Idealism refers to a personality trait where someone always strives for perfection and betterment, even if it seems unrealistic.
Idealistic people tend to have personality traits such as a strong moral compass, optimism in the face of adversity, a commitment to making a difference, and the pursuit of a better world.
Idealism is also seen in art, where romantic idealist artists would paint pictures that didn’t represent the world as it was, but the world as they see it could be – i.e. more beautiful. An example of artistic idealism is presented later in this piece.
1. Aspiring for a World Without Poverty
An idealist wants to see a world that’s better than the one it is now. These sorts of people may aspire to a world where poverty is eradicated. Many realists may scoff, saying that the world will always have poverty – look at how many people there are! It would be impossible to feed and clothe them all. Pragmatists might also say we can’t get eradicate poverty, but perhaps we can go some way to reducing it. Nevertheless, the idealist ignores reality and insists that we must strive for the ideal, or else we have zero chance of achieving it!
2. Believing in the Innate Goodness of People
While many of us are jaded by bad experiences with others, idealists will never forget that inside everyone is a good person. This reminds me of the humanist philosophy, where the humanists believe there is good in all of us, that we should give each other unconditional positive regard, and even when someone fails at being their best self, they should keep striving to that ideal of being that moral person that we all could become, if we only put all of our effort into it.
A Real-Life Example of Idealism
We might consider JFK’s moonshot as an example of idealism. At a time when no one believed it possible, Kennedy set a goal for America to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s. While it seemed unreal at the time, we saw it come to pass. Unfortunately, JFK died before he got to see it himself.
3. Pursuing a Career Aligned with Personal Values
Many young people go to college with idealism in their hearts. They pursue a major that they think will get them into a non-government organization where they can affect the world, or an education major so they can impact young minds. A great deal of those people may end up becoming pragmatists, realizing that there is stiff competition for good jobs, so they might settle for another major that will get them into a safer middle-class life after college. But some will remain idealists, striving for that dream job that will see them living-out their values on a daily basis.
4. Commitment to Environmental Sustainability
The debate over how to respond to climate change often pits optimistic people – taking the side of the idealist – against pessimistic people. Some of us advocate for tough action on climate change and a belief that as a global community we can save the planet. Others of us think there’s nothing that can be done. Climate change will wash over us (perhaps literally), and we may as well carry on as usual for now. Of course, it’s the idealists who seek action!
5. Imagining a World Without War
Idealists may firmly believe in the potential for a world without war. This belief system is inherent in several religions, such as the Buddhist faith, which holds world peace can be obtained once everyone finds peace in their minds. Similarly, there are theories of world peace based on political ideologies, such as the concept that democracies rarely fight against one another (although, they still do), so a democratic world will become a world of peace.
6. Promoting Equality and Social Justice
Idealists are often driven by a vision of a world without prejudice or discrimination – a socially just world. In such a world, all individuals, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation, are treated with complete fairness. Of course, our theory of justice will affect our approach here, but in general, idealists will continue to strive toward this goal through their everyday interactions, political values, and even possibly their choice of career.
7. Believing in Lifelong Personal Growth
Idealism is all about working toward an ideal with optimism and dogged determinism. So, they will constantly strive toward this no matter what. These sorts of people have a growth mindset, always thinking that through sheer effort and willpower, they can achieve the impossible. So, an idealist is more likely to engage in lifelong learning and self-reflection. This belief often leads to a resilient and adaptable mindset, as they view challenges and failures as opportunities for learning and growth.
8. Pursuing Creative Endeavors
Idealists often express their visions through art, writing, music, and other creative forms. They believe in the power of these mediums to communicate, inspire, and bring about change. They might create works that challenge the status quo, explore human emotions, or depict utopian visions that are more concerned with what could be than what is. Even if their work doesn’t achieve community recognition and doesn’t make them money, they continue creating because they find the act itself fulfilling and worthwhile.
9. The Struggling Artist
Building on the above point, the archetype of the struggling artist generally is seen as an idealistic person. This is someone who doesn’t care about material conditions – they will continue to drive toward the world they want. If that means living a life of being an artist, fine. They will happily be poor and live hand-to-mouth in pursuit of their life as an artist.
