The Misplaced Virtue

What do Alyosha, Kant and Ted Lasso have to tell us about hope in a world of darkness, doubt and despair? Read here.

Author: Karen Stohr ’92

It’s dark outside these days. For many of us, it’s also dark inside our minds. The world feels weighed down, mired in challenges that make it hard to see our way forward or even be confident that there is a way forward. What if this time, morning never actually comes? What if there is no gleaming city of possibility ahead for our children and grandchildren? What if humanity must remain here in the dark night of our collective soul?

This we readily recognize as the voice of despair. It is hardly a new phenomenon, although familiarity does nothing to lessen its burdens. We know despair by different names. St. Ignatius calls it desolation. Mother Teresa experiences it as her soul becoming a block of ice. For C.S. Lewis, it is a door shut and bolted against him. Fyodor Dostoevsky draws it for us in the character of Ivan Karamazov, who finds it impossible to love humanity in the face of its cruelty.

The remedy for despair is hope. The trouble is that hope is hard to come by when the world feels bleak. Even religion can find itself unable to cast light into the darkness of despair. Lewis, a devout Christian if there ever was one, found no consolation in religion while grieving his beloved wife, lost to him after an agonizing battle with cancer. Ivan Karamazov’s anguish at the pointless suffering of children leads him to rebel against religion entirely. When despair is characterized by doubt in God’s goodness, as it was for Lewis, there may be little comfort in God’s presence. And religion certainly offers no consolation to those who do not feel God’s presence at all.

Widespread hopelessness presents a profound moral challenge, one especially acute for those of us who spend our days with young people. However grim the future looks to the middle-aged, it looks even worse from the standpoint of Generation Z. Their outlook is hardly surprising, given that their formative years have been filled with political acrimony, school shootings, seemingly intractable racism, a global pandemic and above all the existential threat of climate disaster. Teenagers might cover up their despair with silly memes and TikTok videos, but it lurks beneath the surface. Whatever lies ahead for them, they do not expect it to be good.

It’s impossible to have hope unless we have something in which to place our hope. Hope requires a vision of the future compelling enough to draw us forward. Otherwise, we will not find the wherewithal to trudge through the sorrows and troubles of ordinary life, much less to bear up under the tragedies that threaten to befall us. We need to be able to imagine a future worthy of our efforts in order to have an object worthy of our hope. Even if that better future seems like a distant dream, we must be able to see ourselves as moving toward it, however slowly. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., we need to be able to see the arc of history as bending in the direction of moral progress.


A way out of the darkness

Hopelessness is a central theme in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is the second of the brothers in the novel’s title. His passionate older brother, Dmitri, lives in the grip of various vices. His deeply religious younger brother, Alyosha, has committed to the life of a monk. Appropriately, Ivan occupies a middle space of sorts, cognizant of the temptations of a world he sees as corrupt but unable to find solace in religion. The space Ivan constructs for himself is one of intellectual detachment. It is also a realm of despair. The suffering that human beings inflict on each other, combined with religion’s inability to redeem that suffering, leads Ivan to proclaim, memorably, that he must return his ticket to this version of the world. He is unwilling to accept a place in it; the moral price he would have to pay is simply too high. As far as Ivan is concerned, neither God nor humanity is a worthy object of his hope.

In many ways Ivan appears worldly and sophisticated, especially in contrast to Alyosha, whose seemingly naïve faith in the power of love to redeem humanity offers a stark contrast to Ivan’s cynicism. But the novel vindicates Alyosha’s standpoint. Ivan isn’t mistaken about the state of the world; his error lies in his conclusion that the world is thereby unworthy of his hope.

It is hard not to sympathize with Ivan’s despondence at the moral condition of humanity. As he admits to Alyosha, “I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love.” We humans do not always make it easy for others to find us worthy of love. And yet, finding each other worthy of love is precisely what we must do to avoid Ivan’s icy despair. Only by finding people worthy of love are we able to place our hopes in them and in our shared future.

