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An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal. Ideals are particularly important in ethics, as the order in which one places them tends to determine the degree to which one reveals them as real and sincere.
For idealism, someone who claims to have an ideal of honesty but is willing to lie to protect a friend is demonstrating that not only does he hold friendship as an ideal, but, it is more important than honesty.
In some theories of applied ethics, such as that of Rushworth Kidder, there is importance given to such orders as a way to resolve disputes. In law, for instance, a judge is often called on to resolve the balance between the ideal of truth, which would advise hearing out all evidence, and the ideal of fairness, which would require keeping some evidence unfairly gathered or impossible to validate out of the process.
In politics ideals play a pivotal role. During the French Revolution, the principles of "Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood" were raised to the status of ideals. In fact, most political movements have a certain set of ideals. However, in many cases, one can easily find instances where ideals were "not lived up to" - some of which are cases where one simply proved to outweigh another for some specific decision, or where all were compromised simply to retain the power to continue to pursue them.
A different form of ideal is an idol or hero, who is held up as a moral example. Since this is an actual person or fictional character, it is too complex and multi-faceted to be considered an ideal in the abstract sense. However, when they are encountered in the form of a story, with only a few traits on display, they are a simplified archetype from which one can very easily derive stereotypes or mimicry. In Islam, for instance, the life of Muhammad is held up as "ideal", but must be interpreted for believers through the tale of his life, or sira, and his many sayings, the hadith.
Given the complexity of putting ideals into practice, and resolving conflicts between them, it is not uncommon to see them reduced to dogma. One way to avoid this, according to Bernard Crick, is to have ideals that themselves are descriptive of a process, rather than an outcome. His political virtues try to raise the practical habits useful in resolving disputes into ideals of their own. A virtue, in general, is an ideal that one can make a habit.
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