How Do We Cope?

Coping: A Philosophical Guide

  • Philosophy

Principal Investigators

Luc Bovens
Professor of Philosophy
London School of Economics


I aim to write a book entitled Coping: a Philosophical Guide that deals with the moral psychology of resilience, or, in other words, with strategies of coping in the face of hardship. Bertrand Russell once wrote that the hallmark of a good philosophical problem is that it can be presented in the form of a puzzle. Puzzles of moral psychology can be found in ordinary life, in poetry and literature, as well as in current social problems. My style of dealing with such puzzles is to draw on the richness of our moral lives and to muddle through various considerations that pull in different directions. If we can think of coping as a kind of muddling through, then my work is a philosophical muddling through how we muddle through life’s challenges.

Section 1: Hope

To hope for is (i) to be neither certain that nor to be certain that not-, (ii) to desire that , and (iii) to engage in mental imaging with respect to . Hope has instrumental value in that it permits us to correct for risk aversion, and it has intrinsic value in that it is constitutive of caring relationships and of self-worth. Emily Dickinson’s twin poems on hope start with the contrasting lines that hope is both “the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul" and "a subtle glutton; He feeds upon the fair." There is indeed something paradoxical about hope: Hoping well enhances our inner strength, but we can only do so if we already have inner strength. There are indeed wayward, rather than uplifting hopes: In Inheritance from Mother, Minae Mizumura explores the shameful but uncontrollable hope that a loved one in one’s care die sooner than later.   

Section 2: Voluntarism

Making voluntary changes to desires and beliefs are strategies of resilience. Marcus Aurelius defends the strategy of wanting to desire in his admonition “to love the men with whom one’s lot is cast,” while Aesop is sceptical in the fable of the Fox and the Sour Grapes. Willing to believe contrasts with the epistemic ideal that we should set our beliefs on the basis of the total available evidence. But there are special cases in which willing to believe does seem to be acceptable, as in trusting relationships or when dealing with self-fulfilling beliefs. These strategies are discussed for religious belief in Aquinas, Luther, James and C.S. Lewis. I discuss the various types of voluntarism for religious belief in dealing with a puzzle of hope and faith, viz. how can Christians be both certain of salvation and yet hope for it?

Section 3: Pretence

Vonnegut writes: “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Pretence can indeed be valuable in life as a strategy of self-management and coping. Pascal famously defends acting as if one were a believer in order to attain religious belief. Behavioural scientists talk about the diagnostic value of policy choices: We choose to invest resources in salient projects to signal that we are a caring society, even if this is at the expense of much more worthwhile projects. But there are many forms of pretence that do not carry our approbation, such as being a phoney, being duplicitous, being a hypocrite, being a con man, or engaging in herd behaviour. What distinguishes these forms from acceptable forms of pretence? Pretence contrasts with authenticity. What is is the value of authenticity that pretence foregoes?

Section 4: The Social World

I reflect on love, charity and forgiveness. The core tension in philosophy of love is between love as eros —a love that is responsive to encountering value—and as agape—a love that bestows value. These models have cynical twins in Descartes’ priming model or Stendhal’s delusion model. As to charity, there is a deep puzzle at the heart of philanthropy, viz. to what extent should we try to maximise the marginal value of our contributions and to what extent do we have the freedom to give to projects that give meaning to our lives. Effective altruists single-heartedly aim to maximise the marginal value of their contributions and have made the calculus and its prescriptions into a creed that gives meaning to their lives. The standard line about forgiveness is that it is a restorative tool that mends social relationships. But this is not essential: Forgiveness may matter to the offender even though there is no intention for the relationship to heal. Rather, there is a strange metaphysics at work in which the victim is being asked to restore the moral stature of the offender.

Section 5: Death

Religious people hope for salvation in eternal life. But what do we do if we are not able to so hope? I lay out secular variants of hope in the face of death. People retrospectively find meaning in life—either through having lived in a particular way or through having made either more or less lasting contributions. They hope to die well, that is, being true to what they stood for in life. This is pertinent to the issue of the possibility of organ donation after euthanasia. People wish to be missed, remembered and respected. This is pertinent to the question of the permissibility of showing corpses in photojournalism. And finally, people have various hopes for a future after they will no longer be present, unlike in Louis XV’s saying “After us, the deluge.”