The Meaning of Life

Rambling post alert!

Over at Kieran Setiya’s interesting blog, there is a discussion about the meaning of life.  Here’s the  link:

Here’s some of what I wrote in an earlier discussion thread, which I
thought I’d reproduce here to stimulate discussion.   I raise some
questions after the quoted material.

think I have the concept of a good life, of a life worth living. One of
the main projects in ethics should be to give an account of what makes
a life worth living. (And what makes for a bad life, or a life not
worth living. Think of all the people in the world who have suffered so
terribly that we think that (perhaps) they would have been better off
had they never been born. We have the concept of a bad life as well.)
It seems to me that this concept is connected in interesting and
significant ways with other "moral" or "normative" concepts, such as
the concepts of benefit or harm: one benefits someone when one makes
her life *better* than it was, one harms someone when one makes her
life *worse* than it was before.

The concept of a meaningful
life seems harder to me to grasp than the concept of a good life. Maybe
this is just me, but it seems more elusive. I have a harder time seeing
how the concept of a meaningful life connects up with other moral or
normative concepts in the same way that the concept of a good life
seems to connect.

Maybe one way to help someone like
myself grasp the concept of a meaningful life would be to explain how
this concept relates to other concepts that I antecendently grasp. For
example, how is the concept of a meaningful life different from the
concept of a good life? "

Some related questions:  is this the right way to go about answering
the question of what makes a life meaningful?  Is the question of what
makes a life meaningful a "psuedo-question"?  If so, how do we
establish that this is the case, and why do so many people still ask
it?  Why should we care about having a meaningful life?  What are
currently the dominant views on what a meaningful life consists in?   

10 Replies to “The Meaning of Life

  1. This is mostly just speculation, but I would guess that a meaningful life must involve some kind of success or achievement. Success/achievement involves the attainment of some goal as a result of one’s conscious efforts to attain that goal. We might want to add that the goal must be one that’s worthy of pursuit, but I’m not sure.
    If something along these lines is correct, then a meaningful life doesn’t equate to a good life (i.e., a life worth living). It seems that certain nonhuman animals, given a lack of self-awareness and autonomy, will be incapable of living a meaningful life but will, nevertheless, be capable of living a good life—a life full of, say, pleasure. Also some human beings might have a good life, but not a meaningful one. This is not to say that ‘a good life’ and ‘a meaningful life’ are entirely distinct. I’m inclined to think that a necessary condition (not a sufficient condition) for living the best possible human life is living a meaningful life.
    This account might also explain why we think that a life without any purpose is a meaningless life.

  2. There is a great paper on this topic on Michael Smith’s webpage entitled ‘Is That All There Is?’. If I don’t remember too wrong, Smith argues that achievement or success as attainment of goals as such doesn’t seem to be enough for meaningful life even if it was fulfilling. The goals also need to be worthy or valuable. Life attaining pointless goals is just as meaningless as not achieving one’s goals at all.
    I think he also plays with the idea, fitting to his dispositional theory of value, that we might never find out whether there are valuable goals. The requirement for their value after all is that all ideally rational agents would be motivated to pursue them, and it’s hard to know if this is the case with any goals. Thus it is an open question whether life is meaningless or not – it well may be. Yet the conclusion, if I remember it right, is that you can still make the most of meaningless life and enjoy it while you can. Anyway, well worth the read.

  3. One way to give sense to the question would be to read it as asking: what is it that makes life, or a given life, valuable? It’s not clear to me from your post above whether by ‘good life’ you mean ‘valuable life’, given that you seem to imply that a good life is one worth living. Often, when we ask whether a life is worthwhile we are concerned with a life’s being valuable in a way in which the agent who lives it is at least capable of taking satisfaction. When someone says her life is not worth living, she is saying something about her satisfaction with the life she is leading or has led. If she asks the question of why her own life is worth living, she is seeking some satisfaction with her life or for some path she can pursue so as to come to be so satisfied.
    I take it that the question of whether a life is valuable (over and above the sort of value any life has qua life) might be asked in a way that at least at the outset does not presuppose that the agent who lives it can take any satisfaction or comfort from its being valuable, if it is. There might be valuable lives that are nevertheless so difficult or arduous that no agent (or no agent constituted like we are) can take satisfaction in them. It’s also distinct from the question of whether the life, the actions that in part make it up, or the agent herself merits moral praise, acceptance, or blame.
    Perhaps, though, you mean to include this in the question concerning what a good life consists in. If you do, then I think that the the notions of the good life and the meaningful one are indeed equivalent. Has anyone defended the notion that the two notions are distinct? If so, that would be interesting, since I’ve always taken them to be equivalent.

