Susan R. Wolf: The Importance of Objective Values

Susan R. Wolf elaborated on her ideas about meaning in life in two lectures delivered at Princeton in 2007. ( We previously discussed her views two days ago.) There she claimed that meaning is not reducible to either happiness or morality. While philosophers often argue that individual happiness or impersonal duty motivate why people act, Wolf maintains that meaning also motivates action.  She thus seeks a middle way between recommendations to “follow your bliss” or “do your duty.”

To explain this she differentiates between the Fulfillment view—that meaning is found in whatever fulfills you—and the Larger-Than-Oneself view—that meaning if found in dedicating yourself to something larger than yourself.  The fulfillment view satisfies subjectively but may lack objective value; whereas the larger-than-oneself view suffers from the reverse, it may be objectively meaningful but not subjectively fulfilling. The solution combines the best features of both. Meaningfulness in life thus comes from engaging in, being fulfilled by, and ultimately loving things objectively worthy of love. (The subjective attraction and objective attractiveness she spoke of earlier.) Furthermore, she argues that subjective fulfillment depends on being engaged in the objectively worthwhile—counting cracks on the sidewalk will not do, but pursuing medical research could. Therefore the subjective and objective elements are inextricable linked.

This leads Wolf back to the question of objective meaning. How does one answer Cahn’s objection that meaning is subjective? While Wolf does not provide a theory of objective value, she does claim that there are subject-independent values, since at least some things are valuable to everyone. If this is true then the truth or falsity of whether a life is meaningful is subject-independent, although Wolf defers from assessing the meaningfulness of other’s lives.

The question of meaning is not merely academic then, since answers to it inform individuals about themselves and others. The concept of meaning also has explanatory value, explaining why people do thing for reasons other than self-interest or duty. In short, meaningfulness matters. It may not be the only value, but it is valuable nonetheless. Moreover, the concept of meaning is unintelligible without some notion of objective value, despite the fact that we cannot specify this value with much precision.

Summary – Meaning is a value distinct from both happiness and morality, but it relies on the reality of some objective value, however non-specifically that is defined.

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