|Blame, Disappointment and Hope
Michael Brady University of Glasgow
In a number of recent works, Miranda Fricker has tried to show how our practices of moral appraisal might be more sensitive to cultural and historical contingency.1 Of particular interest is her claim that judgements of blame are out of order when an agent’s moral mistakes stem from structural features of his cultural-historical situation, since these can render him non-culpably ignorant. But Fricker wishes to argue that such an agent might still be subject to another form of moral resentment, namely moral-epistemic disappointment. In this way, she hopes to construct a conceptual space between a crude moralism rightly derided by Bernard Williams, and a form of relativism that leaves us with too little to say about those who act wrongly at a cultural-historical distance.
Fricker’s development of a ‘relativism of blame’ strikes me as subtle, imaginative, and substantially correct, and so I do not wish to take issue with anything that she says on this topic. Instead, I want to focus on her positive proposal concerning moral-epistemic disappointment. Disappointment is a central facet of human experience but one which has received very little philosophical attention. That is reason enough to see what can be said about the concept. My investigation of the nature of disappointment will for the most part be centred around the question of whether there is a form of disappointment that can function in the way that Fricker envisages. I argue that it is not obvious that there is, and therefore I am sceptical as to whether we can expand our class of reactive moral attitudes by including moral-epistemic disappointment.
The structure of the paper is as follows: in §1 I provide a brief overview of Fricker’s main claims. In §2 I raise an objection to the proposal about disappointment, which is grounded in a view of disappointment that is standard in the literature of psychology and economics. §3 develops a framework for understanding disappointment which will allow Fricker to avoid this objection. But in §4 I raise doubts as to whether disappointment, understood in this way, is indeed an appropriate moral response to the behaviour of those at a cultural-historical distance. The worry, in short, is that moral-epistemic disappointment seems to be a rationally optional attitude towards those who act wrongly, in which case it is not obvious that it counts as an attitude of focussed moral appraisal, or a form of moral resentment, at all. In §5 I consider arguments for the conclusion that moral-epistemic disappointment is non-optional, and show that none is ultimately plausible. And in §6 I argue that even if Fricker can avoid these objections, the appeal to moral-epistemic disappointment pushes her approach much closer to moralism than she would wish.
Fricker’s main concern is the question of what we can say about those who act wrongly, but who are at a cultural or historical distance from our own circumstances. There are clear and acknowledged parallels here with the work of Bernard Williams, who notably argued for a form of relativism with respect to moral systems that are in ‘merely notional confrontation’ with each other.2 We are in notional confrontation with another moral system if the latter fails to be a ‘real option’ for us, that is, a system to which we could convert without losing our grip on reality. Williams thinks that certain kinds of moral judgement are clearly inappropriate with respect to the behaviour of agents in a system that is not a real option for us. As he writes, “Must I think of myself as visiting in judgement all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical or political thought?”3 The kind of moralism that insists upon such moral judgement is, for Williams, pointless or even absurd.
Fricker agrees with Williams that some judgements are inappropriate with respect to those at a cultural-historical distance. In particular, she argues that it is inappropriate to blame an agent acting wrongly at a cultural and historical distance, under certain conditions. But instead of appealing to the idea of a notional confrontation, Fricker invokes the idea of ‘structural’ constraints on legitimate moral appraisal, arguing that blame is inappropriate in those cases where the agent suffer from “a structural (as opposed to personal) moral-epistemic incapacity.”4 She cites the example of a traditional schoolmaster thirty years ago, who conceives of caning as a proper part of school discipline, “in tune with the collective moral consciousness of the time.”5 It is this collective consciousness, which represents the routine moral thinking of the era, that constitutes an external constraint on the ability of the schoolmaster to form the appropriate moral judgement. She writes:
Blame for an action or omission is inappropriate if the agent was unable to form the requisite moral thought owing to [his] cultural-historical location.”6
The fact that our agent is in a cultural-historical situation where routine moral thinking supports caning means that he is “not in a cultural or historical position to think a certain moral thought (recognize an obligation, perceive a significance, or make a discrimination) that we do now.”7 As a result, Fricker thinks that the agent is non-culpably morally ignorant, and cannot be blamed for anything that he does or fails to do as a result of such ignorance.
