The Rationality of Despair
Philosophers rarely reflect upon the plight of the fan. Committed to a team in ways that are largely involuntary, one is compelled to ride its fortunes as a wave, cresting occasionally – one hopes – but often dashed on the rocks of failure and defeat. As I write these words, the Pittsburgh Pirates' record stands at 67-95, and their season is at an end.
These thoughts were prompted by an engaging essay that appeared quite recently – in fact, two years ago, now – in the Journal of Philosophy: "The Irrationality of Unhappiness and the Paradox of Despair".
Its central argument is disarmingly simple. Almost everyone agrees that some of what we take to matter in itself is irrelevant to our own happiness. We must distinguish an idle wish, whose frustration does not harm me at all, from the good things to which I am committed in such a way as to be made happy by their realization and unhappy by the absence of it. I'd love to be a major league pitcher, but it would be wrong to mourn the fact that I am not.
Sarah Buss provides a simple criterion: something is an object of commitment, and therefore relevant to one's happiness, only if one adopts it as an end; and a condition of being an end is being taken as a practicable object of pursuit.
This is what generates the "paradox of despair". For if despair is unhappiness about the impossibility of achieving some good, the good must be an object of commitment – or else irrelevant to one's happiness – and so it must be something one thinks one could achieve. At the very least, one must hope for its attainment, and in hoping believe that it is possible. It follows that despair is epistemically irrational: it depends on having contradictory beliefs.
The "irrationality of unhappiness" turns on the further claim that all unhappiness is despair. For how could one be unhappy about the frustration of an end one thinks one could achieve? Maybe you are unhappy that it hasn't been achieved yet, or that you aren't getting there faster. But are those things possible? If not, your unhappiness is despair. If so, and if this is really an end that you adopt, why not simply achieve it, or get there faster? After all, you've admitted that you can. Perhaps you will reply that, although it would be possible to achieve the end more rapidly, doing so would conflict with other ends. But then the object of your unhappiness ought to be the fact that it is impossible to achieve the conflicting ends together, all at once. And again, your unhappiness is despair.
It follows that unhappiness is not only unfortunate but irrational – though it is crucial to stress that the irrationality is epistemic, and that one might have compelling practical reason to be unhappy, even if one must thereby live in contradiction.
There is something moving about these arguments, I find, even if they do not work: they represent in a pure form the philosophical aspiration to overcome the difficulties of being alive by the sheer exercise of theoretical intellect – an aspiration also found in some arguments that it is irrational for us to be immoral.
Against the second argument: it is a fact of life that we fail to pursue some ends that we take to be both possible and essential to our happiness. This may be practically irrational – a form of akrasia – but it makes room for unhappiness without despair.
Against the first argument: it is a fact of life that many of us are made unhappy by the dismal record of our favourite teams, even though we do not adopt their improvement as an end, and may regard it as impossible. I do nothing, and would sacrifice little, to make the Pirates win; nor can I see how to achieve that goal. When I buy tickets, it is not in order that the money should improve the team – though I'd rather it do that than line the pockets of the avaricious and incompetent upper management – it's in order to watch them play, which I would just as soon do for free. Still, I regard myself as a typical fan: it depresses me to think about my team's pathetic performance.
It may be irrational to commit oneself to something that is, in this way, out of one's control – an indictment that would apply to millions – but it does not involve an incoherence of belief. The feelings of the hopeless fan are an all-too-common illustration of the epistemic rationality of despair.