I want to begin by thanking Kent, Olli-Pekka, Charity, and Michael for their excellent contributions and challenging criticisms. My replies are selective—what I do not address in their remarks reflects only book-symposium word limits and not judgments of quality.
A quick note about an unconventional way of proceeding: Rather than attempt to rebut points on which we disagree (which really cannot be satisfactorily adjudicated in the context of a brief set of replies), I will try instead to emphasize and clarify those critiques that seem to me to be the most compelling from these four critical reflections and to make an additional point or two along the way that might encourage a reader of this symposium at some point to take up the book that occasioned the exchanges.
Reply to Dunnington
Dunnington offers a clear and condensed, five-point gloss on the argument of the book, but then both asks for clarification on the philosophy of pessimism and also challenges the role of pessimism in the ensuing discussion.
First, the clarification: So, is it “the classical Christian view that postlapsarian human prospects absent grace are dismal or is it the Schopenhauerian view that the universe is an objectively bleak place where disvalue consistently outstrips good?” Well, it’s a bit of both, I’d say (where the second option owes a good deal of its truth to the first), although, Dunnington will reasonably caution you that my evidence for the former is rather stronger than my evidence for the latter. The emphasis is certainly on the former (Christian-inspired) take, which I think is nicely summarized in the quote Dunnington calls attention to: “the philosophy of pessimism simply offers (on the whole) dismal predictions about what nearly all of us can expect to experience in our private lives and interpersonal relationships, about the welfare of our fellow creatures, about the character of our social institutions and global politics, and about our prospects for progress on these matters in the future.” And it is this portion of the philosophy of pessimism that has the most relevance to the rest of the book’s line of argument and focus.
So why drag Schopenhauer into it? For the same sort of reason I might drag along my friend who firmly believes that the stars were placed overhead by warring gods to influence the personalities of human beings when I visit the dark-sky preserve to observe the constellations. Even though his views about the origin of the celestial objects and about what we can learn of ourselves from studying them are thoroughly mistaken, he is the best observer of the night sky I know and has a lot to teach me about what objects are out there. Similarly, I have no sympathy for the Schopenhauerian metaphysic or backstory about why the world is such a dismal place and why we so often contribute to its disvalue individually and collectively, but damn—he is undeniably an excellent and insightful observer of such matters. Consequently, he is also masterful at puncturing the illusions of happiness and well-being in those for whom these states are illusory and who are successfully (and unfortunately) resisting an accurate assessment of themselves, thus placing themselves in danger of not recognizing the need to seek out a remedy to their situation.
One peculiarity of the argument of the book is that it diagnoses a condition which predicts that the diagnosis will be resisted by those it accurately describes, individuals who have an interest in keeping that diagnosis at a safe distance and who are equipped with the tools of self-deception and inordinate self-love which seem perfectly adequate to that task. Much of the effort to instill sympathy for pessimism on a local and global scale is designed to combat this resistance.
Second, the challenge: Dunnington presses the question of whether it is wise to instill sympathy for such a view—especially since, although he admits himself to be “temperamentally inclined to this kind of pessimism,” he does not share my view of how overwhelmingly compelling the case for pessimism is at the end of the day. What are the risks? Well, the philosophy of pessimism can create an obstacle to cultivating the very virtue of obedience that I advocate for in the book’s final chapter by disposing its adherents to be less likely to recognize and to accept the range of goods which are on offer and freely available in our lives and, when over-exaggerated, can even produce an “apathetic fatalism” in the pessimist.
That’s a terrific observation; really important. Ignoring the pessimistic thesis or even downplaying its force—I think—puts you at risk for incorrectly evaluating your own level of well-being (given the backdrop of other psychological factors that I believe are operative and that I discuss in the first three chapters of the book). Promoting the pessimistic thesis, perhaps even wallowing in it—Dunnington adds—puts you at risk for not recognizing or for refusing the goods that are on offer (and there are plenty of those, many of which go unclaimed).
Dunnington’s point gets even better: my fourth chapter is devoted to “the masks of sloth”—specific manifestations in which the vice of sloth makes its unhappy appearance known in the world. Perhaps, he hypothesizes, “Hudson’s ‘doctrine of (optimistic) pessimism’ threatens to become yet another mask of sloth that tempts the theist.” Well, for all my lecturing about the dangers of self-deception, I certainly have to take seriously the charge of pessimism-as-a-temptation. And so, I will—and will encourage you to think on that intriguing theme, too.