The idea that we must try to find other people worthy of love is central to the moral framework of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. This contention might surprise people whose impression of Kantian ethics is one of cold, impersonal rationalism. But Kant is convinced of the moral importance of trying to love our neighbors. Like Ivan, he is deeply troubled by the depths to which human beings can sink. Unlike Ivan, he believes humanity has the capacity to improve itself. This capacity is, for Kant, what makes us worthy of love. It is also what justifies our hopes for a better future.

Kant sees hope as a rational requirement. Giving up on hope is tantamount to giving up on humanity, which for Kant is not an option. Ivan Karamazov’s unwillingness to hope in people is understandable, but it is not morally defensible in Kant’s eyes. Placing our hopes in our fellow human beings is the only way out of the darkness.


A matter of choice

The darkness that worries Kant most is what he finds within each of our hearts, something he calls “radical evil.” Despite the name, radical evil is quite ordinary, with its roots in human nature. It is simply the act of putting oneself at the center of one’s moral universe, of letting our own interests and desires determine what we do and who we become. Each of us, Kant thinks, has a propensity toward radical evil. But each of us also has a predisposition toward the good. We all must decide whether evil or good becomes the driving force in our lives. Which way the world turns is a matter for our choosing.

Experience provides ample evidence that people frequently choose evil. Setting aside the horrific cruelties toward children that Ivan brings forward as proof of human depravity, we can readily see mundane, radical evil at work all around us. Selfishness, greed, indifference to the plight of neighbors near and far are all ways we succumb to evil every day. Kant fully appreciates the difficulty of maintaining hope in these circumstances. It isn’t just hope in other people we find difficult. It is often hard to maintain hope in ourselves.

And yet, Kant argues, moral progress is a genuine possibility. Each of us could choose a different path for ourselves. Together, we might choose a different path for humanity. But it is not enough to acknowledge this possibility. In Kant’s terminology, we must will it.

Willing is not the same as wishing. Wishing costs us nothing; willing brings with it the responsibility of action. When we will something, we make it our end or goal. We commit ourselves to bringing it about, so far as that is within our power. Kant’s claim is that we have to commit to willing moral progress in ourselves and in each other.

Why? His reasons are complicated, but here’s the basic idea. Kant thinks that at every moment, each of us can choose to do what is right. We are able to use reason to figure out what morality requires of us, and we are able to use our wills to choose to do it.

Of course, we often fail, but Kant puts an interesting twist on that failure. When I succumb to radical evil, I am not just failing other people. I am failing myself. More specifically, I am failing to live up what I am capable of being.

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On Kant’s view, our moral capacities are central to our dignity as human beings. Kantian dignity is a kind of moral status. We can’t waive it or forfeit it, but we can fail to live up to it. When I let radical evil overtake my will, I choose to forgo what I am capable of becoming, handing over the reins to whatever impulse or desire grips me in the moment. In doing this, I fail to live up to my moral capacities. As Kant sees it, acting morally is a matter of self-respect. It is how we treat ourselves with dignity.

Kant believes in the practice of examining one’s conscience. Although we excel in deceiving ourselves about our own moral characters and motives, the right kind of reflection on our behavior can cut through some of the dust Kant says we throw in our own eyes. Now, we don’t usually find honest self-examination pleasant. It’s humbling to face up to our faults. But Kant thinks the examination of conscience can also be inspiring. If we do it correctly, it reveals not just our missteps but our possibilities. It reminds us of the better selves we might become, and it stirs us to become those better selves. Examining my conscience thus gives me reason to hope in myself. I may have fallen, but it is always within my power to pick myself up again.

But what of the cruel child-tormentors who haunt Ivan Karamazov’s thoughts? How could anyone place hope in them? Even if we assume that everyone has a conscience, it seems clear that plenty of people take no interest in examining it on a regular basis. Willing my own moral progress only gets me so far: It’s not within my power to make other people examine their consciences or become better people.

Kant grants all of this. It’s true we cannot simply will other people to reform themselves, but we can hope that even the most hardened villains will find it in their hearts to reform. Radical evil is never an inescapable affliction. All of us, always, have moral possibilities, no matter how far we have fallen. We owe it to ourselves to live up to them. We owe it to other people to believe that they can live up to theirs. And we owe it to humanity to help build a world in which this can happen.

