The politics of hope

Caroline West, University of Sydney

Valerie Braithwaite (ed.), Hope, Power, and Governance, The Annals of The American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 592, March 2004.

When Martin Luther King Jnr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on 28 August 1963 and spoke of his dream for racial equality, he galvanised thousands of Americans to act in pursuit of a shared ideal: a world without racial injustice. King was preaching the politics of hope, a political vision underpinned by the conviction that the future can be better and that as individuals and communities we have the power to change things so as to make it so. For his audience, many of whom felt alienated and despairing, King’s words were an empowering invitation not simply to dream of a better future, but to set course to achieve it.

The achievements of the civil rights movement stand witness to the power of hope, harnessed rightly, as an engine for positive social change. Hope enables individuals and communities to embark on the pursuit of difficult goals where success may be far from certain, and sustains their resolve through adversity or setbacks that might otherwise cause them to lose heart and give up. Yet social scientists to date have had comparatively little to say about the role and value of emotions such as hope in public life. But a new volume of essays on Hope, Power, and Governance edited by Valerie Braithwaite of the Australian National University looks set to change that. The collection aims to convince social scientists that hope is a topic worthy of serious academic attention; and mounts an impressive case for the importance of designing social institutions in ways that allow and nurture the kind of hope that empowers individuals to take active steps towards creating a better future for themselves and their communities. The collection is timely politically as well as intellectually, in a climate which seems all too often dominated by a politics of despair: the fear that the future is unlikely to be better, and that change is likely to be for the worse.

The collection is timely politically as well as intellectually, in a climate which seems all too often dominated by a politics of despair.

While alive to the virtues of hope, the volume is not blind to its pitfalls either. Hope has the power to transform lives for the better; but, harnessed wrongly, it can be a recipe for disappointment and further despair. False hopes, manipulated by marketers or powerful political forces in the service of ends that are unattainable or undesirable, have the power to waste and destroy lives. The key, as ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle might have put it, is to hope appropriately: to have the right amount of hope directed towards the right kind of goal in the right kind of way. The outcome has to be desirable; the amount of hope not excessively disproportionate to the expected results; and we must be empowered to take concrete steps in pursuit of the outcome, not merely drawn into wishful thinking. Much of Hope, Power, and Governance is devoted to the important job of filling out the detail of the recipe for hoping appropriately; and to working out how social institutions can be designed to facilitate good hope, whilst guarding against bad.

The volume is representative of the recent revival of interest in the emotions across moral and political theory, evident also in the rebirth of neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics which assigns centre stage to questions of character and in the calls for an ‘ethics of care’ to replace or supplement traditional utilitarian and Kantian ‘ethics of justice’. The revival has been motivated in many quarters by a perception that orthodox moral and political theories of the so-called Enlightenment tradition have accorded undue primacy to reason, at the expense of the emotions and other affective aspects of human life. The split between reason and emotion, the conception of the ideal moral agent as one who employs the stern ruling hand of reason to keep their unruly crew of emotions in line, and the view that rationality guides responsible human action against the contrary influence of blind passion, have all exerted a profound influence on contemporary political and moral thought.

The key is to hope appropriately.

In feminist circles, the priority of reason over emotion has been viewed as closely tied to the exclusion or denigration of the feminine. Reason has traditionally been associated with masculine activities, emotion with female weakness and this association, it is claimed, is more than merely accidental. According to this line of critique, traditional Kantian and utilitarian theories, despite their differences, both see morality and justice primarily as about applying abstract and universal principles of right action to particular cases: whether those principles are lists of duties, as deontologists think, or a general instruction to act so as to maximise overall utility, producing the greatest good for the greatest number, as utilitarians believe. These theories, it is claimed, ignore or downplay the role of the emotions, viewing them as things to be controlled by the rational will or appropriately regulated by principles of rational choice, but not as legitimate sources of understanding in their own right. Much contemporary feminist moral philosophy focuses on re-examining and revaluing the place of emotions in morality. As Virginia Held (1990) describes the mood,

[c]aring, empathy, feeling with others, being sensitive to each other’s feelings, all may be better guides to what morality requires in actual contexts than may abstract rules of reason, or rational calculation, or at least they may be necessary components of an adequate morality.

