A Hope Primer:
In 2008 Barak Obama’s campaign for president energized a new generation of voters with the slogan “hope and change.” Given the partisan nature of politics in America, his opponents were happy to mock Obama’s slogan in 2010 and again in 2014. In various ways they asked voters, “Is this what you hoped for? Is this the change you wanted?”
Obama’s campaign wasn’t the first time hope played an explicit role in American politics. An older generation of voters can remember 1992, when Bill Clinton’s campaign presented him as “the man from Hope,” playing on Clinton’s home town in Arkansas.
Politicians don’t have to use the word “hope” to incorporate this theme. In 1984 Ronald Reagan’s campaign famously trumpeted, “It’s morning in America,” and asked voters why they would want to go back to the bad, dark times before Reagan’s first election. The message was not just that economic indicators had improved under Reagan; the “morning in America” slogan emphasized a change in collective feeling, from the pessimism of the Carter years to the ebullient optimism of Reagan.
Going back further, historians and economists debate whether Franklin Roosevelt’s programs to lift the country out of the Great Depression really worked. But they almost all agree that Roosevelt’s confidence and sunny disposition, which he masterfully communicated in radio talks, helped Americans believe in a better future.
Some political commentators claim that this appeal to hope resonates deeply and uniquely with the American spirit. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Roosevelt said. Americans loved that, perhaps more than other peoples. I have no proof that the United States is any different from other countries in this regard; it seems almost axiomatic that candidates for office will claim that things will get better if they are elected and their policies enacted. In America at least, and maybe universally, hopefulness would seem to be an asset to politicians.
There are other appeals, besides hope, to win elections. Politically speaking, fear may be as potent as hope when appealing for votes. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964 evoked deep fears of nuclear war with its famous “daisy” commercial; the ad implied that electing Barry Goldwater could lead to disaster. At various times in American history, politicians have sought votes by appealing to hate of immigrants or racial minorities; for example, in 1968 George Wallace won the electoral votes of several states in a campaign based on racism.
I point to these political examples not to begin a study of politics, nor even to compare a politics of hope to a politics of fear or hate. My goal is to invite the reader to consider this concept of hope. Outside of politics, many people are familiar with hope as an important word in religion, psychology, and philosophy. Consider just a few particulars.
Religion. The New Testament often mentions hope along with other traits that should mark the Christian character. In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul wrote “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Thomas Aquinas wrote that faith, hope, and love were “theological” virtues, distinguished from the natural virtues, such as courage and temperance, because faith, hope and love had God as their object and were “infused” in the believer by God. In our time, theologians like N. T. Wright and Jurgen Moltmann argue that hope should be seen as a central feature in Christian theology. Wright is pointedly critical of the poor job many churches and church leaders have done in explicating Christian hope.
Psychology. In recent decades the broad movement called positive psychology has included an emphasis on hope; C.R. Snyder and his colleagues have introduced “hope theory” and “hope therapy,” and they have conducted an enormous amount of empirical research showing that hopefulness correlates well with positive life outcomes. Therapeutic interventions that increase hopefulness, as measured by simple “hope scales,” fairly reliably improve life for patients. Michael Bishop’s “network theory” of human happiness mentions hope only in passing, but I will argue his theory (combined with Adrienne Martin’s notion of hope as a “syndrome”) neatly expands and corrects Snyder’s “hope theory.”
Philosophy. Immanuel Kant famously included hope among the three foundational questions of philosophy: What can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope? The 20th century Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel saw hope as central to his response to the crisis of modern life. Philosophers writing in the Thomist tradition, such as Josef Pieper, have extended Aquinas’s analysis of hope. More recently (2006), Jonathan Lear invited readers to consider “radical hope,” which he found exemplified in the life of Chief Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow nation. More recently still (2014), Adrienne Martin explored hope as a paradigm virtue in How We Hope: A Moral Psychology.
In what follows I will draw on these and other sources to present a primer on hope. My sources come at hope from different disciplines. What they say is sometimes contradictory, but on most points I think they can be read as complementing each other. I think we can learn something useful about hope from all of them.
Part One: Hope and Rationality
1. The Basic Structure of Hope
1. The Basic Structure of Hope
In one sense, everyone is familiar with hope. Consider Thomas Aquinas’s example of a dog. If the dog sees a rabbit too far away, it won’t chase the rabbit, because it has no hope of catching it. But if the quarry is closer, the dog chases it, hoping to catch it. When the dog catches the rabbit, she no longer hopes, because she has what she wanted.
Aquinas’s imagined dog illustrates crucial components of hope. First, the dog wants the rabbit. Since Socrates, philosophers have taught that people only desire things they judge to be good. So hope is directed toward the good (or what a person thinks is good).
Second, the dog’s desire for the rabbit is for something she does not have. Sometimes we desire things we already have, as when I desire to be with my family while eating Thanksgiving dinner with them. Hope’s desire, unlike desires for things I have already, is usually directed toward the future.
Is this always the case? Consider a family whose loved one was a passenger on an airplane that has gone missing. They have received no news about whether the plane crashed or about possible survivors. Perhaps we would say that they hope that their loved one survived the crash, if indeed there was one. This seems to be a hope for something in the past rather than the future. We do speak this way (e.g. “I hope she survived”), but the example confuses what actually happened with our knowledge of what happened. Whatever happened in the past is fixed; it isn’t subject to change or chance. Imagine the family learns there was a crash and their loved one died. They might wish things had happened otherwise, but they no longer hope that that things had happened otherwise. About the family who does not yet know what happened to the missing plane, it would be more accurate to say they hope they will learn that the loved one survived. So, yes: hope is directed toward the future.
Third, the dog judges that it may catch the rabbit. Hope’s desire is directed toward possible things. We don’t hope for things that are impossible (the rabbit that is too far away) or things that are already achieved (the rabbit in the dog’s mouth, the family gathered at the table).
Hope, then, is directed toward possible future goods (or what a person thinks to be good). But what is it?
Aquinas would say that so far we have only described a natural passion, something we share with higher animals, which must be distinguished from the virtue of hope. As a passion, hope moves us to act; it has what Aquinas would call an appetitive function. At the same time, the natural passion of hope also includes a kind of intellectual judgment; it judges that the desired future good is possible, neither impossible nor actual. In natural hope, then, there is room for both appetite and intellect. Aquinas thought these features of natural hope carried over to the virtue of hope; the virtue of hope, though focused on something very different than natural hopes, also combined appetite (of a kind—our desire for friendship with God is both like and unlike our desires for natural goods) and intellect.
In one way or another, philosophers who write about hope endorse this analysis. In hope there is a combination of desire/feeling/emotion on one side and judgment/rationality/intellect on the other. And this suggests a question: How ought the two “parts” of hope be put together? Should rationality control emotion? Do the feelings associated with hope overpower reason? I will return to this question later.
We need to see that if hope is an appetite directed toward possible future goods, there are going to be many kinds of “hope,” varying according to the ends that people desire. Think of Gollum, guide and would-be nemesis for Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Gollum leads the hobbits on a secret path through the mountains into Mordor, a path that will expose them to the terror of Shelob. Gollum hopes Shelob will kill the hobbits and discard their clothing—including the one ring, which Gollum will then reclaim. Gollum clearly hopes, in the sense that his appetite is directed to a possible future “good,” yet his hope is evil.
Ordinarily we think of hope as a virtue. But hope can only be a virtue when our appetites are directed toward genuine goods. Though he desires it, possession of the one ring is not a good for Gollum; in fact, the ring causes his death and desire for it destroys his soul. It is possible for human beings to desire false goods and worship false gods.
We should modify our first analysis of hope. Hope is directed to possible future genuine goods.
But which goods are genuine goods? To return to Aquinas; he says the natural passion of hope is not the same thing as the virtue of hope. In a very recent essay, Charles Pinches quotes Josef Pieper, “It would never occur to a philosopher unless he were also a Christian theologian, to describe hope as a virtue. For hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all.” Pinches agrees with Pieper and says that among philosophers “…few would think of hope as a virtue, that is, something that perfects us, what we must practice as a habit, be trained in, and work properly to preserve.” I think this is clearly false.
Historically speaking, Pinches and Pieper may be right, but in recent years non-Christian and atheist philosophers have paid attention to hope as a virtue. Jonathan Lear, Jill Graper Hernandez, and Adrienne Martin are all interested in how hope contributes to a flourishing human life and how we may train ourselves in it.
We should not say that only the best and highest good is a genuine good. There are many goods—at the minimum, morally permissible ends—that human being desire. We just need to recognize the great diversity among goods. Pinches himself writes: “hope grows from hope”; that is, the virtue grows out of the passion. We can learn about higher hopes by comparing them with lower ones.
In its basic structure hope is directed to possible future genuine goods. This chapter will explore that idea.
The notion of telos—an end or goal—is built into hope. Since people aim at many different goals, there will be many kinds of “hope.” Some hopes, like Gollum’s hope to recover the one ring of Sauron after Shelob kills the hobbits, are immoral. Is it surprising that “hope” can aim at a bad thing?
As far as I know, philosophers have not addressed this question in regard to hope, but they have wondered about a parallel question in regard to courage. Everyone recognizes that courage is an important virtue. Life confronts all of us, at some time or another, with danger; seeing the danger, we are tempted to do what we should not do or leave undone things we ought to do. Courage is the virtue of correctly facing danger so that we are not diverted from right behavior. So far, so good.
But what should we say about the “courage” of a Nazi prison camp guard? (This is the usual example in the literature, but we can easily think of others. Consider the courage of a 21st century suicide bomber as she takes her place among shoppers in a crowded market.) The prison camp guard faces dangers that tempt him from doing his duties, as he understands them. He certainly seems to exhibit courage in the performance of those duties. But his courage serves the evil purposes of a prison camp; it seems that it would be better, all things considered, if he exhibited cowardice. Perhaps more prisoners would survive if he were a coward.
