Is it Rational to be Optimistic or Pessimistic?

An optimist is someone who looks at the bright side of life and expects good things to happen. A ‘cock-eyed’ optimist is one who believes, against all the odds, that everything will turn out all right in the end. Against this, the pessimist looks at the dark side of life and expects bad things to happen. A ‘dyed in the wool’ pessimist is one who believes that everything will turn out badly in the end.

On the face of it, pessimists seems to have sober reason on their side. For the pessimist, we have to be realistic, and the fact is that everything will eventually come crashing down. Entropy takes care of the end of things, and that end is increasingly chaotic. All systems move from a more to a less ordered state, until finally, they cease to exist. Our lives are like this. We are little anti-entropy machines, and our living bodies try to keep back the encroaching disintegration. In this they are successful for awhile, but, in the end, our bodies succumb to the forces of decay and finally move to the disordered state we call death. For the pessimist, the world is a disaster waiting to happen, and the optimist is simply living in an illusion.

Some systematic differences have been pointed out between the two approaches to life. First is the old saw about whether the bottle of wine is half full or half empty. The truth is that the bottle is both half full and half empty, and it is entirely up to the person whether to be happy or sad about this. It is the individual’s choice to be happy having half a bottle left, or sad that it is half gone.

Another difference between them is that the pessimist sees negative outcomes as the norm, while the optimist sees positive outcomes as the norm. The result is that when an obstacle arises, the optimist sees it as a temporary and local problem that can be overcome. The pessimist sees a problem or obstacle as what is to be expected, and getting a good result as the exception. It might be argued that the pessimist has the right in this, because, if one predicts a bad result that does not materialize, one is pleasantly surprised, whereas, if the bad result occurs, one takes it as only what is to be expected and is therefore not so affected by it as an optimist would be.

Despite this, there is currently much discussion about the value of optimism as an operational principle. It is claimed that the optimistic person is happier than the pessimist, travels more hopefully, is healthier and lives longer. In addition, the optimist is said to be more resilient and better able to cope with life’s setbacks.

It is true that bad things can happen and often do, but the opposite is also true. The optimist does not have to be ‘cock-eyed’. It is possible to be a realist and a moderate optimist at the same time. Optimism is more about maintaining a positive attitude than anything else. Pessimists do not pursue difficult projects because they are sure that they will fail before starting. It is hard to get moving on a project when what is before one’s mind are all the things that might, and probably will, go wrong. An optimist has a ‘can do’ approach that concentrates more on success than failure, while recognizing the problems more as opportunities to make progress than as crippling setbacks.

The sort of optimism that pessimists decry is really a silly kind of unjustified belief that the future will bring whatever one hopes will come to pass. However, another kind of optimism is not a matter of belief but of attitude. It is really more about having faith in one’s own competence than a matter of belief. It is the feeling that one will be able to cope with whatever happens as it comes along.

Of course, there will come a time when one will not be able to cope with some disaster or another. However, the optimist does not let that stop him or her from acting to prevent it or to pursue some other course of action, even while knowing that eventually everything comes to nothing.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the rational choice is for optimism, despite the fact that nothing lasts and all accomplishments eventually come to nothing. I would summarize my position as long term pessimism combined with short term optimism. And since our lives are short, it is best, from a practical point of view, to cultivate optimism as a modus operandi for our lives. To expect disaster and failure as the norm may protect one from being too disappointed when things go wrong, but that is no way to live. It is always possible to look at the world pessimistically or optimistically. The choice is ours.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Overall I’d consider myself (nowadays) to be rather optimistic in life: a condition I put down to how little time I now spend dwelling on unfortunate past events (for me, optimism and pessimism are intrinsically tied to experience)

    However, there is one aspect in which I am a ‘dyed in the wool’ pessimist, and that is football. Supporting my team (Liverpool FC) is probably my primary emotional drain (1-2 games a week, 9 months a year, since I was about 8) and, as with most things to which one has had a huge emotional connection since childhood, one I am very superstitious about. To take a quick example, I will refuse to watch a match in certain pubs if we have lost the last time I did so.

    Now, where the pessimism comes in is, in football terms, best described as the “commentator’s curse” (I’m sure there’s a better name for this, but I can’t remember it right now). The “commentator’s curse” basically says that when, for example, someone says “[Player A] has been playing well”, said footballer will proceed to score an own goal, get sent off, or do some other such disastrous thing.

