Humanity faces multiple existential threats caused by our actions and inactions. Climate change, mass extinctions, mind hacking by social media, the misuse of AI, war, geopolitical conflict, and social unrest are huge challenges. These crises cause millions to feel despair and hopelessness.
Yet hope remains. In her first book, Not the End of the World, data scientist Hannah Ritchie makes a powerful case for hope about our future. Like the late Hans Rosling, Hannah’s book reminds us of the immense progress we have already made towards a more sustainable future. For example, “the average British citizen now has a carbon footprint equivalent to that of someone in the 1850s”, and advances in green energy are enabling us to move away from fossil fuels.
Hope has long interested philosophers as a moral virtue. It is an important part of being human and closely tied to virtues like compassion and resilience. However, if we are to change our future for the better, hope must become more than a virtue; it must become a verb. We must act.
Philosophers have known that hope is a verb for millennia. Confucius wrote about the importance of optimism and self-improvement, education, ethical living, and social harmony. These all imply or describe action.
Hope is an important aspect of Hindu philosophy. It is believed that hopelessness and powerlessness are the root causes of extremism, and the message of Hinduism is one of plurality, hope, and self-empowerment to do what’s right.
Islamic philosophers such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Rumi have emphasised what they describe hope as God’s mercy and compassion. A believer should not only fear God’s punishment but also remain hopeful for God’s mercy. This balance is crucial for maintaining a healthy spiritual life. In Islamic thought, like Confucianism, hope is seen as a motivator for performing good deeds and striving for moral excellence. Again, this describes what we must do to create a better future.
Immanuel Kant saw hope as crucial for practical reasoning. According to Kant, hope is necessary for pursuing moral goals. He argued that we must have hope that the universe is structured so that moral actions can lead to good outcomes, even if we can’t directly see the results of our actions.
Contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum includes hope as a key part of her Capabilities Approach. She sees hope as an important human capability that allows individuals to dream and strive for better circumstances for themselves and society. Hope, in her view, is tied to personal growth and the pursuit of justice.
So hope not only means staying positive and striving for good, it connects deeply with human agency, the active pursuit of moral goals. We can imagine a better and more sustainable future, but this hope will never be realised unless we act.
“Hope is like a road in the country. There was never a road, but when people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” Lu Xun
Thinking Allowed is a weekly blog of essential reading for anyone interested in better thinking and decision-making at work. It is written by Roger Steare, the Corporate Philosopher, a Financial Times columnist and author of books and ebooks with sales of over 600,000 copies.
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