Philosophers respond to this question in different ways. Some insist that a virtue must be a good thing, so the prison camp guard’s “courage” is actually only a simulacrum of courage. The virtues imply one another, these writers say. The Nazi prison camp guard lacks the virtue of justice (as witnessed by his willingness to serve a thoroughly evil regime), with the result that his seeming courage is actually a vice. Other philosophers deny that the various virtues imply one another. On their view, it’s possible to possess and practice some virtue(s) without having some other virtue. They say the prison camp guard and the suicide bomber may be exemplars of courage even though their lives, taken as a whole, are vicious.
In one sense—a practical sense—we don’t need to settle this debate. Both sides would agree that the moral ideal incorporates many virtues. No morally serious person would aim to develop courage without justice. We can treat the debate as semantic. One side defines courage more narrowly than the other. Once we are clear about how this or that author uses “courage,” we can read him or her accurately.
Now, Thomas Aquinas uses “hope” in a specific narrow sense. Hope (like faith and love) is a “theological” virtue, he says. True hope aims at our highest and best end, friendship with God = felicity in heaven. Hope shares the basic structure of the natural passion of hope, in that it aims at a future possible good. But natural man knows nothing about his true end, eternal friendship with God. Even the greatest of pagan philosophers, Aristotle, who has much to teach us about other virtues, such as courage and temperance, says nothing about the theological virtues. To this day, philosophers in the Thomist tradition, such as Josef Pieper, will use Aquinas’ language. Strictly speaking, they will say, “hope” should be reserved for the theological virtue. But they will also say, with Charles Pinches, that “hope grows from hope.” We can learn about theological hope by examining natural hope.
The very structure of hope is teleological. The ends we hope for matter. Here are four general categories.
(1) Some hopes are immoral, as when “Don Juan” (there are many such characters on my television) hopes to seduce his neighbor’s wife. Hitler hoped to establish a thousand year Reich. The immoral nature of the goal infects the hope.
(2) Some hopes are morally permissible, but seemingly unimportant; for example, I hope the Mariners will win the pennant next summer. My neighbor may hope her roses flourish. Someone might argue that the innocence of such hopes makes them morally praiseworthy, and there is much to be said for such a view. “Innocent” hopes may be individually unimportant, but a life without any such hope would be dull indeed. Of course, there is a danger that someone might give so much attention to an innocent hope (watching scores of baseball games each summer) that he neglects some moral duty, in which case the innocent hope has ceased to be innocent.
(3) Some hopes are morally praiseworthy, even though they seem to be detached from friendship with God or the coming of God’s kingdom. Consider my friend Bernie, who is dying of brain cancer. He hopes to provide, by means of life insurance and investments, for his children. Surely this is a worthy hope. Bernie is also an atheist. He has no hope of friendship with God, nor does he hope that God’s will be done on earth. Bernie could hope for a more just society in the future, and in a metaphorical sense he might be said to hope for the “Kingdom of God,” but only in a metaphorical sense. There are many others like Bernie, who hope for human flourishing without any reference to friendship with God. Such morally praiseworthy hopes are not theological hope, as Aquinas defines it. Yet they are important, and that is why we find secular philosophers giving more and more attention to hope as a virtue.
(4) The theological virtue of hope aims for eternal friendship with God, according to Aquinas. It seems to me we must add as a corollary: theological hope aims for the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom; Christians may properly hope for it.
The boundaries between these categories are not bright and clear. Consider aspects of the kingdom of God: for peace among nations, justice for powerless people, or the conversion of non-Christians to faith in Christ. Suppose someone focuses her hope on peace in some particular place—e.g. peace between rebels and government in Colombia. Does her hope fit in category 3 or category 4? It is a morally praiseworthy hope and it does partake of one aspect of God’s Kingdom.
In this book I will use “immoral hope” to describe things like Gollum’s hope or Don Juan’s hope. I will use “hope” for all morally licit hopes. I quite agree that some hopes are more important or “higher” than others, and I will use various locutions to indicate differences. But since the basic structure of hope is the same, I will use “hope” generically.
3. The Psychological Structure of Hope
The reader could be forgiven for asking: haven’t I been talking about the psychological structure of hope already? I have. But now we find our exploration of hope enriched by contemporary work in positive psychology. Positive psychology is a broad movement in late 20th century psychology that moves the focus of psychology from mental illness (fixing what is wrong) to the achievement of satisfactory life (pursuing and enjoying what is right or healthy).
Charles R. Snyder (1944-2006) wrote the first textbook in positive psychology and was a leader in the field. He spent his career as a teacher, researcher, and theorist at the University of Kansas. In the 1970s and 1980s, while conducting research on the excuses people give for failing to reach goals, Snyder theorized that excuses help people distance themselves from failures. But as he listened to his research participants, they had something more to say. Excuses were only part of the story. Yes, they wanted to distance themselves from failures, but they also wanted to decrease the distance to their positive life goals. Reflection on this research led Snyder to propose “hope theory.”
Snyder’s core definition: Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes.
Much of human life is teleological; that is, we pursue goals. Snyder offers a simple diagram:
But we often encounter obstacles that keep us from reaching our goals. This gives us a more complicated diagram.
Two things are needed to reach life goals when obstacles get in the way, Snyder thought. A person needs to be able to think up “pathways” around the obstacle that may enable her to reach the goal, and she needs to have “agentic motivation” to invent these pathways and put them into practice.
In the fifteen years after 1990, Snyder and his team of colleagues and students at the University of Kansas built an impressive array of research on this fundamental idea. They devised the Adult Dispositional Hope Scale, the Adult State Hope Scale, the Children’s Hope Scale, the Young Children’s Hope Scale and the Adult Domain-Specific Hope Scale. The scales are composed of a surprisingly small number of items, less than 20 in every case. Using their hope scales on a variety of populations (college students, children, adults, and senior adults), the Kansas researchers made several claims: the hope scales give reliable information, comparable to other accepted psychological inventories; high hope scores correlate well with positive life outcomes; and therapeutic interventions can be devised to increase clients’ hope. Further, Snyder offered a possible explanation for a surprising but well-documented finding about psychological therapy, i.e. that various psychological approaches for producing change in clients appear to be equally effective. Therapeutic interventions based on seemingly very different psychological theories all have a common feature of offering hope to clients. Perhaps it is hope, and not the particular theoretical construct, that really matters.
Snyder and his colleagues claim that both parts of hope—agency and pathways thinking—aare necessary to increase hopefulness and improve life outcomes. A client suffering from depression (or some other presenting problem) might perceive himself as being unable or without desire to do anything in regard to his goals (a lack of agency), unable to think of ways to achieve his goals (lack of pathways thinking), or both. Hope therapy aims to discover which deficits are present and help the client come to perceive himself as being able in both areas. Self-perception is crucial; if a client sees himself as motivated and willing to use appropriate methods of achieving his goals, and sees himself as able to invent appropriate methods of achieving his goals, he exhibits hope.
Snyder and his research team applied this analysis to many areas of life. The Domain-Specific Hope Scale includes social relationships, academics, romantic relationships, family life, work, and leisure activities. Hope therapy is appropriate, they claimed, with every age group from young children to the elderly.
Hope therapy aims at changing the way clients think. “In hope therapy, change is initiated at the cognitive level, with a focus on enhancing clients’ self-referential agentic and pathway goal-directed thinking.” Snyder and his colleagues thought that affective changes—that is, changes in a client’s feelings—would follow from changed thinking. This put hope theory and hope therapy in sharp contrast to much previous psychological interest in hope, which thought of hope primarily in terms of positive emotions.
Hope theory says that hope is goal-directed (teleological), but it doesn’t say much about which goals are appropriate. It is the client who decides which areas of life are important to her and what her goals are in those areas. In the previous chapter, I divided hopes into four kinds: immoral hope (such as Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor), innocent hope (the fan’s hope for a pennant), praiseworthy hope (a man’s hope to provide for his children after he dies), and theological hope (the hope for eternal friendship with God). Snyder’s hope therapy does not speak to such distinctions. Therapists may have to help clients make their amorphous goals more specific, and they may actively redirect clients’ thinking so they can acknowledge their own abilities to conceive of goals and pathways to them.
Perhaps for the purposes of therapy, that is enough. I will return to categories of hope and the things we hope for in a later chapter.
I will not try to describe hope therapy in greater detail now. Suffice it to say that Snyder and his colleagues produced (and after Snyder’s death his colleagues are still producing) a generous supply of research and “how to” materials for psychological professionals.
How does hope theory as presented by Snyder and his colleagues square with the description of hope I have been developing? I offer three observations.
First, Snyder’s hope theory and the definition I proposed in chapter 1 are both teleological. Hope looks toward the future.
Second, crucial to Snyder’s theory is the idea of “blocks” to goals. This matches a feature of Aquinas’s analysis of hope that I haven’t yet explained. According to Aquinas, human passions come in two kinds. “Concupiscent” passions move one to attain something perceived as good (e.g. hunger or sexual desire), or avoid something perceived as evil (e.g. sadness or hatred). “Irascible” passions move one to overcome some threat or difficulty that stands in the way of one’s goals (e.g. courage or anger). Concupiscent passions may encounter obstacles—I may have to earn money to buy the food I desire—but the obstacle/difficulty is not essential to the passion. Sometimes the food I desire is immediately available. In contrast, irascible passions are always marked by difficulty or obstacle; the defining feature of an irascible passion is that it overcomes some hindrance.
Aquinas included hope among the irascible passions. On Aquinas’s account, hope is the passion that moves us to attain a possible but difficult good. It is interesting that Snyder’s theory agrees with this insight. Without the notion of “blocks” to goals, and the accompanying idea of “pathways” around the blocks, Snyder’s theory would be insignificant.
Third, there is an apparent contradiction between Snyder’s theory, which is emphatically cognitive, and the “syndrome” concept of hope I will introduce in my next chapter (borrowing from Adrienne Martin). The syndrome definition explicitly includes perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and motivations as parts of hope. On Snyder’s account, if a person perceives himself as having motivation to think up and use pathways to his goals and perceives himself as able to think up pathways to his goals, he exemplifies hope. Everything is cognitive. The “syndrome” concept of hope is emphatically wholistic, not purely cognitive. I will explore these differences in the next chapter.