I suspect that whether reflecting on a particular philosophical thesis is motivating or paralyzing—an inspiration or an impediment—depends on the psychological profile of the theorist.
One parting thought: I suspect that whether reflecting on a particular philosophical thesis is motivating or paralyzing—an inspiration or an impediment—depends on the psychological profile of the theorist. Here’s a quick exercise to help locate yourself (but you’ll have to put your name in for Kent’s below). Consider yourself at a crossroads in life. There are many ways your life could become astoundingly, tremendously good for you (and for the world) and in which those outcomes would have been largely a result of your free choices. Call the character in one of those scenarios ‘VirtuousKent.’ Of course, there are also many ways your life could become abysmally, horrifically awful for you (and for the world) and in ways that could fairly be chalked up to your free agency, too. Call the character in one of those scenarios ‘ViciousKent.’ Which thought tends to motivate you more? ‘With the right choices and responses to the world, I could become VirtuousKent’—or—‘With the wrong choices and responses to the world, I could become ViciousKent?’ My own reaction to the thought experiment is heavily one-sided, and I’m clearly more motivated by not wanting to become ViciousHud. I wouldn’t be surprised if that (contingent attitude) has something to do with my regarding focusing on the philosophy of pessimism less as a potential obstacle and more as a sound strategy for overcoming resistance to embracing the goods on offer in the world. Perhaps, though, it also makes me (and those who are similarly constituted) potentially vulnerable to the temptation of pessimism.
Reply to Vainio
Vainio’s comments begin with an observation about his native country, Finland. Apparently, Finland is a prize-winner, holding the title of happiest country in the world. I can just imagine someone, slightly disgruntled at everything, facing retirement, looking for a new dawn, a new day, a new life, some way to be feeling good, to be finally happy, and thinking—‘Finland, Finland, Finland! The country where I quite want to be!’—only to discover, after settling in amongst the happiest people the world has to offer, that it’s not all bunting and drinking and laughter and tranquility and contentment (well, maybe one out of five). Instead, as Vainio reports, even this Disneyland of countries has a sordid underbelly—with its “dark, twisted, and sacrilegious” sense of humor, its stilted generosity, its citizens’ subpar positive affect, its preoccupation with the macabre, its apathy, its nihilism, its high suicide rates.
What can we make of this apparent discrepancy? My own answer is that the surveys that bestow the happiest-country crown on Finland year after year, don’t measure what they purport to measure. There are non-trivial worries about whether the participants who respond to the call for self-reports (reports which furnish much of the relevant evidence on happiness and well-being) are interpreting the terms with which the prompts are phrased in the same way as do the researchers or in the same way as one another. And this is not to impugn those subjects who, after all, are simply instructed to place themselves under one of just three headings each of which contains an occurrence of the undefined term ‘happiness’ or to identify which of seven faces (literally differing only in the arc of the smile or frown) best represents how they feel overall about their lives; it is rather a reflection of the fact that key terms and visual cues will often have nuances and connotations that will pull different people of intelligence and good will in different directions and will lead them to focus on rather different issues altogether. Moreover, even those who are interpreting the question in the same manner (no mean feat, given that the World Poll, for example, is conducted in some 140 different languages) may be invoking very different measuring sticks in their assessments, a likelihood which poses tremendous problems for the reliability of comparative judgments of happiness across the participants. And, honestly, how could it be otherwise, given the basic and extreme economic, social, and cultural differences separating the 160 countries whose citizens take part in the surveys (p. 84)?
I won’t belabor the point here, but I do explore these issues further in the third chapter of the book, and there offer what I can against the view that in learning who has won the title ‘happiest county’ we learn very much about the happiness or well-being of its inhabitants. We do learn something, however. Perhaps not unimportantly we learn a good deal about self-reported life-satisfaction. But a sincere cognitive judgment of life-satisfaction is not an infallible guide to whether one in fact bears the relation to one’s life of being satisfied with it, and (as I argue at length in the book) it is also quite consistent with unhappiness and a failure to flourish, as well.
A sincere cognitive judgment of life-satisfaction is not an infallible guide to whether one in fact bears the relation to one’s life of being satisfied with it.
