Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hoping and Acting

Hope and Behavior

Much of ethical theory, especially in the modern period, concerns actions.  It is assumed that moral philosophy should answer questions like these:  (1) In situation x, what is the right thing to do?  (2) Why is that the right thing to do?  To answer these questions, the standard ethical theories of the modern period—utilitarianism, Kantianism, social contract theory—all claim to appeal to rationality.  The right thing to do is whatever a rational being would do in that situation.  Of course, each theory gives a different account of how reason is supposed to guide our behavior.
Partly because debate between modern theories of ethics has been inconclusive, the last half-century has seen a revival of interest among moral philosophers in “virtue theory.”  Ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle often thought about ethics in terms of character traits—virtues like courage, generosity, and justice and vices like cowardice, selfishness, and injustice.  Starting with Elizabeth Anscombe (1958, “Modern Moral Philosophy”), some philosophers have thought we might get around sterile modern debates by going back to the language of virtue.  As a Christian philosopher I welcome the return of virtue theory.  It seems clear to me that much (not all) of the New Testament’s teaching about morality is couched in virtue language.
Hope is a virtue.  According to the apostle Paul, it’s an important one, though not quite the most important.  “… these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”
Now, the revival of virtue theory provokes many questions, one of them concerning its relationship to action theory.  Which is more fundamental to the moral life, behavior or character?  Can action theories, which offer to tell us how we should act and why, make appropriate space for consideration of virtues?  Action theorists might suggest that virtues are merely psychological tendencies toward good behavior, or virtues may be nothing more than actions repeated enough to become habits. 
Conversely, can virtue theories guide our actions?  A thoroughgoing virtue theorist might say that the right thing to do in situation x just is whatever a person with a well-formed character would do in those circumstances.
It would be philosophically pleasing to have a general theory here, one that explained how questions of character are subordinate to questions of right behavior, or vice versa.  Unfortunately, none of the arguments I’ve read for one side or the other have been very satisfying.  So I’m not going to attempt such a general account. 
Perhaps a way forward is to say that it doesn’t matter which concept is really more fundamental.  Whichever way one looks at it—that right action is most important and virtues are really just tendencies to act appropriately, or that character is really basic and our actions merely display our inner being—one could still hold that there ought to be an appropriate “fit” between behavior and character.  If we are going to say that so-and-so is just, we ought to be able to observe her doing just acts.  If we see someone acting justly in a regular, dependable way, we probably ought to say she has the virtue of justice.
Now what are the behaviors appropriate to hope? 
Since people hope for many things, and many kinds of things, our initial answer will have to be very general.  It may sound vague.  Here it is, in the form of two guidelines: 1) If and to the degree possible, one ought to act to build for one’s hopes.  2) One ought not to act in such a way as to contradict or prevent one’s hopes.  These guidelines deserve some comment.
In The Shawshank Redemption, life prisoner Andy Dufresne hopes to escape from Shawshank prison.  Over many years of imprisonment he acts, in a variety of ways, to accomplish his goal.  Suppose Andy had “hoped” for escape but had done nothing—made no plans, dug no tunnel, accumulated no evidence of the warden’s crimes—to achieve his goal?  I think we should say, in that case, that Andy didn’t really hope for escape.  When a person desires a good future but does nothing to achieve it, we may be tempted to say he doesn’t hope but only wishes for it.
Wait a moment!  Someone should object.  Is it always the case that we can do anything to achieve our hopes?  Suppose I hope that the course of treatment prescribed by my doctor will heal my injury so that I can resume jogging.  What are my actions?  Taking the pills, I imagine, or doing the specified exercises.  If I refuse the medication or fail to exercise, again it seems my “hope” is really only a wish.
Okay, another case: imagine an ordinary person who hopes that the Syrian civil war will end soon and allow millions of Syrian refugees to resettle in their homeland.  I say “ordinary person” to exclude political leaders who might have some practical role in brokering ceasefire in Syria.  It seems that most of us who hope for peace in Syria can do little to accomplish it.
This is why my first guideline expresses itself: “if and to the degree possible.”  Sometimes actions in accord with our hopes are obvious.  Students who want an A grade but who fail to study don’t really hope, because there is a lack of appropriate fit between their behavior and genuine hope.  To heal my injury, perhaps the only possible action is to take the pills.  In regard to peace in Syria, prayer may be my only recourse.
The first guideline says: as a general rule, when you can take action to build for your desired end and you don’t, you are not acting in accord with hope.  I might daydream about winning the lottery, but if I never buy a lottery ticket I don’t hope.
(I am not claiming that actions in accord with hope are always the right thing to do, all things considered, even if the thing hoped for is a legitimate part of the good life.  For the moment, I am leaving open the possibility that virtues might contradict each other.  It is possible that practical wisdom might decree that in this particular situation I ought to act in accord with justice rather than in accord with hope.)
The second guideline says that we should not act so as to contradict or prevent our hopes.  Sometimes we hope for transcendent goods, futures that we can do nothing to accomplish.  Nevertheless, we might act in ways that deny or undermine those ends.  Our actions would express the vices of despair or presumption.  (See “How Not to Hope,” an earlier blog post.)
There are millions of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war.  Such an enormous humanitarian crisis staggers our imagination.  We don’t know what to do.  So we turn off the news, either literally or figuratively by turning our thoughts to other things.  This ignoring of the situation is a kind of despair.  Turning away is an action; by it we act in accord with the vice of despair rather than the virtue of hope.  If we are to really hope, we must at least not act in ways that contradict our hope.
The two guidelines are only an abstract structure.  To say more about actions appropriate to hope, we would have to examine particular hopes.  What is it that we actually hope for?  That question takes us back to last week's essay on the variety of hopes.


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