    Now, of course, this doesn’t happen *all* the time, but, because of the superstition that has crept into me, I only remember the times when it does happen, and form some sort of conscience in my head that says “don’t think positive thoughts – you’ll jinx the game!”. Hence, pessimism.

    Now, from my perspective, none of this is “irrational” – I take the premise that what I do affects what the team does (a position which, however coincidentally, is often supported) and, shaped by experience and logic, deduce that pessimism is the best attitude to take.

    One could argue that I hold an ‘irrational’ set of initial opinions but, from what I understand of the word, irrationality is to be applied to thought processes rather than axioms.

  2. Let me preface by admitting that this is hardly a thoroughly considered comment, but at first blush I would generally agree with your conclusion. The half-full/half-empty approach is somewhat reminiscent of James’ “Will to Believe” in that the pessimist, I think, fears to err. A somewhat more amusing perspective might be that upon confronting a steaming pile of manure, the pessimist avoids stepping in it while the optimist looks for the pony. At its core, though, it remains a half-bottle of wine, and one either looks forward to the savoring remainder or regrets the loss of the first half. I prefer the former as it contains both the hope of yet another bottle out there somewhere as well as the enjoyment of the present bottle.

  3. I had once aspired to be a crusty old curmudgeon, but then realized that I would always be too optimistic. Still, I found that I was drawn to those that dwell upon the evils of man, and I began to wonder if it was possible to be an misanthrope-ophile.

    But, what of the the ascetics, cynics, monks, and others who sequester and isolate themselves from society? Is what they choose inherently optimistic or pessimistic? Is their view essentially a rejection of a negative world, or can they be seen as hopeful in their pursuit of solitude?

  4. Ralph Sabella

    The choice is ours? How so? Can you really force yourself to look at the bright side of everything? I suppose so, but does that make you an optimist? I’m not so sure.
    You only used the word “realist” twice. Well, you wanted to look at p vs. o and r didn’t really fit properly in with all your observations. Without thinking about it I’d say most people, by far, are realists, but then when I think about the number of people in financial trouble because of living far beyond their means, not thinking about the possible consequences, I’m not so sure. Of course, one has to question whether not thinking about the future is a form of optimism.
    Certainly, the people I deal with now, at the level I deal with them seem very realistic, but these are mainly older people. I think age does that to you. The old expression, “there’s no use complaining” is one you hear many times, intermingled with “I can’t complain.” Optimism and pessimism tend to be localized states of mind, having to do with, e.g. will the pill work, or will the pain turn out to be just a bruise.
    But to get back to my original questions, I would argue that forced optimism is no optimism at all. Interestingly, I don’t think, generally, anyone ever forces themselves to be a pessimist.

  5. I cannot think what more to add to this. Jeff Mason has given it a thorough airing and I like his concept of Long therm Pessimism, and Short term, that is a human life span, Optimism.
    I always remember that when Pandora opened the box for the second time out flew HOPE and we accordingly, always have that.

  6. Do you think the people who run BP are optimists or pessimists? Is it possible a more pessimistic outlook on their part would have averted the present disaster? Were the people in government who were supposed to be regulating BP’s drilling activities optimists or pessimists? Having spent many years in the construction industry, where I saw lots of major foul-ups brought about by a combination of greed and wishful thinking, I think the world needs more pessimists.

  7. I’m a militant pessimist and I resent the implication in this post that pessimists are sad. We know that things will turn out badly and that isn’t a reason to be sad. As a matter of fact, since we pessimists would rather be right than be successful, we rejoice when things turn out badly, as normally occurs, because we are right, as usual.
    Actually, since most people have ridiculously elevated expectations and since the system (capitalism, etc.) needs people with elevated expectations (about their jobs, about the quality of the products that they buy, about their costly education) in order to function, it is a good bet that most people’s expectations will not work out and that the pessimist will be right once again.

  8. I think optimism is used by people when life is going pretty good because it makes them more happy. Verses pessimistic when life continues to not go good and you keep getting set backs. It becomes emotionally useful to not always get your hopes up when you’ll likely get defeated again. This keeps defeats from being surprising. Which, means that optimist people are usually more happy. Their both useful depending on the situation your in. I don’t see it as black or white. You can be optimistic about somethings and pessimistic about other things also.