Vainio floats a hypothesis on this topic that I find quite intriguing. He cites Dostoevsky’s suggestion “that humans are not able to tolerate happiness for a long period of time. Too much happiness, and we start to wreak havoc and create chaos, and we revel in it.” Rather than following Mammon’s (hopeless) advice from Paradise Lost to make a Heaven of Hell, Vainio asks whether we often manage to do just the opposite in making a Hell of Heaven. Perhaps a qualification is in order. It may well be true that we are not especially gifted at maintaining our own happiness, while nevertheless displaying a real talent for “pursuing despair and achieving misery” (as Vainio nicely puts it). But I don’t think that’s the most likely explanation for much of the mismatching we see between self-reports of happiness and attitudes and behavior that seem to suggest otherwise. Rather, I suspect those mismatches have more to do with false views about where happiness and well-being are to be found.
‘Won’t Finland’s material and existential security bring me the happiness I’ve looked forward to in my autumn years?,’ asks our retiree? Or will it come instead with creature comforts and easy access to pleasure? Or will it follow upon my finally having my identities and rights fully recognized and respected by my fellow citizens? Or is it instead a matter of focused, challenging, and meaningful work? Or of increased leisure time? Or of the intimacies of friendship, family, and partners? Or of power, prestige, recognition, and achievement? Or of solitude, reflection, and simplicity? There is a case to be made for these and a number of other factors that contribute to a life that is good for the subject of that life, but (as I argue in the book), these goods are muted and not fully developed unless they are accompanied and primed by a particular religiously oriented good. In arguing at length for that claim I, too, found inspiration in Dostoevsky, but I see in his novels not the lesson that we willfully ruin a happiness that is already ours, trading it in for “the pleasure of despair,” but that we turn to the dubious comforts of despair when trying to compensate after a failure to find happiness and well-being on secular terms and on our own power.
One clarification: Vainio says encouraging things about “Hudson’s Theory of Psychic Affirmation,” but I wish to give credit where credit is due—that’s Daniel Haybron’s theory of happiness. I endorse it (and hope to have helped further it) and many of the characterizations and descriptions of that position in the book are my embellishments, but the original theory and its defense is Haybron’s and can be found in his excellent The Pursuit of Unhappiness.
Two final points. First: Vainio wonders whether the puzzle of the unhappy/happy Finns could help us understand the primal fall (either the angelic fall or the fall of humanity – take your pick). I weigh in only with the thought that it may not be happiness or well-being alone that carries the seeds of its own destruction, but happiness and well-being combined with freedom, and I join Vainio in thinking that Kierkegaard has offered guidance on this issue worth exploring. Second: “We turn into minor Gollums, holding onto our precious needs.” Vainio wrote that sentence to describe the path we tread on a daily basis. It’s a marvelous sentence. Worth reading twice, at least.
Reply to Anderson
Anderson raises two sets of comments and questions about independent parts of the book—one set directed at particulars of my discussion of the felix culpa theodicy and one set directed at the claims I make concerning the relation of the virtue of obedience to happiness and well-being.
I have three reactions to the first cluster of comments and questions—an explanation in response to a repeated query, an acknowledgement of a disagreement between us (together with encouragement to take her side seriously), and a straightforward concession.
The query and the explanation: In examining my critique of Plantinga’s version of the felix culpa theodicy, Anderson notes that I reconstruct his line of reasoning invoking the Strong Value Assumption—“each possible world that contains Incarnation-and-Atonement is better than every possible world that lacks Incarnation-and-Atonement”—and that my objection turns on a peculiarity of this thesis. Anderson is right to note that Plantinga “is clear that he does not think the theodicy requires the Strong Value Assumption,” noting a moderate and a weak version of the value assumption that he maintains can bear the weight of the argument in its stead. No wonder, then, she thinks that “it’s a little odd that Hudson makes so much of it.” My reply is that although Plantinga claims the weaker versions will suffice, I believe he is demonstrably mistaken about this. Perhaps that belief will explain (but not by itself justify) why I invoke the strong version. For what it’s worth, I argue that Plantinga is in need of an even stronger version of the value assumption than any of the three versions he himself formulates, on the grounds that it is metaphysically possible for there to be Incarnation without Atonement. That is, the theodicy actually requires the assumption—“each possible world that contains Atonement is better than every possible world that lacks Atonement.”Of course, no one is bound to review my reasons for these judgments about which value assumption Plantinga requires in order to produce even a plausible (as Anderson puts it) theodicy, but for the curious, those reasons are available here: “Felix Culpa!” in Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments Trent Dougherty and Jerry Walls, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018): 277–89.
