The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope
by Roger Scruton
Oxford, 240 pages, $29.95
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s a piece of folk wisdom that draws attention to the temptation to tolerate or even intend evil actions for the sake of good results that we imagine to be just around the corner. As Lenin famously said, evoking a justification for many dead bodies, “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs.” But the “road to hell” adage covers more than heartless cruelty in pursuit of supposedly noble ends. It also reminds us of the dangers of an innocent, naive optimism that charges forward without a realistic sense of the hard costs and unintended consequences of good intentions.
Roger Scruton, a philosopher with a gift for plain speaking and lucid writing, sets out to combat our modern penchant to embark on grand schemes of social transformation—our tendency to imagine a society remodeled and made anew into a gleaming embodiment of justice. A cheerful optimism may be useful in private life, to ward off depressing moods and encourage effort. As Scruton argues in The Uses of Pessimism, however, a more jaundiced and suspicious disposition ought to play an important role in public affairs. Most dreams, especially political dreams, should be strangled in the crib before they gain control over our conscious lives.
Without pessimism, we tend to become what Scruton calls “unscrupulous optimists,” those who “believe that the difficulties and disorders of humankind can be overcome by some large-scale adjustment.” Belief turns into action, and grand plans for social change demolish and destroy inherited ways of life to build such empires of hope as urban renewal, wars on poverty, and, of course, the mother of all hopes, the classless society. Modern societies are filled with witnesses to the failures of optimism, from the empty concrete plazas conceived by urban planners to the demoralized population of the former Soviet Union.
Scruton observes that “the belief that human beings can either foresee the future or control it to their own advantage ought not to have survived an attentive reading of the Iliad, still less of the Old Testament.” But hope springs eternal. The successes of modern science provide one explanation, for they encourage what Scruton calls “the careless pursuit of mastery.” If we can control nuclear reactions, then why not the growth of cities or the education of children or the workings of a modern economy? We program computers, so it seems natural that we should treat social mores such as traditional forms of marriage and child rearing as silicon chips we can overwrite with new codes.
In addition to illusions of mastery, when it comes to large-scale political questions, we tend to take on “the mindset of the gambler,” adopting what Scruton calls “the best-case fallacy.” Yes, we say to ourselves, we can’t be altogether sure that a vast transformation of the healthcare industry will work out. But we quickly reassure ourselves with a false assumption: Things couldn’t be worse. Thus convinced that change necessarily will make things better, we swing into action, gambling away the admittedly defective but real achievements of our present system.
We’re more cautious about our personal affairs. An ardent reformer with great plans to transform the public schools, for example, is often inclined to send his own children to a private school. As Scruton reminds his readers, when it comes to what we hold dear, we’re careful to count the costs. But as we turn our attention to abstract questions about such things as “egalitarian” or “multicultural” education, we tend to discount the dangers of change.
In its more extreme forms, a zeal for social change positively denies the possibility of bad results. If they occur, instead of reading the evidence as telling against still further changes, the optimist preempts criticism by pronouncing the bad results as evidence of insufficient commitment and resources. If children continue to think in terms of gender roles, it’s a sure sign the efforts of reeducation haven’t gone far enough. And so the optimist doubles down. Committees are formed to formulate even deeper changes to the curriculum, and textbooks are rewritten with even more attention to contradicting traditional gender roles. Money gets set aside to hire gender-role consultants. Foundations swing into action to fund new studies and programs. For the irresponsible optimist, the solution to failed change is more change.
Although Scruton does not say so, one reason we blind ourselves to the dangers of social change is uniquely modern. Christianity encourages us to become morally pure: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Needless to say, this exhortation has led to a great deal of interior dishonesty. People have been tempted to become spiritual optimists, discounting their own sinfulness and playing up their imagined virtues. In the modern era, the impulse toward perfection has migrated from the moral and spiritual realm into social and political affairs; along with it has come the inevitable tendency toward self-deception. We want to see ourselves as agents of social justice, and it’s precisely the remote anonymity of large-scale ambitions and projects that allows us the pleasures of rectitude—support for educational reforms that right the world’s wrongs, for example—even as that anonymity insulates us from a personal awareness (and anxiety) about the true dangers and costs.
Scruton is rightly merciless in his attacks on false optimism, and in the core of The Uses of Pessimism he surveys various strategies of self-deception. The “born-free fallacy” involves a false optimism about human nature. According to this way of thinking, all we need to do is smash the present system, and a liberated humanity—one that gravitates toward egalitarianism, uncoerced cooperation, and ecological sensitivity—will spontaneously emerge. The “utopian fallacy” stems from the presumption that if we can imagine something, we can make it real. It tempts us to make facile analogies: The fact, for example, that family life does not turn on the profit motive leads us to imagine an economy along the same lines.
Scruton considers himself a conservative, and most of his examples of false optimism come from the progressive tradition in the modern West. Yet the utopian fallacy is not the exclusive domain of the left. There are some who imagine that the efficiencies achieved by the market can be ever more broadly applied, with the customary and nuanced relations of student to teacher or patient to doctor dissolved into the more simple and more easily monitored relation of buyer to seller. This way of thinking is in certain ways more dangerous than progressive dreams because it is more easily implemented than large-scale social reconstruction is likely to be.
Scruton identifies a number of other sources of social and political folly. The “zero-sum fallacy” supposes that if utopian plans fail, then it must be because efforts were undermined by intransigent opposition. Therefore, some convenient group is to blame: kulaks, capitalist roaders, or Wall Street kingpins. The “planning fallacy” stems from our illusions of mastery, while the “moving-spirit fallacy” allows us to explain why what failed yesterday will, miraculously, succeed today. Finally, Scruton identifies the “aggregation fallacy,” a tendency to lump together disparate goods. The French Revolutionaries urged liberty, equality, and fraternity, failing to see that these social principles often compete with one another.
Although Scruton does not mention it, the same aggregation fallacy is implicit in much of American conservatism, which champions the dynamism of capitalism even while defending the authority of traditional social mores. Both are worthy social goods, but creative destruction does not conveniently restrict itself to the economic sphere. Capitalism makes social relations more fluid and allows people to translate status into money and money into status, thus disrupting the stable circulation of honor and shame that gives life to traditional morality.
Is there hope for the judicious pessimist? Although vigorously written with Scruton’s usual verve and insight, The Uses of Pessimism is not an optimistic book. An honest assessment of human conditions suggests that we’re wedded to the good feelings induced by optimism and that we naturally incline, as Scruton says, to “conspire to avoid the truth.” Indeed, by his reckoning, in the prehistory of man the precarious struggle for survival encouraged mental habits that characterize our present irrational optimism: a tendency to suppress dissent and skepticism and an impulse to give life over to an all-powerful force of destiny. We are hardwired for the fantasy-driven dreams of modern culture, which is why the sober voice of the pessimist—doomed, like that of Cassandra the prophetess, to be distrusted—so often goes unheard.
Scruton holds out some hope. Certain persistent mental habits in the West temper our native optimism. We’ve inherited, he argues, a disposition toward irony arising from the Socratic tradition that tends to deflate our grandiose illusions of world-transforming political and social revolution. Moreover, the biblical tradition inculcates a disposition to forgiveness, a sensibility that allows us to accommodate, and when possible ameliorate, human failings rather than embark on projects that promise to eliminate the very possibility of greed, violence, or injustice. Yet Scruton is appropriately stingy with hope. Sober-minded to the end, he can be, at best, only guardedly optimistic about the prospects for pessimism.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things.