4. The Syndrome Account of Hope
Hope is directed toward possible future goods, and “true” hope is directed toward possible future genuine goods (so that we may regard Hitler’s hope of conquering Poland as a vice rather than a virtue). But what is hope?
In the last chapter, we saw that C.R. Snyder’s hope theory defines hope in purely cognitive terms. Hope is the sum of perceived capabilities to produce routes to desired goals, along with the perceived motivation to use those routes. Snyder and his colleagues recognized that his theory contrasts with earlier thinking by psychologists, who thought of hope mainly in terms of positive feelings. On Snyder’s view, right thinking (that is, hope) will lead to positive affect (that is, “hopefulness” or feeling hopeful). Accordingly, hope therapy focuses on cognitive changes.
Philosophers have generally defined hope very differently. Their analysis starts with Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas, as I explained in chapter 1, distinguished the passion of hope from the virtue of hope. Passion and virtue both look to the future, but passions aim at goods in this world while the virtue of hope aims at a transcendent good, eternal friendship with God. Aquinas further distinguished between concupiscent and irascible passions. Hope, both as natural passion and theological virtue, is irascible. That is, hope moves us to overcome obstacles.
Later philosophers often ignored the complexities in Aquinas’ account. Hope, whether passion or virtue, desires a future good, and that good is seen as possible (neither certain nor impossible). For these philosophers, hope is a desire combined with the judgment that the thing desired is possible. Notice that the judgment in this definition is very different from the cognitive elements of Snyder’s definition. The modern philosophers’ definition of hope includes a judgment about the probability of some desired future good whereas the judgment in Snyder’s theory concerns a person’s ability to think up pathways and her motivation to use those pathways.
As Adrienne Martin points out, most modern philosophers, from the 16th century forward, dispensed with the categories (“concupiscent” and “irascible” passions) that Aquinas used. For them, and probably for most contemporary readers, a passion is just a motivating emotion. Many philosophers of the last four centuries simply substitute “desire” for “passion,” which produces what Martin calls the “orthodox” definition of hope: “to hope for an outcome is to desire it while believing it is possible but not certain.” There is ironic humor in Martin’s use of “orthodox,” since modern philosophers would blanche at being described that way.
Martin objects to the orthodox doctrine, in that it is overly simplistic. First, it leads to an equally “orthodox” modern conclusion about hope: We ought to regulate our hopes by their probability. The more unlikely the good we desire, the less rational it is to hope for it. I will discuss Martin’s objection to this advice concerning the rationality of hope in my next chapter.
Martin’s second objection, which will occupy the rest of this chapter, concerns the notion of “desire.” The “orthodox definition” oversimplifies hope, making “desire” cover too much ground. Borrowing a word from Margaret Walker, she says hope is a “syndrome” that combines feelings, thoughts, modes of perception, and motivations.
Let’s explore this “syndrome” idea with an example. Imagine a man, call him Alfred, living in 1730. Alfred is sick with some condition that makes it hard to breathe. His doctor tells him he has “consumption,” the disease we call tuberculosis. Alfred’s doctor recommends treatment of one sort or another.
Alfred knows, as do most people in his age, that consumption is a dread disease. Most people who get it waste away and die. But some victims do get better. Medical advice doesn’t seem to make much difference. (Tuberculosis bacteria would not be identified for another 150 years. In fact, the “germ” theory, that many diseases are caused by microorganisms, had not been invented in 1730.)
We can imagine that many “consumptives” in Alfred’s day had no hope of cure. They firmly expected their disease to end their lives. Imagine, though, that Alfred hopes to recover from his consumption. How might this hope be expressed?
Feelings. Perhaps this is the most obvious expression of hope. Compared to other consumptives, Alfred is more cheerful. His moods are “brighter.” He smiles more. But it is hard to describe Alfred’s feelings without also mentioning other aspects of his hope.
Thoughts. Alfred’s hope is expressed sometimes in beliefs, such as: “Some consumptives do get well,” or “My doctor may be wrong about my condition,” or “God may see fit to heal me.” Other times, Alfred’s thinking consists of imagination; he pictures to himself what it would be like to breathe freely again, or he sees himself taking on long-term projects, e.g. marrying and having a family.
Perceptions. Alfred’s hope changes the way he experiences the world. He wakes up and breathing seems easier today—“Perhaps my recovery has begun.” On another occasion, he feels weak or out of breath, but he perceives this as a temporary setback. It’s easy to imagine a contrast case, a consumptive who lives out his final months or years in despair; he interprets every new pain as a sign of approaching death.
Motivations. Alfred’s hope spurs him to act on his doctor’s advice. That is, if he trusts the doctor’s expertise; it’s possible that Alfred hopes for a cure, but not through medicine, in which case his hope might spur him to use some nature cure recommended by the village healer-woman. In hope, Alfred might make plans for the farm he will buy after he marries.
Such an example Martin’s objection to the “desire + probability judgment” definition of hope is correct, at least in regard to “desire.” From here on, I will adopt the “syndrome” definition of hope. Hope is a syndrome of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and motivations aimed at a future good.
Martin aims her criticism primarily at modern philosophers’ overly simplistic definition of hope. It turns out that it also reveals a weakness in Snyder’s hope theory. Hope theory assumes that the cognitive elements of hope are the essential part, that cognitive changes drive affective changes. The syndrome definition of hope suggests this is too simple. Phenomenologically, hope is complicated. I will return to this idea in a later chapter, when I discuss Michael Bishop’s theory of positive causal networks. Before that, though, we need to explore Adrienne Martin’s defense of the rationality of hope.
5. The Case Against Hope
In chapter 4, I promised to explore Adrienne Martin’s defense of the rationality of hope—and I will, but not in this chapter. Before defending hope, we must give space to the argument against hope. Since the seventeenth century, modern philosophers have thought that to hope for an outcome is to desire it while believing it is possible but not certain. Is hope, so understood, a good thing?
In April 2014, Simon Critchley wrote an essay for The Stone, one of the opinion pages for the New York Times, entitled, “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope” that captures the modern objection to hope. Writing at Easter time, Critchley meditates on the dangers of Barack Obama’s campaign theme, “audacious hope.” Obama picked up the phrase from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and said that this audacity is “the best of the American spirit.” It is “the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary.” If that’s what hope is, Critchley thinks it’s dangerous, a vice rather than a virtue.
Political decisions based on hope rather than realism lead to disaster. Critchley reminds us of Thucydides’ account of the Melians, when besieged by the Athenians. The Athenian army was clearly stronger, and the Athenian navy controlled the waters around Melos. Still, the Melians hoped: they hoped they might hold out for a long time, they hoped their allies, the Spartans, would come to relieve them, and they hoped to win honor for standing against oppression. The Melians refused to surrender. Their patience exhausted, the Athenians conquered the city, killed all the men, and made slaves of the women and children. Critchley says:
Thucydides offers no moral commentary on the Melian Dialogue. He does not tell us how to react, but instead impartially presents us with a real situation. The dialogue is an argument from power about the nature of power. This is why Nietzsche, in his polemics against Christianity and liberalism, loved Thucydides. This is also why I love Nietzsche. Should one reproach Thucydides for describing the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians without immediately moralizing the story and telling us how we should think? Not at all, Nietzsche insists. What we witness in the Melian Dialogue is the true character of Greek realism.
Here is the heart of the attack on hope. Because it is unrealistic, hope can (and often does) make our lives worse. Critchley applies the lesson to contemporary politics, thinking in particular (in 2014) about Obama’s policies toward the Middle East. But his warning can be easily applied to individual lives. Imagine the tragedies people make of their lives by “audacious hope” in regard to gambling, investments, business decisions, or marriages. Against evidence to the contrary, they hope that this horse will win, this penny stock will prosper, this business partner will have integrity, or this potential spouse will understand me.
Now hope is a positive emotion, the objector will say. It feels good; no one denies that. But when we act on the basis of hope rather than on realism, we court catastrophe. When catastrophe comes, we feel despair. And it’s not only the case of a bad feeling replacing a good feeling. In many cases the disaster created by audacious hope leaves us objectively worse off.
Critchley concludes his essay with criticism of politically liberal idealism, but his words apply equally well to individual hopes:
You can have all kinds of reasonable hopes, it seems to me, the kind of modest, pragmatic and indeed deliberately fuzzy conception of social hope expressed by an anti-Platonist philosopher like Richard Rorty. But unless those hopes are realistic we will end up in a blindly hopeful (and therefore hopeless) idealism. Prodigal hope invites despair only when we see it fail. In giving up the former, we might also avoid the latter. This is not an easy task, I know. But we should try. Nietzsche writes, “Hope is the evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.” Often, by clinging to hope, we make the suffering worse.
We can sharpen Critchley’s point. If hope, whether we call it “audacious” or not, leads us to act in ways that often make our lives objectively worse, hope is not a virtue. For modern philosophers like Nietzsche or Critchley, only reasonable hopes count as virtues. In many cases, hope is not reasonable, and when it is not reasonable, hope is a vice.
Nietzsche and Critchley picture the contest as one between hope and realism, and they come down on the side of realism. If they had used an older term from the virtue tradition, they might have opposed hope to “prudence,” the antique translation of phronesis (usually rendered as “practical wisdom”). Aristotle counted phronesis as a crucially important virtue, since a person needs it to rightly practice courage, generosity, friendship, or any other moral virtue. But Aristotle said nothing about hope as a virtue; hope enters the virtue tradition through Christianity. So here is another way to conceptualize the attack on hope. If hope is to be counted a moral virtue, it should be governed by prudence (phronesis, practical wisdom). Since “audacious hope” runs free of prudence, it is no more a virtue than the so-called “courage” of the foolhardy soldier who races toward the enemy forces alone.
