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On this Inauguration Day: Hope Is a Dangerous Thing

If hope were personified, it would most likely be in the form of an assuring and welcoming figure beckoning one from ahead. The film and narrative trope is all too familiar: Things get bad, perhaps Biblically bad, yet the main protagonist clings metaphorically to a whisper of a voice that promises something better if he or she can persevere.

And in the real world, many times it works—trivially in sporting events when athletes overcome the odds; profoundly in life when one finds a way to rise up from economic or emotional turmoil. In such instances, hope is a virtue since it enables one to achieve something meaningful or worthwhile.

However, this is not the entire story for hope. Imagine a scenario where the protagonist perseveres yet for reasons with which one disagrees. Despite all that is thrown at him, he persists believing that the end towards which he strives is a good thing. Others try to show him that his reasons and motives are dubious; some through civil conversation, others through emotive reactions and interventions. Our protagonist is, on their view, the antagonist.

Nothing works. And amidst the vexation and controversy, there is a parting of ways and our protagonist/antagonist insists there is light in the darkness.

Whose story is this?

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

It can be a story that applies to each of us. Depending on your disposition, you may have called to mind how this story of delusion is salient to those on the extreme right, the extreme left, or perhaps even those in the middle.

But how can we tell whether or not our hopefulness is not deluded in some way? When does something we think is hope morph into a form of self-denial or unwillingness to confront and examine our own biases and beliefs?

While there is no consensus about what a virtue is amongst philosophers, one helpful definition is that a virtue is a character trait or intellectual capacity that enables one to achieve what has been deemed praiseworthy or meaningful by one’s community. There is a further distinction that adds: virtues are not merely instrumental in helping to achieve such ends; the practice of virtues is itself a good.

What this means is that the virtuousness of hope does not lie simply in carrying on despite all adversity.

What we can take from this account is that virtues must fulfill at least two criteria to be “virtuous”. First, it must be attached to an end, or as philosophers like to say a telos, for which it can be practiced. So, for example, the character trait of courage is virtuous according to how we can practice being courageous for the end of helping those who need protection. Let’s call this first criterion purposiveness.

Second, a virtue can be good in-itself only when it is exercised in view of the end for which it is practiced. So far from being simply habits, virtues are those traits or capacities which allow us to have a self-reflective and engaged relation to what we are doing (i.e. trying to be virtuous) and the end for which we are trying to be virtuous. Let’s call this criterion critical self-relation.

This bifold account helps us to understand when a virtue is no longer being exercised virtuously—that is, according to the case of hope, when hope becomes misguided or delusional about what it is trying to achieve.

Consider that if we cannot find a way to examine the ends or goods for which we are acting, then a potentially vicious relationship can occur. Our motivations and reasons can be dubious; and we risk becoming a bad moral actor.

What this means is that the virtuousness of hope does not lie simply in carrying on despite all adversity. It means carrying on and committing to an end or goal while maintaining a critical space of reflection in which we can question whether or not what we are doing is right or appropriate. Circumstances change, new information may come to light, vulnerable groups or individuals who were not noticed before may become a serious concern.

So practically speaking, how might we prevent hope from becoming vicious?

One idea is to ensure that a sense of doubt, uncertainty, or humility accompanies hope. We might even characterize doubt or uncertainty as a virtue since some philosophers will often speak of the way one virtue will require another virtue or virtues in order to function properly. Otherwise, without some kind of “virtue backstop”, stubbornly and incorrigibly persisting with a course of action reduces hope to a form of naïve wishing, and at worst delusion.

On this Inauguration Day, which has registered as significant for more than just US citizens, for what are you hoping? And for what are others hoping?

Perhaps with a sense of doubt, uncertainty, or humility, we might do more than simply hope at separate tables?

About Me

I am a public philosopher and business consultant who specializes in the areas of meaningful work, the philosophy of work, virtue ethics, and hermeneutics. I was formerly Assistant and Associate Professor at the University of Dundee and the University of Kent, respectively. In addition to being an academic writer, I am also the author of a short sci-fi novella called Pig Terrorism. When not immersed in reading and writing, I can be found rock climbing or windsurfing.

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