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Society of Mind

4.8 ideals

We usually reserve the word ideals to refer to how we think we ought to conduct our ethical affairs. But I'll use the term in a broader sense, to include the standards we maintain — consciously or otherwise — for how we ought to think about ordinary matters.

We're always involved with goals of varying spans and scales. What happens when a transient inclination clashes with a long-term self-ideal? What happens, for that matter, when our ideals disagree among themselves, as when there is an inconsistency between the things we want to do and those we feel we ought to do? These disparities give rise to feelings of discomfort, guilt, and shame. To lessen such disturbances, we must either change the things we do — or change the ways we feel. Which should we try to modify — our immediate wants or our ideals? Such conflicts must be settled by the multilayered agencies that are formed in the early years of the growth of our personalities.

In childhood, our agencies acquire various types of goals. Then we grow in overlapping waves, in which our older agencies affect the making of the new. This way, the older agencies can influence how our later ones will behave. Outside the individual, similar processes go on in every human community; we find children taking after persons other than themselves by absorbing values from their parents, families, and peers, even from the heroes and villains of mythology.

Without enduring self-ideals, our lives would lack coherence. As individuals, we'd never be able to trust ourselves to carry out our personal plans. In a social group, no one person would be able to trust the others. A working society must evolve mechanisms that stabilize ideals — and many of the social principles that each of us regards as personal are really long-term memories in which our cultures store what they have learned across the centuries.