Hope, for Kant, is a choice. We do not have to wait around until it washes over us like a warm glow. (Just as well, since we might find ourselves waiting around a very long time for that.) Kantian hope is a perspective on the world, its future, and the people with whom we expect to build that future. That perspective is something we can decide to take up. Alyosha shares his brother’s grief over human cruelty and the suffering left in its wake. The difference is that Alyosha elects to see humanity as capable of taking another path. Ivan chooses despair. Alyosha chooses hope.

What makes hope in humanity rational is the fact that we are all capable of being something more than we are right now.

The danger of cynicism

Right now we may seem to be losing the battle against radical evil. Kant’s point is that there is always a chance of winning and thus always justification for hope. In some ways, Kantian hope requires a leap of faith. The willingness to make that leap is the difference between Ivan and Alyosha, between despair and hope. And for this hope to be sustainable, our belief in moral progress must become a reality in our daily lives.

Kant argues that we have a duty to avoid a vice he calls defamation — taking malicious pleasure in the failings of other people and in spreading disparaging gossip about them. What makes defamation a vice is the “shadow of worthlessness” it casts over humanity, making misanthropy and contempt “the prevalent cast of mind.” It is all too easy for us to slide into misanthropy and contempt, thanks to the radical evil lurking in our hearts. We find it tempting to take pleasure in the unworthiness of other people, to enjoy how they fall short of our standards. But in delighting in the faults of others, I am really delighting in my own sense of moral superiority. My fault-finding is an expression of my self-conceit, not my virtue, which explains why Kant calls defamation a vice.

Defamation is contagious. When you and I defame people together, my smug self-satisfaction provides sustenance for yours. Jointly convinced of our moral superiority over other people, we become less able to see our own failings. Although we may regard ourselves as a community of virtuous people united in moral righteousness, we are in fact fostering vice in ourselves and each other. Not only do we feed our own self-conceit, we nurture cynicism about those outside our moral bubble. By focusing on everything that is wrong with those people, we render ourselves increasingly unwilling to believe they will ever do anything right. They seem unlovable, worthy of nothing but hatred and contempt. Such cynicism is, for Kant, a deep threat to hope.

In fact, cynicism about humanity is really despair in disguise. Dressed up in the seductive garb of Twitter and political punditry, it often passes for well-informed worldliness, and the world rewards it with retweets and high ratings. We easily miss what makes it so sinister. The cynic doesn’t believe that humanity can really improve, that our natures really have any better angels. For this reason, cynicism itself is as much a threat to moral progress as are the faults the cynic is so quick to point out. The habitual cynic has given up on moral progress entirely. He sees humanity as unworthy of his hopes.

If we are to have hope, we must let go of cynicism. Letting go of cynicism doesn’t mean shutting our eyes to humanity’s failings. Rather, it means choosing to keep our eyes open to the possibility of humanity’s improvement. This isn’t an easy task, particularly if Kant is right that vice is contagious. Fighting cynicism has to be a collective effort. We must band together to prevent cynicism from taking us all hostage. This means we must weave hope into the fabric of our daily lives. Kant says we should throw a “veil of love” over the faults of other people. The general idea is that we should try not to assume the worst about other people — and not be so quick to think the best of ourselves. Instead, we must envision human beings who, regardless of the mess they’re in today, are always able to clean themselves up a bit for tomorrow. In order to sustain this vision, we need communities where it can become reality.

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Photo by 27th annual SAG Awards/Getty Images for Warnermedia

The world according to Lasso

What might such a community look like?

Let me suggest AFC Richmond, the football club coached by Ted Lasso in the television series that bears his name. An American football coach who knows nothing about any other kind of football, Ted is hired by the club’s owner, Rebecca, as an act of revenge against the former owner, her unfaithful ex-husband, who loves the team. Rebecca seeks to destroy her ex by destroying what he loves. Yet her plan fails, not because Ted succeeds in winning matches but because he succeeds in winning hearts, drawing them toward what the ancient Greeks called kalos kai agathos, the noble and good.

