ideology: pros and cons

Is it good to be ideological? This seems to be an important question, since ideologies are what many people use to engage in political and civic life, yet there are good reasons to be against ideology.

First of all, What is ideology? I think we are “ideological” to the degree that our concrete judgments are determined by a set of assumptions that cohere or grow from a common root. Thus:

degree of ideology = (range of judgments generated by a set of assumptions)x (coherence of the set)


number of items in the set of assumptions

For example, Ayn Randians have a very small set of assumptions—maybe just one. Their belief that individual freedom is the only moral value generates a very wide range of judgments, not only about politics and economics, but also about religion, the virtues, and aesthetics. For them, a good novel must be about an iconoclastic genius, because individual creativity and freedom are all that matters. So Ayn Randians are highly ideological.

Classical liberals are somewhat less ideological, according to this theory, because the range of judgments supported by their initial assumptions is narrower. For instance, they may say that liberalism only tells us how to organize a state; it says nothing about what makes a good novel, or whether God exists, or what are the best personal virtues.

So is it good to be highly ideological? I would say Yes if:

  • there is a small set of coherent and true principles that can guide us.
  • everyone is inevitably ideological, in which case an overt ideology is more honest than a hidden one.
  • the alternatives are unpalatable (e.g., we must make no judgments at all, or we can only decide randomly).
  • ideology gives us roughly correct answers while lowering the cost of political participation, thereby allowing poor and poorly educated people to participate
  • ideology is the only way to solve“voting cycles”

I would say No if:

  • there is not a small set of coherent and true principles.
  • it is possible to make judgments individually, and generalizations distort a complex reality
  • there are preferable alternatives to ideology.
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