  9. Re Amos June 15th.
    I think you may be overstating your case. “we rejoice when things turn out badly,” surely not. What if God forbid (assuming he is there), you return home one day to find your house in ruins and all your treasured possessions destroyed. Is that reason to rejoice?
    What in fact does make you sad if it is not misfortune to yourself or others?

  10. I am generally optimistic. If I were not I think I would find life unbearable. Yes possibly I am living in a fool’s paradise, but it is a moderately pleasant one, and I will not change it.

  11. Don: Granted that I would not rejoice if my home burned down, but life in contemporary society generally does not run to tragic extremes: rather, it is made up of small frustrations/defeats and small victories. Therefore, I tend to bet that the small frustrations/defeats will prevail
    and they generally do, if only because most people, including myself, are educated with absurdly high expectations about what life and love will bring them and with an absurdly idealistic view of human nature and of the virtues of our fellows. When my rather dark view of the world prevails, I may not rejoice with champagne, but I feel a small satisfaction that I was right.

  12. I agree with most of what you posted. However, I don’t necessarily agree with the following phrase: “I would summarize my position as long term pessimism combined with short term optimism.” It might be just semantics.

    Rationally, one must be a pessimist. Sooner or later, we’re all going to die, entropy will have its way. There’s no way around that, and that’s enough to stain every action with perishability.

    To balance this disappointing side effect of rationality, the intuitive part of the mind is wired with an irrational optimism. Most beliefs in god are fall in this category. This enables people to actually enjoy life or at least get out of bed in the morning.

    There are two issues with this delicate tension. First, when chemical imbalances affect this intuitive part and the light of optimism fades away. This hopelessness may even lead to suicide. The other issue is when people are so rational that they understand they are acting irrationally and can’t stand being so flawed. Suicide is also a common ending for this approach.

  13. AMOS:
    Yes I take your point here. I suppose I am pessimistic about the hostility of inanimate objects. The book I was reading a few moments ago has now gone into hiding. The favourite object which I am holding suddenly for no reason, other than its own desire for suicide wriggles from my grasp and smashes. A new book I had bought yesterday I am sure, from no intervention from myself, flung itself on to the floor just as I was moving my office chair and I all but ran it over with the castor thereon. I am going out soon, will my car start? probably not. Whilst I am generally optimistic I suppose there are areas where pessimism prevails fortunately they are mostly on reflection somewhat amusing. As you say these are all the small frustrations/defeats.

  14. Are you really a pessimist if you enjoy the bad things that you expect?

    I can see something positive in the concept of a pessimist that is prepared for negative outcomes, and I can see that certain kinds of optimists might miss the point of pessimism.

    Still, we might attempt to characterize more extreme forms of pessimism. Perhaps the most extreme would be those that expect that nothing will work out as expected and end up living in constant fear that there will be no way to prepare for and compensate for the bad that is yet to come–or even make good use of any good that might come to pass. These would then be the people that live in utter hopelessness.

    As for me, when I say that I’m an optimist, I’m not claiming that I expect only good things to happen or that I expect that bad things won’t dominate my life. The reason I mentioned monks, cynics, and ascetics, is because I’m the sort of optimist who expects to find something useful in all outcomes, good or bad.

    Perhaps, that’s why I’m fond of those with negative attitudes; in that I’m able to enjoy the darker view of the World as easily as I can enjoy the brighter view of the World. After all, there does seem to be a greater depth to a mix of light and dark.

  15. Here’s good old Marcus Aurelius:
    “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, with the arrogant, with the deceitful, envious, the unsocial”. Marcus didn’t have to foresee problems with internet, but for contemporary purposes, I would add problems with internet to the list.

  16. One can choose to view the world from an optimistic or pessimistic perspective simply by engaging in some thought exercises. To suggest that one cannot help but be either optimistic or pessimistic means that a person cannot perform the simple act of considering an alternative point of view or question their own or others’ behaviour.

    If you are able to engage in a debate, contribute to a discussion, or philosophize about matters that concern you then there is no reason why you cannot consider a situation from a different point of view, albeit not the one you believe in or agree with.

    It is true that individual life experiences will encourage you to generalize about the future and expected outcomes, but by opening your mind to the possibility of alternative generalizations you are contributing to life experiences which can ultimately shape your thoughts – and by persistently ‘forcing’ yourself to be open to these other possibilities you are taking a proactive approach in shaping your own future behaviour and reactions to events or situations.

