We hope for fine weather on weekends and the best for our buddies – an obvious statement that hardly screams ethics.

But within our everyday desires for good things, lies a duty to each other and ourselves to only act on reasonably held hopes.

The ethics of hope

One of Immanuel Kant’s simple but resonant maxims is ‘ought implies can’. In other words, if you believe someone has an ethical responsibility to do something, it must be possible. No person is under any obligation to do what is impossible. You might call me a bad person for failing to fly through the sky and save someone falling from a great height. But your condemnation will be rejected as ill-founded for the simple reason only fictional characters can perform that feat.

Many other things – including extremely difficult things – are reasonably expected of others. A person might promise to climb Mount Everest (or at least make a serious attempt) prior to their 50thbirthday. This might present the greatest challenge imaginable. Yet we know scaling the heights of Everest is possible. As such, the person who made this promise is bound to honour their commitment.

Of course, at the time of making such a promise, no person can know with absolute certainty they will be able to meet the obligation they have taken on. There are just too many variables outside of their control that can frustrate their best laid plans. Weather conditions might lead to the closure of the mountain. The need to provide personal care to a loved one could extend well beyond any anticipated period. Given this, our ethical commitments are almost always tinged with a measure of hope.

What is hope?

Hope is an expectation that some desirable circumstance will arise. Hope sometimes blends into something closer to ‘faith’ – where belief about a state of affairs cannot be proven. However, for most people, most of the time, ‘hope’ is a reasonable expectation.

For example, if a person makes commitments that critically depend on other people keeping their promises, that person cannot know for certain they can honour their word. Yet, if these people are known and trusted, perhaps based on past experience, then a hopeful dependence on their performance would be reasonable.

The same can be said of other commitments, such as promising to meet for a picnic on a particular day. You might make the plan in the hopeful expectation of fine weather and do so with good grounds based on a checked forecast predicting clear skies.

There are two things to be noted here. First, some aspects of hope depend (for their reasonableness) on the ethical commitments of other people (for example, to keep promises). It follows there will often be a reciprocal ethical aspect to the practice of ‘reasonable’ hoping.

Second, it’s not enough to be naively hopeful. Instead, one needs to take reasonable efforts to ensure there is some basis for relying on a hoped-for circumstance. This is especially so if the hoped-for circumstance is of critical importance to matters of grave ethical significance – such as making a promise to someone.

Given this, there may be good grounds to calibrate commitments in line with the degree to which you might reasonably hope for a particular circumstance to prevail. For example, rather than making an open commitment to meet for a particular picnic on a particular day it might be better to qualify the point by saying, “I promise to meet you if the weather is fine”.

 ‘It’s not enough to be naively hopeful.’

We often see the absence of this kind of forethought when it comes to the promises made by politicians during elections. They will make promises – probably based on hopeful projections about the future – only to find themselves accused of lying or having acted in bad faith when the promise is not honoured.

It’s insufficient for the politician to say they merely ‘hoped’ to be able to keep their word and that they now find their situation to be unexpectedly different. It would have been far better and far more responsible to qualify the promise in line with what might explicitly and reasonably be hoped for.

Two final comments. First, it should be understood a person often has some control over whether or not their hopes can be realised. As such, each person is responsible for those of their actions that impinge on the way they meet their obligations – we are not simply ‘bystanders’ who can idly hope for certain outcomes without lifting a finger to make them manifest.

Second, given our inability to know what the future holds, hope always plays a role in the process of making ethical commitments. The key thing is to be reasonable in what we hope for and to calibrate our commitments accordingly.