Can you explain the distinction between a philosophy and an ideology?

A political science professor 50 years ago helped me clarify my thinking around these terms.

He suggested that a philosophy is an open-ended search for, and refinement of, an understanding of truth that provides a dynamic guide for decision making and policy development.

An ideology, by contrast, is a predetermined, closed understanding that is used as a template for decisions and policies.

This distinction has been a frequent lens through which challenges to our public life and decisions in our private lives are seen.

On the public stage, efforts to address challenges – both longstanding / systemic and immediate / unexpected – seem to reflect a divided mind between responding to an issue on the merits of its need and maintaining allegiance to an ideology reflective of some tribal/traditional/party loyalty.

We don’t need to list the specific examples of this division between “need commitment” and “agenda loyalty.”

On a personal level, I find that frequently my “plan for the day” is confronted by a need that has conflicting priority over the original schedule, and a decision on whether to “stick to the plan” or “respond to the need” is necessary.

Sometimes the agenda itself reflects an urgency that requires priority, and other times the need is of such a nature that the agenda has to be adjusted. I think we can all identify with that experience.

This has led to some reflection on the relation of agenda-based versus need-based decision making in our personal lives, our politics and our general understanding of leadership.

Agendas can be very good things. They provide expression of a vision of what is needed to be accomplished and steps for getting there. They provide order to processes that might otherwise flounder in confusion.

I recall a pivotal conversation with then-seminary student Debra Griffis-Woodberry (now a retired UMC minister in South Carolina). She suggested that the more carefully structured a lesson plan is, the more responsible a decision to depart from it in response to a current need is likely to be.

I have not always implemented that insight faithfully, but I have always thought it important.

Yet, agendas can also be detrimental to a common good if they reflect selfish or partisan goals of a more limited nature.

“What’s your agenda?” is a question that can imply a less than wholesome motive accompanying some proposal. “I have no agenda here” is a claim of not having a predetermined purpose for a proposal or idea.

A new leader for an organization (pastor, CEO, dean, etc.) who arrives with an “agenda” and who pursues it without careful attention to the needs of the organization will not likely be able to bring out the best of that organization’s potential.

Political decisions often seem to find themselves on the ethical edge of being made either due to a significant need or because of economic or political agendas that have predetermined responses to proposed policies and programs.

How much will it cost? Whom will it please? Whose support will it affect? What impact will it have on re-election? These seem to be the principal concerns of many, reflecting an agenda-based ethics.

Current deliberations on a bold plan to invest in long-term solutions to some widely recognized needs in our national life have reflected this difference.

An agenda of maintaining control and supporting special interests has governed one side of the deliberative process, while a concern for addressing the needs represented by the proposal fuels the other side.

The decision-making part of life that is the arena of ethics, especially Christian ethics, seems generally to place a priority on need-based rather than agenda-based thinking.

The classic parable of the Good Samaritan has long served to affirm the “neighbor” part of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. It also illustrates the difference (and the challenge) between agenda- and need-based ethics.

The priest and the Levite whom we read derisively as “passing by on the other side” may well have had important agendas that claimed their careful attention, perhaps getting to a council meeting or a Torah lesson on the core commandments.

We don’t know what agenda the Samaritan may have had, but he likely would have had one. Whatever it was, it was put on hold while he attended to the needs of the wounded man by the road.

The “good” decisions that we see being made every day in large and small concerns seem to point to the value of a focus on the needs being met and served by the choices.

We should hope that decisions made on the largest scale for our national life will find and utilize a similar focus.

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