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 piece is about philosophical pessimism. It is not about pessimism understood as an attitude of hopelessness, a mood, a personality trait, or a tendency to expect the worst. Rather, I deal with pessimistic philosophical beliefs, claims, stances, and views.
I go through varieties of philosophical pessimism, why they are important, future work to be done on the topic, and psychological and social mechanisms that go against philosophical pessimism.
Varieties of philosophical pessimism
The following are some varieties of philosophical pessimism:
- Pessimism about the value of the past, present, future, or combinations thereof. For example, this may include the belief that the future will be bad, or that the past, present, and future as a whole will not have been worth it.
- Pessimism about welfare, meaning, and the like. For example, the belief that life is bad, meaningless, or not worth living; or that happiness is impossible.
- Pessimism about the value of the existence of humanity or the existence of other species. For example, Benatar says: “My arguments … imply that it would be better if humans (and other species) became extinct.”
- Pessimism as a stance involving certain beliefs—mainly the belief that the bad prevails over the good—and where the beliefs are about outcomes that one is personally invested in.
- Pessimism when it comes to moral or evaluative weight. In relation to pessimism, Tännsjö talks about the idea that “unhappiness carries a special moral weight.” And according to van der Lugt, “Bayle’s pessimism is built upon the assumption that evils (moral and physical) outweigh goods in quantity but especially, and most significantly, in quality. Not only are there more evils than goods in life on the whole, but even a small amount of evil is capable of spoiling a great amount of good.”
- Pessimism about whether there is more pleasure or pain.
- Pessimism about the value of possible worlds. For example, the belief that an empty or valueless world is the best possible world.
- Pessimism in the sense of believing things will get worse or expecting nothing.
- The three sorts of pessimism identified by Dienstag: “cultural, metaphysical, and existential pessimism.” And the propositions Dienstag lists: “that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd.”
- Pessimism about the total number of beings or about having children: For example, one should not increase the number of beings or bring sentient beings into existence, it is wrong to have children, and it would be less bad if there were fewer beings.
- Pessimism about perception or our experience of sensations. Anaxagorean pessimism holds that “every act of sensation is (or involves) suffering.” Warren further explores this idea: “What we might have thought of as a neutral state is in fact characterized by constant pain, only this pain is so constant that most people have come not to notice it.”
The importance of philosophical pessimism
There are plenty of reasons why many forms of philosophical pessimism are important. In the rest of this piece, I will go through the following reasons: certain forms of philosophical pessimism are reasonable and relevant for practical decisions, there is useful work to be done on them, and some mechanisms push against talking about them. In this section, I will briefly mention reasonableness and practical relevance, and in the next two sections, I will deal with work to be done and suppressive mechanisms.
Several forms of philosophical pessimism are very reasonable, at least in my view. For example, I think the world is bad, the future will be bad, and an empty or valueless world is the best possible world. I think there is no positive value, there is no positive welfare, and there are no positive mental states or experiences. Human extinction would probably be less bad than the realistic alternatives, and the same goes for the extinction of all other species. Generally speaking, we should not increase the number of beings, and there is a strong case for the claim that it is usually morally wrong for humans to have children.
Here is an example of why one might find the present world bad: Consider the vilest and most destructive things some individuals are subjected to; for example, the worst and most gruesome crimes in the world committed against children. We can focus on cases in which the victims are eventually killed so that there is no compensation for them. With such things going on, how could the world be good? Purportedly good things pale in comparison, including art, scientific achievement, and others’ pleasant experiences and fulfilled desires. Purported goods do not outweigh what happens to the victims of such crimes and so, the conclusion is that the world is bad on the whole. This kind of pessimistic reasoning has been defended, for instance, by Hedenius in 1955.
The practical relevance of many forms of philosophical pessimism is fairly straightforward. For instance, if one holds the just mentioned view that the world is bad partly because it contains such extreme suffering and degradation that purportedly good things cannot outweigh them, then it makes sense to try to reduce such things rather than try to bring about purportedly good things. Generally speaking, the moral weight of suffering is relevant for policymaking and what one should work on and give money to.
Work to be done on philosophical pessimism
An additional reason that it is important to continue working on philosophical pessimism is that there is still much work that can be done on it. The two most promising kinds of future work on philosophical pessimism seem to be (1) theoretical work using a contemporary approach and (2) analysis of the practical ramifications of philosophical pessimism.
(1) Theoretical work using a contemporary approach: There are several recent good books on philosophical pessimism and related topics such as Epicureanism with illuminating historical content. It seems harder to find recent work on the plausibility of pessimistic ideas using contemporary methods from value theory, normative ethics, and the literature on well-being. Sure, there are, for example, works on anti-natalism and suffering-focused ethics; and there is Fehige’s antifrustrationism and Mendola who says that “our real world is in fact worse than nothing.” But there is still much to be explored. The following are examples of topics on which more work seems fruitful:
- Antifrustrationism, Anaxagorean pessimism, no-pain theories of pleasure, and Epicurean notions of pleasure.
- Supposed polar opposites such as pleasure-unpleasure, good-bad, and positive-negative value, welfare, or mental states. For example, perhaps things can be better or worse but never good. To explore this, one can draw on Epicureanism and on publications about thinking comparatively and about defining ‘good’ in terms of ‘better’. Instead of the supposed polar opposites good-bad or positive-negative, perhaps one should think in terms of unproblematic-problematic or perfect-imperfect.
- Large-scale value questions such as whether the future will be bad, whether it would be less bad if humans (or other species) became extinct, and what, if anything, in the far future could counterbalance the terrible things that happen today.
