6. The Rationality of Hope
The attack on hope, described in the previous chapter, doesn’t have to condemn all hope. Hope is only bad, the objector could say, when it leads us to make foolish decisions. If we circumscribe our hopes so that we hope only in accord with the probability of the outcomes we desire, hope would cease to be so dangerous. “Audacious” hope is a vice, but tamed and reasonable hope could be a virtue, though a minor one.
The attack on hope rests on the modern “orthodox” definition of hope: “to hope for an outcome is to desire it while believing it is possible but not certain.” Since there is a wide field of probability between impossibility and certainty, “hope” thus defined names very different cases. We can hope for probable outcomes and be rewarded (usually) with satisfaction. We can hope “audaciously” and be punished (almost always) with despair.
I said in chapter 4 that Adrienne Martin protests against the “orthodox definition” of hope because it sweeps too much together under the vague term “desire.” The syndrome analysis replaces “desire” with “syndrome” and allows that hope includes thoughts, perceptions, and motivations as well as feelings.
Martin also complains that the orthodox definition of hope makes it impossible to explain the way different people respond to cases of “hoping against hope,” that is, cases in which the probability of the desired outcome is very low. Notice that Critchley, discussed in chapter 5, aimed his criticism at precisely such cases. Audacious hope is bad, Critchley argued, precisely because the desired outcome is unlikely. But before we can judge whether hope is good or bad, we must see whether the proposed definition is accurate.
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.
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? Martin points to a fact that many people have experienced: over a period of time, perhaps a single day, our subjective sense of the probability of some event may change without strengthening or weakening our hope for that event. Hope seems to be something much more complicated than merely desire + probability judgment. Martin concludes that hope cannot be adequately captured in the orthodox definition.
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 that hoping 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.
If hope is merely desire + probability judgment, as modern philosophers seem to think, then it seems the wise advice is to trim one’s hopes to fit probability. People who hope for improbable things will very likely have their hopes squashed. We all know or ought to know this. Therefore, people who hope for improbable things most likely are simply deceiving themselves. In very many cases, hope is irrational. If you want to avoid the crushing disappointment of dashed hopes, don’t deceive yourself. Don’t get your hopes up.
Simon Critchley says we should limit our hopes to those that are realistic. Against such so-called “realism,” Martin’s incorporation analysis says that hope can be rational even when the probability of the hoped for outcome is very small. 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.
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 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.
Critchley’s criticism of audacious hope focused on political examples. Martin’s argument depends on individual cases. Can her defense of hope’s rationality be extended to politics?
Yes. Consider the hopes of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. They want to live in a peaceful independent state, with secure land rights and human dignity. Very often, “realism” teaches that these dreams are unlikely. Israeli occupation of the West Bank seems permanent. Martin’s analysis suggests that such people may still hope. Without deluding themselves about the likelihood of a secure independent state, they may incorporate hope for such a state into their lives. In point of fact, many Palestinian people find such hope to be a crucial part of their lives. It sustains them through generations of occupation.
It hardly needs to be said that Israelis also have room for hope, focusing peaceful relations with Muslim neighbors.
Of course, some instances of “hope” fail to be rational. If a person allows his desire for a certain outcome to skew his estimation of its probability (the first judgment), his hope would be irrational. Probability judgments must be made according to ordinary standards of reason and evidence. It is also possible that a person could misjudge the practical importance of some desired outcome; this would produce another kind of irrational “hope.”
Silly illustration #1: Ben is a Cubs fan. On September 12, he reads that the Cubs are “only” 15 games from first place. He estimates that the Cubs will probably win the division, so he licenses himself to hope for a Cubs pennant. This estimation of probability violates ordinary standards of reason and evidence.
Martin says that people who hope for very improbable things frequently have back up plans. “Hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Bess hopes that the experimental drug will cure her, but hoping does not mean she deceives herself about the probable outcome. She may well make plans for her death (e.g. preparing a will, etc.). Similarly, in the Shawshank case, Andy’s hope does not mean he thinks it is likely that he will escape. In the story, he writes letters for many years to ask for money for the prison library in order to improve conditions of long-term prison life for himself and other prisoners.
Silly illustration #2: Pasadena resident Charley reads that there will be a partial eclipse of the sun visible in Seattle on January 2, if it is not raining. Charley is not interested in astronomy. Though he has tickets to the Rose Bowl where his beloved UCLA Bruins will play on January 1, Charley decides to fly to Seattle on that day, hoping to see the eclipse. Given Charley’s life goals, this “hope” violates the notion that practical judgments are subject to standards of practical reason, because Charley’s “hope” does not reflect something important to him.
So yes: hope may be irrational. It is irrational to let our hope influence our judgment of the probability of the outcome we want. It is also irrational let hopes for trivial outcomes play a big role in one’s life. And on Martin’s account, there is no contradiction between hoping for an outcome and having an alternative plan in case one’s hope does not came true.