The hard task is to explain exactly how emotions do or should interact with reason. Hope is an interesting case study here. Hope has been criticised as epistemically irrational, insofar as it leads us to overestimate the probability that the hoped-for state of affairs will come about given the evidence available to us. But hope, like many other emotions, stands in a considerably more complex and potentially productive relation to practical rationality than this kind of criticism acknowledges. Hopeful people may well be epistemically irrational. Yet being hopeful may nonetheless be part of an entirely rational strategy. Hopeful people are more likely to achieve difficult goals than those who have a more realistic assessment of the chances, for they are more likely to invest resources in trying to achieve them and to persevere despite setbacks, which is a precondition for eventual success. Had King and his followers been purely dispassionate calculators of expected utility, they might well have chosen to set their sights on considerably more modest goals; having hope was the basis for achieving larger social change.

Hopeful people are more likely to achieve difficult goals.

While it is important to recognise the value and power of hope in public and private life, it is equally important to acknowledge that it is somewhat arbitrary to single out hope for special attention. There is a growing trend in our society, evident in many of the popular psychology titles lining bookstore shelves, to valorise the ‘positive’ emotions: those emotions that make us feel good about ourselves. The so-called negative emotions—anger, guilt, shame, fear, regret—those that are unpleasant to experience or make us feel bad about ourselves are often depicted as less valuable, and sometimes even as altogether undesirable elements to be purged from our psychologies so far as possible. This seems to me to be a mistake. For the negative emotions have just as important and valuable a role to play in our psychological and social lives as the positive ones.

Guilt, for example, is the emotion that arises when we feel we could not defend ourselves against the anger of others. Guilt is not a pleasant feeling, but it plays a valuable role in regulating our behaviour. The prospect of feeling guilty later on frequently acts as a very effective deterrent against doing something that would be detrimental to the interests of others, but which we might otherwise be tempted to do regardless. Guilt keeps us toeing the moral line in situations where we would otherwise be tempted to stray; and quite rationally so, wherever guilt is a cost we would rather not incur. And where we do stray, guilt prompts us to try to make reparation for our behaviour by apologising, confessing or trying to set things right again. In this way, guilt acts as an important social adhesive, enabling the restoration of social harmony where there might otherwise be ongoing anger or resentment. Guilt supplements more formal forms of regulation such as legal regulation, and sometimes even renders it unnecessary in areas of our lives where such regulation would be intrusive, costly and undesirable.

Guilt plays a valuable role in regulating our behaviour.

Shame plays a similarly important de facto regulatory role. Shame feels very much like guilt, but is usually described as the emotion we experience when we feel that we’ve done something that would or could earn the contempt or disdain, rather than the anger, of others. We feel ashamed when we’ve failed to live up to our own or others’ expectations, even if we’ve done nothing to feel guilty about. Anger too, when directed at cruelty or injustice, is a powerful motivator. All of these kinds of emotions, rightly harnessed, have the power to help us create a better future. Of course, as with positive emotions like hope, there are times when it is inappropriate to feel guilt, shame or anger. Guilt, anger and shame, like hope, can go wrong. Again, in each case, the key is to respond appropriately.

The topic of hope, and of the emotions more generally, is fertile territory for moral and political theorists, promising much that has the power to transform lives as well as theories.


Held, V. 1990, ‘Feminist Transformations of Moral Theory’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 50, supplement, pp. 321–44.

Dr Caroline West is lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sydney. Her main areas of teaching and research interest are in metaphysics (especially issues of identity, persistence and personal identity), moral philosophy (meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics), political philosophy and feminist philosophy.

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