    In this way, being an optimist or pessismist is a choice. You may not have control of all the life experiences that influence your way of thought, but you do have control over being able to consider alternatives – and the more you consider alternatives which do not seem ‘natural’ to you (i.e. unlike what you have personally experienced in the past) the more you can influence your future way of thinking.

  17. Re: Author: Jules

    Some interesting points are raised here. However I am wondering if it is that simple. It does seem we enter this world with innate dispositions which are most likely genetic. Certainly nurture as well as nature can shape us but the neural connections thus laid down at birth and childhood are difficult if not impossible to break. Even when a person is assured that a different viewpoint will be beneficial to them they are still often unable even to act the part we might suggest for them in such a way that it demonstrates a complete and utter reversal or change of mind.
    This is possibly why psychotherapy is in the main unsuccessful; maybe its benefit lies in making people bear and accommodate what they are.
    “The simple act of considering an alternative point of view or question their own or others’ behaviour”. Is excellent advice to everybody, and certainly can alter for the better, proposed courses of action; but I cannot see just now how it can reach down into the innermost depths of the human psyche such that it could make essential and lasting differences to a parson’s natural proclivity for optimism or pessimism.

  18. Thanks everyone for the great comments. They are helping me to see my own topic in a better way. First, there was the point that people are more optimistic when things are going well, but more pessimistic when they are not. A person dogged with bad luck all through life might find it hard to be optimistic. But is there really such a thing a totally blind luck? Is a person optimistic because things go well, or do they go well because s\he is optimistic?

    I think I am trying to move the idea of optimism away from the results of actions or occurrences and toward the thought processes\emotional responses of the optimistic person. I absolutely agree with the comment that we choose to be one or the other by the way we think\react to things. This was also mentioned in the comment about the fact that an optimist can recognize the possibility of bad outcomes. To use another example from the blog, the pessimist steps around the manure while looking at it. However, the optimist can look for the horse while keeping an eye out for piles of manure.

    Here is another question that arose from the discussion. What is the relation of optimism and pessimism to ‘realism.’ For me, realism is understanding by experience and learning the ways of the world, and the likely outcomes of different courses of action. For example, kicking against the pricks gives you slivers in your toes. It is not that the optimist thinks that all outcomes will match his or her expectations, but that a way can be found to surmount obstacles and resolve conflicts as they arise.

    Finally, for now, is the question of how deep optimistic mental exercises can sink into the soul. I think they can go all the way down, once one makes up one’s mind to be happy. It is not easy to repath well worn neural ruts, but it is possible. The brain proves to be more plastic than we had thought. The question is whether one wants to give up the pleasures of pessimism, which are undoubtedly there. Thanks again, Jeff

  19. Jeff Mason states:-
    “once one makes up one’s mind to be happy.”

    If one has to make up one’s mind to be happy then there is something wrong in the first place. Happiness is not a made up mind state, it is a natural state of a person. Setting aside the terrible tragedies in life that can cause periods of unhappiness, for instance bereavement, a generally happy person is possibly not often aware of it, unless he/she searches their inner private feelings, The same goes for the melancholy man. If you have to make up your mind to be happy then you can probably act the part but it will be just that, an act.
    In this connection there are so many comedians who on the face of things were and are are good company, often hilariously amusing, charitable too, but by their own admission, are in their private moments, desperately unhappy.
    Pessimistic or optimistic by nature, accept it as you would accept being short or tall, you are stuck with it. There are advantages and disadvantages in both these conditions of the mind provided they are a part of, and functioning within, what we might call, the normal limits of the human mind.
    A real problem occurs if you are manically optimistic or suicidally pessimistic; then there are real problems.

  20. Here is a quotation from William James which seems at odds with what I have just said.

    “We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”
    — William James

  21. Don,
    Thanks for, it appears unknowingly, agreeing with my comment, way back there. Jeff seems to think it’s a done deal, viz. you want to be an optimist, then do so by mental exercises, which I questioned from the first.

  22. Not to be too ridiculous, as such discussions are inherently flawed, but who is the arbiter of what is the objectively accurate median from which optimism and pessimism deviate? And let’s not forget that the instrument that you are using to measure some sort of objective reality is the very same instrument in which such perceptions reside. Also, this brain-instrument is very malleable and to a large extent, easily manipulated. Opinions expressed here are interesting, up to the point of expressing some sense of nearly absolute confidence.