Now despite this attack, I think hope is a virtue. But the attack on hope, whether couched in Nietzsche and Critchley’s terms or in Aristotle’s, helps us to appreciate the importance of the next chapter, where we will examine Adrienne Martin’s defense of hope’s rational status.
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.
Part Two: How to Hope
Chapter 7: Positive Causal Networks
Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, introduces a philosophically informed theory of positive psychology. Bishop’s theory may also offer insights into the virtue of hope, though Bishop did not intend that result. In this and the succeeding chapters, I will pursue insights into hope based on Bishop’s theory.
“Positive psychology” has been a growth industry for at least 40 years, reflecting the desire on the part of many mental health professionals to move from treating illness to facilitating health. Rather than concentrating on the dark side—neuroses, psychoses, debilitating syndromes, etc.—positive psychologists want to understand the “light” side of human mental functioning. Are there ways for ordinary people to get better? Can we be happier? More content? More productive? How can professional therapists help people achieve their deepest aspirations?
The idea is intuitively appealing, at least to some. So psychologists have produced thousands of empirical studies that investigate one or more aspects of “well-being.” And they have discovered correlations, some of which must represent causal connections, between behaviors, patterns of thought, accomplishments, attitudes, perceptions, and emotions. Having discovered causal connections, therapists are sometimes able to say, “Research shows that people who do x fairly reliably experience y as a result. Since you want more y in your life, I recommend you do x.”
A concrete example: C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” begins with an operational definition of hope and then, having conducted a great deal of empirical research on the basis of that definition, suggests practical interventions by which therapists can help patients increase their hope. Snyder’s research colleagues have collected plenty of evidence that these interventions work, in the sense that patients report improved life outcomes on a number of measures.
It should be stressed that Snyder’s hope theory is only one example among many. Positive psychologists have researched organizational leadership, creativity, marital success, physical exercise, happiness, video game playing, generosity, workplace satisfaction, and lots of other particulars.
According to Bishop, the problem is that until now no one has proposed a good theory to say what positive psychology is. What is it that all this empirical research actually studies? His answer: “positive causal networks” or PCNs. Here is an illustration.
Many runners report that running improves their mood, their creativity, and their overall mental state. After much experience running, runners have a well-founded belief that goes something like this: “Even though the weather is nasty today and I’m tempted to skip my run, I know I’ll feel better if I do it.” This belief, or pattern of thought, obviously tends to keep the runner participating in her running regimen. So there is a feedback loop: running leads to feeling better; feeling better leads to a pattern of thought; the pattern of thought leads to more running. As Bishop says, persons get “stuck” in a causal network that improves their lives.
Positive causal networks are usually much more complex than my example of running. Bishop lists four components to causal networks: emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments. Notice that my example, running, refers to a “pattern of thought,” which may seem hard to fit into one of Bishop’s components. Bishop might try to squeeze “patterns of thought” into his structure (maybe such patterns contribute to “attitudes”); more likely, he would admit that the components he names may not be all there are. At several points in his book, he stresses that he is offering an initial theory and would welcome corrections. The key idea is that the parts of a positive causal network (he calls these “PCN fragments”) reinforce each other.
Plenty of evidence suggests positive causal networks are real, Bishop says. That is, they exist in the world whether or not we understand them or pay attention to them. To a limited degree, people have long been aware of positive causal networks, before modern science began exploring them in detail. Consider the time-honored advice of parents: You say you want to do well in school? Very well, make friends with the good students. Enjoy the activities they enjoy. Copy their attitudes toward books and schoolwork. Build more friendships based on shared academic interests. And so on. Your friendships will help you develop the right attitudes and habits, the right attitudes and habits will help you do well in school, and doing well in school will attract the right kind of friends.
Bishop says we should see a parallel here between positive causal networks and other natural kinds, such as “water.” Obviously, water was an important real thing in the world, though people referred to it for thousands of years without knowing its chemical composition. When chemists discovered that water is H2O they improved our understanding of water and enabled us to do things with water that we were previously unable to do. Bishop says that as psychologists gain better understanding of positive causal networks such knowledge will enable us to improve our lives in various ways.
One more example: people who are kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings tend to make friends. Having friends tends to create pleasurable experiences. Having friends is a kind of personal relationship that is highly valued in our society. Having pleasurable experiences that are at the same time highly valued by society tends to make persons kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings—and the cycle renews itself. Bishop says that much empirical research by positive psychologists supports the conclusion that PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters.” The emotions, traits, attitudes, and accomplishments in such a property cluster tend to reinforce each other, so the cluster tends to endure. Bishop points to empirical research that indicates that people displaying a high degree of a positive trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t1 will have (compared to those who have a lower degree of that trait, attitude, emotion, or accomplishment) a statistically significant greater chance of having a high degree of that trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t2—even when t2 is years or decades after t1. Further, persons who have a higher degree of one component of a PCN at time t1, say component c1, will have a greater chance of having some other component of the PCN, component c2, at time t2. Positive causal networks are real and, as homeostatic property clusters, they tend to endure. Positive psychology research can teach us how to build and strengthen PCNs. According to Bishop, that’s what positive psychologists are doing, and that’s how they should conceptualize their work.
In succeeding chapters, I will use Bishop’s PCN theory to explore hope. First, in chapter 8, I will discuss the most controversial aspect of PCN theory.
8. Positive Psychology and Morality
A fundamental idea in Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, is that positive psychologists study “causal networks” composed of attitudes, emotions, traits, and accomplishments. Because the various parts of a causal network reinforce each other, such networks tend to persist over time; they are “homeostatic property clusters.” According to Bishop, empirical research conducted by positive psychologists demonstrates that causal networks are a real feature of human psychology; causal networks would exist whether psychologists study them or not. Positive psychology is the study of positive causal networks (PCNs).
What makes a positive causal network positive? At one point in his book (96-98), Bishop says “negative causal networks” may also exist, and that a complete theory of psychology ought to teach us how to recognize and escape negative networks (e.g. cycles of depression or obsessive compulsions) just as the complete theory would teach us how to recognize and promote positive networks. Bishop says little about negative psychology—the “theory of ill-being”—because his task is to propose a theory of well-being. He does, however, recognize that it is crucial to his theory to distinguish positive causal networks from negative ones. Bishop says:
...among all the causal networks (i.e. homeostatic property clusters of emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments) in the world, the positive ones are those that feel good, that bring about states that feel good, and that are valued by the person or her culture. (41, emphases added)
Bishop knows full well that philosophers will take him to task here. That a person or culture values a state does not mean that state is valuable, they will way. That a state feels good and leads to states that feel good does not imply well-being, they will say. Bishop faces this criticism head-on. He imagines “Josef,” a
… wicked, sadistic man with a robust PCN. He instantiates a causal network involving feelings, attitudes, traits, and interventions in the world that are ‘successful’ in the sense that they consist of positive experiences for Josef and are valued by Josef and his culture. This seems to be a real possibility, particularly in sick societies (think Mengele). (187-188)
A moralized view of human well-being, Bishop says, would deny that Josef leads a good life. This is a feature of what Bishop calls “consilience” views of well-being; on any consilience view, virtue and well-being converge. Bishop points to Aristotle’s ethics as a prime example of a consilience theory, but there are many other important philosophers who held such a view. For example, Epicurus asserted that virtuous living had to be pleasant and that without virtue one could not have pleasure. Disagreeing with Epicurus, Kant recognized that goodness and happiness do not always converge in this life, and for that reason he proposed that rational persons might believe in an afterlife and a moral God who could guarantee that goodness and happiness would coalesce in the next life. Kant was as convinced as Epicurus that goodness and happiness should converge.
But there are problems with moralized views of well-being, Bishop says. First, there are a great many notions of the good life on offer, and they disagree significantly about components of the good life. More importantly for his project, Bishop says that moralized views of the good life will systematically exclude empirical evidence from positive psychology. We should seek theories of human well-being that are scientifically adequate, and one feature of scientific adequacy is that a theory accommodates empirical evidence.
An illustration will help. Consider the debate between vegetarians and carnivores. For many people, deciding whether to eat meat is a purely instrumental matter: will a diet containing meat help them reach their life goals (e.g. health, weight control) as well as a vegetarian diet? However, for other people the decision about eating meat is an important moral decision. Some vegetarians argue that it is morally blameworthy for any person (or for most persons) to eat animal flesh, while carnivores reject that conclusion. It seems that a moralized view of well-being has to take some position on this question. Either eating animal flesh is immoral, or it is permissible (or permissible in some circumstances, in the past or in certain cultures). Bishop’s first objection to moralized views of the good life is that such views require that we resolve such debates before we can study well-being. Bishop’s second, and more important, objection is that whichever side we take in regard to eating animal flesh, we will end up ignoring empirical evidence. After all, there could be (in this case, there actually is) (1) empirical evidence that vegetarianism can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that vegetarian practice leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good, and (2) empirical evidence that eating meat can be an important part of a positive causal network, such that meat-eating leads to a variety of states that feel good and lead to other states that feel good. Vegetarians sometimes point with glee to empirical evidence suggesting that vegetarianism is “good for you” in one way or another; just as often meat-eaters emphasize evidence that moderate meat consumption is also “good for you” and pleasurable. Both sides like to use evidence (readily available) to show that their view promotes well-being. Bishop’s point is that both are right. Therefore we should conclude that well-being is multiply-realizable. A scientific approach to positive psychology will be inclusive, Bishop says. Therefore, Bishop rejects moralized views of human well-being.
This does not mean that Bishop proposes a revolution in our moral thinking. After all, “Josef” really is a wicked human being. “It’s just a sobering fact about our world that bad people can have well-being.” (188)
Bishop says that well-being, studied inclusively according to the network theory, is an objective feature of human lives, and it is objectively valuable. (211) Individuals, organizations, and governments can legitimately weigh factors of well-being when making decisions. Well-being is not the only factor in making decisions, Bishop says. An individual may sacrifice some of his well-being in order to keep a promise or promote the well-being of others. An organization or government might spurn a policy that promised to promote the well-being of many if it were unjust or violated the rights of a few. (211)
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 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.
