(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, April 14, 2014)
Should we be optimistic? Is optimism rationally justified? Is it practically justified? I contend that optimism is preferable to pessimism, even though it is no more justified by the facts of reality than pessimism. For optimism is not a description of the world at all, it is an attitudinal response to it, and one conducive to both our happiness and to human flourishing. In short, optimism is reasonable because it leads to happiness.
Now consider beliefs. Beliefs play the role of representing reality. If we find that beliefs don’t adequately do this, then we ought to reject them; if beliefs do adequately represent reality, then we ought to keep them. Now what counts as making a belief rational? Here we distinguish between strongly rational beliefs—for which the evidence is nearly irrefutable—and weakly rational beliefs—which we believe as a practical necessity in order to act in the world.
But beliefs are just one attitude we can take toward reality. We can also adopt an optimistic attitude which does not assume any cluster of beliefs, and which cannot be undermined for being irrational like a belief can. Of course optimists may lose their optimism when bad fortune strikes, but we are all happier when we are optimistic and less so when we are pessimistic—and this is the rational ground for optimism.
Yet optimism is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves false beliefs, whereas optimism doesn’t necessarily involve any beliefs. Optimism also has positive results. Consider David Hume’s attitude toward his impending death. Diagnosed with a fatal disease, Hume begins his ruminations thus: “I was ever more disposed to see the favorable than unfavorable side of things: a turn of mind which it is more happy to possess, than to be born to an estate of ten thousand a year… It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at the present.”1 While many fear death or react in ways that disturb tranquility, Hume’s sanguine resignation shines forth as a beacon of reasonableness. Optimism is a reasonable and beneficial response to the human condition.
A similar sentiment was shared with me about twenty years ago in a hand-written letter (remember those?) from my friend and graduate school mentor, Richard J. Blackwell. This man of equanimity gave me the most salutary advice Replying to my queries about the meaning of life he wrote:
As to your “what does it all mean” questions, you do not really think that I have strong clear replies when no one else since Plato has had much success! It may be more fruitful to ask about what degree of confidence one can expect from attempted answers, since too high expectations are bound to be dashed. It’s a case of Aristotle’s advice not to look for more confidence than the subject matter permits. At any rate, if I am right about there being a strong volitional factor here, why not favor an optimistic over a pessimistic attitude, which is something one can control to some degree? This is not an answer, but a way to live.
Today Professor Blackwell is old and infirm, but I will never forget the contribution he made to my education. And I still have that letter.
1. “My Own Life,” Preface to David Hume’s The History of England (New York: John B. Alden Publisher, 1885) vii, xi-xii.