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When Hope Is Irrational

September 11, 2022 | by Katie Stockdale

Hope is a beautiful thing. Does it have a shelf life?

All of us, I’m sure, have been told at some time in our lives to ‘not get our hopes up’ or that ‘there is always room for hope’. Trying out for America’s Got Talent? Better not get your hopes up. Feeling as though the world is doomed, in the midst of a pandemic and looming climate catastrophe? There is always room for hope.

Whether the criticism is that we are too hopeful or not hopeful enough, people make judgments about the rationality of hope all the time.

But at what point is hope irrational? Philosophers have been spending more time on this question in the past few years. Many of us have struggled with hope through the pandemic, some of us despair over climate change and what the planet will be like for future generations, and it seems like ongoing wars and political violence will never end. When we sit back and reflect on these reasons for despair, reasons for hope seem hard to find.

People who are hopeful about, say, the possibility of eliminating poverty or a peaceful global order seem to be setting themselves up for disappointment and defeat. Yet, it is in these dark times that many of us need hope the most.

Yet, it is in these dark times that many of us need hope the most – that ‘hope’ is what we need to get us through.

Is hoping in the face of evidence that counts against us irrational?

I used to think the answer to this question was ‘yes’. It seems obviously irrational to strongly hope for a dream job when your chances are 1 in 500, for example. But recent work in philosophy gives us good reason to resist the common-sense idea that hoping in the face of evidence counting against you is necessarily irrational. This is because it is possible to strongly hope in the face of bleak prospects while remaining rational in your beliefs about the odds. You might say, “I know it’s really unlikely, but it still might happen!” Or “Sure, the odds are not in my favor, but it’s worth a shot!”

This is not to say that ‘hoping against hope,’ or hoping when the odds are against you, isn’t risky. It can be really difficult to maintain rational beliefs about the chance of success when hopeful feelings sweep over us, making prospects look better than they actually are. Hope involves feelings of comfort, assurance, and anticipation that something you want might actually come about; and these feelings can cause us to slide into wishful thinking.

Hoping against hope is also risky because it can cause us to act irrationally, too. For example, you might make plans for what you will do with the money you win from America’s Got Talent before tryouts. Or you might feel okay about sitting back and waiting for scientists to solve the crisis of climate change, doing nothing on your own to contribute to the cause. If we are hopeful that scientists “have got this”, it’s pretty easy to feel okay about traveling the world, keeping up with the latest fashion trends, and munching on toast with almond butter from California as we witness the latest wildfires sweep through the state.

But if we care about preventing climate catastrophe and the devastating harm to millions of human and animal lives it will cause, these actions may be irrational. Hope might make us feel better about the state of the world and its future, but ‘feeling better’ is a problem when it enables us to become complacent.

Looking forward

The good news is that hope does not always or necessarily lead us astray in our thinking or actions. We might acknowledge that winning America’s Got Talent is incredibly unlikely and decide to try out for fun while keeping our day jobs, hoping for success but not relying on it. And we might hope that scientists will create innovative technologies in our collective fight against climate change while keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem, and the necessity of all of our efforts for crisis to be averted.

When we hope rationally, hope doesn’t shield us from fear or relieve us of responsibility. It helps us focus on the possibility, however small, that something we desire might come about. And it motivates us to act in pursuit of that possibility, often alongside other people whose actions can help make a difference.

It motivates us to act in pursuit of that possibility, often alongside other people whose actions can help make a difference.

Some of us might decide that the risks of hope aren’t worth it. Climate activists who advocate for fear and despair, instead of hope, believe that hope is too risky an attitude to rely on if we have any chance of saving the planet. In my view, the mistake they make is to think that there is a right answer to the question of whether we, as in anyone, should hope. But there isn’t a right answer. Hope can lead us to wishful thinking, but it can also help us focus on valuable possibilities that are worth our effort. Hope can make us become complacent, but it can also motivate us to act in pursuit of what we most desire. And though hope makes us vulnerable to disappointment, it is also connected to our wellbeing and capacities for resilience.

But we can’t simply seize the benefits of hope while avoiding its risks, and we can’t simply choose to hope or not. Emotions like hope are not under our direct control. We can’t conjure them up or will them away. Factors external to us shape the hopes we come to have in life, and those that are not within our reach. People who suffer from depression and substance addictions, for example, may struggle with hope because of their personal and social circumstances. And living under oppressive conditions such as racism, poverty, and sexism can threaten possibilities for hope. So when we think about how people can cultivate rational hope in their lives, the answer doesn’t lie solely in individual responsibility. The societies in which we live can be better or worse at fostering conditions in which hope can thrive.

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