Morality and the Good Life,
Most people like to think, with Aristotle or Epicurus, that goodness and happiness go together. Or, like Kant, they think that goodness and happiness ought to go together. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, challenges this predilection. Well-being can be empirically studied, he argues. We ought to accept what the research shows us. If it shows us—and it does—that well-being can be achieved without goodness, we need to get used to that fact.
Bishop is not proposing a moral revolution. He does say that well-being is real, that it is objectively valuable, and that it can be studied empirically. He says that individuals and organizations (including governments) should consider information supplied by positive psychology when deciding what to do. But he does not say that well-being is the only factor decision makers should take in mind. Bishop says that individuals or organizations may rightly decide that other factors outweigh well-being in some particular case; e.g. it may be morally right for a person to sacrifice some of his well-being to care for his mother, and a government may rightly decide not to adopt some policy that would increase overall well-being if that policy infringed the rights of some minority. Well-being is one factor among others when making moral decisions.
Now I think that makes good sense. In natural science, we try to explain phenomena by reference to the fewest possible basic concepts. A characteristic of a good theory is that it will be simple. Very often, moral philosophers have tried to mimic theories in natural science by reducing morality to a single principle, such as Bentham’s notion of utility or Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative. I think such attempts are mistakes. Long ago, Aristotle wrote that we should not expect more precision in any given field of inquiry than is appropriate for that field. In geometry and logic we can be very precise, but in inquiries like ethics we have to be content with a lower standard of exactitude. It seems unlikely to me that a good theory of morality will be simple in the way theories in natural science are simple.
Some years ago, the city planning commission, of which I was a member, agreed that we wanted to recommend a certain policy to the city council. Writing a formal recommendation to the city council required that we include proper “recitals.” Recitals include routine references to the history of the proposal—that duly noticed open public meetings were held for the discussion of the matter, etc.—and, just as important, reasons for the policy proposal. Various members of the commission tried to create justifications for the proposal by appealing to justice or fairness or equality. But they became frustrated. They thought the proposed policy was a good idea, but they could not figure out how equality or fairness supported it. They felt stuck. The proposal they wished to recommend did not promote injustice, but in honesty they could not say that it aided fairness or equality. It was just a good idea. Their difficulty was not caused by a defect in the policy but by their too narrow conception of the goals of city policy. Once we admitted that the proposed policy promoted well-being (without infringing fairness), we had a ready “recital.”
The point of the illustration is this. Just as a proper conception of the goals of government cannot be reduced to a single principle (e.g. justice), the “goods” of a good life cannot be reduced to a single principle (e.g. utility or rights). Bishop’s contention that well-being is only one of multiple goods reminds us of this point. And he makes the point emphatically: it is possible for a wicked person to have well-being. Well-being is an objectively good thing to pursue, but not at all costs.I want to ask now how hope figures in Bishop’s theory. Bishop doesn’t talk about hope very much, but when he does he uses it as an example of an “attitude.” For Bishop, attitudes are one of four elements of positive causal networks. The others are feelings (aka “moods” and “emotions”), traits, and accomplishments. I think we are to understand these categories something like this. Feelings happen to us. Attitudes are something we take up toward the world and people. And we live out our traits through dependable habits.
By using hope as an example of an “attitude,” Bishop treats hope far too simplistically. It is true that sometimes we willfully adopt a hopeful attitude; in this sense hope reflects our agency. But hope is also very frequently a positive feeling, something that happens to us whether we will it or not. And in the Christian tradition hope is a virtue.
Bishop’s “positive traits” are what we normally call virtues. He gives friendliness, curiosity, and perseverance as examples of positive traits. But he gives no attention to the traditional idea that hope is a virtue. He seems to think of hope exclusively as hopefulness. If so, then he’s wrong.
Most likely, Bishop mentioned hope only to illustrate the category “positive attitudes.” His attention is on positive causal networks and the elements that contribute to them. He’s not trying to give a thorough analysis of hope. This is both understandable and unfortunate, because I think hope serves as a pretty good illustration of the network theory.
What is hope? Many modern philosophers define hope as a combination of desire and a certain kind of belief. To hope is to desire some outcome while believing that it is possible (neither impossible or certain). Since hope = desire + probability judgment, many moderns advise that we should restrict our hopes to highly probable outcomes. Adrienne Martin, in her 2014 book, How We Hope, subjects this idea to devastating objections. Borrowing language from Margaret Walker, Martin suggests that hope is a “syndrome.” Hope is marked not just by desires and perceptions (probability judgments can be understood as a kind of perception), but also by certain forms of attention, expression, feeling, and activity. Hope is complicated.
That fits Bishop’s network theory beautifully.
Imagine Yakub. Yakub has significant ambitions; he wants to begin a new career that will enable him to better provide for his family. Because of religious discrimination in his country, even though Yakub is university educated, most occupations are closed to him in that country. Yakub has a daughter who suffers from renal disease. Medical care for his daughter is expensive and very hard to obtain.
Yakub is unique, but he is not unusual. Many people face harsh obstacles in life.
Suppose that in spite of the difficulties in his life Yakub is hopeful. We can think of this as an attitude that Yakub adopts as an act of will. This seems to be the way Bishop thinks of hope. But how does Yakub’s hopeful attitude play out in his life?
One result of Yakub’s hope is that he imagines ways he could move toward his goals. C.R. Snyder called this “pathways thinking,” a crucial element in his hope theory. In addition to imagining pathways, Yakub makes plans on the basis of his ideas and acts on them. Sometimes, perhaps infrequently, his actions succeed; they move him toward his goals of better employment or healthcare for his daughter.
Now we have three elements: hope as an attitude, hope as imagination, and hope as behaviors. We may well imagine that Yakub also experiences hope as a feeling, especially when his actions net some success.
Yakub may judge correctly that it is unlikely that he will get the employment he wants or the healthcare his daughter needs. But he also judges, rightly, that these outcomes are possible. And further, as a practical matter, he judges that these outcomes are very important to him, and that therefore it is permissible and proper for him to hope. In Adrienne Martin’s terms, Yakub licenses himself to hope.
Some people in Yakub’s situation would despair. Yakub could despair. But he doesn’t have to. He can hope.
I contend that Yakub’s hope fits Bishop’s description of a positive causal network. The various elements of Yakub’s hope reinforce each other. They cohere in a “homeostatic property cluster” which can endure, in the face of many discouragements, for a lifetime.
Many people have observed that hope can sustain people in harsh circumstances. Bishop’s network theory may help explain why this is. More precisely, his theory gives a framework for psychological research, and that research may explain how we may learn to hope.
In 1 Thessalonians, perhaps the first New Testament document written, Paul thanks God for his readers’ “…work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope.” This is a familiar idea, that hope helps us endure hard times. Later on, however, Paul wrote to the Romans that Christians should “rejoice in sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” The idea here seems to be that hard times lead to hope. The Bible reader might be led to object, which is it? Does hope sustain us in hard times, or do hard time help us develop hope?
Both. Practical experience teaches that a right response to hard times encourages hope and that hope helps us keep going in hard times. Bishop’s network theory of positive psychology helps us conceptualize the matter. Hope is not only an attitude we adopt toward life; it is a “syndrome” of perceptions, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that reinforce each other. Hope is, in Bishop’s terms, a positive causal network. Hope is a virtue.