" campaign. Similarly, the ideal, "Forgive those who trespass against us" is manageable when one is well-off, and the trespasses to be forgiven are peccadillos. Subordinated people have it tougher, for this ideal demands that they forgive their oppressors.

As I said in my previous post, the gap between the real and the ideal makes it easy to compare X to an ideal while comparing Y to a more realistic, lower standard. This rhetorical trick allows one to criticize X for being imperfect when Y is the one deserving of criticism.

Ideals are tools, and tools can be misused. The unscrupulous use them to bilk people. "Buy my diet drug, and you'll look like Barbie." "Buy my book and master mindfulness in 6 weeks."

Perhaps the worst problem is this. Abusers routinely appeal to ideals not only to rationalize their acts to others, but also to undermine the self-esteem of victims --to convince victims that they deserve to be put down or kept down. "Compared to this [photoshopped] model, you are fat!" The victim nods and repeats, "I am fat!" "You are a sinner!" becomes "I am a sinner!" The results are terrible. Some people are filled with self-doubt; others fare even worse. They end up broken and subordinated.

Overall, promulgating ideals is an unnecessary, dangerous, and sometimes counterproductive maneuver. Some people are better off without ideals.

The best is the enemy of the good. -- Voltaire in La Bégueule