- Philosophical pessimism and philosophical misanthropy. Kidd argues that “misanthropy is systematic condemnation of the moral character of humankind as it has come to be.” Such a condemnation sounds very reasonable and has connections to philosophical pessimism. For example, an existing idea is that it is bad for someone to be immoral or have vices. If we grant both that and the misanthropic condemnation of our character, we get support for pessimism about human well-being. And further related questions arise: Can and will non-human beings or enhanced humans fail (e.g., morally) in ways that are disvaluable or in ways that directly lower their well-being?
- Is it morally permissible to be happy in a world of suffering? Is it disvaluable to not be sympathetically pained by someone else’s pain? These questions matter for each of us personally regarding how to be and what attitudes to have. And the answers to the questions can support pessimism about the value of the world, the value of the future, and the balance of positive and negative welfare, partly for the following reasons: Suppose someone says that, among humans, there is more pleasure than unpleasure or more desire satisfaction than aversion fulfillment. A simplified reply is that even if that is the case, it should not be the case. And such a failure (i.e., not being sufficiently bothered or pained by others’ suffering) would directly lower the welfare and the value of the world. More speculatively, suppose someone says that, in the far future, beings will be blissful and there will be a great preponderance of bliss over suffering. A similar reply is that there might still be suffering in or outside of our accessible future, and if the blissful beings are not sufficiently bothered by that, it directly lowers their welfare and the value of the future. Actually, the situation is even worse because it is, roughly speaking, damned if you do and damned if you don’t because if beings are bothered or pained by others’ suffering, as they should be, that plausibly lowers their welfare (e.g., because it is unpleasant to be pained), which makes the world worse as well.
(2) Analysis of the practical ramifications of philosophical pessimism: Given a specific pessimistic view, what should one do in real life?
The following is an interesting source, although I do not mean to imply that it was the first time someone discussed the practical implications of pessimism: In 1978, Bergström published a text in Swedish with the title “The consequences of pessimism” (my translation), in which he asks important practical questions:
Pessimism seems, in other words, rather plausible. But is pessimism interesting? Does it matter whether it is true or false? Does it have any practical consequences? Does anything follow from the pessimistic doctrine about how we should act? As I pointed out above, we can nowadays exterminate humanity. Does this—in combination with pessimism—imply that we also should exterminate humanity? And we who do not have control over the weapons arsenals and the political decisions—should we refrain from fighting militarism and arms racing? Should we stop worrying about the end of the world, and should we perhaps also stop having children? (Page 26, my translation, emphasis in the original.)
A more recent example in this research area is Moen making the case that “pessimism counts in favor of pursuing biomedical enhancements.” (Moen will be discussing this argument in a later contribution to this series.)
Here are examples of useful work to be done on the practical ramifications of philosophical pessimism:
- Assuming that suffering carries a special moral weight or is a top priority, a question is how to best reduce suffering. Analysis has been made on the topic, but more work is needed. For example, how does one best reduce large-scale risks of future suffering?
- Or take the pessimistic view that human extinction would be less bad than continued existence. What is it morally permissible for someone with that view to do in relation to human extinction? And what might be the most effective paths to human extinction?
- What is an impactful pessimist like? I mean a pessimist who makes the world or the future better, even if it is still terrible. There might be several answers, as impactful pessimists may not fit one mold. Some general recommendations are to take care of oneself and invest in one’s future abilities. Yet there may be challenges to being impactful that are particular to pessimism. For instance, it may be difficult to stay motivated. One can try to concretely help some individuals in distress, which is important and reasonably likely to succeed, but it might not be so motivating because there would still remain almost endless misery for the foreseeable future. Alternatively, one can try to have a large-scale impact, but that might be unlikely to succeed, which can be demotivating.
- If quality of life is generally or always negative, what are the implications for policies related to pain relief and assisted death? If quality of life among, say, wild animals is also negative, then what is best and morally permissible to do for them?
Psychological and social mechanisms that work against philosophical pessimism
Unfortunately, while there is still work to be done on philosophical pessimism, there are both psychological and social mechanisms that might result in there being limited work on, endorsements of, and talk about philosophical pessimism. Such mechanisms indicate that philosophical pessimism is less researched, popular, and worked on than would be the case if all that mattered were the plausibility of ideas and their importance. But one should keep in mind that, according to van der Lugt, “There is also an underdoggish tendency of both sides [i.e., pessimism and optimism] to suggest that fashion favours the opponent. The critics of pessimism do not tire of reminding us that pessimism is ‘always fashionable’.”
Let us start with some psychological mechanisms, by which I mean mechanisms that are internal to oneself and that concern how one views oneself and certain ideas. Many biases against focusing on suffering have been discussed including wishful thinking, existence bias, and the observation that contemplating extreme suffering is unpleasant. And it has been said that we overestimate the quality of our lives partly because of optimism bias.
Let us turn to some social mechanisms. One is social signaling, for example, to signal to others that one is able, happy, successful, and positive about the world and the future. And, conversely, to avoid signaling that one is ill, miserable, or a downer. This can lead to an overly rosy image of others’ well-being and to fewer public endorsements of the view that the world is bad. Other social mechanisms concern what is strategic for a person’s career, what is taught at universities, what is spread via influence by a teacher, and what research gets funded.
In sum, I hope more work will be done on philosophical pessimism. Given its many applications and possible implications as outlined in this piece, it seems to be one of the highest priority philosophical topics to explore.
Simon Knutsson is a PhD student in philosophy at Stockholm University. His dissertation focuses on axiological pessimism.