Deciding in Hope
A number of philosophers and theologians have suggested that we need to think in terms of an “ethic of hope”—Gabriel Marcel, Jurgen Moltmann, N.T. Wright, Jonathan Lear, and others. There is a great deal of diversity among these writers; they understand hope in differing ways and though they all think hope is important to ethics, they do so in different ways. I want to focus in this essay on the underlying idea, that there is some way in which hope should influence or control our moral decision-making.
We need to think about the structure of hope rather than the content of hope we might find in some religion or ideology. Hope concerns something (1) future, that is (2) desired, and that is (3) possible, neither certain nor impossible. Any philosopher or theologian who writes about an “ethic of hope” must imply that in some way such things (future, desired, possible things) should influence or control moral decision-making.
As I pointed out in an earlier essay (“Hope as Passion and Virtue”), the natural passion of hope focuses on future desired possible things. But the objects of hope as a natural passion may be morally neutral (e.g. my hope that the Mariners win the pennant) or even morally impermissible (e.g. Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor’s wife). Therefore, any “ethic of hope” must supplement the basic structure of hope with moral content. If it is true that hope should influence or control our moral decision-making, it must be a kind of hope that is directed toward morally praiseworthy ends. I will not try to say what constitutes moral praiseworthiness in this essay; that is a huge topic for another time.
So far, then: hope for any possible “ethic of hope” must concern something future, desired, possible, and morally praiseworthy.
The central question for any “ethic of hope” is this: how should things hoped for influence moral decision-making? Those who urge an “ethic of hope” must think there is some positive answer to this question. In general, deciding in hope would mean deciding to act in some way to achieve the thing hoped for (or at the minimum to act in some way that does not prevent the thing hoped for). An ethic of hope means deciding in ways congruent with things hoped for.
In some cases, perhaps, hope may require certain decisions; hope may create moral obligation. In other cases, hope’s effect may not be so stringent; perhaps hope is only one factor among many, and the moral agent would need to balance acting out of hope against acting out of other concerns.
The root challenge to any ethic of hope calls itself “realism.” In this context, the “realist” warns that we can easily make bad decisions—morally blameworthy decisions—by acting in ways congruent with hope. For example, suppose a cancer patient’s family and caregivers hope that chemotherapy will kill the cancer and achieve a cure. There are many ways to act congruently with this hope: scheduling chemo treatments, imagining life in remission, speaking confidently with friends about the disease, making plans for next year’s vacation, and so on. Suppose the cancer patient’s family discouraged her from making funeral plans or writing a will. Such actions (and non-actions) might be congruent with the hope that the chemotherapy will achieve a cure. And the realist would object that such actions (and non-actions) are morally wrong. The patient’s family has let hope deceive them about the real probability of cure, and this self-deception can cause great mischief.
Against any robust “ethic of hope,” the realist protests that we must not let wishful thinking keep us from pursuing the limited goods that we can actually achieve.
Adrienne Martin, a philosopher whose thought has been influenced by her work on a cancer ward, defends hope by saying that persons can act in hope while at the same time holding “back up plans.” The cancer patient and her family may “incorporate” (Martin’s term) hope into their lives in many ways and still prepare for the possibility that their hope will not come to pass. The patient and her family may hope for a cure and prepare for death.
In many cases, Martin’s advice seems right. I can plan to take students on a study trip some months from now, and also plan for a substitute if my wife’s disease prevents me from leaving her at that time. We incorporate hope into our thinking, feeling, and planning, but we also have back-up plans.
Martin’s strategy will not work in every case, if there are genuine forced choice situations in life. Suppose I think candidate A is the best choice for the office, but I also believe that candidate B is more likely to win, and further, I believe candidate C, running neck-and-neck in the polls with B, is completely unfit for office. I hope that A will win. I believe B is more likely to win than A. I desperately fear that C will win. In voting it seems I must act in accord with my hope that A win by voting for A, or act in accord with my fear that C will win by voting for B. It seems I must choose between my hope and my back-up plan.
Are there other, more important, forced choice situations in life? Consider hopes concerning the after-life. Socrates argued in Apology that there were two options to consider: either death brings annihilation of the person so that we simply cease to exist, or death introduces us to an afterlife where we can interact with other dead people. It seems that Socrates hoped for the second possibility, but he was content if the first turned out to be true. Neither option interfered with Socrates’ determination to practice philosophy as long as he lived. The strategy of “hope plus back-up plan” seemed to work for Socrates.
But what if Socrates was wrong about the options? A Christian might console himself that either his hope of resurrection life will come true or, as the materialists affirm, there will be no afterlife at all. That’s fine, as long as those are the only possibilities. But suppose Islam is true. In that case, Christian resurrection and life in the Kingdom of God is one possibility; but so is eternal punishment if the Christian has obstinately refused to believe the word of the Prophet.
The “realist” may have strange advice in this case. The realist says we need to act according to the best odds. If forced to choose between Christianity and Islam, throw your lot with the one that seems most likely true. Of course, many “realists” are also secularists; they would advise against believing any religion. But then one might ask, what is the secularist’s back-up plan? If the truth of atheism isn’t 100% sure, it seems the secularist ought to prepare for the possibility that his hope (that there is no afterlife) fails.