It brings me great pleasure to introduce Cheshire Calhoun. Cheshire is Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University, and Research Professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom. Her work is extremely original, as I'm sure many Soupers will attest, covering a very wide range of areas including normative ethics, the emotions, feminist ethics, and gay and lesbian philosophy. Let's welcome Cheshire!
I have been thinking for some time about what philosophical conception of ‘meaningful living’ has most to recommend it. The diversity of ordinary language uses of “meaningful” and of intuitions about what count as meaningful lives suggest, to me at least, that there will be something to say for a plurality of quite different accounts of meaningful living and that in adjudicating between them it will be help to ask what conceptual purposes we want an analysis of ‘meaningful living’ to serve.
I have been trying to work out what I call a normative outlook conception of meaningful living. In brief: Spending your life’s time on an activity contributes meaning to your life when it is an end of yours that you take yourself, in your own best judgment, to have reasons to value and thus reason to use yourself up on. The distinctive features of this normative outlook conception are, first, that it takes meaningful living to involve the expenditure of one’s life’s time on one’s ends rather than, as on some other views, straightforwardly on what actually has “objective” (impersonal, agent-independent) value or on what one cares about or feels fulfilled by. Meaningful living is thus intimately tied to an important capacity of persons, namely the capacity to set ends and organize practical activity in light of those ends. Second, the emphasis is on the reasons that persons take themselves to have, in their own best judgment, to adopt the ends they do. This makes this account a variant of subjectivist conceptions of meaningful living. Like any subjectivist account of meaningful living, there will be a certain amount of permissiveness about the kind of lives that count as meaningfully lived ones. The permissiveness results from the fact that persons, even when exercising their best judgments about what reasons there are, can go significantly wrong because the reasons that there (really) are are not within their reach. That permissiveness extends, in theory, to lives devoted to trivial pursuits and immoral lives—although these are the kinds of cases where we may suspect the person has really just failed to set ends in light of her own best judgment about what reasons there are and how they are to be weighed (in which case, she is not in fact living meaningfully). Third, this is a conception of meaningful living on which ‘P is living meaningfully’ is only contingently connected with our thinking that P’s life is to be commended and recommended. That connection is contingent on our agreeing with P’s best judgment.
Since there are other candidate conceptions of meaningful living that might seem attractive, let me briefly indicate some of my reservations about them.
First, there certainly is a use of ‘meaningful’ to designate lives that are “objectively” good (or if you like, impersonally good, or good from an agent-independent perspective). Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein are sometimes proffered as examples of such meaningful lives. A central difficulty I see with “objectivist” accounts is that they end up equating ‘meaningful’ with some other evaluative notion such as humanly excellent, flourishing, significant, or (simply) good. No doubt in ordinary language ‘meaningful’ is used interchangeably with some other evaluative notion. But this makes ‘meaningful living’ a philosophically uninteresting notion and one that does no distinctive conceptual work. There is no special project that calls for an account of meaningful living that couldn’t instead be completed be a project about, say, humanly excellent, good, or significant lives. One could, of course, attempt to avoid this by equating ‘meaningful living’ with some subset of humanly excellent, good, or significant lives. But since it is the very fact that the lives appear humanly excellent, good, or significant that favors our counting the smaller subset as ‘meaningful,’ the singling out of a smaller subset is likely to appear wrongly exclusionary.
Alternatively, one might think the most attractive conception of meaningful living is a hybrid one of the sort Susan Wolf has developed. Not only must one’s life’s time be expended on what is good (or humanly excellent, etc.), but one must have attitudes toward those activities that fall in the range of caring about, loving, being engaged with, and the like. This hybridization of objective goodness and caring attitude might work in one of two ways. On the one hand, it might mean simply that one must care about an activity and that activity must be “objectively” valuable. On this simple interpretation, there is only one sort of reason that the person must have access to—her reasons for caring; she need not also have access to the reasons why the activity is objectively good. Consider for example a fictionalized Einstein who simply loves fiddling about with physics. We may suppose that he’s given no serious thought to any reasons for doing physics, either to what makes this objectively good or even to his own reasons for loving physics. He manages, however, to make exactly the same discoveries that the real Einstein did. His life, on this simple reading of the hybrid view, is as meaningful as the real Einstein whom we imagine having reasons for thinking that what he was doing was worthwhile as well as reasons for loving it. Let me just bluntly say, this doesn’t seem right.
A different version of the hybrid view might seem more appealing. On that view, we are to think about ‘meaningful’ on analogy with ‘knowing.’ Just as it isn’t sufficient, in order to know, that one accidentally latch onto true beliefs (one must also have access to justifying reasons), so it isn’t sufficient, in order to live meaningful, that one accidentally latch onto objectively good activities (as our fiddling Einstein did). One must also have access to the reasons why the activity is good. So we might say a meaningful life is one in which the agent expends her life’s times on activities for which she has both reasons of love and the correct evaluative reasons. This would bring us to something like a non-doxastic version of my own view (as Michael Smith has recently pointed out to me). I could have suggested: Spending your life’s time on an activity contributes meaning to your life when it is an end of yours that you have the right reasons (of both a personal and impersonal nature) to value and thus reason to use yourself up on. Why not say such a reasonable thing?
Here’s my concern. Let’s return to the case of Mother Teresa who is so often cited as an example of meaningful living. The reasons that she had access to for doing her good work in India included her hearing the voice of Jesus telling her “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come be My light” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, p. 44) and her “longing to give all to Our Lord and make many souls do the same” (p. 57). Let us suppose, hypothetically, that her own reasons did not include respect for the poor and enabling them to lead dignified lives. If you are not inclined to think that hearing voices and evangelical aims are what make her work objectively valuable, then she has latched onto the wrong reasons. Her life on this second variant of the hybrid account wasn’t meaningful. And again, speaking bluntly, that doesn’t seem right either.
Now one might think this isn’t the right conclusion about Mother Teresa for one of two reasons. One could be persuaded that meaningful lives are ones devoted to objectively good things regardless of the agent’s access to those reasons. (This would take us back to my worries about collapsing ‘meaningful’ into some other evaluative notion, and/or my worries about counting the unreflective, fiddling Einstein as living meaningfully.) Or you might think it’s the wrong conclusion because the agent’s own meaning-making activities aren’t allowed to count. To my mind, Mother Teresa is a compelling example of meaningful living precisely because she had to think so carefully about what, in her best judgment, gave her a reason to adopt the work in India as an end. She was compelled to think carefully by her need to secure permission to conduct the work in the first place, by the work’s difficulty, and by her own despair at having been abandoned by God not long into her work. It is simply irrelevant to the meaningfulness of her life whether her best judgment tracks the reasons that there (really) are.
Let me end by briefly saying something about the conceptual purposes for which we might want a philosophical conception of meaningful living. It seems to me that we want a conception of meaningful living in order to specify why the human capacity to set ends matters and why beneficence should take the form of adopting others’ ends as our own. Even if we fail to latch onto the right reasons, and even if as a result we set ends that aren’t particularly objectively worthwhile, guiding our lives by our own best judgment as to the reasons we have for expending our life’s time one way rather than another enables us to find (or better, make) meaning in what we are doing.