Optimism is a duty

October 26th, 2017

I have never met a philosopher who was not full of shit.

But I have read Karl Popper. He constitutes an existence proof that meaningful philosophy is possible.

The motto Popper seems to have most liked repeating was:

Optimism is a duty. The future is open. It is not predetermined. No one can predict it, except by chance. We all contribute to determining it by what we do. We are all equally responsible for its success.

This appears to be an expansion of Kant’s “optimism is a moral duty”. If I recall correctly, Popper first published this in 1945, in The Open Society and its Enemies.

I’ve used that quote many times, in many places. It summarizes one of my own core moral values. But many people seem to be confused as to what it means.

It seems obvious to me, but Popper found people had the same problem. So he tried to explain.

In a 1992 speech, he said:

The possibilities lying within the future, both good and bad, are boundless. When I say, “Optimism is a duty”, this means not only that the future is open but that we all help to decide it through what we do. We are all jointly responsible for what is to come. So we all have a duty, instead of predicting something bad, to support the things that may lead to a better future.

(Emphasis is mine.)

Two years later, in The Myth of the Framework:

The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.

Joseph Agassi says Popper’s

… arguments for optimism were diverse. First and foremost, the world is beautiful. (“The propaganda for the myth that we live in an ugly world has succeeded. Open your eyes and see how beautiful the world is, and how lucky we are who are alive!”) Second, recent progress is astonishing, despite the Holocaust and similar profoundly regrettable catastrophes. The clinging to life that victims and survivors of the Holocaust displayed despite all horrors, he observed, stirs just admiration for them that bespeaks strong optimism. Most important, however, is the moral aspect of the matter: we do not know if we can help bring progress and it is incumbent on us to try. This is the imperative version of optimism.

Because the future is undetermined, because it depends on our actions, we – all of us who yet live – have a moral duty to try to make it a good future. And we can do that only with optimism – with the belief that a good future is possible.

The next time you’re tempted to say “everything is going to shit”, “we’re all doomed”, “it’s over now – the enemy has won” …think again.

We always have the opportunity to change things for the better. Nothing is decided in advance – the future is always subject to improvement. And only those with optimism will make the attempt.


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