Meaningful Suffering

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 15, 2015. )

After hearing heartbreaking stories on the radio about what desperate children want—food, medicine, parents—it got me thinking about whether philosophical ruminations about the meaning of life are really important.

I think we can say that one’s basic needs must be met first before we can think about abstract philosophical problems. So food, clothing, shelter and the like are fundamental human needs without which the needs for self-actualization (as in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) cannot be met. Survival is more basic than meaning. Perhaps this is what is meant by the cliché “philosophy bakes no bread.”

Still, after all basic human needs are met, human life will not necessarily be meaningful. Basic needs are a necessary but not sufficient condition for human flourishing. Aristotle thought the same thing; bodily and physical goods are necessary for good human lives, but they are not sufficient. For full human flourishing, for full human meaning and happiness we also need what Aristotle  called “goods of the soul,” essentially the need for self-actualization as in Maslow’s hierarchy.

In cases of extreme deprivation the basic needs obviously come first. We ought to create a world where everyone has at least the minimum amount necessary to lead decent human lives. When that is accomplished, we can then move to creating a world where everyone has the opportunity to flourish by actualizing their potential.

Thus Frankl may have been wrong to claim that the search for meaning is the primary motivation of human life; survival needs are more basic. But as soon as those needs are fulfilled, the desire for meaning swells up from within.  And I think the reason is as follows. Yes, philosophy bakes no bread, you can’t eat your thoughts. But in another sense no bread is baked without philosophy. For why do anything—even try to survive—if we don’t have a reason for living? If we don’t think our lives are meaningful?

When science and technology are available to provide for everyone’s basic needs, and when humanity has the moral and political will to use that technology to provide for everyone’s needs, we will have taken a first step toward creating a better world. But much will remain to be done. We will need also to create a world where everyone can flourish as humans or even as post humans, a place where life will be both beautiful and meaningful.  We must first address suffering; but we must also address meaning.

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