Although blame might be inappropriate in such circumstances, Fricker thinks that another form of focussed negative moral judgement, or of moral resentment, remains available. In particular, such an agent can still merit moral-epistemic disappointment. For if the cultural-historical situation is one in which the relevant moral discriminations and judgements are beginning to be made by moral pioneers – if moral insight is dawning for those of exceptional moral imagination and perception, and as such is beginning to become available in that situation – then it is appropriate to respond with moral-epistemic disappointment to those who continue to judge and act routinely. This is because people like the schoolmaster “[exhibit] a certain moral-epistemic failing, a failure of moral imagination if you like, that we regard as morally complacent enough to be disappointing, but not so as to merit blame.”8 In this cultural-historical situation, the motivating thought becomes available enough to merit moral-epistemic disappointment but not blame. Fricker puts the point as follows: “[w]hen blame is inappropriate because the agent was acting according to the routine moral thinking of the time, still disappointment may yet be appropriate – depending on whether the form of moral thought to which we would hold them was sufficiently available to them, despite not yet qualifying as routine.”9 The distinction between routine and exceptional moral thinking and behaviour therefore enables us to expand our class of focussed moral attitudes to achieve a greater sensitivity to cultural and historical circumstances: we need not be moralists to think that negative moral appraisals can be merited even in those circumstances where blame is not. As Fricker nicely puts it, “[t]he identification of moral-epistemic disappointment as a style of focussed moral judgement is intended to rescue appraisal over historical distance from the whiff of moralism that can otherwise attend it.”10
At the core of Fricker’s proposal is the distinction between routine and exceptional moral judgement. The idea, to repeat, is that blame is not appropriate if a subject judges and acts wrongly but in a way that was routine in her circumstances; however, disappointment at such behaviour can be appropriate, provided that more enlightened moral thinking and behaviour was starting to occur in the subject’s environment. This proposal is subject to a serious objection, however, given a standard view of what disappointment is. Although philosophers have shown little interest in disappointment, the concept has received some attention from psychologists and economists. In these fields, it is common to explain disappointment in terms of the violation of expectations. Thus, Bell holds that disappointment is “a psychological reaction to an outcome that does not match up against expectations”;11 Frijda defines disappointment as the “nonachievement of an expected outcome”;12 and Rothbaum, Weisz and Snyder maintain that disappointment is aversive in part because subjects do not expect the outcome.13 Commenting, Van Dijk and Zeelenberg write that economists and psychologists “agree that disappointments stem from outcomes that are worse than expected.”14
A similar line emerges on those rare occasions when philosophers have talked about disappointment. Robert C. Roberts distinguishes disappointment from regret in terms of expectations. He writes: “How does Clement’s being disappointed in Don’s performance at the University differ from his regretting Don’s performance? If Clement is disappointed, he says something like ‘It was important for me for Don to do well, and I expected he would, but he didn’t.’ If he regrets Don’s performance, he says instead, ‘It was important to me for Don to do well, as he might have done, but he didn’t.’” So “Clement will regret Don’s performance without being disappointed in it in case he did not expect Don to do well, but nevertheless construes Don’s performance in terms of the possibility of his having done well. Disappointment’s defining proposition would seem to be: X (occurrence, nonoccurrence, action, omission, state of affairs), which I wanted and expected, did not occur (fail to occur) or was not done (omitted) or did not obtain.”15 In a similar vein, Kai Draper proposes that disappointment is a reasonable or appropriate response to violated expectations. He writes: “ordinarily, it is reasonable…to feel disappointed when a substantial benefit that one reasonably expected to receive is snatched away by some unlikely turn of events.”16 And: “[i]t appears…that whenever someone is prevented from receiving a large benefit that she was very likely to receive and, hence, reasonably hoped to receive, she has suffered a misfortune. And at least typically, disappointment is a perfectly reasonable response to this kind of misfortune.”17
Received views therefore suggest that disappointment is a negative reaction or response to the nonoccurrence of a desirable and expected event. However, Fricker cannot appeal to disappointment in this sense. For it is surely a reasonable expectation that agents at a cultural-historical distance will judge and behave routinely, even in circumstances where the right moral move is beginning to be made. In order words, routine moral thinking is precisely what we would expect of non-exceptional, non-pioneering moral agents at a historical and cultural remove. If disappointment is only appropriate when legitimate expectations are violated, therefore, then such disappointment will not be appropriate in the case of subjects whose bad behaviour reflects routine moral thinking and judgement. Judgements of blame and disappointment will thus be equally inappropriate with respect to such subjects.