  23. But, we do make choices with regard to happiness.

    How can a choice not be about happiness, in some way or another?

    If we and our emotional states were completely at the mercy of our environment, then there would be no point to making any choices at all. (Obviously, I am asserting that there is such a thing as choice.)

    There is much to say about how people vary in the way that they either dwell upon disappointment or move on in the face of tragedy. In this, there are choices that people make about how they view their situation.

    What I say to myself when I recognize some recurring negative thought, is that if you are going to choose to repeatedly return to those bitter or angry thoughts, then you might as well choose to enjoy doing so. Then, by examining what it means to enjoy returning to a bitter thought, I reveal the choices that are involved and the motivations behind those choices. The result is that I either find that I was wasting time on useless thinking, thus breaking the negative cycle, or… that I get to add a new pet peeve to my list of favorites–and yes, a wonderful and ever growing list of pet peeves it is.

  24. Ralph,
    I remember your earlier comment with which I agreed. I am not sure about Uncle Jed’s comment:
    “this brain-instrument is very malleable and to a large extent, easily manipulated”. It might be at a very shallow level manipulable; that is to say what happens or will happen on a daily basis of ordinary life. How ever when it comes to a person’s deeply entrenched beliefs, habits, the very qualities and behaviour patterns which make him of her the person they are, then manipulation here verges on the impossible. Brain washing techniques which are utilised to alter these basic factors, which make every person the person they are, have generally been found to have temporary but no lasting effect.

  25. From Jeff: Making up one’s mind to be happy, or doing’s one’s best in that direction, has little bearing on a different question about the nature of happiness. Deciding to be optimistic is not a ‘done deal’, but an approach to life that does not dwell on the negative all the time. However, I don’t think that a generally melancholy person can just turn things around over night. It takes time. Also, it seems that that is some agreement in the literature that each of us has a ‘set-point’of subjective happiness from which we deviate in joy or grief, but generally return to, after a passage of time. This ‘set-point’ is not really a ‘point’ but a range of subjective feelings of happiness. So we might be able to go from the bottom of our range to a higher level. We all know people who seem to be cheerful by disposition, as well as the opposite. I agree that it is hard to think of a recovering pessimist suddenly bouncing around like Cheerful Joe.

  26. Don,
    I suppose in the context of this discussion, that being the subset of people who pause to consider their outlook as rational or not, you are more correct than I. However, I see a significant percentage of people, if not a majority (hmm, that’s rather pessimistic), who bend with whatever way they see the wind blowing. If constantly berated with bad news, they become pessimists. The opposite, optimists. Media, advertising, public relations, all make considerable coin exploiting this.

  27. Re Uncle Jed
    I agree with your description of what you call a significant percentage of people. I think the point I am trying to make here is even for those people, their behaviour is what they are, and efforts to alter it should they so wish, (and I see no reason why they should), by themselves or with the help of others, will be a very big and probably thankless task. Our basic innate propensities, which in some instances are modified by early nurture, are here to stay. Thus degrees of optimism and pessimism which are manifestations of such propensities are not amenable to choice.
    An extreme example of what I am saying is one is born either heterosexual or homosexual; That is it, that’s what you are, make the best of it. The likelihood of successful chopping and changing between then is slim, unless of course one is bisexual.
    I think when I speak of choice I mean a genuine determined attempt. This is sometimes confused with acting the part.

  28. Uncle Jed,
    If we’re talking about feelings, and I’m assuming that’s what having pessimism or optimism is, then it’s perfectly normal for people to bend one way or the other according to the general tenor of events. Why should you feel yourself a pessimist if you see a majority of people behaving so? The reason I ask, is that I’m wondering if you’re taking p and o to be something other than feelings.

  29. Ralph,
    I don’t know if p & o are feelings or essence or what. Don’t want to get into a semantics issue or diverge off onto other issues based on what I see as a very shaky foundational topic to begin with. The only point I was trying to make is that the only conceivable yardstick here is itself another approximated yardstick.

  30. Is it really our choice, whether we are optimists or pessimists?

    I have finally accepted the fact that I am a pessimist, and that it can be both terribly good and bad to be one. I have accepted it yet I do not want my pessimism to interfere with my future aspirations and goals. I still want to be the best and achieve what I want… yet I am still afraid that I will fail!

