This post is a part of an ongoing biweekly series on philosophical pessimism and related positions. You can find other posts in the series here.
This introduction to (philosophical) pessimism could alternatively have been called “An idiot’s guide to pessimism,” but such a title would have played into the rivalries between optimists and pessimists. Optimists often regard pessimists as “Debbie Downers” or ingrates, while pessimists often think of optimists as deluded—exactly the kind of people in need of an idiot’s guide to pessimism. Ambrose Bierce, for example, described optimism as “an intellectual disorder, yielding no treatment but death.”
These rivalries are fine for good-humoured mutual ribbing, but they should otherwise be eschewed. They do not help us understand the respective categories, and they do not help us determine which, if either, is preferable. In this primer, I shall clarify what pessimism is (and is not) and outline a sample of objections to it. I shall argue that instead of evaluating pessimism in general, we should evaluate particular pessimistic views.
What is pessimism?
Although pessimism is sometimes understood as a temperament, that is not the kind of pessimism I shall be discussing here. I am interested in pessimism as a philosophical (or other) position rather than as a psychological disposition. Of course, it might well be the case that those with a pessimistic disposition are more inclined to accept pessimistic positions. However, that should tell us nothing about whether to accept or reject such positions. Instead, they should be assessed on their merits.
Loaded and unloaded senses of “pessimism”:
Sometimes the terms “pessimism” and “optimism” are understood in what we might call a “loaded” way. When that loading is equal, “pessimism” is understood as a position that is “excessively negative,” and “optimism” is understood as a position that is “excessively positive,” where “excessive” means something like “more than the facts, evidence or arguments warrant.” (It is also possible to load only one of the contrasting terms and to view the other as “appropriately” either negative or positive, but we can set that possibility aside for the sake of simplicity).
Loading the meaning of “pessimism” and “optimism” precludes the possibility that there could be a warranted “pessimism” or “optimism.” It rules out either pessimism or optimism as a position one is justified in holding, and it does so by definitional fiat. It is thus better to understand both pessimism and optimism in an unloaded way. If we do so, then a pessimistic view is a view that something was, is, or will be (either) bad (or worse than it could or should be). For example, the view that humans are fundamentally good is an optimistic view of human nature, whereas the view that they are fundamentally corrupt is a pessimistic view.
If we understand pessimism and optimism in these ways, then we can approach any view in three stages. In the first stage, we determine whether it is pessimistic or optimistic. In the second stage, we determine how pessimistic (negative) or optimistic (positive) it is. In the third stage, we determine whether the view is either pessimistic or optimistic to the appropriate degree. A view is appropriately pessimistic only if it reflects the correct degree of badness. Pessimistic views that are not negative to the correct degree are either excessively or insufficiently pessimistic. (Corresponding claims can be made about optimistic views).
Among the implications of this is that the meaning of the words “pessimism” and “optimism” should not be reduced to or confused with their etymologies. “Pessimism” is derived from the Latin “pessimus,” meaning “the worst,” while “optimism” is derived from “optimum,” meaning “the best.” Notwithstanding the etymology, one does not have to believe, for example, that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in order to count as a pessimist. In some (but not other) ways, it is even more pessimistic to think that as bad as this world is, it could be(come) still worse.
Pessimism about facts, and about evaluations of those facts:
All applications of “pessimism” and “optimism” imply at least some evaluative element because a negative valuation is part of the meaning of “pessimism” and a positive valuation is part of the meaning of “optimism.” Nevertheless, there is a helpful, even if not entirely uncomplicated, distinction to be drawn between pessimism about the facts, and a pessimistic evaluation of those facts.
For example, there may be competing views about how much pain a surgical procedure will involve. The more pain that it is thought there will be, the more pessimistic the view. However, even those who agree on how much pain there will be—a factual question, albeit one with only an imprecise answer—can disagree in their subsequent evaluations of that fact. The view that the anticipated amount of pain is a cost not worth bearing is a pessimistic assessment of whether the pain is “worth it,” whereas an optimistic view would be that the anticipated amount of pain is a cost worth bearing.
It is noteworthy that a pessimistic view of the facts does not necessarily entail a pessimistic evaluation of those facts. For example, one could be pessimistic about whether there is an enduring self, while also having the optimistic view that the absence of such a self is not something to regret.
Pessimism, like optimism, can come in different tenses. That is to say, one can be pessimistic about the way things were (past tense), about the way they are (present tense), or about the way that they will be (future tense).