There are a couple of responses to be made here. One possibility is that there are better ways of understanding disappointment than the one we have received from psychology, economics and (occasionally) philosophy. I’ll delay discussion of this until the next section. For the time being, I want to consider another option which rests upon a distinction between normative and predictive expectations. Predictive expectations are based upon the probability of something happening: I thus expect, in the predictive sense, that Glasgow will have a higher rainfall than Paris in 2010, and that I’ll break any New Year’s resolutions I make by mid-January. But normative expectations refer to standards that we think that other people ought to live up to: I thus expect, in the normative sense, that my MP will not cheat on her expenses, or that the bus driver will not drive off before people have taken their seats. The important point here is that normative expectations can diverge from predictive expectations: I expect my MP not to cheat on her expenses, and I expect bus drivers not to drive off before people are seated, even though I think it likely that she, and they, will. Perhaps, then, Fricker can maintain that moral-epistemic disappointment is appropriate when normative, rather than predictive, expectations are violated.
The worry about this move is that it is very difficult to see how someone can fail to live up to standards that she ought to live up to, and as such violate normative expectations, without thereby being an appropriate target of blame. This should come as no surprise, if we think that the standards that agents ought to live up to, and which therefore reflect our normative expectations, are simply defined as standards whose violation warrants blame. Indeed, Fricker appeals to the idea that blame is merited when ‘reasonable expectations’ are violated, and by this I understand her to mean ‘normative expectations’. Even if we reject this assumption, it will be hard to make the case that there is a normative expectation on agents at any distance to be moral pioneers or to engage in exceptional moral imagination when it comes to judgement and behaviour. The reasons cited for thinking that it is inappropriate to blame those who judge and act routinely are equally good reasons for thinking that these agents do not violate any normative expectations when they so judge and act. If so, a distinction between predictive and normative expectation will not help Fricker avoid the objection.
There are ways of understanding of disappointment that break the connection with expectation, a point which we can appreciate if we try to locate disappointment in a more general attitudinal framework.
Ortony, Collins and Clore write that emotions are often experienced in response to the confirmation or disconfirmation of the prospect of certain events: “emotions resulting from consideration of…prospects and their confirmation or disconfirmation comprise a group called the ‘prospect-based’ emotions.”18 An obvious example of a prospect emotion is fear, which is experienced in response to the prospect of a negative event. The emotion which results from the disconfirmation of a feared event is relief. More correctly, relief is a positive emotional response to the disconfirmation of a negative event which is the object of fear, or which would be the object of fear. The latter qualification is important: it is fitting for me to feel relief when you tell me of your near-miss on the motorway, even though the prospect of your crashing the car was not an object of my fear prior to you telling me. I might not have known that you were out driving, for instance. We might nevertheless claim that relief is appropriate in this instance, because I would have feared for your safety had I been aware of your circumstances.
The emotion of fear has received considerable attention from philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists. But very little attention has been paid, at least outside of the philosophy of religion, to the prospect-based emotion which Ortony, Collins and Clore take to be the positive counterpart to fear, namely hope. Hope clearly fits into this basic framework, since hope is experienced in response to the prospect of a positive or desirable event. On the standard model, hope involves a positive attitude towards some desirable state of affairs, allied with a belief that the event is possible.19 Now hope is important from the perspective of our inquiry, since the reaction or response which results from the disconfirmation of this kind of prospective event is disappointment. On this view, then, disappointment is a negative emotional response to the disconfirmation of a positive event, which is, or which would be, the object of hope. As with fear and relief, the qualification is important: for we might think that disappointment at some event is both possible and fitting even though the event was not the object of a pre-existing hope. It is appropriate for me to be disappointed when you tell me that you didn’t get the promotion, even though this prospect was not something I had hoped for prior to your telling me; I might not have known that you were in for the job. Disappointment is nevertheless apt, on the grounds that I would have hoped that you got the promotion had I known about your circumstances.
