Idealism

An essential module in Character Education

Idealism, which is the desire for social justice or fairness, motivates students to get involved and contribute to the betterment of humankind. Its primal roots are unclear. Some say that idealism is related to altruistic behavior seen in animals, but others say that animals do not show true altruism except possibly in isolated examples. In human beings, idealism motivates people to join service organizations, volunteer for programs for the needy, give to charity, or work toward the improvement of their community. Some people join the clergy for idealistic reasons.


Many people devote a large portion of their careers to making the world a better place. Some physicians devote their time and energy to improving public health in third world countries instead of building a lucrative private practice at home. Other physicians work on policy issues while they could have higher-paying jobs at hospitals.

There is no significant correlation between the desire to help society and the way in which people behave toward others. Some very famous humanitarians make poor personal friends and do not even spend much time with their own children. Because idealism, family, and social contact are three distinct desires, it is possible for some people to care much more about social causes than about the key relationships in their lives.

Idealism motivates people to intrinsically value fairness and justice. Human beings almost universally develop a sense of fair play - for example, in all cultures people feel some obligation to return personal favors and to keep promises. This primal sense of fairness is the psychological foundation for more complex ideas of social equality and equality under the law. Idealistic people can place so much value on social fairness that they essentially determine how important everything is by how it relates to social justice.

Individuals differ considerably in how motivated they are by idealism. Examples of people with a weak desire for idealism include politicians who betray the public trust and steal from their communities. In the motion picture ‘Gone With the Wind’, Scarlett O’Hara goes looking for a doctor to deliver her friend’s baby. She is so oblivious to the devastation of the Civil War that she literally steps over wounded soldiers lying in the streets of Atlanta. This scene dramatically reveals Scarlett’s focus on her personal concerns and her lack of attention to what is happening in her society.

In contrast, idealistic people are attuned to the social significance of what they do. They may think that improving society or working toward some social cause is the most important thing in life. Often they will take personal risks to promote their ideals. Former President Jimmy Carter has built houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, and has traveled throughout the world to monitor elections and work for peace. Before Carter decides to do something, he considers how the activity connects to his ideals.