  4. Hey Kris,
    The question seems to me to be genuine, not just a psuedo question. The expression ‘meaningful life’ is probably ambiguous and maybe on some disambiguations the question is a psuedo-question. I think.
    I think the interesting question in this area is whether we can develop a conception of a meaningful life that entails there are, or could be values not had by, or constituted by a good life. Is there yet another dimension of evaluation by which we can measure the quality of a life, in addition to its welfare level?
    Camus thought Sisyphus could have the most meaningful life, a life full of authenticity, even though the welfare level of Sisyphus was pretty low. I am becoming attracted to this view. Authenticity is going to be spelled out, roughly, as a property of persons that they have in virtue of performing authentic acts. Authentic acts will be acts that are performed from true desires and considered beliefs where the individual identifies with the act in some important way. The desires will be true to the extent that their source is in the individual, the desires will not be manipulated by others, or by other’s conception of the good life. The beliefs will just be considered to the extent that the individual that hold them will be aware that he holds them and, perhaps, believe that the belief is the right belief for him to hold.
    Finally, there is an irreducible phenomenological property associated with authenticity. Call it lucidity. Its a property that experiences of making authentic choices have, the sort of property that causes us to remember the situations in which the decisions are made.
    Lucid experiences are those brief moments when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are expressing our will.
    Well, that’s the view anyway. And if welfare is measured by getting what one actually desires, as I have been convinced to think, then I don’t think welfare will have the resources to account for authenticity. And I think authenticity is as good a candidate as I have come across for being the property, the acquisition of which, makes a life more meaningful.

  5. Hi Christian,
    The relationship between authentic and meaningful life is interesting. I still wonder whether authencity can be a ‘meaningful-making’ property. That is, I might be willing to accept that authencity is a necessary condition for meaningful life but I doubt whether it is a sufficient one.
    I guess my worries can be traced to Aristotelian worries about Kantian accounts of practical reason. The way you formulate the requirements for authentic life based on the requirements for authentic actions and desires does not give any substantial criteria for such actions and desires. This means that my desire to move a block of wood on the floor can pass your formal criteria. I could identify to this desire and it needn’t be a result of external manipulation or the views of good life others have.
    So it may be (and I’m not denying it here) that my action of moving the block of wood on the floor is authentic and contributes to my life also being authentic. But it just seems so clear that this action lacks any value or that there are any reasons for it, and so it is hard to have the intuition that it has made my life any more meaningful even though it might have added to the authencity of it.
    Also, the view that welfare is satisfaction of actual desires seems quite implausible but that is another story.

  6. Jussi,
    I’m not sure how to best pump intuitions here. I suggest just picking up Camus, maybe The Stranger, and The Possessed or Crime and Punishment by Dostoevski. Stipulating a definition and then giving a few cases to suggest I have a rough analysis of something important won’t get anybody on boat with ‘authenticity’ that doesn’t already feel the pull of the idea. I mean, Camus’ central point is that a life of pushing blocks of wood on the floor can have even more value, in the sense of authenticity, than a life devoted to charity and philosophy.
    As for the welfare bit, Chris Heathwood makes an excellent case for a desire-based account of welfare. You should check out his paper, it’s online.

  7. Hi again,
    sorry – just cannot resist a temptation to make a follow-up question. After all we have come to the big ones – the meaning of life!
    What do mean by ‘value, in the sense of authencity’?
    That there is a sense of ‘value’ which is that it means ‘authencity’? Then the claim appears trivial.
    Or ‘the value of authencity’? How important of an value do you think it is in making life meaningful?
    If it is a very important value, then we come to the question: Are there really conceivable circumstances where someone’s life moving a block of wood around is a more meaningful and valuable life than someone’s spent helping the suffering of the worst-off or trying to understand things like morality, language, knowledge, structure of the world, freedom, and so on, even though the person is somewhat alianated or manipulated into doing this? I find it hard to imagine that there would be. Do you really think there are such circumstances? Did Camus really think so? Maybe it’s just a clash of intuitions.