The idea that disappointment stands to hope as relief stands to fear suggests how Fricker can avoid the objection of the previous section. For we might seek to explain the appropriateness of reactive attitudes in terms of the appropriateness of the emotions to which they are responses. That is, we can explain the appropriateness of relief in terms of the appropriateness of fear: very roughly, relief will be appropriate as a response if fear for some event is (or would be) appropriate. By the same token, we can explain the appropriateness of disappointment in terms of the appropriateness of hope: on this view, disappointment is appropriate if hope for some event is (or would be) appropriate. Since, however, the appropriateness of fear and hope are not tied to expectation, then relief and disappointment can be appropriate even though the relevant events were (or would have been) unexpected. Let us take the case of fear first: the slight chance that I’ll be attacked by a shark would seem to make fear legitimate when I’m swimming in Monterey Bay; the odds are against my crashing when driving in fog, but it is appropriate to be afraid in such circumstances; and although I know it’s unlikely that any damage will ensue, it would be appropriate for me to be fearful when my plane is hit by lightning. Indeed, fear can be appropriate even if the negative event is very unlikely to happen. Imagine a lottery in which the loser is tortured to death. It seems that I would legitimately be afraid for my life were I to be entered into this lottery, even though the odds of losing are one in a million.20 If we tie the appropriateness of relief to the appropriateness of fear, we can conclude that relief is appropriate when negative events are disconfirmed, even in those cases where the negative events were (very) unlikely to occur.
We can make the same point with respect to hope and disappointment, since hope can be appropriate even though the hoped-for event is unlikely. I can legitimately hope that there are no more series of The Apprentice, or that Scotland enjoys a glorious summer, or that people remember my birthday. If so, then it is false to maintain that hope is appropriate only if the probability of the event is greater than .5, and hence expected.21 Here too we might think that the value of some positive event (from our perspective) can make hope appropriate even though the odds are heavily against the event happening. Indeed, if the prospect is very valuable, then hope can be appropriate even though the event is highly unlikely.22 If we tie the appropriateness of disappointment to the appropriateness of hope, we can conclude that disappointment is appropriate when positive prospects are disconfirmed, even in those cases where the events in question were (very) unlikely to occur. It is legitimate to feel disappointment when reality shows dominate the tv schedules or when the summer turns out to be miserable again or when people forget one’s birthday, even though the hoped-for events were not expected. In short, the appropriateness of disappointment doesn’t depend upon an expectation of a good event occurring, and so the argument of the previous section against Fricker’s proposal is undermined.
This framework suggests why moral-epistemic disappointment is appropriate with respect to the bad behaviour of subjects at a cultural-historical distance, even if such behaviour is expected. For it is both possible and desirable for such subjects to judge and act in exceptional (and correct) ways, in which case the hope for such an event is itself appropriate. So the desirability of the relevant prospect merits hope, and the disconfirmation of the hoped-for event merits the negative emotion of disappointment. Understanding disappointment along these lines enables us to explain how it can function as a focussed form of negative moral appraisal.
In the following section, however, I’ll raise a different problem for Fricker’s proposal. For it seems that hoping that someone at a cultural-historical distance does the right thing is a rationally-optional attitude. If so, then the appropriateness of disappointment would itself seem to be relative, only this time it is relative to our possession of a particular prospective emotion. This suggests that moral-epistemic disappointment is not, after all, “a style of focussed moral appraisal [that can] rescue appraisal at a historical distance”, at least if we think that genuinely moral appraisal of the behaviour of others is not relative to facts about us.
On this account developed in the previous section, hope is a positive response to the prospect of a desirable event, whilst fear is a negative response to the prospect of an undesirable event. Disappointment results when the prospects for a desirable event are disconfirmed, whilst relief results when the prospects of a negative event are disconfirmed. But this framework is incomplete. In particular, the attitudes involved in the standard account – namely, a desire for some event, allied with a belief that it is possible – seem insufficient for hope. To see this, consider a case where one hopes for some possible but unlikely event. On the standard account, this involves desiring that event even though one believes that it is unlikely to happen. However, the attitude of despair is a negative counterpart to hope which also involves a desire for some event allied with a belief that the event is possible although unlikely to happen. As a result, we cannot simply identify hope with a desire plus a belief that the event is unlikely, since this pattern of attitudes is equally present in despair.23 The solution is to propose that hope involves a positively-valenced response to some (unlikely) event in addition to desire. In particular, hope would seem to involve some form of positive affective response – a kind of emotional confidence or optimism – towards an event that is also the object of one’s desire. On this view, despair is the negative emotional counterpart to hope: despair is a negatively-valenced emotional response – a feeling of pessimism or a lacking in confidence, say – to a desired event.24
