Can We Maintain Hope in the Face of Inevitable Death?

Despair, Absolute Hope, and Death

  • Philosophy

Principal Investigators

Anthony Wrigley
Senior Lecturer in Ethics
Keele University, UK


There are situations that we may all face that are so terrible that they can lead us towards despair. If this is so, can hope be maintained in situations that we might otherwise consider as being entirely hopeless? This project addresses this problem from one area that we will all come to face: the prospect of death. On a secular level, coping with this prospect can be extremely challenging – it is unclear what reason we may have to continue to maintain hope where there seems to be nothing left to hope for. This concern is even more acute in the most severe cases, where an individual has a terminal diagnosis and is experiencing intractable pain and suffering. Yet it is these most extreme situations that seem to be exactly the ones where the maintenance of hope would be beneficial; not only beneficial to the quality of life of an individual but also to their family members, friends, or carers. This presents us with two important considerations – do we have an ethical duty to foster hope in cases of seeming manifest hopelessness and can we address this through developing the concept of hope?

On many accounts of the concept of hope we need to work out what we direct hope towards – that there is something that we hope for. But if there is nothing we can direct our hope towards then it would seem that the only means of maintaining hope for individuals in the most terrible circumstances would be to engage in some sort of deceit about the likely outcome of their condition. Yet many people would, quite rightly, find it morally objectionable to deceive people in such situations. This has made people understandably wary of using the language of hope for fear of engaging in deception. However, to avoid utilising the language of hope in these circumstances seems at best unappealing and at worst harmful to individuals when they could benefit from it the most.

By considering the nature of hope from its perceived opposite positions of hopelessness and despair, this project develops an account of hope derived from Gabriel Marcel’s concept of ‘absolute hope’. The appeal of using Marcel’s account of absolute hope as a basis for addressing this problem is that it does not require there to be a specific object of hope – some particular desire or aim that we hope to achieve. Instead, it builds upon a conception of hope as an overall stance towards life. The approach therefore has great potential to resolve our desire to utilise the language of hope to improve the lives of those in the most terrible situations without the need for us to engage in underhand deception. By developing an account of hope along these lines, we can specifically address how hope is possible in the face of seemingly hopeless situations