And why are you firmly, so solemnly convinced that only the normal and the positive, in short, that only well being, is profitable for man? Is reason not perhaps mistaken as to profits? Maybe man does not love well-being only? Maybe he loves suffering just as much. Maybe suffering is just as profitable for him as well-being? For man sometimes loves suffering terribly much, to the point of passion, and that is a fact. — Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground
In light of the recent tragedies, such as the murder of George Floyd, the widespread riots, the pandemic and other negative occurrences, many of us long for some optimists, to tell us that everything will be fine. Unfortunately, most people do not experience any benefit from irrationally optimistic statements during miserable times. What is apparently desired—an optimistic line of thought—is, in Slavoj Žižek’s words, not what we actually want. Occasionally, our quest for optimism results in the opposite of what we were looking for. In this, we might compare it to a direct search for pleasure. Elsewhere, I have described the paradox of hedonism: when someone seeks pleasure for herself, she will fail to acquire the feeling. Instead of ineffectively repeating optimistic truisms, then, we should give pessimism a fair crack of the whip.
Nevertheless, a lot of people perceive pessimism as a psychological state that is characterized by endless unhappiness: as the state experienced by Cain — the brother who is looked upon with contempt—or as an exclusively negative approach to viewing the world . Pessimistic attitudes have occasionally been admired, as Joshua Foa Dienstag argues in his book Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, “for their style, or respected for the critiques they offer.” However, “their apparent lack of a positive project” is, according to Foa Dienstag, “made to appear as a badge of second-rank philosophical status.”
Sure, you might live longer if you’re an optimist, you could have better cardiovascular health, and, additionally, as Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, optimists are “resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, have a reduced chance of developing clinical depression, [and] their immune system is stronger.” If “you were allowed to [have] one wish for your child, [you should] seriously consider wishing him or her optimism,” Kahneman suggests. I will not deny the beneficial aspects of optimism. But I’m rather suggesting that both rational optimism and rational pessimism should be invited to the party.
Rational optimists express a more realistic judgement of our present-day situations. Instead of construing everything as fine — as irrational optimists are eager to do — rational optimists will go case by case, to determine what is fine, and what isn’t. One famous rational optimist is Steven Pinker, although Pinker probably wouldn’t see himself as an optimist. During a recent interview, Pinker clarified that, rather than seeing the glass as half full, he calls attention to “the glass that people aren’t even aware of.” In books like Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker is simply going through things case by case, shedding light on facts that most people are oblivious to.
So what about the pessimistic realist? Contrary to Shawn Achor, I wouldn’t argue that “pessimism causes paralysis” — at least not the rational type. Instead, rational pessimists can realistically acknowledge a certain issue and assess whether it is rational to continue a specific treatment or to move on to an alternative — as opposed to blindly believing that something will miraculously start working all of a sudden. This requires the ability to think critically, without believing that everything is going down the drain. Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that “human beings are fated to endure a life freighted with problems that are fundamentally unmeliorable,” for example, complements what I would call rational pessimism.
This 2015 debate about progress clearly demonstrates the distinction in argumentation and ways of reasoning between rational optimists (represented by Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley) and (somewhat) rational pessimists (represented by Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell). Viewing the debate, many might conclude that pessimism diminishes or hinders progress: that one can’t be both a rational optimist and a rational pessimist. Fortunately, this is not the case. Rational optimists might agree that these two attitudes are not mutually exclusive. That is, someone can argue that certain aspects of his life — or of wellbeing in general — have improved, while also arguing that mankind faces many fundamental issues that can’t and won’t be solved.
This might sound self-evident. It should be obvious that we ought not to get rid of pessimism and the ideas and thoughts that complement it. Embracing pessimism may be a great remedy against naivety and may help us deal with the obstacles we run into daily.
Nevertheless, pessimism is not right all the time. Pessimism also has an irrational side. Irrational pessimism adopts nihilistic methods of analysing existence. Such pessimists include Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb — essentially a reiteration of Thomas Malthus’ work — suggests that insufficient food supply and overpopulation could result in an extremely high death rate.
Katharine Hibbert argues that “neither optimism nor pessimism are ever truly rational,” because “the past and the best course for the future are too complex for that, given that we can’t even forecast the weather reliably.” But I believe Hibbert is wrong because this isn’t about foretelling the future. Both rational optimists and pessimists make evaluations based on present knowledge. For instance, Pinker has pointed out that his rational optimistic argument that violence is currently declining doesn’t directly predict the future prevalence of violence, although, by “understanding how our predecessors were able to drive down the rates of violence, we can be emboldened to drive it down even further.” This suggests that the arguments put forward by rational optimists (and pessimists) create learning opportunities, as opposed to static facts.
When coping with risky decisions and situations in which failure is highly probable (e.g. asking your crush on a date), setting optimistic expectations might not always result in the desired effect on self-esteem. In such cases, it might be more beneficial to our self-esteem, as well as lowering our anxiety, to set low expectations —a strategy known as defensive pessimism. Similarly, we might experience less enjoyment if we create optimistic expectations. As Schopenhauer puts it in his Studies in Pessimism:
The delight which a man has in hoping for and looking forward to some special satisfaction is part of the real pleasure attaching to it enjoyed in advance. This is afterwards deducted; for the more we look forward to anything, the less satisfaction we find in it when it comes.
Julie K. Norem and Nancy Cantor found that, by using defensive pessimism, people were able to cope with the high anxiety levels associated with facing difficult tasks and that the anxiety could therefore operate as a motivational tool. Pessimists are aware that there is a real possibility of failure, and therefore make a greater effort to avoid that failure.
For example, Alain de Botton argues that we should bring back the skull on the desk, which was common in the Middle Ages, as a reminder that you’re “gonna be like him in a little while”. Essentially, this is defensive pessimism: creating extremely low expectations of remaining alive. However, anticipating death might have been more appropriate in the Middle Ages, when the average male life span was just over thirty years. The rational optimist would remind us that our longevity has been steadily increasing since then.
Obviously, the risk of death is never equal to zero. However, some people believe that this risk has got higher over the years. This is presumably a result of the availability heuristic, described by Kahneman as “the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind.” Kahneman and his co-researcher, Amos Tversky, conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate this. In one, they asked subjects, “Is it more likely that [an English] word starts with an R, or that R is its third letter?” (Most of their subjects thought that more words started with R: the opposite is actually the case). The availability heuristic can contribute to irrational pessimism. For instance, we might believe that the chance of being abducted is extremely high, as a result of constant exposure to news items covering the topic. But this fear disregards the low actual prevalence of abductions.
Irrational optimism, or “idiot optimism,” as Bryan Appleyard calls it, has almost become the default way of approaching issues. People are far too eager to conform to such an attitude. We have normalized this behaviour so much that we have lost sight of, as Appleyard puts it, how “downright insane it is when [people] giggle, weep, swoon and generally effervesce to signal what a wonderful time they are having.”
We’ve made a horrible mistake by putting such a high price tag on pessimism. But I would optimistically like to believe that we can correct our mistakes. Being aware that pessimism — and optimism — incorporate rational qualities that can be beneficial, should be the first step towards reversing our historical contempt for pessimism. Pinker’s rational optimism is needed to fight off its irrational twin, as well as to confront the relatively unknown facts concerning our progress as human beings.
Nevertheless, for the time being, we should assume that everything is not fine, until a rational pessimist tells us otherwise.