Can Hope Tell Us How to Live?

How Hope is a Guide for Major Life Decisions

  • Philosophy

Principal Investigators

Michael Milona
Postdoctoral Fellow
Cornell University


Each of us faces hard questions about how to plan our lives.  Familiar sorts of choice-points include a couple deciding whether to adopt a child, a college student pondering which subject to major in, and a mid-career lawyer asking whether she should start over as a pastry chef.  The difficulty of such questions is a common source of anxiety, yet people often make the right choice.  The central question of my project is how we’re ever able to do this.  I’m increasingly confident that hope is a key part of the answer.  A metaphorical way to put the core idea is that our deepest hopes are callings to certain ways of life; and when all goes well, hope calls us to the right way of life.  Defending and developing this idea is what my project is fundamentally about.

On my view, then, hope is an emotion which not only motivates us in the pursuit of our chosen projects but also reveals what those projects should be.  This is not to say that hope is all we should rely on to organize our lives.  A successful lawyer, for example, shouldn’t leave her career to become a pastry chef if she is a disaster in the kitchen, and of course it is not hope which reveals the merits of her baking skills (taste buds are the standard here).  The distinctive role of hope is clearest when a person is deciding between projects which are equally feasible and important.  Imagine a talented youth who must choose whether to pursue the life of a physicist or a pianist; even though both projects are equally viable (for her) and important, she nevertheless learns that she should pursue the life of a pianist.  My view is that such knowledge is typically grounded in a deep hope for a particular way of life, in this instance the life of a professional pianist.    

My project can be divided into three main parts.  First, I defend a theory of the psychological nature of hope, one which is consistent with hope playing a central role in guiding our lives.  I argue that hope is essentially a desire for something plus a sense of possibility.  Many contemporary philosophers object that this view oversimplifies hope, but I argue, instead, that the objections have a tendency to oversimplify the desires which constitute hopes.  Second, I make the case that hope, so understood, is well positioned to explain how we learn which projects or ways of life to pursue.  In particular, I contend that this picture is more plausible than alternatives according to which such insight is fundamentally due to our intellect rather than an emotion such as hope.  Finally, I defend a theory of the virtue of hope, for it is only virtuous hoping which ought to be guiding our choices.  The theory that I propose says that virtuous hoping is largely a matter of what we, in everyday parlance, call having one's priorities straight.