The problem that this improved understanding of hope raises for Fricker’s account is this: the fact that some event is thought to be desirable but unlikely does not seem enough of a reason for a positive, rather than a negative, emotional response. The fact that an event is desirable but unlikely seems a reason to hope that it occurs; but by the same token, the fact that it is desirable but unlikely also seems a reason for despairing about its occurring. Now unless hope for some desirable but unlikely prospect is more rational or appropriate than despair, then disappointment at the disconfirmation of such a prospect will be no more rational or appropriate than an attitude that stands in a similar position to despair, namely (something like) resigned acceptance of this state of affairs. This is because resigned acceptance is to despair as disappointment is to hope. This means that the appropriateness of disappointment will depend upon whether one had (or would have had) a rationally optional attitude of hoping that such subjects judged and acted in an exceptional manner, rather than despairing about this possibility. A consequence of this is that the appropriateness of moral-epistemic disappointment is itself relativised, only this time to the emotional attitudes that different appraisers have (or would have) towards the relevant agents. If I hope that such agents act well, then it is appropriate for me to be disappointed when they do not. If I don’t have this hope, however, then disappointment would seem to be inappropriate – just as it’s inappropriate for me to feel relief at the disconfirmation of a prospect that either was not or would not have been an object of my fear. This, I take it, raises doubts about the capacity of moral-epistemic disappointment to function as a form of focussed moral appraisal, on the assumption that the appropriateness of focussed moral appraisals like resentment is not relativized to the rationally-optional attitudes of appraisers. If Fricker is right, then the appropriateness of blame is relativized to the structural features of a subject’s environment; but it is implausible to think that the appropriateness of this form of resentment is also relativized to other, rationally-optional emotional states that an appraiser has. If so, we can doubt that moral-epistemic disappointment is indeed a way in which we can express moral resentment towards those who act wrongly at a distance. Moral-epistemic disappointment will not meet the needs of those who wish, as Fricker puts it, to “honour the universalist trajectory of moral psychology and language”, if it is itself relativized to the attitudes of appraisers.25
The important claim in this argument is that a positive emotional attitude of hope is no more rational or appropriate than a negative emotional attitude of despair with respect to some desirable but unlikely event. It is no more rational, in other words, to feel positive or confident or enlivened at the prospect of a desirable but unlikely event, than it is to feel negative or lacking confidence or pessimistic at the same prospect. And at first glance, such claims seem to have a good deal of intuitive support. Suppose the football team we support is drawing 0-0 when the opposition are awarded a last-minute penalty. Suppose too that the opposition’s penalty-taker nearly always scores. Suppose, finally, that you retain a hopeful attitude towards the event of his missing the penalty even though you regard this event as highly unlikely, whereas I take these circumstances and factors as a reason for despair. It is difficult to think that the former attitude is rationally preferable to the latter, or, conversely, that the latter is more legitimate than the former. Whether rational subjects would have one or another of the attitudes in question would seem to depend upon some contingent fact about their character: that, for instance, you are an optimistic sort of supporter, whilst I veer towards pessimism. As a result, your disappointment when the other team scores the penalty seems no more appropriate or merited than my resigned acceptance of the fact, and where the appropriate of each depends upon having the relevant prospective emotion.26 Of course, life and art are replete with irrational optimists and pessimists, and so there are many cases where disappointment would be inappropriate, and many cases where resignation would be amiss.27 But this does nothing to weaken the point that there are very many cases where optimism or pessimism seem equally rationally appropriate, and yet where subjects rate the probability of the event as the same.
The problem for Fricker, then, is this: moral-epistemic disappointment will be appropriate if we had hoped (or would have hoped) that those at a cultural-historical distance behaved better. But by the same token, resigned acceptance of such behaviour will be appropriate if we despaired (or would have despaired) of their moral-epistemic complacency. Whether we are appropriately disappointed in their behaviour thus depends upon our having a rationally optional attitude of hoping that they would judge and behave in an exceptional manner, and as such fails to constitute a form of moral resentment. In order to avoid this objection, we’ll need to discover a reason to be hopeful about the behaviour of those at a cultural-historical distance that is not equally a reason for despair, and so a reason to think that the appropriateness of disappointment is not relativized. We have seen that the desirability of the relevant behaviour is not such a reason. Are there any other plausible candidates?