    So how to choose to be an optimist?

  31. Re Maria 23rd June:-

    You say it can be terribly good and bad and bad to be a pessimist. As a generally optimistic person I can confirm that the same still holds. I have been optimistic about my future success on many occasions only to find my hopes dashed by failure. Had I been pessimistic at least I would have been prepared for disappointment. What I have found however is that failure can make one even more resolute to succeed and as a result it is possible eventually to see oneself forging ahead of those we thought more able at earlier times. All this does take a bit of work though. I think whether you are optimistic or pessimistic the approach I suggest can still be accomplished. Think how pleased and surprised you will be faced with success, which you tended to doubt. Do not seek to change yourself just make the best of what you have and are.

  32. Re Don Bird –

    Thank you for your kind words! I guess, the author is right… We should simply realisticly know when to be pessimistic and when to be optimistic – eventually, as somebody said, maybe the glass is double the size it needs to be?

  33. Malik Muhammad Shakur

    I see pessimist as the best way to look at life. Am i one? I would say not. Though, i refuse to bank on my competence, but, rather the love that others have for me. I believe my talent is impeccable. Still, this is my first go around. I miss the bumps in the road. Those who know, i am dependent on. A pessimist seems to be more on track. It is better to realize that i am a failure than to delude i. How many men and women go through life as though they are great. Even setbacks are temporary in their estimate. Too deep a grave they have dug. Things get permanent. With this, it may be dificult in the beginning, but, it sets you on a path that is sure. These who hold this personality seem to be hellbent. Think of the person. Definately, trying to avoid all of hell, but, the personality of one who can actually avoid this if given the talent and the opportunity. As for being sad or happy, it is not our choice. The main reason i have not catapulted, yet. Secondary, a person may be happy in a certain environment, yes. But, was it not opportunity who offered that? We should be wanting!

  34. There’s something important that is missing from the ‘optimist-realism-pessimism’ spectrum, which is a second dimension representing the confidence with which we make our predictions for the future.

    Once you take that into consideration a lot of things start to make more sense.

    I wrote about this in an article called “Optimism, Pessimism, and Open-minded Realism” which is here

    This reflects my long study of the psychology of uncertainty.

  35. It would seem that their are two kinds of pessimism; psychological and philosophical pessimism.

    An excellent study of philosophical pessimism is presented in a book by Joshua Foa Dienstag; Pessimism, philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. In this fascinating book pessimism is identified as a philosophical position and is not to depress us but to edify us about our condition and fortify us for a life in a disenchanted universe.
    “Optimism makes us perpetual enemies of those future moments that do not meet our expectations, which means all future moments. It is when we expect nothing from the future that we are free to experience it as it will be, rather than as a disappointment.”

  36. It was Really useful Thankyou 😛 😀

  37. life,time,circumstances and surroundings makes us pessimists,we have our limits after that our views,mentality,faith will change and then comes the darkness of negativity,paranoia,depression,brooding…..that’s my story

  38. I’m inclined to believe, with Plato and Schopenhauer, that our character (our innermost being) is permanent and colours our view of the world: hence whether one is a pessimist or an optimist is not so much due to life experiences as to one’s personality. This is supported by the observation that even the slightest inconvenience is enough to throw off some people while the worst evils leave some almost completely unfazed. As Schopenhauer wrote there’s no cause, however slight, that hasn’t led some individuals to commit suicide while others continue to live even under the gravest of circumstances and don’t seem to lose their joyful temperament and will-to-live.

    That being said I believe one’s lot in life is largely determined (biological, psychological and sociological) and on the whole this world doesn’t offer much in terms of hope: sure there are good and decent people and there is beauty and all that but looking back on history (wars, famine, genocide, disease, civil war, religious strife, presecution of innnoncents…) and the present (millions of people go hungry every day, greed and selfishness abound everywhere, still more wars and disasters) surely it’s difficult to rationally support the thesis of optimism and thus of a ‘best of all possible worlds’ as Leibnitz would have it.

    Even if life has treated you fairly well so far this can all change in the blink of an eye and your joy and happiness means little to others who are suffering under misfortune. In the end we are destined to die: isn’t that the ultimate verdict of nature over us, our largely unhappy and needy children? Why go through all that trouble to produce generation after generation of beings (not to mention millions of years of evolution) when they all exist but for a short time and in the end the whole scene itself (earth) will be destroyed?

