Weds Jun 21 2023

Solsticeposting: Despair and Responsibility

by e(Liz)abeth (Mars)ton

It’s Summer Solstice today (technically, it occurred at about 8am local time.) The sun will never be higher in the sky, nor in the sky for longer. From here until almost next Christmas, it’s one dimming day after another. In me, this occasions a hankering for some basic philosophical inquiry. I ask: is despair a vice?

It might seem a weird question, until you remember that, according to at least one major world faith, despair isn’t just a hardship, but an active, ongoing moral failing. By this view, one succumbs to despair the way one might, for example, succumb to gluttony or an appetite for violence. And there are some moral intuitions that seem to support this view; for example, we all have at least one friend who seems gratuitously negative, “raining on the parade,” etc. We can and do feel angry at such friends, from time to time. Why can’t they just enjoy the here-and-now? Are they.... indulging themselves, somehow?

And yet, here in 2023, there is a lot which it seems reasonable to be despairing about! Everything from climate change to decreasing levels of empathy would seem to make despair not only morally possible, but perhaps unavoidable.

So the question is: is it morally permissible to despair, and if so, under what conditions?

First, we need to define terms. Let us begin by separating voluntary and involuntary despair.

Certainly, one can find oneself despairing—involuntary despair—but there is also at least the theoretical possibility of despair as an induced state. We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of working ourselves up to anger, or forcing a laugh at a joke; or even taking oneself out for an enjoyable social activity when all one wants to do is lie around in bed. In other words, despair, like anger, or mirth, or sociability, might be in part the product of what I’ll call “psychological hygiene”. By this view, despair sort of builds up, like tartar on teeth, or credit card debt. The subject, by failing to maintain sufficient levels of hope, falls prey to despair. (Taking hope as the affective stance which is despair’s opposite.)

And if despair can build up due to inaction on the part of the despair-ee, we’d have at least the possibility of assigning responsibility (which is to say, blame) for the despair to the person who has it.

But there is an epistemic problem here as well. Some situations (climate change, for example) seem to strongly imply a stance that finds despair reasonable. We can imagine an idealized human being in a perfectly neutral affective state, exactly halfway between hope and despair. We can imagine, let us say, several hundred of them. And then we can imagine introducing to those idealized, neutral people true facts about climate change: probable outcomes; likely consequences; the difficulty of preventing or even slowing the process; etc.

Would it not be reasonable for the majority of these people to find themselves in a state of despair? Wouldn’t it be, to some significant degree, irrational of them to remain hopeful?

We might even think of the tendency to despair as being in tension with some other virtue or virtues, for example, self-honesty, or clear-eyed appraisal of a situation. Surely the idealized people who were tipped into despair acting reasonably given the information at hand? For if despair is a knock-on effect of honesty or perspecacity, then it’s not only morally permissible, but possibly, a non-virtuous trait signifying the presence of a virtue. (A “green flag”, morally speaking.)

Going further: one might argue that seeing a situation clearly necessarily involves experiencing despair. For example, with climate change, we might want to permissibly think less of someone (intellectually, ethically, etc.) who takes a look at the burning world and shrugs. Or, to be more precise, we might want to preserve the possibility of permissibly thinking less of someone who shows insouciance in the face of horrors. We might want to say, even, that they are being unreasonable, or callous.

Here, though, I’d argue that despair is not seen as good in and of itself. Despair instead works as a sort of marker of deep inspection of the state-of-affairs. When we admire someone who feels despair at (say) the current political reality, we aren’t admiring the despair itself, but rather what it tells us about the other qualities of the person: their empathy, their sensitivity, and (I will argue, most importantly,) their responsibility. For in much the same way that having a keen sense of wit involves “laughing in the right places and not the wrong places” when watching a humorous film, having a keen moral compass seems to prescribe a certain amount of feeling terrible.

For despair is, in a sense, a proof that someone values the things that are now unlikely: long-term human flourishing; equality; etc. A ‘meh’ response would seem to be a red flag, picking out a human being engaged in what the kids are calling “spiritual bypass,” and what Sartre called ‘bad faith’.

Earlier, I brazenly introduced ‘hope’ as the opposite of despair. This taxonomy would equate despair with hopelessness (it seems weird to talk about ‘not-despair’ as the opposite of despair, after all.) But now I need to feel this out a bit more carefully: are despair and hope really opposites, or is there a form of ‘hopeful despair’?

Hope, like despair, seems to be a property that certain states-of-affairs ‘call for’ more than others. Some states-of-affairs don’t seem to call for hope at all: for example, a terminal diagnosis by a very reliable doctor. One might even think that, if someone is given two weeks to live and they are hopeful, they are being irrational. (Yet we might give them a pass on this; irrational hope is, after all, a much more comfortable place to dwell than some of the alternatives.)

But notice the difference between ‘hopeful’ (in the generalized sense) and ‘hopeful for’. A person with a terminal diagnosis might be irrational if they hope for a miracle cure, but they might still have, for example, hope to remain comfortable until the end, hope to see a loved one (or mend fences with an adversary.) In this case, we might think especially highly of someone who can reasons to hope that are neither irrational nor false.

Tentatively, I’m going to say that this kind of “hopeful despair” is precisely the sort of despair (and hope) that is both morally permissible and admirable: it implies two major feats; (a) seeing things as they are, and (b) looking for reasons to hope despite things being as they are.

I need to give this much more thought than a single short article permits, but my sketch of a moral system of despair is as follows:

  • Needless despair: always bad. Involves misperception of obvious facts and/or dishonesty with the self, or at the very least, not knowing easily-available facts, and is, therefore, vicious. E.g. Othello despairing about Desdemona’s fidelity.
  • Uncertain despair: despair when there is some ambiguity as to whether or not things are really as bad as they seem. Also bad news, morally speaking, because it may incline one to miss opportunities and reasons for happiness, but less damnable than needless despair. For example, walking away from a game of backgammon that one could still theoretically win, were the dice to cooperate. The uncertainty may be actual (we don’t know how the dice are going to fall) or epistemic (e.g. a game of chess, where there is some fact of the matter as to whether the configuration is winnable, but it is unknown to the player.)
  • Hopeless despair: despair when things really are hopeless, and despair is an expectable consequence of fully appreciating the situation at hand. For example, despair about surviving a terminal illness that one has had diagnosed by a very reliable doctor. This sort of despair is not only forgivable, but also might point to some specific virtues on the part of the despair-ee, such as honesty and clear-seeing.
  • Hopeful despair: Not only forgivable, but acutely admirable. For it implies that one has the same level of knowledge as the ‘hopeless’ despair-ee, but that one has done extra, difficult work to find things to be hopeful about despite acknowledging the hopeless situation. For example, hoping for a sunny day (despite having a terminal illness); hoping to enjoy the remainder of a game of chess (which one is bound to lose,) and so on.

Crucially, hopeful despair is “supererogatory” in this above system. This means it is in the same category as running into a burning building to help save a life: it can never be expected of a person (this would be a tight definition of what is now called “toxic positivity”) but if it manifests naturally, it demands celebration and admiration.

Meanwhile, we also have a neat schema by which to judge people who express other kinds of despair.

What do you think about hope and despair? Message me on Mastodon to continue the conversation!

Photo by BLM Oregon & Washington CC BY 2.0

Calligraphic embellishment of the name 'Liz'