How Should We Hope? Advice #1
Immanuel Kant thought the central questions of human life revolved around knowledge (“What can I know?”), morality (“What ought I to do?”), and happiness (“For what may I hope?”). I want to explore five responses to Kant’s question about hope, all from contemporary thinkers. A central question in this series of essays rises when we compare and contrast the various advices. To what degree can these disparate voices be understood as complementing each other? To what degree are they contradictory?
The first advice is illustrated by Simon Critchley, philosophy professor at the New School for Social Research. He wrote a New York Times opinion piece (April 19, 2014) entitled, “Abandon (Nearly) all Hope.” The first paragraph:
With Easter upon us, powerful narratives of rebirth and resurrection are in the air and on the breeze. However, winter’s stubborn reluctance to leave to make way for the pleasing and hopeful season leads me to think not of cherry blossoms and Easter Bunnies but of Prometheus, Nietzsche, Barack Obama and the very roots of hope. Is hope always such a wonderful thing? Is it not rather a form of moral cowardice that allows us to escape from reality and prolong human suffering?
Critchley reflects on Obama’s rise to prominence in 2004 and 2008, in particular on the theme of “audacious hope.” Obama is not unusual among politicians, he says, who regularly urge voters to envision bright futures if they will only vote the right way. He quotes Obama that audacious hope is “the best of the American spirit” and “the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary.” But Critchley disagrees:
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 that we inhabit and causes a sort of sentimental complacency that actually prevents us from seeing things aright and protesting against this administration’s moral and political lapses and those of other administrations.
For Critchley the problem is not Barack Obama. The president merely illustrates a wrong idea. Audacious hope is fundamentally unrealistic. Critchley reminds us of the Melian story, reported in Thucydides. The Athenian navy blockaded Melos, so that the Melian ally, Sparta, cannot help them. Under truce, the Athenians demand Melos’s surrender. The Melians had to choose between negotiated defeat and a siege with the desperate hope that the Spartans would save them. The Melians chose hope, and when the Athenians triumphed, they slaughtered the men and made slaves of the women and children. Audacious hope can lead to disaster.
Courage is better than hope, Critchley says, courage to face life in a difficult world without consoling mythology. Critchley approvingly quotes Nietzsche: “Hope is the evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”
Critchley doesn’t oppose all hope. There are reasonable hopes, he says, the fuzzy vague hopes offered by philosophers like Richard Rorty. But we will be much better off if we abandon “audacious” hopes.
Let’s take a step back from Critchley’s essay. His view is actually representative of a great many modern philosophers, not just Nietzsche. The underlying analysis of hope says that hope is a combination of two things: a desire and an epistemic judgment. To hope for a thing means to desire that thing while believing that it is possible.
(A) We don’t call it hope if someone expects an outcome without desiring it. Rather, we say that someone fears an outcome that she doesn’t want.
(B) We don’t call it hope if someone expects something that is certain, even if she desires it. We may hope that the check is coming, but we don’t hope for it to come when the check is in our hand.
(C) We don’t call it hope if someone desires something impossible. We might wish that our team had won last year’s pennant, but we cannot hope that they won it, since we know they didn’t.
So: hope = desire + probability judgment (where p<1 and p>0).
Adrienne Martin call this the “orthodox” view of hope among modern philosophers, finding it held by Hume and Hobbes and illustrated by recent authors such as J.P. Day and R.S. Downie. Given this analysis of hope, it is easy to see why most modern philosophers have little to say about it. It’s pretty obvious that if you hope for something that isn’t likely to happen, the odds are good that your hope will be disappointed. So the “orthodox” advice is straightforward: don’t get your hopes up, lest you have them crushed.
Now it may be merely quaint when people invest their hopes in sports teams. Mariner fans suffer as a result of their misplaced hopes, but nothing greater hangs on it. Critchley’s point is that when it comes to more important questions—politics and social policy—misplaced hopes are dangerous. The Melians’ hope condemned their men to death and their wives and children to slavery. Critchley pushes us to ask how our policy hopes might contribute to our disasters. He urges us to build social and political policy on realism, not hope. We have to ask what is likely to happen, not what we would like to happen.
In future essays I will compare and contrast Critchley’s advice with others. It seems undeniable that there is wisdom in what he says. We may at least say this: it is possible to act foolishly while acting under the aegis of hope. If hope is a virtue, we need to understand it well.