Notes on practical ethics # 6 Why optimism?

While any “why” question can easily be dismissed by a simple “why not?”, times have been hard for many, and a general and individual pessimism is haunting many people these days. Indeed in my surrounding I recognise in many the focus on the general decreasing state of everything, the pending apocalypse, and the end of the world as we know it. I feel to be in a very privileged position indeed, because I will remain a radical optimist until the end. Here are my arguments.
Let us begin with the arguments against pessimism.
Pessimism has never made anything better. While this seems like a very easy line of argumentation, it is actually not. Many people argue that pessimism can make people fearful, and such a nudge will help people to recognise to change their behaviour. There is much research that nudges can actually change the behaviour of people. I would dispute this on two terms. How long does it work? What is the prize of a nudge? If a nudge would be catalytic, then it could turn the behaviour of a person completely around. While this is potentially true, there is less evidence of people changing their behaviour completely and long term because of a nudge. This is to some end empirically unfair, because long term research is hard to get funded. Still, I would dispute that there are many nudges that work on many people long term. On the other hand are the negative aspects of nudges only sparsely explored, and this links to the second point. We could agree to utilise nudges if we think that the end justifies the means. Under this assumption, nudges are not a means to an end, but are a prize we choose to pay to achieve a certain end. My main criticism of this would be that nudges make people less free. Nudges can be interpreted as a way to manipulate people, which will ultimately make them less happy. One could attempt to nudge people, and then afterwards reveal the nudge, yet it would be questionable if people would evaluate the act of nudging to be positive. I believe that many people would indeed evaluate the nudging to be not positive. Even worse, what would happen if people would find out by themselves that they were nudged? This would build a growing mistrust within society, and underlines how problematic it would be to upscale the strategy of nudging. Equally bad experience has been made with advertising, showing how people perceive being manipulated by the media. For this reason, the argument that pessimism helps us to “wake people up” is not a convincing argument. Many would argue that we do not need to do that, and that the mere “facts” are grim enough. There is however a very important difference between presenting information as we perceive it, and presenting it in a pessimistic narrative. I think this difference is extremely important, and many people should try to restrict themselves to the information how they perceive it, and also engage in exchange with others, which may change our perceptions. We manipulate others through pessimistic views. We can equally manipulate others though optimistic worldviews. This brings us to the next point.

Now let us continue with the arguments for pessimism. If we would choose to have a pessimistic worldview, then this would be clearly our normative choice. However many people have a pessimistic worldview which is rooted in their origin story or other emotional experiences. While it is understandable to have a grim worldview rooted in your biography, it is still no justification for a pessimistic worldview, but a mere explanation. After all, pessimistic worldview influence others, and especially people of power have to consider how they want to influence others. If our convincing of the powerful is rooted in fear, then history will not judge kindly on us, because it equally did not do so before. More importantly, the world will surely not become a better place if people are motivated by their fears. While hence pessimism and negative experiences that are part of our identity are well understandable, it is questionable if we need to pass this on to others. There are many positive examples where such endeavours led to a change for the better, yet there are equally negative examples. I believe that if we would start counting if the optimistic or the pessimistic prevail, it is already a lost cause.
Other arguments for pessimism are of more existential nature. Many people have a pessimistic worldview because of all the “bad” in the world. I would again argue that this is an emotional argument, and often a a biographical argument. In addition is it clear that people are not bad, but actions are. Hence we may judge actions of people, but I would clearly refrain from judging people. The world is not a fairytale, where the morals are clear cut. We should never hold negative experience against anyone, but instead try to help people to overcome their negative experiences if at all possible. It will otherwise be difficult to help people overcome their emotional arguments. Derek Parfit argued that the history of humankind could be like an unhappy childhood, yet the overall life might have been -on the whole- worth it. He continued to argue that we cannot know how future people are going to be. This brings us to the next point- arguments for radical optimism.

Radical optimism is just like any form of pessimism or optimism a normative choice. Martha Nussbaum rightly stated that hope is a practice, and a choice. The question would be then, if we can make this choice, and if we should. It is clear that this normative choice is an effort, and it is unclear who can actively make this choice, and who may merely not have the capability to make that choice. Having a positive outlook in life is nothing people can always choose, but depends on many diverse factors. People who have a generally negative outlook in life may try to seek professionally trained and educated helpers or programs, if they want to seek help. The world of psychiatry has luckily developed more and diverse approaches over the last decades for people in need, yet there is still much to be learned on how to help people with a generally negative outlook in life. Personally, everybody who struggles has my deepest compassion. This is obviously very important, not only for people who struggle, but also for society as a whole. There are other people who may have the capacity within them to gain a general positive outlook. However, shifting our eduction system further and enabling more parts of the educational aspects of society towards enabling a general positive outlook in people is a key challenge for the 21st century. If we would seize this opportunity, the next question would be, why we should make a choice for optimism? We are all interconnected. If one person has a pessimistic outlook, then it may pass on to other people. This argument may not convince everybody, and some people will not have the capacity to react to it. However, an optimistic outlook may equally translate to others, and may also help to create an open and reflective society that is better enabled to give support to people with a pessimistic worldview.
How do we keep learning to translate the everyday challenge into a something that does not lead to despair?
Being happy is a serendipity. Those who can be optimistic can consider themselves lucky, and have a responsibility towards others. This responsibility is a truly societal responsibility, because only if we can all enable everybody to be at peace may we overcome our deeply rooted problems. Our first and foremost priority will be to learn ways to marginalise minorities less, and help humans less privileged than us. We should never forget that optimism can obviously be also part of a privilege. I was privileged enough to see many different cultures, and remember that I saw optimistic and pessimistic world views in rich and poor. Yet this is easier said then lived, and only when all people can grow up with the capability to thrive in this world, and have their rights guarded will we surely and maybe finally be able to make the case for optimism. I for myself thrive towards this lack of inequality, and we have gotten closer over time. When my grandmother was born more than 100 years ago two thirds of all people lived in poverty. When my mother was born after the second world war it had hardly changed. When I was born in the mid-70s it was less than half of the people living on poverty. Today it is about 12%, depending on the threshold and how it is defined. The end of poverty will not mark the beginning of ultimate optimism, yet it is a path towards that. As long as I live I choose to throw all my might in contributing towards a world what is worthwhile our optimism, and this is what I call radical optimism. I cannot find an argument for me against it.