Why do we think that, in some circumstances at least, hope is a good thing, a virtue, maybe the most important thing to maintain? And can we think this and still believe that there are such things as false hopes, and that we should abjure them? Are these two views compatible?
On the standard analysis of hope, we hope for something if we desire it and if we think it's possible that we'll get our desire. (I can wish that summer would last forever, but I can't hope for it, since I'm certain that it won't happen.) On this account of hope, it's reasonable for us to calibrate our level of hope to match the likelihood of the hoped-for event occurring. So false hopes are those which are maintained in ignorance, or in defiance, of the improbability of the desired outcome. And what's wrong with false hopes is that they involve some failure of knowledge or rationality, and very often some measure of self-deception - we delude ourselves about the probabilities in order to maintain our hopes.
There's nothing wrong with this conception of hope, we use it every day. I hope that it won't rain tomorrow in Manchester. It's a faint hope, but not a false one, since I've adjusted the (low) level of my hope to the (high) likelihood of rain in Manchester in any given 24-hour period. But this account of hope isn't going to show why hope can be admirable, even and perhaps especially in unfavourable circumstances. On the standard analysis, hope against the odds is at best delusory and at worst self-deceptive, and there's nothing admirable about those characteristics. So we need to consider whether there is another form of hope, one which can come into play in terrible circumstances, but which doesn't involve any failure to acknowledge the real probabilities.
Consider this kind of case... During the Second World War a young soldier, Daniel, has been lost in battle - missing in action. After a time, maybe a few years, it's obvious to all that the chances of his survival are now vanishingly small. His brother and sister, while still grieving for the loss of Daniel, are resigned to his death, and though they will never forget him, their lives move on. Daniel's partner has grieved and mourned for him, and in some ways will always mourn for him, but she knows she has to try to make a new life for herself now. Daniel's mother, however, while understanding perfectly well how low the chances of his survival now are, declares that she still maintains the hope that she will see her son again, and that she will always keep this hope alive. And then, after several years, it transpires that Daniel has indeed survived; and when he returns his mother says to him: 'I never gave up, I never lost hope that you would make it through.'
The kind of hope that we see here is of a different order from that of the standard analysis, and we respond to it in quite different ways. It involves no denial of the terrible probabilities, but it refuses to be crushed by them, and it remains open to the chance, however slender, of good being realized. On the standard account, the opposite of hope is fear; but on this different and richer account, the opposite of hope is despair. Hope in the face of adversity, in the face of known and dreadful probabilities, is the refusal to give in to despair.
Why do we admire this kind of hope, which we might call unconditional hope, or (following a great practitioner of it) hope against hope? I think there are two quite different sources of admiration here.
First, this kind of determined hope can be of enormous pragmatic use: it can enable people to persevere through very discouraging situations, and that kind of perseverance is needed for almost any serious and difficult project, especially political ones. We admire the bloody-minded resilience which this refusal to give way to despair both expresses and reinforces.
But second, hope against hope on behalf of another is a way of expressing one's commitment to that other. On the level of individuals, this kind of hope is usually based on, and is an expression of, individual love. At the level of groups, hope against hope is based on, and is a way of showing, solidarity with those for whom such hope is felt. Refusing to give up hope for them (see Norm's fourth paragraph under the link) even in very dark times, maintaining hope for a better outcome than that which is their current fate, is both an expression of solidarity with them, and also a necessary condition of doing what we can to bring about that outcome. A refusal to give way to despair is, if not always a virtue, nonetheless a prerequisite for the creation of any future good, and is in itself a way of revealing the value we place on those who, we hope against hope, will receive that good. (Eve Garrard)