    The mere existence of religion to me is extra proof that life is at best a mixed blessing and at worst a pure nightmare: if life were really that great we wouldn’t need gods to comfort and protect us and offer us hope, however vain, of an afterlife and happiness when we’ve shuffled of this mortal coil.

  39. I personally am definitely a philosophical pessimist, although I think that embracing pessimism properly can make us quite happy.

    For me, it’s simply in my nature to strive for things. I thrive on adversity. Basically, acquisition of new potential mates, being close to friends, lifting weights, dancing, making music, doing good work, etc — these are all enjoyable.

    I don’t need the universe to be “good” in order to be happy. And, frankly, the universe has demonstrated to me that I don’t need to be happy…nor will I always be. Is there really a point to it? Not so much.

    So, while I do realize that we live in something of a Lovecraftian madhouse of a universe in which the mild pleasure of every predator’s meal results in the torment of another animal BEING EATEN ALIVE.

    At this point, I’m somewhat torn between thinking that giving birth is one of the most evil and immoral actions one can take, and thinking that since humans are the only animals with the ability and inclination to positively effect the universe and mitigate suffering, we ought to create more of them, to ensure that this madhouse isn’t any more painful than it needs to be. Of course, we have enough at this point that I do think it’s pretty wrong given the circumstances…and that adoption is a far better practice, especially adoption of young children from places in the world full of suffering.

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    I might be coming again to your weblog for more soon.

  41. @James: you raise an interesting point. Producing more humans is indeed a grave moral issue that 99,9% of the world takes for granted without any thougth whatsoever yet is deeply troubling (as most things are) when contemplated thoroughly.

    My position on this issue is anti-natalism as espoused most recently by David Benetar in his book ‘Better never to have been: the harm of coming existence’. Since nothing that does not exist has the capacity for suffering (this presupposes consciousness and a nervous-system) and living in this world will always entail at least some suffering (in some cases an extreme amount and it’s impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what it’ll be) it’s obviously better not to be born and therefore it can be considered to be immoral to force someone into existence since no-one asked for this.

    The fact that not being born excludes any possible pleasure or joy (like listening to Bach or Mozart, watching the sun set or making love to a beautiful woman) is irrelevant since it can be never be wanted or missed since this again presupposes a consciousness.

    As to your dilemma: the earth doesn’t need humans to sustain itself or ‘fix’ anything. We are not a force for good but for evil and destruction: we are the only species that is both capable and willing to destroy its own habitat for nothing more than shortsighted and incredibly idiotic greed. We are a menace to everything that lives on this planet and a parasite to mother earth affecting even the climate and the ecosystem itself by our foolish actions. Man is the most vicious and senseless predator alive: as you said there are enough of us already and it would be far better if at least a part of humanity (the thinking, morally conscious part) decided it didn’t need to reproduce itself in order to lead a meaningful life and that there are far more valuable contributions to made than making babies which is something every pair of idiots with a working reproductive system can do.

    Obviously adopting an orphan and giving it a decent life is one of the most noble and morally good things you can do. Whether I’ll go down that path remains to be seen: first I need to get my own life in order, then I’ll think about others.

  42. One more thing: I don’t consider the universe to be either good or bad. It is what it is (amoral) and human-beings are the only creatures, at least as far as we know, able to make value-judgements. We ascribe meaning and qualities to the world, they’re not inherent in it.

    It’s even doubtful this world exists as we perceive it but that’s another matter entirely.

  43. Do we have a choice to be optimistic? We’re born with a certain personality, a certain predisposition. There are some who have major epiphanies, but for most, it takes a great deal of cognitive effort to shift a pessimistic predisposition and then only to a limited extent, and the change won’t be permanent without continued effort. Americans have turned lack of optimism into a pathology that needs to be medicated. (See Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Brightsided”… of simply listen to REM’s “Shiney Happy People”) Other cultures view the American requirement of a smiling face for no reason as a mark of idiocy. Obviously, I am not an optimistic myself. But then, I’m a very much alive sexagenarian. I probably wouldn’t be if I weren’t a wary as I am. Would I be better off if I were never born? Probably. Would I have been happier if I had been optimistic? Depends. Since I am live, I’m going to stay alive as long as possible, compensating for my lower quality of happiness by making up for it with quantity.

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