Pragmatic Idealism and Speculative Fiction

by Ian Kennedy

How do I decide what to do? The world I have now is overwhelming: lots of beauty, lots of joy, but lots of suffering too. That suffering often seems to form itself into problems before me: global warming, racial inequality, drone strikes, rust-belt job losses, neo-imperialist exploitation, substance dependency. Of course these problems don’t have neat boarders and can’t be attacked on their own. It’s hard enough, though, to feel like I know what to do about any of them, let alone have a handle on how they interact that is robust enough to use it to organize a larger push. It’s enough to make me feel helpless.

To add to all that, I can’t be sure of the ramifications of anything I do. Even my most carefully chosen actions can have harmful repercussions. Look at the vaccination debate: no matter who’s right (and for the record the expert consensus is strongly in favor of vaccination) the other side is almost certainly causing harm by doing the very thing they think is most helpful. This is the kind of pickle the uncertain future tends to land us in.

Don’t be held back by reality when thinking about how what the world should be, be idealist, be speculative, embrace the future as fiction.

Despite this, and in the face of the developing political reality in the United States, I am hopeful. I’m not an optimistic person though, and while I think my life is often blessed with joy, I can’t say I’m happy-go-lucky. Instead, my hope comes from a strong confluence between a political philosophy and a genre of literature: pragmatic idealism and speculative fiction.

Our December text, Octavia’s Brood, is an excellent example of speculative fiction. It’s authors used imaginary worlds and futures to explore the possibilities for ways of living that hide themselves behind the stark realities of the present.  Some of them imagined what it might be like under more authoritarian regimes, and others imagined post-capitalist utopias. In both cases they smash assumptions about what could or will happen.

Pragmatic idealism is pragmatic first: it looks at what steps are necessary to reach a particular goal. What makes it different from traditional pragmatism, which agrees about a devotion to compromise and half measures, is that the idealism forces the practitioner to stretch the timescale of their political action. In other words, pragmatic idealism argues that it’s OK to do the best possible thing now, instead of holding back for the ideal solution, but at the same time argues that what makes that thing the best is that it seems to offer the strongest chance of realizing that ideal.

Hopefully you see the confluence already. Pragmatic idealism needs a direction, possibly an impossible one, but something over the horizon to look for, to guide action now. Something to bring us beyond the hopelessness of suffering and into a place of positive action. Speculative fiction, by opening our field of possibilities, can be that guide.

Don’t be held back by reality when thinking about how what the world should be, be idealist, be speculative, embrace the future as fiction.


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