To this point, I have merely explained Bishop’s claims. The next step is to ask: So what? What are the implications if Bishop’s theory if it is right? I will turn to that question in my next chapter.
Instantiating a Positive Causal Network
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 says 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 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—e.g. that duly noticed open public meetings were held for the discussion of the matter, —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. Bishop intends, I think, that we 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. Thus, we experience varying levels of voluntary control over different components of a PCN.
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? As I explained in earlier chapters, 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. Rather than use hope as an example of an “attitude,” Bishop would have done better to think of hope as a PCN, a complicated homeostatic property cluster.
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. So: hope also involves belief; Yakub believes certain 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 times 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. If that is true, we should expect multiple answers to the question: How do we hope?
Some aspects of hope may be involuntary, feelings that happen to us. But other parts of the Syndrome/PCN of hope are voluntary. We can “take up” attitudes. We can examine evidence to judge whether a good outcome is possible. We can imagine ways to accomplish our goals, and we can judge that we are motivated to act. We can act in accord with those plans. If hope is complicated, the things we do to hope will vary.
10. Perceptions and Hope
If hope is a syndrome, a positive causal network comprised of multiple elements, it may be possible to grow into hope in different ways. In this and subsequent chapters, I will suggest ways that a person might move into hope. Adrienne Martin includes “modes of perception” alongside motivations, feelings, and thoughts in the syndrome of hope. I will begin by reflecting on the place of perceptions in hope.
The first thing to notice is that different persons, or the same person at different times, can perceive a single reality in different ways. A loud sound wakes up everyone in a motel; guests rush out of their rooms late at night. Someone excitedly says he heard a gunshot. The motel clerk calms everyone, returning them to their rooms: “The steam press in the factory across the street breaks a rod at least once a month. My brother works there, and he says management is just too cheap to buy a new press.”
Suppose someone in fifth grade exclaims, “It’s snowing!” The whole class looks out the window. What do they see? Some of them remember last week’s snowstorm, when school was canceled for two days. Perhaps one of them will say, with hope, “It’s really coming down!” Someone else, perhaps the teacher, who listened to the weather forecast on her drive to work, will say, “I don’t think so. Look. See how small the flakes are?”
Everybody is familiar with such examples. Different people, seeing or hearing the same thing, do not perceive it in the same way. Witnesses to a crime often give conflicting reports about what happened. We know our perceptions are influenced by our beliefs, moods, and expectations.
Consider the way we perceive something as common as morning shadows.
Long shadows stretch over the landscape at dawn and shorten as the morning progresses. For millennia people said, “The sun is rising.” That’s what it looks like. The sun climbs into the sky, and the morning shadows flee. But since Copernicus we know better. We still use words like “sunrise” and “sunset,” but we know the sun only appears to rise or fall; in reality the earth is turning.
Our perceptions are a way of construing the world. Two people see evening shadows lengthening; one construes/sees the sun going down, and the other sees the world turning beneath a stationary sun. Here’s the thing. We can learn to perceive in according to knowledge. With a little practice, we don’t see the sun “rising”; instead we see it standing still as the earth turns.
How does this apply to hope? In The Shawshank Redemption, most of the prisoners at Shawshank prison regarded escape as impossible. Andy Dufresne would readily admit that escape was unlikely, but he believed it possible. Since he believed escape was possible, he noticed—perceived—something the other prisoners didn’t see: the thick masonry walls of Shawshank prison could be tunneled. He noticed/perceived that his tunnel could reach the big sewer line and the sewer could serve as an escape route.
Adrienne Martin’s example of the cancer patients, Alan and Bess, demonstrates the importance of perception in a slightly different way. The doctors have told both patients the experimental drug has only a tiny chance of curing their cancer. Objectively speaking, each knows the drug will almost certainly not help. But they perceive the drug trial differently. Alan does not hope. Perhaps he joins the experiment thinking that at least this way his death can contribute to science. He perceives the drug as an experiment only. But for Bess, a one-in-ten-thousand chance is still a chance. It’s possible the drug will cure her. So she hopes. She perceives each injection as a lever wedging open the door to life.
One way to move into hope is to perceive the world the right way. Some philosophers will immediately object that the only “right” way to see the world is in accord with evidence and reason. We should never deceive ourselves into thinking our desired outcomes are more likely than they are. It is important to remember that Martin’s “incorporation” thesis has already accepted this point. Bess does not deceive herself that the drug has better odds. She accepts the unlikelihood of success. But she goes further than a probability judgment; she judges also that the hoped for outcome is practically important. So she licenses herself to perceive the drug hopefully.
It is rationally permissible and practically useful to train oneself to see features of the world in a hopeful way. Andy Dufresne sees massive walls as possible escape routes. Bess sees an experimental drug as a possible cure. By perceiving the world in these ways, they strengthen other parts of the homeostatic property cluster known as hope.
Hope works. My research friend at the Oregon Health Sciences University, Kent Thornburg, reports that hopeful patients do better, on average, than those without hope. C.R. Snyder hypothesized that psychotherapies based on very different theories of psychology all work (and there is evidence they do) because each therapy increases hope in patients.
My point is not that one can create hope or cure depression by some simple mental trick. I say again: a person’s perceptions are only a part of the syndrome of hope. Nevertheless, because the way we perceive the world is at least partly a matter of training—we can learn to perceive the earth as turning rather than the sun as rising—we have some degree of agential control over perception. We can learn to perceive the world in accord with hope.
11. Paying Attention
We can learn to perceive the world in hopeful ways. That is to say: we have some measure of agential control over our perceptions. In this chapter, I want to think about a particular aspect of perception, which we can call paying attention.
I borrow an illustration from Mark Bernier, author of The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard. (The example comes from one of Mark’s conference papers, not his book. I will have more to say about the “task” of hope in a later chapter.) Mark inspired the example, but he is not responsible for the lessons I derive from it.
Imagine a man hiking a logging road in the Maine woods. Hunting season is over, and winter has set in. He visits the woods late in the year precisely because almost no one else does. A farmer in a pickup truck waved to him an hour ago, the only person he has seen since leaving his car a hundred yards from the end of the pavement. He loves quiet and the beauty of the forest. On an impulse he leaves the road, walking down a slope into the stillness of nature. The snow isn’t deep, and his boots keep his feet dry and warm. He wanders deep into the wilderness. He sees the forest as a natural cathedral, full of majesty and mystery.
Then he slips. The snow isn’t deep, but it concealed a soft patch or a fallen branch. He falls, rolls, and hears a terrifying snap. The pain of a broken leg surges through him, followed by a wave of fear. He cannot walk. Now five inches of snow—before, merely an element of forest beauty—constitutes a deadly threat, because he must crawl back to the logging road.
He had planned to walk out of the woods in daylight. Now? At best he might reach the road before dark. Out of cell phone range, the hiker realizes his survival depends on two things: reaching the road and the arrival of a rare passerby. He chose this day for his hike partly because few vehicles would use the road, yet now he yearns for the sound of an engine. If one comes, the loudest sound he could make is a scream. His fingers curl around a stone; rising on his knees he might be able to throw it to the road and get the attention of a driver. As he crawls uphill toward the road, he listens intently for any indication of a vehicle.
Reflect for a moment on the hiker’s attention. The beauty and serenity of the forest no longer register in his mind. The hoped for sound of an engine is all that matters. No one would fault the hiker for this. His survival depends on hearing a vehicle and successfully signaling its driver.
Notice how the hiker’s situation fits Adrienne Martin’s incorporation thesis. It is not impossible that a car or pickup could come, though it is very unlikely. The hiker rightly judges that the arrival of a vehicle is possible and that it is of great practical importance. Therefore he “licenses” himself to hope for one.
The hiker’s attention resembles, but is slightly different from Andy Dufresne perceiving Shawshank Prison’s walls as possible escape routes. In hopeful perception, one construes something or sees something as having certain features. In hopeful attention, one is not construing or interpreting sensory information; rather he readies himself to receive certain information. Hopeful perception (Andy Dufresne) interprets what already is; hopeful attention (the hiker) looks for what may be.
The difference I am describing between perception and attention is so small we might ignore it. But I think it makes a practical difference for hope. Sometimes hope interprets certain features of the world, while at other times hope anticipates or waits for things.
Imagine a Somali refugee in a sprawling refugee camp in Kenya. She lived here with her mother for four years, until her mother died. That was ten years ago. Her desire to return to Somalia evaporated long ago. She wants to emigrate to the United States. To that end, with the help of aid workers, she has made application and submitted to interviews.
The refugee hopes to emigrate. The decision lies in other people’s hands, people whose lives she can hardly imagine—ambassadors, presidents, immigration officials, and so on. These people’s judgments are to her as inscrutable as the pronouncements of pagan gods. Often she gets discouraging news: the quota is full this month, or a new president has decided that refugees from her country should be excluded from the United States. She may interpret or perceive bad news as temporary setbacks; she persists in hope. Additionally, though, her hope consists in attentive waiting. Her hope not only colors the way she interprets today’s news, it anticipates tomorrow’s news. It looks toward something that is not yet.
We will return to the notion of attentive waiting as a component of hope in a later chapter.
For now, back to our hiker. Consider another feature of the hiker’s attention. Out of many things he might attend to, he selects only a few. He is listening for the sound of a car or truck to the exclusion of almost everything else. Other sounds of the forest (admittedly, there aren’t many) he ignores. Selective attention is true of all of us all the time. The world presents us with a kaleidoscope of possible perceptions, and we cannot attend to all of them. It is no objection against hope to say that in hope a person attends to only some aspects of the world. Perhaps a perfectly rational and timeless being (i.e. God) would focus equally on every aspect of the world. But this is not something we should expect of finite dependent creatures such as ourselves.