  8. Jussi, you ask the question: Are there really conceivable circumstances where someone’s life moving a block of wood around is a more meaningful and valuable life than someone’s spent helping the suffering.
    I’m not sure that is possible. But, Camus is not saying anything so strong. We just need to separate various ways to evaluate something, a life in this case. A Life can be better or worse, more or less valuable, more or less virtuous, more or less meaningful, and on and on. I am suggesting that there is a plausible way to evaluate a life, by its authenticity, that is not equivalent to how well the life went for the individual that had it.
    It is a substantive claim that meaningfulness adds value to a life, and hence, that authenticity does. I think Camus is going to accept this, so would I.
    But, the point is that once we distinguish authenticity from welfare, it isn’t clear that a life of pushing blocks, making widgets, rolling a rock, or whatever, couldn’t have alot of authenticity in it, even if the life went poorly for the individual. I think we will want to insist, as cases get flushed out, that one can live a life with terrible pain and frustration, but one that is valuable because the individual took her life as her own.
    In the end we might wonder whether the life, overall, was a good life. If this question even makes sense, then the existentialist could say that an authentic life of rock pushing is a pretty bad life, that it is bad because it has been deprived of virtue, of friendship, of satisfaction, and other things, but that it is has value in the sense that it contained authenticity.
    We can then say that the philosopher’s life was better overall than the wood pushers life. The philosopher’s life could be less authentic. It will (likely) contain more satisfaction and virtue. So, it’s “better” in some ways, but it could be “worse” in other ways. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?

  9. Christian, Jussi already granted you that pushing blocks could be “authentic”. But this would not be a very interesting claim unless we make the further (and more contentious) claim that authenticity adds [welfare] value and/or meaning to a life.
    You originally wrote, “authenticity is as good a candidate as I have come across for being the property, the acquisition of which, makes a life more meaningful.” Do you still support this strong claim, in light of the block-pushing counterexample?
    I’m actually fairly sympathetic to the radical existentialist position there. I think an autonomous block-pusher might very well have a more meaningful life than a manipulated altruist or sage. His life would certainly be worse in other important respects, but perhaps ‘meaningfulness’ isn’t one of them. This view would go most naturally with the denial of objective values.
    Alternatively, we might hold that only properly directed authenticity (i.e. where one’s autonomously chosen values line up with what is objectively valuable) contributes meaning to a life. This bears some resemblance to “objective list” theories of welfare. (Perhaps such theories get their plausibility because they are accurate theories of a closely related concept: that of a meaningful, rather than good, life.) We might then adopt a more subjective theory of welfare (e.g. some variant of desire satisfactionism). This strikes me as an appealing combination of views.

  10. Richard – this is a very interesting passage well worth looking at:
    ‘I’m actually fairly sympathetic to the radical existentialist position there. I think an autonomous block-pusher might very well have a more meaningful life than a manipulated altruist or sage. His life would certainly be worse in other important respects, but perhaps ‘meaningfulness’ isn’t one of them. This view would go most naturally with the denial of objective values.’
    It is true that existentialism goes often hand-in-hand with denial of objective value. That’s why I think it’s implausible – in words of Charles Taylor all choices would become radical choices – whether to go to war or help the family would be the same kind of a choice as whether to help the family or buy another cup of coffee.
    But what’s more worrying is that existentialists are rarely coherent in stating their position. There is an obvious danger. If you deny the existence of objective value, it’s not clear that you can say things like ‘autonomous block-pusher might very well have a more meaningful life than a manipulated altruist or sage’. That just seems to commit you to the existence of at least one objective, that of value autonomy, which can make life meaningful. And, if there is one objective value, then why not others? That at least requires some argument. If there then are loads of other objective values, then existentialism seems under threat.
    I take it that this is the reason, why existentialists often say that authencity or autonomy is not an objective value but something we are doomed to – something that makes our situation absurd not meaningful. This way they can avoid the commitment to an objective value that seems to undermine their position.

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