There is a tradition according to which hope for desirable but unlikely events is always irrational or unreasonable, in which case our search for reasons will be in vain. Lying behind this tradition is the following thought: if hope involves a positive emotional attitude towards a prospect that I judge to be unlikely to happen, then it seems to involve an element of confidence in the occurrence of something that I am confident won’t occur. Since this is clearly irrational, then we ought not to have a positive emotional attitude towards desirable but unlikely events.28 We should, instead, adopt a negative attitude of despair. It is despair, rather than hope, which is rationally preferable in such circumstances.
The idea that hope for desirable but unlikely prospects is always and everywhere irrational is one that we should reject. For there is one obvious class of reasons for us to adopt hopeful rather than despairing attitudes, generated by the pragmatic or instrumental value of having the former instead of the latter. Hope, that is, can count as rational from a practical or a pragmatic standpoint. Thus, as Luc Bovens claims, “[a] hopeful rather than a defeatist attitude may at least be partly responsible for bringing some task to a successful end. It arouses a certain zeal and helps me explore alternative means to realize my goals.”29 To take a literary example: in The Count of Monte Cristo it is because Edmond Dantès retains hope of escaping from the Château d'If that he is eventually successful, despite the odds being heavily stacked against him. So hope can have value in general in guarding against the debilitating effects of a lack of confidence and a loss of heart. As Philip Pettit puts it, if a subject “assigns a relatively low probability to the desired prospect, then that may cause him or her to make no effort to bring it about, thereby ensuring that he or she certainly does not bring it about.”30 Hope can help to alleviate the “emotional collapse and a loss of self-efficacy” that low levels of confidence can engender.
There are other practical advantages to be had from a hopeful disposition: in particular, hope can counteract risk aversion when we are faced with ‘fair gambles.’ As Bovens notes, people “who adopt a resolution to accept life’s more than fair gambles tend to come out as winners, while [people] who resist such a resolution tend to come out as losers. And yet it is easy to succumb to myopia and to resist the more than fair gambles in life, because we are too fixated on possible losses in each single gamble. Now the value of hope is that it makes us focus on the possible gains in more than fair gambles. It helps us overcome our myopic fixation on the possible losses in more than fair gambles.”31
Would this sort of reason provide the right kind of justification for hope, with respect to the behaviour of those at a cultural-historical distance? This comes down to the question of whether it is pragmatically or instrumentally rational or valuable for us to hope that such subjects engage in pioneering moral thinking and make exceptional moral judgements. At first glance, the answer to this question is ‘no.’ For one thing, the idea that hope is useful when faced with fair gambles does nothing to suggest that hope is valuable with regard to unlikely events: here it might be better to adopt a despairing attitude, and thus avoid the pains of disappointment which are likely to ensue if we do not.32 For another, in the types of case cited by Bovens and Pettit hope is thought to be instrumentally rational because it has a self-interested pay-off: we benefit, in certain circumstances, by adopting a hopeful rather than a despairing attitude or disposition. But there doesn’t seem to be this kind of reason for hoping that others behave well, at least in the circumstances we’re concerned with, where the behaviour of others will have no (reciprocal) effect on our well-being. A possible response to this is to recall that disappointment can be merited because hope would be merited in counterfactual circumstances; and perhaps we would hope that others do the right thing, were we in the relevant historical-cultural situation, since this is a situation where the behaviour of others might very well have an effect on our well-being. Nevertheless, it is not true that our hoping that others behave well would itself have any pragmatic or instrumental value in this case – it’s not as if our hoping would have any causal effect on their behaviour, after all – in which case we might doubt that there is any practical upshot to our hoping rather than despairing in such instances. If moral-epistemic disappointment is to be merited, then, it will not be because there is pragmatic or instrumental value in hoping that others judge and act in an exceptional manner, even though there is, counterfactually, possible value to us in their acting and judging in this way. (This is why, after all, we want them to judge and act rightly.)
