Morality and the Human Condition, #18–Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
II. The Standard Conception of Morality
II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question
II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality
II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality
III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality
III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory
IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?
V. Three Classical Moral Theories
V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains section VI.3.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
My own view is that Pascal is right, and Schopenhauer is wrong.
But at the same time, Schopenhauer’s simple argument is powerful: the world so manifestly is a vale of tears, and even despite our being rational animals, we so manifestly are only “human, all-too-human.”
One line of argument against Schopenhauer’s pessimism, however, is to say that only Pascalian optimism fully vindicates the standard conception of morality, especially if we favor Kant’s (or Kantian) moral theory over Aristotelian (or contemporary) virtue ethics and Millian utilitarianism.
Indeed, there’s good reason to hold that if one were a Millian utilitarian, or at least a consequentialist, then Schopenhauerian pessimism would ultimately be the right view.[i]
But that counts, in effect, as a reductio ad absurdum of Millian utilitarianism, which, as we’ve seen, already has various other strong objections against it.
A second line of argument would be to say that Schopenhauerian pessimism is existentially self-defeating: if you actually tried to choose and act in accordance with it, then you’d commit suicide, and therefore annihilate all the innate human capacities for caring, creativity, and rationality that Schopenhauer himself exercised in order to write his astonishingly brilliant essay.
And a third line of argument would be to say that since Schopenhauer himself presents the two options of affirmation-and-optimism (Door #1) versus denial-and-pessimism (Door #2) as a life-defining choice, then, as per Pascal’s Optimism, we have a sufficient to reason to choose Door #1 and live optimistically.
Interestingly, faced with the very same Schopenhauerian pair of options and the same life-defining choice, contrary to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche selected affirmation of the will-to-live.
But Nietzsche also rejected optimism (and especially rejected anything that smacks of Christianity) — because he was a moral skeptic who rejects the standard conception of morality (see section III.2).
Luckily for us, however, we’ve already vindicated the standard conception of morality in section III, and therefore we can be fully onboard with Pascal’s optimism.
And also we can bracket the whole tangled issue of the moral goodness and rightness versus the badness and wrongness of Christianity as a social institution, by simply opting for Moderate Secularism, as per section IV.3.
In any case, Pascal and Schopenhauer are both widely recognized to have been important forerunners of the 20th century tradition of existentialism, and therefore there’s much more of the same still to come — so now I’m going to press on to all that.
[i] See, e.g., D. Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2006). See also J. Rothman, “The Case For Not Being Born,” The New Yorker (27 November 2017), available online at URL = <https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-case-for-not-being-born>; Rothman’s very interesting article kicks off with this: “David Benatar may be the [contemporary] world’s most pessimistic philosopher.”
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