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Mill’s License to Hope

Posted by Adi pe Septembrie 20, 2011

The posthumous publication of Mill’s Three Essays on Religion (1874) drew criticism from the faithful, but it also drew a surprising disappointment from those who expected the “saint of rationalism” to argue for agnosticism. The cause of this consternation is found in the third of the three essays, “Theism,” a short work began in 1868 and unfinished when Mill died in 1870. The faithful found “Theism” objectionable because of Mill’s criticism of several of the standard arguments of natural theology. The disappointment of the other side flowed from Mill’s endorsement of a position that can be summed up by the principle that where probabilities fail, hope can properly flourish. As Mill expressed this principle when discussing immortality, “…to any one who feels it conducive either to his satisfaction or to his usefulness to hope for a future state as a possibility, there is no hindrance to his indulging that hope” (Mill 1874, 210). Mill thought that belief in a creator of great but limited power was supported by the design argument, and one could certainly erect the superstructure of hope upon the base of a belief in a creator who would extend human existence beyond the grave:

Appearances point to the existence of a Being who has great power over us—all the power implied in the creation of the Kosmos, or of its organized beings at least—and of whose goodness we have evidence though not of its being his predominant attribute; and as we do not know the limits either of his power or of his goodness, there is room to hope that both the one and the other may extend to granting us this gift provided that it would really be beneficial to us. (Mill 1874, 210)

Since we do not know that granting postmortem existence to humans is beyond the capability of the creator, hope is possible. As Mill puts it:

…in the regulation of the imagination literal truth of facts is not the only thing to be considered. Truth is the province of reason, and it is by the cultivation of the rational faculty that provision is made for its being known always, and thought of as often as is required by duty and the circumstances of human life. But when reason is strongly cultivated, the imagination may safely follow its own end, and do its best to make life pleasant and lovely… On these principles it appears to me that the indulgence of hope with regard to the government of the universe and the destiny of man after death, while we recognize as a clear truth that we have no ground for more than a hope, is legitimate and philosophically defensible. The beneficial effect of such a hope is far from trifling. (Mill 1874, 248–9)

For our purposes the item of interest is Mill’s claim that “any one who feels it conducive either to his satisfaction or to his usefulness to hope for a future state as a possibility, there is no hindrance to his indulging that hope” (Mill 1874, 210). Mill’s license to hope is issued on pragmatic grounds: it is permissible to hope if and only if:

L1. For all one knows or justifiably believes, the object of one’s hope could obtain; and,L2. One believes that hoping contributes to one’s own happiness, or to the well-being of others.

The second condition (L2) is straightforwardly pragmatic and restricts hope to those who have goals either of personal happiness, or of contributing to the well-being of others. Believing that hope will result in the increase of happiness or well-being is a necessary condition of permissible hope.

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