Ted’s defining personality trait is his cheerful optimism, taken almost to the point of caricature. It is not, however, a mere surface appearance. Like the earnest faith of Aloysha Karamazov, Ted’s cheerful optimism is an expression of his deep love for humanity and his hope in the possibility of our progress. He is not immune to despair. As we learn, he has his own dark nights of the soul with which to contend. His hopefulness is a choice about how he wants to live and interact with the people around him. He places hope in his team not as footballers but as human beings.

In short, Ted Lasso is the coach of Team Humanity as much as of AFC Richmond. He treats people as being more than their worst moments, as capable of nobility and goodness. The sign above his office door — practically a character in its own right — says “Believe.” What Ted believes is that people are worthy of his hope in them. And when he places his hope in people, they tend to live up to it. They start to become the better selves that he imagines for them.

In the world of Ted Lasso, people fail. They cause harm. They do wrong. They also pick themselves up, seek forgiveness and receive it. The show has few true villains, though there are many characters who walk past the hand Ted extends to them. Some turn around. Some do not. Ted keeps his hand extended anyway: It’s how his hope finds expression. There is always a road back to his team. There is always moral possibility.

Under Ted, AFC Richmond becomes something much more than a football club. It becomes a thing of moral beauty, a place where people come to terms with their brokenness and strive together to do better. Of course the club strives to play better on the field. But mostly the players and staff strive to do better in their hearts.

It is this second kind of striving that makes Richmond worthy of the love, loyalty and hopes of its fans. One early convert is the cynical sports reporter, Trent Crimm of The Independent, who initially sees nothing beyond the team’s poor prospects in Ted’s inexperienced hands. Gradually that cynicism falls away and Trent becomes a believer in what Ted is seeking to create. Although he still predicts Ted will fail, he wants Ted to succeed. This desire is how hope gets a foothold in Trent’s heart. He comes to see AFC Richmond as worth rooting for, because human beings are worth rooting for. In rooting for Richmond, he is rooting for humanity itself.

In order to have hope, we need to be able to root for humanity, to take humanity’s side in every battle with our hearts as well as our minds. We have to believe each of us has it within us to become better. We must also want those better selves to emerge, in our friends as well as in our enemies. We must want humanity itself to win. We must take delight in the extra pass, even when it costs us the game, because it means that some hot mess of a human being has managed to make a bit of moral progress.

Dani Rojas is Richmond’s striker, a bundle of effervescent energy. His mantra: “Football is life!” But it isn’t really football that sustains Dani and his teammates; rather, it is the people with whom they play the game. Ted does not transform the team by himself. They transform themselves with the help of each other. Not perfectly, not consistently, but enough to keep them hopeful about its possibility. Whether or not Richmond ever improves as a football club, it is certainly improving as a community of human beings. In that sense, AFC Richmond cannot help but emerge victorious, regardless of how the season ends.

We know that loving our neighbors is difficult. It is often easier to see people as enemies than friends, easier to see them as lost causes than as beacons of moral possibility in a dark world. And yet, for Kant, a beacon of moral possibility is exactly what each of us is. What makes hope in humanity rational is the fact that we are all capable of being something more than we are right now. To love someone is to choose to see them as worthy of our hopes and to place those hopes in them. It is true that the world is dark. It is also true that we have a choice to commit to forging a path out of the darkness.

The last episode of Ted Lasso’s first season is titled, “It’s the Hope that Kills You.” Unsurprisingly, Ted rejects that all-too-common saying as a way of living in the world. To the contrary, he tells his players, “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you.” AFC Richmond doesn’t lose hope in itself. Neither must we lose hope in ourselves as members of a human community, lest that lack of hope come and get us forever.

Karen Stohr is Ryan Family Chair Professor of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Georgetown University. Her books include Minding the Gap: Moral Ideals and Moral Improvement and Choosing Freedom: A Kantian Guide to Life.