Are Hopeful People Morally Virtuous?

Is it possible to think of hope in moral terms, and specifically as a virtue? Although the consensus among philosophers appears to be "yes," the answer is currently up for debate.


Three problems surround the morality of hope. First, what is hope? It is difficult to define hope when it can be used in a range of situations, such as “I hope you slept well,” or "I hope my chemotherapy treatments are effective." Second, is all hope subject to moral judgment? While one could argue about whether there is a moral component to either of the previous examples, there is clearly a moral (or perhaps immoral) component to the statement "I hope my neighbor dies a painful death." Third, how can hope be assessed? New ways of measuring hope have been proposed over the last several years to gauge a person’s hope through actions, words, or some combination of both. Each question has generated an increasing amount of research, but I will focus on whether being hopeful or maintaining a hopeful disposition makes a person more virtuous.


Balancing Hope in Medical Diagnoses

Xray Unsplash

For Aristotle, moral virtues are dispositions of character that “find the mean,” or strike the balance, between being too much or too little of their own good. Some contemporary philosophers (i.e., Y. Michael Barilan, “From Hope in Palliative Care to Hope as a Virtue and a Life Skill”; Luc Bovens, “The value of hope”) have suggested this is how hope should be viewed. Too much hope, typically called “false hope,” can lead to discouragement when expectations are not met. Too little hope, often called despair, can prevent a person from taking positive action. Adopting a balanced approach can generate more favorable results, such as a positive outlook on the future, motivation, positive relationships, and an overall sense of wellbeing.


Consider, for example, a patient who receives a diagnosis of a terminal illness. In 1951, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that physicians should be absolutely certain about a cancer diagnosis before informing their patients; even then, they should consider whether informing the patient is in fact necessary. Since diagnostic tools were less advanced in the 1950s (i.e., no MRI, no CT scans), and treatments primarily focused on radiation and pain management, the likelihood of striking the balance on patient hope was slim. The article urged doctors not to provide patients with false hope while simultaneously cautioning against a prognosis of hopelessness. Presumably, if the doctor acted correctly, striking a balance of hope for the patient’s outcome would cause the patient to act virtuously toward their moral and physical wellbeing.


Fast forward to 2004 when most of the current diagnostic technologies and treatments for cancer were available. That year, country singer Tim McGraw released a Grammy award winning song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” based on the real life situation of a close friend diagnosed with lung cancer. The lyrics describe the experience of a man who is told he has a limited amount of time left to live due to an unexpected illness. He is not given hope for survival. Yet the man decides to fill his life with meaningful experiences, thereafter sharing time with loved ones and, maybe surprisingly, acting more virtuously than before.


If hope plays a role in this man’s moral and seemingly virtuous shift, the object of his hope is unclear. Would he have been more virtuous if he had a clear object of hope? Is hope a moral virtue in and of itself?


Hope 372792 Unsplash

A New Take on an Old Term

These questions demonstrate one of the main difficulties in this debate: identifying what hope is. When philosophers, such as Y. Michael Barilan (From Hope in Palliative Care to Hope as a Virtue and a Life Skill); Christopher Bobier (Why Hope is not a Moral Virtue: Aquinas’s Insight); Luc Bovens (The value of hope); Adam Kadlac (The Virtue of Hope); Adrienne Martin (How We Hope: A Moral Psychology) write about hope, they generally share a consensus on a definitional starting point: hope is a specific case of desire-for-something. Beyond this agreement, the definition of hope varies and can include any number of additional criteria such as agency, expectations, realistic possibilities, and openness to the future.


The contemporary debate on hope may benefit from a dialogue with the work of medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas. For Aquinas, hope can be thought of in two ways: it is either a theological virtue, in which a person’s will and thoughts are directed toward hope in God, or it is a bodily passion, in which feelings or emotions incline a person to act towards a goal. According to Aquinas, passions are not the result of rational thinking, but are passive responses with intention. Hope, as a passion, either aligns or conflicts with reason and thus may indirectly support good actions. Yet in itself, hope as a passion is morally neutral and is therefore not a virtue in a moral sense. As the philosopher Christopher Bobier argues, Aquinas’ perspective provides reason to believe that hope is not a moral virtue. This argument is particularly valuable for the medical setting, where it may come as a relief to certain patients to know that they do not need to maintain a hopeful disposition in order to be morally virtuous. Perhaps contextualizing hope in this manner is a key to untangling the moral complexity of the ongoing debate.