What is Meliorism?
Written by Shawn Funk
The word ‘meliorist’ finds its root in the Latin word ‘melior,’ which means ‘better.’ According to the pragmatist philosopher William James, meliorism can be understood as a means between optimism and pessimism, or what I like to call healthy skepticism (Bloeser & Stahl, 2022). It holds that the world can be made better through human action. Underlying meliorism is the deeply held belief in human progress. What a religious sentiment! Interestingly, while James is a hardcore pragmatist, there is an element of hope embedded into meliorism; James calls this hope rational faith, and it is a critical component of the concept of meliorism because it justifies the belief that things will indeed get better (Bloeser & Stahl, 2022).
Meliorism is firmly rooted in the pragmatic philosophical tradition that stresses practicality and action as central tenets. William James states that a “pragmatist . . . turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power” (James, 1975) The rejection of airy conclusions and pie-in-the-sky ideas puts the focus of pragmatism on active experience It is, thus, a philosophy of action and practicality where the truth is discovered through evidence gathered from experience As our experiences reveal new evidence, the truth is modified to fit this new evidence Sounds scientific Unsurprisingly, the idea of progress underpins the entire pragmatic tradition.
Okay, so you might ask how a pragmatist who seeks truth in challenging experiences can believe in airy concepts like progress. This can be understood through James’s articulation of rational faith and his assertion that meliorism indicates a mean between optimism and pessimism, suggesting that there is room to believe in things that direct experience cannot justify. Question: When am I justified in believing things without evidence? James asserts that three conditions must be met. First, the conclusion cannot be decided by science; otherwise, it would be justified (James, 1972). Second, the conclusion might be true; there is no point in applying this to the existence of unicorns (James, 1972). Third, you are better off believing it than not; this is the most powerful criterion as it spurs one to action (James, 1972). James calls this kind of reasoning rational faith (oxymoron?), and he uses it to justify his belief in God and progress; I will not be going down that road. Instead, I will apply rational faith to the individual to show how it is helpful in practical matters and how it can lead to personal growth.
Here is a straightforward small-scale example of rational faith: Sally gets to school on a freezing day and thinks she might have left the dog outside. Is it rational for her to believe her dog was left outside? Criterion one is met; science will not tell her the answer. Criterion two is met; it might be valid. Criterion three is also met because it is better for her to believe she left her dog outside and check it out rather than ignore it and come home to a frozen dog. Sally decides that she should believe that she left her dog outside, so she drives home and rescues Snowball from the cold. If Sally is wrong in her belief and finds Snowball curled up on the sofa when she crashes through the front door, no harm is done. The loss is negligible; maybe she is late for class. In this case, erring on the side of caution is justifiable. My main point here is that Sally held a belief, and she acted on it as if it were the truth. In doing so, she sacrificed time and effort to pursue what she thought was the truth.
All actions are motivated by our beliefs in some way. Would you go to church if you did not believe that something good might come of it? Would you plan for tomorrow if you believed the world would end tonight? Of course not! Let us say that your dream since high school is to become a veterinarian. If you believe you will become a veterinarian, might your actions reflect that yearning? Yes. You will probably do some volunteering, start reading books on biology and visit the vet clinic or school. Is it a guarantee that you will become a veterinarian? Nothing is ever guaranteed. However, is it still better to believe you will become a veterinarian? Yes, because your belief will motivate you to act, giving you the courage to make the sacrifices and take risks associated with becoming a veterinarian. Don’t get me wrong here; I am not saying that its success is guaranteed just because you believe in something and act on it. However, your belief will strengthen your resolve, giving you an edge that will increase your chances. This is why James implores us to believe in the things that will improve our lives. I am pretty sure this is also how a self-fulfilling prophecy works but in reverse. I believe I will fail, so I fail. Therefore, it is imperative to know what you believe in. Then you might understand why you sometimes act the way you do.
The previous examples show how James’s logic applies to life goals and decision-making. However, the logic of rational faith is especially powerful when applied to big concepts. Do you think it might be rational to believe in free will? I think so. Why do anything if your life is predestined? I think it’s also important to believe that most people are good. How will your human relationships be affected by this belief? You might actually end up with a few friends. Should we believe that tomorrow will more or less resemble today? We rely on projections of the future based on our current data to plan for the future. It might be important to have a relevant forecast of what that future might hold. These beliefs are not rooted in cold logic but rather a calculated measure of hope.
I want to point out a small problem with James’s formulation of rational faith Criterion two, “it might be true,” is a doozy. After all, if you already believe something, you must, at the very least, think it might be true. I think this is a problem, and James offers no solution. However, he suggests that the active pursuit of truth is always better than trying to avoid an error. He declares that the fear of error must not stand in the way of pursuing the truth (James, 1972). Courage and patience are qualities I think Mr. James would appreciate.
Although we will make many mistakes and hold many false beliefs throughout our lifetimes, focusing on avoiding these things will not lead to progress. Instead, we must act in accordance with our beliefs, have the courage to be wrong in our pursuits, and have the patience to try again; this is the spirit of meliorism. The truth lies at the foot of every error, and human progress cannot be made without it.
Bloeser, C., & Stahl, T. (2022, March 21). Hope. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hope/#Prag
James, W. (1972). Pragmatism and other essays. Pocket Books.