10. Advocating for Animal Rights
An idealist might believe in a world where animals are treated with respect and kindness. They may envisage a world free from harm and exploitation, even for animals. As a result, these sorts of people will advocate for animal rights. They might become vegetarian or vegan. Further, they could go about promoting awareness about animal cruelty in industries like factory farming or cosmetic testing. They may also volunteer or work in animal shelters or conservation efforts, driven by their empathy towards all sentient beings and potentially even informed by coherent philosophies by theorists like Peter Singer.
11. The Inner-City Teacher
Many teachers go into the profession out of a sense of idealism. And on top of this, many excellent teachers choose to teach in some of the toughest schools where children in poverty are clustered. These teachers will go into these difficult situations because they’re idealistic. They believe children from all backgrounds can lift themselves out of poverty, and the teachers want to help them achieve this.
12. Commitment to Human Rights
Idealistic individuals may commit themselves to the cause of human rights. They may believe in the innate dignity and worth of every individual and the need to protect and uphold these rights universally. They might get involved in human rights advocacy, join organizations like Amnesty International, or work towards a career in human rights law or policy-making.
13. Championing Scientific Progress for Societal Good
Idealists may be firm believers in the power of science and technology to make the world a better place. They might champion scientific research aimed at solving global issues like climate change, disease, or resource scarcity. They could be involved in advocating for science education, funding for research, or policy decisions based on scientific evidence. They may even choose careers in scientific research, driven by the desire to contribute to society’s advancement.
14. Supporting Ethical Consumption
An idealist might be passionate about the idea that our consumption patterns can lead to a fairer, more sustainable world. They might choose to purchase only from companies that adhere to ethical labor practices, sustainable manufacturing processes, and transparent business operations. They might also advocate for others to do the same and may even actively campaign against companies with questionable ethical standards.
15. Promoting Gender Equality
Once, the genders were very much separated and women’s chances in life were severely limited. This is still the case in many parts of the world. But gender equality is perhaps one of the great examples of idealism come to life. In the western world, we have gone a long way toward closing the gender gap, and we’re well on the way to acheiving gender equality. This is by and large the product of idealistic feminist fighting against the odds to acheive social change.
16. Believing in a Global Community
An idealist might believe in the concept of global citizenship, where national borders do not limit empathy, understanding, and cooperation among people. They may engage in activities that promote cross-cultural exchange and mutual respect, such as hosting exchange students, learning new languages, or volunteering for international organizations. They might also advocate for policies and actions that address global issues like climate change or inequality.
17. Advocating for Universal Healthcare
An idealist might believe in a society where healthcare is a basic right, not a privilege. While this may seem a long way off in the United States, such idealists need only look to Europe to see that this is, indeed, possible. Such idealists might volunteer for organizations aiming to expand healthcare access or even get involved in politics. In their political positions, they might campaign for universal healthcare policies, believing that everyone, regardless of their economic status, deserves access to quality healthcare services.
18. Fostering Interfaith Dialogue and Harmony
Idealists may believe in a world where religious beliefs do not divide but unite people. They might engage in interfaith dialogue, aiming to promote mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation among people of different religious backgrounds. They might organize or participate in interfaith activities and work against religious discrimination and intolerance.
Example of Artistic Idealism
The Romanticism movement of the 18th and 19th centuries embraced idealism – the aspiration for a better and more beautiful world – in their artworks.
The Romantic artists aimed to capture and convey the grandeur of human spirit, the beauty of nature, and the power of emotions, often transcending the physical and tangible aspects of the world.
One particularly relevant Romantic artist is Caspar David Friedrich. His famous painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (shown above) epitomizes the idealistic notion of the Romantic period. In the painting, a man stands alone atop a mountain, looking out over a sea of fog and craggy rocks below. Rather than focusing on realistic detail, Friedrich captures the sublime nature of the scene, with its raw, untamed beauty that evokes a sense of awe and wonder.
The painting is not just about the physical landscape; it’s more about the emotional and spiritual experience it evokes. The figure’s contemplation of the misty abyss can be seen as an exploration of the unknown and the vastness of the human spirit. This artistic representation of human emotions and introspection is a clear example of idealism in art.
People who are idealistic have a great deal of optimism and a desire to bend the reality of the world to meet their aspirations. They differ from realists, who see the world as it is and live within those constraints, and pragmatists, who aim for change but only change they see as possible. While idealists probably fail more than they succeed, some of the great advances in the world – from JFK’s moonshot to Nelson Mandela’s freedom fights – are examples of idealism come to life.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]