The disagreement and the encouragement: Anderson registers a difference of opinion with regard to my remarks on the significance of so-called ‘skeptical theism.’ Admittedly, I do regard it as immensely plausible and as an impressive counter to certain versions of the problem of evil. I even incline toward the extreme view that it may show that evil is not even evidence against the existence of God. The paper Anderson cites in that footnote with approval, however, admirably defends a more moderate view—roughly, that evil does furnish some significant evidence against God, more than many skeptical theists appear willing to admit, but perhaps not as much as champions of atheistic arguments from evil have advertised. So we are at odds, but Anderson’s take on this dispute is certainly a respectable one; the issues are complicated and subtle and wide-ranging, and neither side of the dispute can claim an obvious or unproblematic victory.
The concession: I end Chapter One of the book with a discussion of three sorts of optimism with which a Christian can hope to moderate the pessimism that it is the main purpose of the chapter to provoke in its readers. I treat the potential success of the felix culpa theodicy as the third source of this optimism. In advocating for suspending judgment about the theodicy (after offering critiques of Plantinga’s defenses as well as defenses against his many critics), I close that chapter with a muted endorsement of the third kind of optimism. Anderson points out that the Christian already believes that there is some morally justifying reason for God’s permitting the evils of the world (and, indeed, the reassurance that all this evil isn’t gratuitous furnishes one excellent source of optimism). But then she asks how would knowing that the felix culpa theodicy (in particular) had identified those reasons correctly contribute to the optimism in question? Nicely put. I don’t know . . . thank you, Charity . . . I take that particular claim back! But, dear reader, don’t let that discourage you from taking up section 9 of Chapter One; there’s still plenty of other good stuff to be wrestled with there.
The second cluster of comments and questions are centered on this sort of worry: Suppose that “some have attained the virtue of obedience and are nevertheless unhappy and failing to flourish. This would then require an explanation if Hudson’s theory is correct.”
I suspect that genuine happiness is relatively rare and that human flourishing is a high bar, indeed, even rarer.
I suspect that genuine happiness is relatively rare and that human flourishing is a high bar, indeed, even rarer. I acknowledge in the book that I think happiness is attainable apart from the virtue of obedience. A tyrant can come to enjoy the emotional state of happiness sans obedience, while a saint utterly devoted to obedience might remain unhappy; a number of accidents of temperament and environment and good fortune can contribute to either outcome. I am less inclined to think well-being can be attained without the virtue of obedience (but for reasons that cannot be condensed from the fifth chapter into the few sentences left to me in this reply). I will say this, however: my attempt to recognize obedience as occupying a privileged place with respect to the other welfare goods is not presented as a sufficient condition for well-being, but only (at best) as a necessary condition.
The argument in the book is dedicated to showing the hopelessness of Mammon’s advice in Paradise Lost—“to trust in our own glorious powers, to imitate God’s light with our own skill, artistry, intelligence, and all the magnificent resources of our own selves, to make a Heaven of Hell, to seek our own happiness and our own well-being on our own power!” Dangerous advice. We don’t have the power to succeed at that task. That there are those who may have succeeded in securing the virtue of obedience without thereby attaining well-being is a reminder that well-being depends also on other goods which are outside an agent’s control, and that the world doesn’t always cooperate in supplying the remaining ingredients even when a subject is properly primed to benefit from them. Given the argument of the book, the obedient non-flourishing are not quite the threat to my thesis that the non-obedient flourishing would be.
Why would God allow anyone who had persevered and cultivated the virtue of obedience to fail to flourish? That strikes me as a bad state of affairs but not a new problem; there is a morally justifying reason for evils of this stripe just as there are for all the evils we countenance. And what of the prospects of finding a community of counterexamples—folks from the non-obedient flourishing camp? I think this is unlikely, partly because I suspect genuine flourishing is so rare, partly because my understanding of the Christian story of sin and grace weighs heavily against that particular combination, and partly because (as I argue in the section titled “The Problem of Exclusivity”) it is not at all transparent who are among the non-obedient; the virtue of obedience turns on certain dispositions and a special relation to God, not to some privileged conception, phrasing, belief, or doctrine about God.
