Resisting Pessimism Traps: The Limits of Believing in Oneself

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Abstract
Members of marginalized groups who desire to pursue ambitious ends that might lead them to overcome disadvantage often face evidential situations that do not support the belief that they will succeed. Such agents might decide, reasonably, that their efforts are better expended elsewhere. If an agent has a less risky, valuable alternative, then quitting can be a rational way of avoiding the potential costs of failure. However, in reaching this pessimistic conclusion, she adds to the evidence that formed the basis for her pessimism in the first place, not just for herself but for future agents who will be in a similar position as hers. This is a pessimism trap. Might believing optimistically against the evidence offer a way out? In this paper, I argue against practical and moral arguments to turn to optimism as a solution to pessimism traps. I suggest that these theories ignore the opportunity costs that agents pay when they settle on difficult long-term ends without being sensitive to evidence of potential failure. The view I defend licenses optimism in a narrow range of cases. Its limitations show us that the right response to many pessimism traps is not to be found through individual optimism.
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Archival date: 2021-06-07
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