12. Pathways and Motivation
C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” says that hope consists in two beliefs: that the individual can think of pathways toward desired outcomes and that the individual is motivated to use those pathways. According to the theory, hope is entirely cognitive.
Now I think Snyder’s theory is too simple. The hope syndrome (or positive causal network) includes other elements, such as the way we perceive things and the way we direct our attention to certain features of the world. Further, it seems obvious that some of our actions contribute to the syndrome/causal network of hope. Every time Andy Dufresne dropped bits of masonry in the prison yard, he reinforced his hope of escape.
Nevertheless, if we are asking how to hope, Snyder’s theory directs us to parts of the hope syndrome that may be especially amenable to agential control—at least, in regard to some of the things we hope for. That is, we can see that certain things are true simply by introspection; and when we recognize their truth, hope is strengthened.
Imagine Andre, who wants a new job. He’s been doing the same thing for fifteen years, working in a factory, office, or store. He feels trapped. Andre needs the income, since he and his wife have two children, but without more education he can expect no advancement. Andre’s disappointment with his job seems to color everything in his life. He’s frustrated with his children. He often snaps at his wife, and then feels guilty about it. He drinks too many beers. Andre sees commercials for clinical trials of a new depression medication on television; it occurs to him that he might be depressed, though he would never tell anyone. Andre’s family and religious upbringing strongly discouraged admission of mental illness.
Andre wants a new job, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say he hopes for it. Michael Bishop would describe his state not as a positive causal network but a negative causal network. If things keep going this way, Andre may develop clinical depression. Various negative aspects of his life reinforce other negative aspects of his life—the kids’ medical bills, marking time on the job, his wife’s lack of understanding, the sky-high cost of a college degree, his drinking, his anger at his wife, feeling sad and trapped, the job…
Suppose that somehow Andre learned precepts of C.R. Snyder’s hope theory/therapy. Maybe someone on the pastoral staff of his church lent him an article describing hope theory and met with Andre to talk about it. Andre says the article intrigues him, but he doesn’t see how hope theory could apply to him. He’s stuck; there’s nothing he can do to change his situation. The pastor points out that Andre did read the article, and he did come to meet with the pastor. So there are some things that Andre can do. Perhaps in thinking up pathways to goals (a better job, a college degree, a better relationship with his wife, etc.) Andre doesn’t need to imagine every step of the way. Perhaps he can think of little steps that take him part way to the goal. Encouraged by the pastor, Andre says he could ask whether his company would pay for college classes. Many companies offer such support, says the pastor, and even if Andre’s company doesn’t pay for education, making the inquiry might impress Andre’s managers at the company. There is nothing to keep Andre from asking—if he wants to. Andre realizes that he does want to. By introspection, he sees that he has a possible pathway toward his goal and he is motivated to use it. Andre says he will go to the human resources office tomorrow. The pastor promises to meet with Andre again next week, just to make sure he carries through.
Obviously, this is only one step. Andre will need to invent further pathways and find the motivation to use them. Hope theory holds that such little steps increase a person’s hope. We can readily imagine how Andre may feel more hopeful. C.R. Snyder’s research team claims that positive affect often accompanies increased hope. That is: once clients have the right beliefs about pathways and motivation, positive feelings will follow. In real life hope may increase more slowly than our imagined case, though Snyder’s research team says that even simple interventions may increase hope in measurable ways.
Hope theory does not promise easy solutions for all situations. Therapists may sometimes help clients to redirect their desires. Suppose Andre wanted not simply a better job, but to become president of the company, a multi-billion dollar corporation with branches in ten different countries. Hollywood fantasies sometimes promote the myth that “anything is possible,” but Andre’s pastor friend—precisely because he is a friend—should encourage Andre to focus on genuinely possible goals. On Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis,” we may “license” ourselves to hope for unlikely things if they have sufficient practical import, but it is not rational to hope for impossible things.
A question arises: can we hope for things toward which one sees no pathway? According to my personal journal, in the 1980s I hoped and prayed for peaceful change to come to the Soviet Union. As a private citizen in the United States, there was no pathway I could pursue, other than prayer, to achieve peaceful change in Russia’s government. I don’t know what Snyder’s colleagues would say about such a case. Does prayer for a thing count as a pathway toward achieving that thing? Is it rational to hope for such a thing?
Snyder’s theory focuses on ordinary mundane goals: better jobs, better relationships, success in projects, etc. Examples like hoping for peaceful change in a one-party state raise a different set of questions about hope. Beginning with my next chapter I will explore extreme hopes.
Retrospect and Prospect
Can one write a philosophy book as a series of short essays? Perhaps only in draft form; so far what I am calling the “Hope Book” seems choppy and disjointed. I’ve adopted this mode of presentation as a way to squeeze writing into the school year. I’m able to average about 1000 words a week. The project certainly needs editing. In anticipation of that task, here is a progress report, a look back and a look ahead.
In chapter 1, I described the basic structure of hope: that it combines a desire for some good thing that is judged to be possible, neither certain nor impossible. Chapter 2 listed four categories of hopes: immoral hopes (e.g. Don Juan’s hope to seduce his neighbor), innocent but unimportant hopes (e.g. that the Mariners win the pennant), morally praiseworthy hopes (e.g. Bernie’s hope to provide for his children after he dies), and the theological virtue of hope (which, for Aquinas, focuses on eternal friendship with God). I mean that list to be suggestive, not definitive; there may be other important kinds of hope, and particular examples may lie in the imprecise boundaries between the four kinds. In chapter 3, I introduced C.R. Snyder’s hope theory, which defines hope as entirely cognitive and claims significant therapeutic success. Chapter 4 presented Adrienne Martin’s “syndrome” account of hope, which makes hope something more complicated than Snyder’s formula: pathways + motivation = hope. Chapter 5 recounted an argument by Simon Critchley against hope—that is, an argument that many of our hopes are irrational and unwise. In particular, Critchley complains about hope’s bad influence on public policy. If the subject is “audacious hope,” Critchley sides with Nietzsche, not Obama. In chapter 6, I turned to Adrienne Martin’s “incorporation thesis” to defend the rationality of hope against the philosophers’ typical modern criticism of hope, which Critchley illustrates. Martin argues that there are two judgments in hope: a probability judgment that some outcome is possible and a practical judgment that the desired end is important enough to “license” oneself to hope for it. Martin concludes that hope for very unlikely things can still be rational.
Chapter 8 introduced Michael Bishop’s theory of positive causal networks, which he intends as a paradigm theory of positive psychology. PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters,” says Bishop, and they are a real feature of the world. In chapter 9, I dealt with a side issue. Bishop’s theory will be controversial among moral philosophers, because he explicitly argues that wicked people can have happy lives, that human flourishing and moral goodness do not implicate each other. Whether or not Bishop adequately defends his thesis on that point, in chapter 10 I argued that Bishop’s PCN theory gives helpful insight into hope. Bishop’s book rather cavalierly treats hope as merely hopeful feelings, but his theory actually fits Martin’s syndrome account of hope very well. Hope is complicated; it includes perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions—and more perhaps. The various parts of hope reinforce each other just as Bishop’s PCN theory says the parts of a causal network reinforce each other.
Having noticed the likeness between PCN theory and the syndrome account of hope, in chapter 11 I moved to the question of how we can develop hope. We can learn to perceive the world in accord with knowledge, as when we train ourselves to see the world turning beneath a stationary sun. So we can, I suggested, train ourselves to perceive the world in a hopeful way. (Thick masonry prison walls become not just a barrier but also an escape route.) Chapter 12 pressed the point a bit further. We can attend to the world with hope, as the wounded hiker listens for any sound of a passing vehicle. Chapter 13 returned to Snyder’s hope theory. While the hope theory definition of hope is too simplistic, it does point to ways we can grow in hope: by thinking of pathways around barriers and by recognizing in ourselves motivation to use those pathways.
I want to discuss at least as many aspects of hope in the succeeding chapters, but of course, since I haven’t written them yet, their contents are not yet determined. In a preliminary way, here are upcoming topics:
*Should a person prioritize his hopes? Soren Kierkegaard wrote about hope as a “task.” He thought a life could be concentrated into a central hope. He suggested examples from literature and imagination of a life’s central hope. But as a Christian, he also criticized many possible central hopes. Our “task” of hope, he wrote, is to build a life around the right central hope.
*Kierkegaard wrote as a Christian. Does his notion of the task of hope square with biblical teaching about hope? Is there a doctrine of Christian hope in the New Testament? N.T. Wright, a bishop in the Church of England and a well-known Bible scholar, says there is. He also complains that many contemporary Christians seem ignorant of the Bible’s teaching. Many church people today, Wright says, have adopted notions of hope from popular culture rather than their own tradition.
*Wright and Jurgen Moltmann try to describe an “ethics of hope.” So far this book has focused on hope as a virtue in the lives of individuals. Is it possible that hope could be an organizing principle in a social ethic? What is the “ethics of hope”?
*Is hope—as related to social questions—a purely Christian concern? Jonathan Lear writes about “radical” hope, based not on Christian theology but on the observation that the goodness of the world is greater than our conceptual grasp of it. Is Christian hope, based on a transcendent God, a version of “radical” hope?
*It seems to me that Lear’s argument for a secularized radical hope ought to be paired (conceptually anyway) with “radical” fear. I’m not enthusiastic about this idea, but it may need attention.
*Thomas Aquinas identified two vices that contend against hope: despair and presumption. Since I have written a few chapters about how to hope, perhaps I should have already included comments on these vices; how not to hope. But the vices of hope impede our social hopes as much as the hopes of our individual lives, so reflections on despair and presumption will be appropriate at that time.
I’m pretty sure that won’t be everything, but it is enough for now.
13. Global Hopes
Many of our hopes are small scale, personal hopes. We hope for a new job, for rescue when stranded, and for better relationships. At a slightly larger scale we might hope that our school or business prospers, or that our city government solves its budget challenges.
