Glossary of unattainable ideals

Sunday morning I was talking with Zoe about different varieties of unattainable ideals, and further developing a distinction I made last week, when I criticized altruism for belonging to a misconception of being and relationship that produces ineffective practices and bad results, contrasting it with “impossible” ideals which can never be fully actualized but which are valuable, nonetheless.

Here’s the start of a glossary of unattainable ideals:

Sacred mirage: an impossible end is justified by intrinsically valuable means — so even though the goal is unattainable on principle (that is, progress even toward it is absurd) the effect of pursuing the ideal is intrinsically good.

Asymptotic ideal: an end can never be fully attained, but steady progress toward that end is possible — so the act of pursuing the ideal can be expected to produce value even if perfection is never reached. Rorty’s concept of progress as measured by movement away from a negative ideal is helpful in cases of asymptotic ideal.

Futile ideal: an unattainable end fails to justify means whose value is purely utilitarian — because the value of the means is contingent on attainment of an unattainable goal the act of pursuing the goal is a waste of time and effort.

Corrupt ideal: a misconceived end produces intrinsically harmful means — so, not only is the end impossible, the means employed to obtain it are damaging. A corrupt ideal is an inversion of a sacred mirage, a “desecrating mirage”.


I regard altruism in its myriad forms as a corrupt ideal. It does not produce relationship with real others, but intense feelings toward categories of person who exist primarily in the imagination of the altruist.

I see the illiberal fringes of progressivism as rejecting liberal democracy as a futile ideal, when, in fact, it is an asymptotic ideal, and desiring to replace it with a corrupt ideal, which ultimately undermines their leftism and enthrones them as the elite arbiters of justice according to their own corrupt ideal. The “illiberal left” is not leftist at all, but rather an alt-alt-right who wants to abandon the principles of both liberalism and democracy in order to administer its own moral vision on a majority who does not share their vision (even if they prefer it as a lesser evil to right-illiberalism).

The illiberal fringes of the right also subscribe to a corrupt ideal, antithetical to the left, but antagonistically cooperative with it. I call these antithetical pairings “Ares’s hand-puppets” because they are animated by the same kind of collective hubris that justifies the indignation and retaliation of the other. The illiberal right also pursues an ideal entirely incompatible with liberal democracy, based on scientistic convictions that have nothing to do with science, and which are unacceptable to the majority (even if they prefer it to progressivist-illiberalism).

Liberal democracy, as I said, is an asymptotic ideal, but it also has virtues of a sacred mirage, that is, liberal-democratic practice has life-enhancing virtues apart from the progress it effects, and the more I contemplate it, the more the intrinsic value of the ideal appears to surpass its contingent value. The intrinsic value might even serve as the source of the continent value, in that progress toward the liberal democratic ideal means that increasing numbers of people benefit from the intrinsic value of pursuing the liberal-democratic ideal.


Now that I’ve applied these concepts (informally prototype tested them), I’m seeing opportunities for refinement by categorizing unattainable ideals as having three dimensions:

  1. Practicability (practicable / impracticable): is it possible to progress toward the ideal’s goal?
  2. Intrinsicality (intrinsic / contingent): How much intrinsic value do the means have?
  3. Morality (positive / negative): What is the intrinsic value of the means?

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