The Curse of Cursory Idealism

In schools, chil­dren are of­ten taught, “it’s the thought that counts.” This phrase im­plies that kind in­tent is of paramount im­por­tance. This can be a valuable les­son for chil­dren as they of­ten make mis­takes and the ob­jec­tive is to de­velop an in­her­ent kind­ness within their thoughts and ac­tions. But this adage can carry ter­rible con­se­quences for the pop­u­la­tion. Vast amounts of the younger pop­u­la­tions now carry the torch for so­cial jus­tice ac­tivism. False ideal­ism can lead to sur­face level policy sup­port that lacks effi­cacy but seems well-in­ten­tioned.

Prag­ma­tism is a lost art. Iden­ti­fy­ing as a prag­ma­tist in so­cial jus­tice cir­cles to­day might lead to doubt over one’s sup­port for a cer­tain cause.

Some think these de­ci­sions should be em­pa­thetic. After all, em­pa­thy has its mer­its and ideally, one should make de­ci­sions know­ing what it feels like to be op­pressed. “But on the whole,” Paul Bloom, au­thor of “Against Em­pa­thy” writes, “it’s a poor moral guide.” It sup­ports fool­ish judg­ments and re­ac­tionary poli­tics. Em­pa­thetic thought usu­ally con­tra­dicts the cold, calcu­lated na­ture of crit­i­cal anal­y­sis, there­fore lead­ing to ir­ra­tional de­ci­sions.

The in­sidious thing about em­pa­thy and ideal­ism isn’t that they are malev­olent, it’s that they are ba­sic cog­ni­tive func­tions – our de­fault ap­proach to deal­ing with so­cial is­sues.

A re­cent NPR /​ PBS New­shour poll finds that 50% of democrats pos­i­tively as­so­ci­ate with so­cial­ism com­pared with 7% of re­pub­li­cans. The same poll finds that sup­port for so­cial­ism de­clines through­out gen­er­a­tions with only 20% of Baby Boomers pos­i­tively iden­ti­fy­ing. The younger gen­er­a­tions have spo­ken. They want to see more equity in so­ciety, this is a no­ble cause.

But how do you achieve such am­bi­tious goals? Surely, there are poli­cies aimed at lev­el­ing the play­ing field within so­ciety. The trap to avoid, how­ever, is let­ting em­pa­thy usurp effi­cacy. Good in­ten­tions aren’t enough. If you care about a cause, the only mea­sure of suc­cess is the im­pact. Mil­ton Fried­man fa­mously re­marked that, “One of the great mis­takes is to judge poli­cies and pro­grams by their in­ten­tions rather than their re­sults.”

It makes sense that we show kind­ness in our solu­tions, it’s a moral lit­mus test to en­sure we’re on the right path. In­ten­tions, how­ever, of­ten in­terfere with op­ti­mal prac­tices. For ex­am­ple, if you deeply care about helping uni­ver­sity stu­dents deal with men­tal health is­sues such as anx­iety and de­pres­sion, you may sup­port the idea of safe spaces. It makes sense ini­tially, there are peo­ple that are ex­tremely stressed and ad­di­tional ex­po­sure could only harm their men­tal state.

But what hap­pens when they grad­u­ate col­lege and don’t have such com­fort­ing struc­tures in their lives? They will have bosses and co-work­ers hound­ing them to work late and sub­mit de­liv­er­ables by the dead­lines. This con­trast could dam­age the in­di­vi­d­ual that strug­gled with such tasks in the com­fortable set­ting of academia.

Such is the fo­cus of au­thors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Luki­anoff who wrote in The At­lantic that stu­dents de­mand­ing pro­tec­tion from words and ideas they feel un­com­fortable with is “dis­as­trous for ed­u­ca­tion –and men­tal health.” The es­say-turned-book speaks about var­i­ous poli­cies that main­tain em­pa­thy but miss the mark when re­sults are an­a­lyzed. Con­trol­led ex­po­sure, in fact, in a ma­jor tenet of Cog­ni­tive Be­hav­ioral Ther­apy (CBT), used for pa­tients cop­ing with such stres­sors.

This is an im­por­tant les­son for the younger gen­er­a­tions who self-iden­tify as ideal­ists. A friend of mine re­cently asked for my thoughts about some po­lariz­ing is­sue in the news. After hav­ing a ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sion – point, coun­ter­point, fol­low-up – for a cou­ple of hours he sat there con­fused. He was un­will­ing to ac­cept that his ini­tial feel­ings of em­pa­thy could have been mis­guided and led to a policy that didn’t make sense. He finished by tel­ling me that he “would rather be act­ing in com­pas­sion, even if it was less effec­tive for the cause.”

The other dan­ger of this ideal­is­tic think­ing is the falsity that there always ex­ists a “right” an­swer – a perfect solu­tion to be im­ple­mented. More of­ten than not, all poli­cies will have to be con­stantly tweaked and re­worked, and even then, it may not be the best policy. What naivety must one have to as­sume that their gut feel­ing to help some­one is the Goldilocks solu­tion the world has yearned for?


In 2012, a father was hav­ing is­sues with his daugh­ter – she was act­ing up, skip­ping school, and abus­ing drugs. Ask­ing for ad­vice in an on­line fo­rum, a woman sug­gested send­ing his daugh­ter to a Scared Straight pro­gram. “Some­times,” the woman wrote, “a rude awak­en­ing is the an­swer for a young per­son trav­el­ing down the wrong path.” It’s no sur­prise this ad­vice was given. At the time, tele­vi­sion had blurred the re­al­ity of such pro­grams and in­duced a lot of par­ents to en­gage with them.

The only prob­lem is that these pro­grams do not work. It’s even worse, they tend to do more harm than good. Ti­mothy Wil­son, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Virginia writes, “Sev­eral well-de­signed stud­ies have been con­ducted, in which at-risk youth were ran­domly as­signed to take part in Scared Straight pro­grams or to a con­trol group that did not, and then all the kids were fol­lowed to see whether they got into trou­ble.” Th­ese stud­ies, Wil­son sub­mits, “found that the kids who took part in the scared straight pro­grams were sub­se­quently more likely to en­gage in crim­i­nal ac­tivity … with an av­er­age in­crease of 13 per­cent.”

Poli­ti­cally mo­ti­vated youth have a Her­culean task at hand, try­ing to right all the wrongs and level the play­ing field. The next step in try­ing to achieve such goals is to put their heart aside and opt in­stead to use their head. It turns out, af­ter all, that it isn’t just the thought that counts.