“I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Those who have talked to me within the past few weeks will know that a sudden confrontation with my pessimism about the future of humanity has plunged me into the first instance of what I seriously call an ‘existential crisis.’ Social, political and relatedly environmental crises already cast a vast, dark shadow over some parts of the globe which could reach us soon enough, and I have the impression that when (if) daylight ever comes again, humanity will have undergone severe transformation, so much that I doubt that I could care as much for it. I believe, firstly, that we could have avoided the current situation, but that we have not. And similarly: we could create better future, but we won’t. Degrees of pessimism and diagnosis of the causes will vary among readers, but I don’t doubt that I’m not the only member of my generation plagued by these thoughts.
Having said this, what I have been most concerned with of late are not the choices open to the globalised world, but with those open to me as a particularly pessimistic observer of the deluge. For it worries me that, in the same way a person’s loss of faith might impact negatively on her behaviour, my loss of faith in a vaguely desirable future thwarts my motivation to live a morally acceptable lifestyle in my situation. I am not talking about immediately effective acts of charity, such as donating charity or doing volunteering work, although those things are no less important. I am talking about dedicating at least a good part of my life to promoting the social and political causes I believe to be necessary if we are to strive for a future I can consider worth seeing.
Being increaasingly persuaded by virtue ethics, I looked for my answers in the friends that I admired in the relevant sense to cast light on my moral queries. They are far from being wishful thinkers. For the most part, when they listened to my worries, nodded understandingly, and said that they simply had to do their best to believe in their respective causes if they were to continue fighting for them, as they must. I hesitated. Did I spot a hint of self-delusion? Should I, and would I be capable of forcing hope down my throat, in spite of evidence? The situation appeared familiar: it reminded me for Pascal’s pragmatic argument for believing in the existence of God, published posthumously in the seventeenth century. The nub of the argument is that, whatever the chances of God existing are (or anything else that’s equally important), if there is some probability multiplied by the infinite goodness that it would bring if true, completely swamps the utility of following one’s short-run self-interest and leading a secular life. If living as if God didn’t exist provides you with 250 utiles, and you multiply that by the chances of him not existing, this will yield a finite number. Conversely even if the chances of his existence were small they would be multiplied by the ‘utiles’ of salvation, which are infinite, and this would be disproportionally greater. Likewise, the consequences of damnation are infinitely negative, provided that God does exist and you live as if he did. Now, I don’t know whether humanity will be at any rate eternal, but to my troubled mind the benefits of our existence, provided it be just and fruitful, would be as close to spiritual salvation as it gets.
There are serious problems confronting anyone who appeals to this line of argument, one of which is the fact that there are limits to what we can voluntarily believe. This is the challenge I am currently faced with, and again my hopes lie with the people who have remained not only ideologically committed but also pragmatically engaged. Pascal tells the unbeliever to” Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions (...) Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” And, as Pascal anticipated, there will be an element of fear in the unbeliever’s reaction – for it involves changes in her lifestyle that are not obviously in her immediate self-interest, at least if her current perspective is correct.
Now, imitating a virtuous agent’s habits is a key means to moral flourishing in Aristotle’s ethics, a system I am growingly drawn to. It suggests that, if I want to be good myself, I should do what other virtuous agents do. And Pascal definitely had a point when he said that our habits have considerable strength in affecting what we believe, and in the extent to which we do so. My belief system being as it is, I could barely find the strength to be remotely the person that I’d like to be, and this seems even more certain than Pascal’s assumption that believing in God is in some sense necessary to act virtuously. This is not to say I will lose all my sense of objectivity. But instilling enough hope in myself through bare pragmatics seems a lot more plausible than doing so by looking at the evidence.
The considerations here barely constitute an argument, or even the doubtful application of one. They are not a moralistic call for action either, but a confessional report of subjective experience. Ultimately, they are a plea for help. For I know that, at least in my case, it is no longer enough to recycle and consume less plastic; to preach moralistic leftism and await the chance to say ‘I told you so’ when the ship has already sunk. First, because of the limited impact of such actions, but most importantly, because when one has already lost faith it takes a lot more than a prayer a day to achieve conversion, and conversion is what I need most.