When is a view pessimistic?:
There is sometimes confusion about whether a given view is pessimistic or whether it is optimistic. This is because it can sometimes be spun in the opposite way to that which best characterizes it. For example, some people have described the view that it would be bad to be immortal as a pessimistic view. Presumably, they offer this characterization because of the negative value that the view attributes to immortality. However, the problem with this characterization is that we are not immortal. According to the view that immortality would be bad for us, our actual situation is better than the alternative. That is an optimistic view. If we were in fact immortal, then the view that immortality was bad, would be a pessimistic view.
Pessimism and nihilism:
Pessimism is sometimes conflated with nihilism. While there are intersections between these views, they are not identical. At a very general level, a pessimistic view is one that embodies a negative valuation. However, a negative evaluation is possible only if valuation is possible—something denied by those who are nihilists about value.
Where pessimism and nihilism can intersect is when the nihilism is not about value in general but rather about the absence of something valued. For example, the view that life has no ultimate meaning is a pessimistic view (at least if that absence is taken to be bad). It is also a nihilistic view about ultimate meaning. It claims that there is no such meaning.
To be or not to be pessimistic? That is a question.
There should be no general, and certainly no universal, answer to whether we should adopt or reject pessimistic views. To determine whether we should accept a pessimistic view, we need to know what that view is about. This is because pessimism about some matters is warranted, whereas about other matters it is not. For example, we should be pessimistic about our prospects of living five hundred years, but many of us should be optimistic about our prospects of living for another month.
While such restricted examples may seem obvious, there is considerable resistance to pessimism in cases where the correct view is not as obvious as it is when considering an upper limit on human life expectancy. (That said, there are some people who are optimistic even about the possibilities of radical life extension).
Much resistance to pessimism is psychological rather than philosophical, but we can set the former aside here to consider, briefly, a few arguments against pessimism.
The inertia objection:
Especially in the social and political realm, one criticism directed towards pessimism is that it encourages inertia. If it is thought that societal woes cannot be ameliorated, then there is no point in trying to ameliorate them. If too many people adopt that view, then the pessimistic prophecy will be self-fulfilling.
This argument has force against those who are excessively pessimistic about the prospects of social improvement. However, to the extent that a pessimistic view about the degree of possible amelioration is not mistaken, the “prophecy” is not self-fulfilling. It is merely accurate. Moreover, it is possible to overestimate how much progress is possible. That comes with its own set of problems. There has been no shortage of misery caused by optimists seeking to establish the “kingdom of heaven,” the “classless society,” or even “regime change.”
What this shows is that a view cannot be dismissed, on the basis of the inertia objection, merely because it is pessimistic. One has to demonstrate that the view is excessively pessimistic. However, if it is excessively pessimistic then the inertia objection is an additional objection—one to be added to the more foundational objection of inaccuracy.
The quality-of-life objection:
A common objection to pessimistic views (especially) about existential questions is that such views make life worse than it would be if more optimistic views were held. There is an element of truth to this objection. When the existential view is too pessimistic, then the case for moderating one’s view is clear. However, the objection is much less compelling when the view is appropriately pessimistic. In such cases, while adopting a less pessimistic or more optimistic view may well make life feel better, it comes at a significant cost. One then has a less realistic view.
Many people do not accept such a trade-off in other cases, including with regard to some personal existential issues. Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal disease can cause immense distress, but many people would rather be told of such a diagnosis than to have this hidden from them. This suggests that many people value knowing the truth even when it does cause distress. The benefits of a more accurate view are not only personal. Unduly rosy views can make one insufficiently sensitive to the suffering of others.
The anti-macho objection:
There is another objection to pessimistic views that reveals just how easy it is to spin such criticisms any way one wishes. According to this objection, there is something “macho” about pessimistic views. The idea is that embedded in pessimism is a chest-beating declaration of how pessimists can “handle the truth,” while weaker people cannot. The fundamental problem with this objection is that instead of evaluating whether the pessimistic view is accurate, it seeks to taint the person who accepts such a view by attributing to them the vice of hyper-masculine bravado.
A second problem is that while it is quite easy to see how pessimism could be combined with machismo, one can say—and many have—the opposite, namely that pessimism is for weaklings. The inertia objection could be seen as a variant of such an objection, given that the inertia to which that objection says pessimism leads, is congenial to weaklings, who would rather not do battle for improvement.
The foregoing sample of criticisms of pessimism indicates why it is unlikely that there can be a successful generalized rejection of pessimism. All of the three objections I have considered are criticisms of pessimism in general. Among my responses to each, was to show that while they could reasonably be directed at inappropriate pessimism, none of them can work against appropriately pessimistic views. We cannot evaluate Pessimism (with a capital P). We can only evaluate particular pessimisms. In other words, we must evaluate pessimism about particular matters. When we do that, our focus should be on whether the given degree of pessimism about that matter is warranted or not. Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not.