Reply to Austin
Austin devotes his generous comments to an exploration of the relation between the Christian virtue of hope and that particular collection of dispositions and pro-attitudes I advocate for under the unified heading ‘the virtue of obedience,’ and in doing so he achieves plausible and promising results.
An initial clarification: the full relation I articulate and invoke under the label of ‘obedience’ (by stipulative definition) can obtain only between a creature and God. If atheism is true, there is not a relation of obedience as I use that term in the book, and if theism is true, the sort of obedience I defend as a virtue cannot relate one to one’s spouse, parent, warlord, monarch, pope, or any other creature (whether they claim to speak on God’s behalf or no). That said, permit a brief sketch of four salient elements of obedience, thus conceived: There is a humility component—“being disposed to recognize and to own our affective and cognitive limitations imposed by the condition of original sin and to be vigilant about the ways in which they can lead us into difficulty and error.” There is a restraint component—“being disposed to moderate our powerful inclinations to pursue inferior goods, to privilege our own interests, and to adopt double standards in the evaluation of our thoughts, actions, and characters in comparison with those of others.” There is a response component—“being disposed to respond properly to the demands of love . . . and thus to exercise the will in a direct confrontation with sloth which is the very condition of willed resistance to the demands of love.” And there is a pro-attitude component—“love . . . which itself involves an exercise of the will, and which is directed at the good of being united with God” (pp. 163–64).
Austin provides his own brief portrait of the virtue of hope: Citing Pieper, Austin declares that hope is the “confidently patient expectation of eternal beatitude” where this expectation carries an assumption of “belief that what we expect in hope will actually come to pass.” hen, citing Mattison, Austin completes the brief outline of the virtue of hope by supplementing that expectation/belief state with a particular, focused desire, “a longing for a good that is future and possible yet difficult.” A fine and wonderful thing, to be sure—the patient expectation of a demanding-yet-possible state of affairs consisting of a union with God we both yearn for and believe will come to pass.
With these initial characterizations on the table, Austin then thoughtfully and persuasively reflects in four successive paragraphs on four pairings: hope and humility, hope and restraint, hope and response, hope and love—in each case, offering observations that suggest how the virtue of hope can spark, nurture, sustain, and strengthen the components of the virtue of obedience. I find his reflections compelling and would simply like to close by proposing some additional observations in the same spirit which further strengthen the role Austin envisions for the virtue of hope.
At the end of his comments, Austin wonders whether the virtue of hope might even rise to the status of a necessary condition on cultivating the virtue of obedience. Perhaps. Here’s at least one consideration that inclines in favor of that thesis. Hope is opposed to despair, and despair is intimately intertwined with the vice of sloth (the subject matter of the end of my third chapter and all of my fourth). Sloth is a terrible and debilitating condition—a desirelessness and an indifference (even to those things one intellectually judges to be goods)—a sorrow and a willful aversion to the demands of love (which at the extreme manifests as despair of the very possibility of salvation). In gradually poisoning and rendering ineffective the will, sloth effectively robs those in its grasp of precisely the resources they need to fight their way back to happiness and well-being. There is a long tradition of recommending perseverance and stability of place in combatting sloth, and following Austin, we can recognize the wisdom in cultivating the virtue of hope in this regard, as well.
Although hope takes its object to be difficult, exacting, a challenge—it also takes its object to be attainable.
Although hope takes its object to be difficult, exacting, a challenge—it also takes its object to be attainable. Hope is a powerful weapon in the battle against sloth, despair, and the paralyzing thought of the permanent loss of spiritual goods. In particular, hope’s patient expectation and its attendant belief can secure recognition of the genuine possibility of union with God while hope’s longing can provide the spark necessary to reignite the passion for the good that has been dampened and depleted in one suffering from the vice of sloth.
In the end, it may well be hope that shields a philosopher of pessimism (like me) from that “apathetic fatalism” we considered above and from the insufficient appreciation of and participation in life’s goods—those quiet threats Dunnington has warned us may await those who succumb to the temptations of pessimism. I hope so.