All is not lost, however. For we might try explain the rational preferability of hope over despair in terms of some intrinsic value that hoping has, or by appeal to some non-instrumental reason to adopt the former attitude towards desirable but unlikely events. One possibility, developed in different ways by Bovens and Philip Stratton-Lake, proposes a close connection between hope and love. Bovens claims that “hoping and fearing for someone’s well-being are contained in a cluster of features that are constitutive of loving.”33 For him, it is this “close connection with love” that “vindicates attitudes of hoping and fearing.”34 The idea here is that hope has intrinsic value because it is (partly) constitutive of another attitude that has intrinsic value, namely love for others. On this account, hope does not require justification in terms of additional reasons, and so it is a mistake to look for them. Rather, hope has value because of its place in a pattern of attitudes that constitute a loving concern for other people. To apply this to the issue at hand, the thought is that hoping that those at a cultural-historical distance judge and act correctly is appropriate because it reflects an intrinsically valuable attitude, viz. a loving concern for those who judge and act and for those who are affected by such judgements and acts.35
The main problem with this suggestion is that despair would also seem to have a place in the pattern of attitudes constituting a loving concern for others, in which case hope will be no more appropriate than despair on these grounds. Suppose the news that you are suffering from a serious illness sends me into despair. The fact that I am deeply and lovingly concerned for your well-being makes sense of my negative response in this instance: it is because I love you that I despair when I hear the news. If it is a mistake to look for reasons above and beyond my love for you in order to justify my hoping that you recover, it is also a mistake to look for reasons above and beyond my love for you in order to explain my despairing that you won’t. If the first positive attitude has intrinsic value because it is (partly) constitutive of love, then the second negative attitude will equally have intrinsic value. It is not obvious, therefore, that a loving concern for agents and subjects at a cultural-historical distance is better expressed by the attitude of hope rather than despair, given that both seem part of the constellation of reactive emotional attitudes constitutive of love.
These considerations cast doubt upon something we might regard as a third possibility, viz. the idea that hope is more appropriate than despair because it is a virtue. On this line, the hope that others do the right thing expresses a virtuous and hence a morally valuable attitude, and it is this that makes hope – and the subsequent disappointment – appropriate. Resigned acceptance is not equally appropriate in this sense, however, since despair is not a virtue. If hope is a virtue, therefore, then we have reason to think that moral-epistemic disappointment is merited: it will thus constitute a form of resentment which reflects the disconfirmation of a morally valuable hope.
Is hope a virtue? It is certainly true that hope is commonly held to be a theological virtue. Indeed, in the theological realm the air of paradox or irrationality surrounding hope disappears. Earlier we saw that there might be something amiss in being confident (cheerful, high-spirited, optimistic) about a prospect that one thinks unlikely to occur. The confidence involved in hope seems in some kind of conflict with one’s epistemic confidence that the prospect will not occur. In the theological sense, however, these two forms of confidence would seem to be compatible: for someone who has the theological virtue of hope is confident that an event which is unlikely without God’s help and favour will indeed occur as a result of God’s assistance. The confidence of hope in the theological sense is grounded in faith in God’s goodness and provenance. This is why despair is a theological vice, since it implies that one has lost faith in God’s ability to bring about desired but (otherwise) unlikely events.
I doubt that Fricker would want to appeal to hope as a theological virtue in order to support her claims about moral-epistemic disappointment. So is hope a virtue outwith theology? Recent developments in virtue theory provide some grounds for a positive answer. Consider, for instance, Thomas Hurka’s ‘recursive’ account of the virtues. Hurka’s theory is built upon what he terms a base-clause about goods, which maintains that states of affairs such as pleasure, achievement and knowledge count as basic intrinsic goods.36 To say that they are basic goods is to say that their value does not depend upon the value of anything else. He then proposes a recursion-clause about goods, which holds that certain positive attitudes towards intrinsic goods are themselves intrinsically valuable. Thus, “If x is intrinsically good, loving x (desiring, pursuing, or taking pleasure in x) for itself is also intrinsically good.”37 Hurka’s basic picture is completed by a definition of the virtues and vices in terms of intrinsically valuable attitudes: thus, he writes that “the moral virtues are those attitudes to goods and evils that are intrinsically good, and the moral vices are those attitudes to goods and evils that are intrinsically evil.”38 If so, then desiring that someone at a cultural-historical distance makes the right moral move counts as virtuous on Hurka’s lines; but so also will hoping that they do so. Since despair is not a positive attitude, however, it will not count as a virtue on this account. We therefore have good reason to think that the relevant form of hope is a virtuous and morally appropriate attitude, whilst despair is not.
