How to Hope:
We can be said to hope for something if we desire it and we think it is possible. By “possible” we mean that something is neither (a) certain, nor (b) impossible. To illustrate: (a) In 2016 it makes no sense for someone to hope that Barak Obama be elected president. He already is president. No one hopes that tomorrow bachelors will be unmarried. We do not hope for something that has already occurred or something that is a necessary truth. (b) A person who never buys a lottery ticket may fantasize about winning the lottery, but since it is impossible for him to win he cannot hope to win.
The prior paragraph explains what Adrienne Martin calls the “orthodox” definition of hope. On this definition, hope = desire + probability judgment, where the probability of the thing hoped for lies somewhere between 0 and 1. And that’s all there is to it, according to a great many philosophers in the modern period.
But that cannot be all there is to it, objects Martin. If the orthodox definition of hope were adequate, we would all be wise to trim our hopes to fit probabilities. If you let your hopes ride on a long shot, you will quite likely be disappointed. For example, Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, advised us to “abandon (nearly) all hope” when we think about social and political matters. Critchley recalls 2008 candidate Obama’s proclamation of “audacious hope” and advises against it: “The problem here is with the way in which this audacious Promethean theological idea of hope has migrated into our national psyche to such an extent that it blinds us to the reality of the world…” Critchley concludes that we should limit our hopes to those that are realistic.
Against this, Martin urges us to consider the phenomenon of “hoping against hope,” cases in which the probability of the desired outcome is very low. I will call these cases of “extreme” hope. If hope is simply desire for some outcome combined with the belief that the outcome is possible, why is it that people who have the same desire for an outcome and the same belief about its likelihood can have very different levels of hope? The defender of the orthodox definition might suggest that the person with greater hope somehow has stronger desires for the good outcome or surreptitiously assigns a higher probability to it. Martin gives good reasons to suppose these answers are insufficient.
Martin invites us to consider two terminal cancer patients, Alan and Bess. They both recognize that the experimental drug offered to them has an extremely low chance of success. But Alan hopes only a little or not at all. Bess hopes strongly. How should we explain the difference between them? Is Bess somehow deceiving herself about the odds? Does Bess desire life more than Alan? Even if one of these options could explain a particular case, would this be true in every case? Should we conclude that there is something wrong with Bess’s hope? It seems that the difference between Bess’s hope and Alan’s hope cannot be explained only using desire and probability judgment as variable. Cases of extreme hope show that something else is going on.
The solution, says Martin, is to see that hope is more than just “desire” plus a probability judgment. After all, what do we mean by “desire”? What is going on in Bess’s life when she hopes? Martin proposes a syndrome analysis: hope is a syndrome of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and motivations aimed at an outcome judged to be good and possible (neither impossible nor certain).
Martin invites us to consider Andy, in The Shawshank Redemption. Andy and his friend, Red, are convicts in the Shawshank prison. Red warns Andy explicitly against the dangers of hope. “Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” If you hope, you get crushed. Red’s advice mirrors the advice of modern philosophers like Critchley. Against Red’s advice, Andy hopes to escape from prison.
Martin offers her “incorporation analysis” as alternative to the orthodox definition. We need to see that there are two judgments made by the person who hopes. In the cancer case, Bess does not deceive herself into thinking the drug has a greater chance of success. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking. When we estimate the likelihood that our desired outcomes will occur, Martin says we ought to make our judgments in accord with ordinary standards of reason and evidence. However, the fact that the desired outcome is improbable does not imply that one cannot hope for it. Instead, the person who hopes then makes a second, practical, judgment. The person who hopes sees that the desired outcome is important to her. On the basis of these two judgments—that the desired outcome is possible, and that it is important—the person who hopes “licenses” herself to build a syndrome of hope. Thus, Martin says to hope for an outcome has four parts:
1. Be attracted to the outcome in virtue of certain of its features;
2. Assign a probability between and exclusive of 0 and 1 to the outcome;
3. Adopt a stance toward that probability whereby it licenses treating one’s attraction to the outcome (and the outcome’s attractive features) as a reason for certain ways of thinking, feeling, and/or planning with regard to the hoped-for outcome; and
4. Treat one’s attraction and the outcome’s attractive features as sufficient reason for those ways of thinking, feeling, and/or planning.
Recall Andy in The Shawshank Redemption. Andy’s hope is entirely consistent with a belief that successful escape is very unlikely. Martin insists that hopeful people must judge the probability of their desired outcomes by ordinary standards of reason and evidence. This is Martin’s point 2.
But Andy’s thought process goes further, to a second judgment. He recognizes that his hoped-for escape is a very important goal; in Martin’s words, he decides that his “attraction to the outcome (and the outcome’s attractive features)” is “a reason for certain ways of thinking, feeling, and/or planning.” This is Martin’s point 3.
The first judgment, a judgment of probability, is governed by ordinary standards of reason and evidence. The second judgment, a licensing judgment, is governed standards of practical rationality. Practical judgments must take into account a person’s moral obligations, projects, relationships, abilities, and so on. Given Andy’s situation—a life sentence for a crime he did not commit—the very low probability of escape can still function as organizing grounds for his hope. He entertains certain thoughts. He lets himself feel certain feelings. He imagines certain future scenes. He plans and executes certain actions. In the story, Andy eventually escapes. But the value of hope does not depend on this happy outcome. Andy’s hope—a syndrome of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and actions—sustained him through many years of imprisonment, and he would have enjoyed this benefit even if his escape failed in the end. The moral of the story is expressed in Andy’s words to Red: “Remember, Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”
Paraphrased, Martin’s position is something like this: hope, understood as an incorporation of a syndrome of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motivations into one’s life, can be rational, even in cases when the hoped for outcome is very unlikely.
The incorporation thesis gives us advice about how to hope in extreme cases. If the desired outcome is unlikely, one must not deceive oneself about that. Judgments of probability must be governed by evidence. But if a desired outcome is possible, a second judgment must be made. What is the practical importance of the desired outcome to one’s life? If, in extreme cases, one judges that the desired outcome is important enough, one can incorporate that hope into one’s life, letting the hope color one’s beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors.
Copyright © 2016 by Philip D. Smith.
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