How Should We Hope? Advice #3
Adrienne Martin’s 2014 book, How We Hope: A Moral Psychology, provides a third advice for hope, which may be paraphrased thus: License yourself to incorporate an important possible good into your life. I’ll try to explain.
First, Martin describes what she calls the “orthodox” definition of hope among modern philosophers. On the orthodox view, hope consists in the combination of two things: desire for some outcome plus a probability judgment that the outcome is possible (neither certain nor impossible). Second, Martin argues—persuasively, I think—that the orthodox doctrine of hope cannot be correct.
She makes her case by appealing to examples of what is often called “hoping against hope”; that is, cases of hope where the desired outcome is very improbable. Martin asks us to imagine Alan and Bess, two terminal cancer patients. (Martin herself spent time volunteering on a cancer ward.) The doctors offer Alan and Bess an experimental drug, telling them there is only a one in ten thousand chance the drug will cure them. Both patients accept the drug. Alan admits that a cure is possible, but that possibility plays no role in his daily life. Alan hopes weakly. (Perhaps he participates in the trial only to benefit science or future patients.) In contrast, Bess allows herself to hope strongly. She knows that probably the drug won’t help her, but the mere possibility that it will becomes a significant part of her life. She thinks about her future and makes plans based on her hope. She also makes “back-up plans” in case the drug doesn’t work; i.e. she writes a will and gives instructions for end-of-life treatment. On the whole, though, her life is deeply affected by her hope.
Now: given the orthodox definition of hope, how should we think about the difference between Alan and Bess? On the orthodox view, hope just is desire + probability judgment. So how can we understand Bess’s greater hope when compared to Alan? Are we to assume that Bess has a stronger desire for life than Alan? That hardly seems right. Alternatively, should we say that Bess has somehow “cheated” by convincing herself that the experimental drug has a greater chance of success? It is certainly possible that a person can let her desire for a certain outcome influence her judgment about the likelihood of that outcome, but does this happen in every case? Martin points out that a person’s subjective confidence in a desired outcome can vary significantly even in the course of a few hours. If the orthodox definition of hope were correct, that would mean a person’s hope for the desired outcome varies with his feelings about probability.
Martin’s conclusion: the orthodox view of hope cannot satisfactorily account for cases of hoping against hope. Something else is going on when we hope. So she proposes an alternative analysis of hope, which she called the “incorporation” thesis.
The incorporation view starts with desire, though Martin rightly points out that “desire” needs to be interpreted very broadly to account for hope. Our attitude toward the thing we hope for is expressed in feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and actions. Following Margaret Walker, Martin says hope is a “syndrome” rather than simply desire.
More importantly, the incorporation thesis holds that in hope we make two judgments. The first judgment is the probability judgment identified by the orthodox definition. To hope for a thing, one must judge that it is possible, neither certain nor impossible. The second judgment is a practical judgment by which one decides whether the desired outcome is important to one’s life. The fact that a desired outcome is important to a person gives her reason to hope for that thing.
On the incorporation thesis, we do not have to say that Alan desires life less than Bess, nor must we say that Bess is somehow deceiving herself about the drug’s chances of success. Bess has made a correct probability judgment: there is a tiny chance that the drug will help her. And she has made a permissible practical judgment: gaining help from the drug is a very important part of her conception of her life going forward. On the basis of these two judgments, Martin says, a person may “license” herself to hope for an outcome.
A “license” is not permission to ignore evidence. Bess continues to believe, based on the best evidence she has (the doctors’ testimony) that the drug has a very small chance of curing her. Therefore Bess makes back-up plans, in case the drug doesn’t work. But she licenses herself to imagine a cure, to picture it, to feel encouraged, even to make plans for life after the cure. In other words, she licenses herself to inhabit a syndrome of hope. As a syndrome, hope affects her life in many different but overlapping ways: perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and actions.
Martin points out that hope is often thought to have peculiarly sustaining qualities. Hope supports us through hard times. How is this to be explained, if hope = desire + probability judgment? As we saw with Simon Critchley’s advice, on the orthodox view of hope, what we ought to do is temper our hopes to fit the evidence. Don’t get your hopes up, because unreasonable hopes will get crushed. On the orthodox view, hope’s power to sustain us in hard times may be real, but it is bought at too high a price, the price of unreasonable belief.
I think Martin is clearly right, Critchley wrong. (About hope. I make no comment on Critchley’s political views.) Bess need not deceive herself about the drug’s likely efficacy. As she undergoes the drug regimen she may experience lots of hard times. By licensing herself to hope, she may also experience the sustaining power of hope.
(A side note: a medical researcher friend tells me there is empirical evidence that hopefulness in real world patients like Bess—who after all, is merely an illustration—actually increases the chances of cure. I suspect he is right. Hope may be demonstrably effective. But this is a complicated matter, and Martin’s argument stands without it.)
On the incorporation view, if some desired outcome is possible, and if I judge that it is important to my life, I may license myself to hope for it. Hope is a syndrome: I imagine it, I think about it, I encourage myself with it, I perceive the world in the light of it, and I act in accord with it.