However, and as we saw above, it is unclear why it is only positive attitudes towards intrinsically valuable objects that are held to be themselves intrinsically valuable. To return to a point made earlier, some negative attitudes towards intrinsically valuable objects can also seem valuable: my despair can express my love for someone and thereby count as (partly constitutive of) an intrinsically valuable attitude, even though it is a negative attitude towards a desirable object. A second point is this: intrinsically valuable motives, although arguably necessary for virtue, do not seem to be sufficient. This is because another condition for a valuable motive to be a virtue is that it is reliably successful in helping to bring about the desirable state of affairs that is its target.39 In the absence of the latter, it is doubtful whether we would regard a person as having some particular virtue. Suppose, to illustrate, I strongly desire to promote the well-being of others but am generally unsuccessful in so doing; it is doubtful that I count as having the virtue of benevolence in this case. Or suppose, although I love the truth, I am remarkably unsuccessful at attaining it. Again, we might doubt that I count as intellectually virtuous simply on the basis of possessing an intrinsically valuable motive. Moreover, and again as we saw above, we have good reason to doubt whether hope, of the relevant kind, is reliably successful in bringing about the relevant desirable states of affairs. For hoping that others make the right moral moves seems essentially unconnected with their making the right moral moves, and so it is hard to see how a hopeful attitude towards this desirable event could itself be reliably successful in bringing about that event. If virtue necessarily requires an element of reliable success, therefore, we have good reason to doubt that hope is a virtue.
If I am right, then we cannot show that moral-epistemic disappointment is appropriate by appeal to any expectation that those at a cultural-historical distance will judge and act rightly. Nor can we argue that disappointment is appropriate as a response to hope, at least if we want to retain the idea that disappointment is a kind of focussed appraisal that is akin to other forms of moral resentment. Suppose that I am wrong, however, and that moral-epistemic disappointment is an appropriate form of focussed moral judgement. A final worry for Fricker is that such an appraisal would seem to be appropriate in more cases than she envisages, in which case her account might ultimately be closer to a kind of moralism that she wishes to reject.
To see this, recall that on Fricker’s account moral-epistemic disappointment is appropriate with respect to routine moral judgement and behaviour when an exceptional, historically more advanced moral picture is starting to emerge. The source of our disappointment, thinks Fricker, is that the agent displays a failure of moral imagination, a failure which we might regard as a form of moral complacency in the face of a changing moral consciousness. The underlying thought here is that it is possible for routine agents to be exceptional enough to move beyond routine moral thinking and follow the moral pioneers: routine thinkers, that is, are not stuck with routine thinking, but can make exceptional or non-routine moves to embrace new moral ideas when these are made available. Although it is not a reasonable expectation that routine thinkers do this – else they would be subject to blame – it is nevertheless a possibility, and as such a different focussed moral judgement can be appropriately applied.
If, however, a failure of routine thinkers to be exceptional in this way is a legitimate source of disappointment, why isn’t a failure of routine thinkers to be exceptional in a more extreme way also be an appropriate ground for disappointment? In other words, might we not be legitimately disappointed with a routine agent because he fails to make an exceptional moral move even when the moral light is not dawning? The difference, after all, is only one of the degree to which a routine agent needs to be exceptional: it’s a difference between being exceptional enough to recognise the moral truth when a few others have started to point it out, and being exceptional enough to hit upon the moral truth oneself – between recognising the moral truth when others make it available, and making the truth available oneself. If Fricker maintains that it is always possible for routine thinkers to be exceptional in the first kind of way, then what principled reason is there for denying that it is always possible (although perhaps more difficult) for routine thinkers to be exceptional in the second kind of way? (Fricker talks of blame being inappropriate when routine thinkers are unable to form the relevant thought, but I trust that she cannot mean this literally in cases where the moral light is dawning. So what reason have we for taking this literally in cases where it isn’t?) And if it is possible for routine thinkers to be moral pioneers even when others are not making the right moral moves, then it is appropriate for us to be disappointed in them when this desirable prospect fails to come about. As we saw earlier, hope can be legitimate even though the relevant prospect is (highly) unlikely. If so, then disappointment can be appropriate even though there is a (very) small chance that a routine agent at a cultural-historical distance thinks and acts like a moral pioneer.
If the target of moral-epistemic disappointment is a failure to make an exceptional move beyond routine thought and judgement, therefore, moral-epistemic disappointment will be appropriate in more cases than Fricker imagines. In particular, we can legitimately be disappointed in the behaviour of those at a cultural-historical distance even when their situation is not one in which the right moral moves were beginning to be made. Although it is inappropriate for us to blame agents for failing to be moral pioneers, it seems that we can be legitimately disappointed in them for failing to be exceptional in this way. We can therefore doubt whether the identification of moral-epistemic disappointment as a form of focussed moral judgement is ultimately successful in rescuing moral appraisal from “the whiff of moralism.”