Recently I’ve been reading essays edited by Andrew T. Brei, in Ecology, Ethics, and Hope (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). The thinking in this book emerges from the intersection of environmentalism and moral philosophy. The authors are convinced that human destruction of nature, primarily through anthropogenic climate change but also exhibited in less extreme environmental ravages (air and water pollution, desertification, extinctions due to habitat loss, etc.), is either an accomplished fact or inevitable result of industrial society. They all agree that climate change, caused by human release of carbon monoxide, will be an existential threat to civilization in the current century.
What can we hope for in the face of global climate catastrophe? But wait! Before answering, let us consider other catastrophic possibilities:
1. Since the mid-1950s human beings have had enough thermonuclear weapons to eradicate our species—and probably most other species as well—by means of heat, radiation, and nuclear winter.
2. We’ve also invented non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical agents. Such weapons, if used on a large scale, could depopulate vast areas.
3. No one outside of government can know how far research has “progressed,” but many of us worry that bioengineering will enable the production of super-germs. If released, either by accident or act of war, bio-weapons could kill almost everybody.
This list could be extended. We are familiar with science fiction movies and novels that frighten us with economic collapse, race wars, totalitarian states, or meteors smashing into Earth. Our apocalyptic imaginations range from pure fancy (invading aliens) to the very real threat of nuclear holocaust.
Catastrophic climate change is different, say the contributors to Ecology, Ethics, and Hope, because climate change is not a mere possibility. Anthropogenic climate change is already happening. Given the extent of carbon monoxide we have already pumped into the atmosphere, even more drastic climate change will occur in the decades ahead—even if we could somehow stop producing greenhouse gases immediately. But much of the general public, encouraged by certain business and political leaders, does not believe the scientific consensus. And there are other people who, knowing that climate change is real and accelerating, have despaired that anything can be done to stop it. So a great many people respond to the global climate change crisis with disinterest or lethargy.
As the title of his book suggests, Brei and his fellow authors recognize the situation as a moral crisis, not just a matter of scientific or technological expertise. Our planet’s environmental crisis demands immediate and extraordinary action, they think, and such action is much less possible when people despair. When preaching to the general public, environmentalists must offer people hope; without hope, people are very unlikely to take the dramatic actions needed to stave off disaster.
So we return to the question: How should we hope in the face of global catastrophe? A number of other questions lie under the surface of this first one.
First: what is it we should hope for? What is the “object-state” we desire? Environmentalists differ in their answers. At a minimal level, we should desire and work for a global environment that supports human life and civilized societies. In some scenarios, climate change so devastates the natural world that industrial society collapses, decimating human population and leaving the survivors in a new stone age.
More likely (though how can we estimate probabilities for a world fifty years hence?), industrial and technological civilization will survive. Rather than depending on the natural world for resources (food, clothing, building materials), humanity will fabricate most of what it needs by means of genetic engineering, 3-D printing, and new inventions. We would survive, and in some ways thrive, by using our technology to adapt to shifting climates.
Environmentalists have a word for this homo sapiens dominated world: the anthropocene period. It is a new age of the earth, with a climate driven by the activities of one species. Authors in Brei’s book say that we have already entered this new phase of our planet’s history.
And that’s bad, they say. These authors agree that nature—the wild, untamed world—is a good thing. In the anthropocene era, nature ceases to exist; the whole world is controlled, used, polluted, fenced, or (possibly) protected by humanity. The object-state we should desire and hope for, these environmentalists want to say, is one where nature is still nature, where our species lives symbiotically with other creatures and the natural systems of earth.
They want to say that, but many of them believe that it is already too late. A pure “nature” is lost. The best we can hope for is to minimize negative effects of the anthropocene. So there is division among environmentalists. They may agree that we need hope, but they disagree about the object-state we should desire.
Second: as a global crisis, climate change affects everybody, but no one person’s actions can bring about the desired object-state. When an individual thinks of a pathway to a goal (e.g. taking a college class to get a better job) and acts on it, she often feels more hopeful, and her feelings help sustain her along the path. But the only pathways toward solutions to the climate crisis involve hundreds of millions of people. The contribution of any other person is so small compared with the need that it approaches zero. How should we hope when our hopeful actions are infinitesimal compared to the task?
Third: the authors in Brei’s book identify despair as a vice. Some of them admit to struggling with despair in their own lives as they think about the magnitude of climate change. They do not use the word “presumption,” traditionally used to describe another vice related to hope. (In Aquinas, despair is the vice of abandoning hope because the object of the hope is too hard, while presumption is the vice of assuming that hope’s object is already or easily attained.) The environmentalists do recognize that some people have convinced themselves, without good reason, that “everything will turn out okay,” and thus fail to take necessary actions. Though they don’t use the word, the vice they describe is presumption.
I think these features of environmental hope can be found in other cases of global hope. In particular, the questions of object-state and individual action will attend to hopes in regard to eliminating poverty, preventing war, ending starvation, extending education to all, and other worthy “global” hopes. What is it that we hope for in such cases? What role, if any, does action play in such hopes?
14. The Kingdom of God as a Global Hope
The prospect of catastrophic climate change illustrates what I am calling “global” hope. A global hope is, as one would guess, a hope for something big, something that affects whole cultures or the whole planet. The environmentalists who contributed to Ecology, Ethics and Hope have the whole planet in mind.
Three questions, identified last chapter: What is the “object-state” our hope aims for? Second, how can a person hope when he knows that his own actions will contribute infinitesimally to the object-state? Third, how can we avoid the vices of despair and presumption in regard to global hopes? These questions interpenetrate each other, so that what we think about one affects how we answer the others.
Hope for the Kingdom of God is a global hope. It’s probably the most global object-state ever imagined. We pray: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of God is that place or time where God’s will is done. It is not limited to earth; if we ever visit other planets we will take our prayer with us. We pray these words often, but what do we mean? What does it mean for God’s will to be done?
Biblical images come to mind: Isaiah’s mountain of the Lord, where lions lie down with lambs and children play with serpents without danger, or Revelation’s new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to earth, or Jesus’ parables of feasting in the King’s presence. Such images reinforce biblical themes of peace, justice, solidarity, hospitality, integrity, and holiness. Or, as Paul put it: “The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Perhaps the best word to describe the kingdom of God is shalom—peace/wellbeing/wholeness in the inner person, between persons, and in all creation.
In one sense the kingdom of God is too encompassing. We can’t get our minds around it. When we hope for the kingdom, we hope for wellness, for healthy ecosystems, for material prosperity, for peace between nations, for the appreciation of beauty, for human solidarity, for peaceful communities, for interpersonal justice, for exuberant enjoyment of natural goods, and more. The kingdom of God seems to include everything good—do we hope for all goods at once?
In one sense, yes. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we know that the rule of God both includes and transcends the particular goods we have in mind. We hope for God’s universal rule to come.
That isn’t the whole story though. In very many cases (I do not say every case), hope consists partly in actions. Andrew T. Brei and his fellow environmentalists prize hope because it often sustains people in the pursuit of difficult goals. Our climate change crisis demands radical change, they say, and it seems very unlikely—given social, economic, and political realities—that the human race will change its behavior fast enough. The environmentalists think we must encourage hope so that we can sustain ourselves in a desperately hard struggle.
But it is impossible for a single person to act toward all the goods implied in shalom. No one person can feed the hungry, heal the sick, build communities, educate children, oppose aggressors, celebrate beauty, restore damaged ecosystems, reconcile enemies, and so on ad infinitum. Necessarily, we focus our actions on some particular goods.
It’s not just that we are limited in our ability to act. As finite creatures, we can’t thoroughly imagine the kingdom. At times we may catch glimpses of the goodness God plans for us—in some spectacular beauty, in the wonder of worship, in the joy that comes when broken relationships are restored. The New Testament says that the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives is a “down payment” or “first installment” of the glory of the kingdom. Nurtured by such experiences, we hope for something greater than what we can comprehend or imagine.
There is a sense, then, since we can neither act toward nor imagine God’s kingdom in its fullness, that the kingdom of God surpasses our hope. Nevertheless, we can act and imagine in accord with our hope.
An example: I hope that the civil war in Syria will end, and I hope that the refugees from that war will find new homes. It seems that I can do very little to bring peace to Syria. I cannot help tens of thousands of refugees. I haven’t the ability and resources to effectively help even one refugee. And even if I could do these things, achieving peace in Syria is a small part of shalom.
But! I can join the refugee resettlement committee at my church. Together we can help a refugee family to settle in a nearby town. After that family is settled, we can help a second family and more. Our committee can cooperate with Catholic Charities and other groups to create a network of refugee help. Because we are concerned to help refugees, we can petition our government to be more welcoming to refugees.
My example illustrates a simple truth, often repeated: though you can’t do everything, you can still do something. It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
Our global hopes will all share this feature. The object-state we hope for will be “too big.” Sometimes we will wonder whether anything we do will be of real benefit. We won’t know how to precisely describe the object-state. Yet it will still be possible to hope—to license ourselves to think, imagine, anticipate, and work toward some aspects of the object-state.
The kingdom of God is both “come” and “coming.” To the peasants of first century Galilee, Jesus said the kingdom was “right at the door” and “within you.” Through repentance and faith, we live in the kingdom now. The New Testament also says we must endure until the Lord returns, bringing the kingdom with him.
Hope is similarly double-edged. We desire and look for some future good, and in doing so we experience a good right now. We hope.
15. Hoping for …
Environmentalists are sometimes hard pressed to say what they are hoping for. What is the “object-state” they desire? It won’t do to describe some world where anthropogenic climate change never happened; that would be to wish for an impossible world. Hope always aims at something possible, even if it is unlikely.
Christians who pray for God’s kingdom to come face a similar problem, because shalom is such an all-encompassing object-state. We pray for God’s will to be done. But history—right up to today’s news—shows us a world where people freely accomplish much evil. We might wish that people had acted differently yesterday, but the past is fixed. We cannot hope that the past be other than it was.
How can we hope when we are not sure what future object-state is possible? What follows is an earlier essay I wrote that may give direction.
Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow people lived his life in hope. At least, that is the thesis offered by Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Plenty Coups hoped for a good future for the Crow people, a future in which they would keep their land and maintain their cultural identify as Crow. And he held this hope in spite of his belief, grounded in visions he experienced as a boy, that the coming of white people to the plains would irrevocably change the Crow way of life.
Lear says this is “radical” hope. Radical hope looks forward to a good future even when the very concepts one uses to describe a good future have been robbed of their meaning. The Crow people had a rich traditional way of life; centered on nomadism, buffalo hunting, and intermittent warfare against rival tribes. Their traditions included religious rites (such as the boy Plenty Coups’ vision quest), sacred dances, celebrations of successful hunts and raids, and many other things. White domination devastated the Crow way of life; by this Lear means not just that the Crow lost their independence but that they lost what philosophers call “thick” concepts of the good life that the future would hold. Plenty Coups had only the “thin” concept that the future would be good after the storm.
Lear wants to make Plenty Coups available as an exemplar of wisdom for secular people. He recognizes, of course, that Plenty Coups’ hope was grounded in religious beliefs. Plenty Coups and the Crow elders interpreted the boy’s visions as messages from the Great Spirit, telling the Crow people to imitate the Chickadee, to listen and adapt. Nevertheless, Lear denies that religious beliefs are necessary for radical hope. He says that the goodness of the world is greater than finite people can possibly know. Even secular people may rationally believe this. Therefore, Lear argues, even secular people can hold to hope in times of cultural devastation.
Lear says nothing about which forms of cultural devastation that might threaten his readers. What are the great anxieties of our culture? Disastrous climate change? Terrorists who obtain and use nuclear weapons? A failure of liberal political regimes such that, when faced with terrorism, liberal states collapse into tyranny? Technological horrors as depicted in science fiction dystopias? A 21st century version of Big Brother? Each of Lear’s readers is free to read Lear’s interpretation of Plenty Coups in light of her own deep fears.
Radical hope is not an ostrich-like denial that bad things may come. Lear emphasizes the realism expressed in Plenty Coups’ visions (and the interpretation the elders placed on them). Native American tribes had no way to prevent the onslaught of European invaders. White trappers would be followed by white miners, white settlers, and white soldiers. The invaders would bring their own definitions of justice, by which they forced the natives off their land, killing as many as necessary to take possession. Crow leaders—to the degree they understood the situation in terms of realpolitik—knew that Plenty Coups’ vision was true. The storm is coming, and we cannot stop it.
Our situation is different. We do not know that any of the “storms” we fear are unavoidable. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the effects of climate change will be mitigated, that terror groups will be defeated, that liberal government will meet 21st century challenges, and that we will gain the wisdom to rightly use new technologies. Nevertheless, we may say: it is possible that a storm is coming. Radical hope enables one to look for a good future no matter how bad the storm.
But radical hope is not a Pollyannaish belief that everything will turn out fine. The good future we hope for will be different that what we expect. Lear underscores the depth of the disaster experienced by the Crow (and other tribes as well, but his focus in on Plenty Coups’ people). The Crow had to learn a revised set of moral concepts. Courage is still a virtue—but what is courage in this new age? Courage no longer means planting a coup stick in battle. It may mean facing a new age resolutely, even when many traditional behaviors no longer make sense. As Lear understands him, Plenty Coups led his people to a new and deeper understanding of virtue and of the good life.
If one of our deep fears comes to pass, we will need radical hope. The concepts we use now to describe human flourishing may need to change. Jonathan Lear never says this explicitly, but I think it is implied by his argument.
Here is an example.
The dictator of North Korea threatened this week that his country has intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry his nuclear weapons to targets all over the world, from Seoul to Washington, D.C. Does North Korea actually have this capacity? Military and technical experts express some doubts, but it seems clear that North Korea aims to have such powers soon. Does Kim Jong Un merely intend to bully his neighbors? Would he actually use such weapons? We may hope (a kind of extreme hope) that Un would have sanity sufficient to restrain himself and never use nuclear weapons. But what if Kim Jong Un is as unstable as some news reports say he is?
Suppose North Korea fired missiles and destroyed Seoul, Tokyo, and Seattle (to pick a random North American city). The international response would be immediate and overwhelming, for no political leader could tolerate letting North Korea fire a second round of missiles. Let us suppose that retaliation, led by the United States, was carefully limited to strikes against North Korea. (We may imagine that China endorsed retaliation against Kim Jong Un, so long as China was not attacked.) But let us further suppose that somehow, either directly as a result of attacks on North Korea or because of sabotage by Korean fanatics, fifteen or twenty large nuclear weapons were detonated in North Korea. What we are imagining is a North Korea turned into an atomic wasteland.
This scenario is not the doomsday story that haunted the cold war, the annihilation of humanity. Most of the world’s people would survive. But our future would be changed in unpredictable ways. Nuclear fallout would hit South Korea, China and Japan first, but its effects would spread worldwide. Radiation poisoning would affect tens of millions of people. Just as important would be the social and political fallout—but we cannot predict what it would be. What would governments do to try to prevent a recurrence of the Korean decimation? What “lessons” would be learned by terrorist organizations? How would ordinary people conceive a good life in a post-catastrophe world?
The Korea example is not the worst “storm” that might afflict our world. Worse things are possible. Nevertheless, we may hope. We may hope for a good future, even if we are not sure what a “good future” might look like.
16. Hope for the Other
Friedrich Nietzsche attacked Christianity for a number of faults. One of them, he thought, was the Christian doctrine of resurrection and a blessed afterlife. On Nietzsche’s account, hope for immortality is pernicious, in that it encourages a person to be satisfied with a miserable life now because of the consolation to come.
You don’t have to be virulently anti-Christian to be suspicious of hope. A contemporary Christian writer, Timothy Jackson (Love Disconsoled), wants to expunge hope from the list of Christian virtues. The center of Christianity, Jackson says, is the ethic of agape love. Genuine acts of love are undermined by self-regard, which expects some reward for good deeds. True agape love must be totally centered on one’s neighbor, willing and acting toward the neighbor’s good without consideration of one’s own good. Hope brings in consolation, Jackson says, and true agape must be “dis-consoled.”
There is just enough right in what Jackson says to make it initially plausible. Love really is the most important of the virtues, the heart of Christian ethics. We are commanded by Jesus to love as God loves (Matthew 5:48). Though we can’t actually do that (certainly not by an act of will), but we live as disciples with perfect love as our goal. Many theologians have argued that God’s love—agape love—is “disinterested,” in the sense that it seeks the good of the beloved without regard for the good of the self. A classical theologian like Thomas Aquinas would say that God is eternally blessed, complete and entire. Since God is completely happy, God does not need anything and he is not made happier by human worship or obedience. God commands our worship because he loves us. We move closer to our best selves when we obey God.
Someone might object that Jackson’s view contradicts scripture. The New Testament repeatedly praises hope as a proper virtue for Christians. This objection is completely accurate, but Jackson would not be persuaded by it. If hope detracts from love, he would say, we must shed hope in favor of love. Jackson is picking out what he thinks is the crucial part of New Testament teaching and trying to be faithful to that. In practice, many preachers do this by returning over and over to those biblical texts which seem to them to express the more important truths. As a theologian, Jackson is simply more open about it.
Nevertheless, Jackson is wrong. It is simply not true that hope is always self-regarding. David Elliot, in Hope and Christian Ethics, points to a common scene: a graveside gathering of family whose loved one has been buried. According to Love Disconsoled, the Christian minister might praise the dead person as a faithful disciple of Jesus and perhaps urge the family to emulate him or her. But the minister should not talk of eternal life. “Love’s priority implies the moral irrelevance of an afterlife,” says Jackson.
How is it an act of love to disconsole those who are grieving?
Jackson, or someone speaking on his behalf, might say that we hope for an afterlife for our friends and loved ones because we want to see them again. That is, we sneak in self-consolation by introducing hope for resurrection. But is that true? Do I hope that Karen (my wife who died in 2016) will be raised to eternal life so that I can enjoy her company? Not really. What I hope is that Karen will experience perfect happiness, what Thomas Aquinas called beatitudo, the beatific vision. She has moved out of my life (except in memory) and into the life of God. I would not hope for her to have something less. If in heaven there is a solidarity and fellowship of saints (so that we see each other again), well and good. But my hope for Karen is that she experience the highest good, which is God.
Hope is not opposed to love, because we hope for others as much as ourselves.
There is another point to be made about resurrection hope. The New Testament clearly teaches that we hope for eternal life. Aquinas said our goal was friendship with God. Perhaps we need to live forever because our real hope is to know the infinite God. It will take eternity to truly know him.
 Martin 2014. 5.
 Ibid. 11-17.
 Ibid. 13-14.
 Martin 2014. 62.
 Ibid. 15-16.
 The Shawshank Redemption.
 The Shawshank Redemption.
 Martin. 22.
 Simon Critchley, “Abandon (Nearly) All Hope.” The Stone. Collected at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/19/abandon-nearly-all-hope/
 Martin, Adrienne. How We Hope (2014). 4-5.
 In this context, Martin’s “orthodox definition” means something like “the definition of hope commonly accepted by modern philosophers except for those who follow Thomas Aquinas.” One detects a bit of ironic humor in this usage.
 Ibid. 5.
 Ibid. 5-6.
 Snyder (2000). 5-8.
 Ibid. 8.
 Lopez, et al. “Diagnosing for Strengths.” 58.
 Ibid. 76-84. The Domain Specific Hope Scale uses more questions, but no more than 9 in any particular domain.
 Ibid. 60.
 Lopez, et al. “Hope Therapy.” 123.
 Ibid. 123-125.
 Snyder and Taylor. 89-90.
 Lopez, et al. “Diagnosing.” 77-81.
 Lopez, et al. “Hope Therapy.” 126.
 Summa Theologiae I-II.40.3.
 Pinches (2014). 349.
 Ibid. 349.
 Ibid. 349.