Owen Flanagan: “What Makes Life Worth Living?”

Owen Flanagan

Owen Flanagan (1949 – ) is the James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University. He has done work in philosophy of mind, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of social science, ethics, moral psychology, as well as Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of the self.

In his essay, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” Flanagan does not assume “that life is or can be worth living.”[i] Perhaps we are just biologically driven to live worthless lives. So he begins by asking: “Is life worth living?” And if it is then “…what sorts of things make it so?”[ii] He notes that reflecting on this question may be a waste of time, as life might be better for the non-reflective. Reflection may lead to despair, if one determines that life is worthless, or to joy, if one concluded to the contrary. The question of whether life is worth living and what makes it so is connected with another bewildering question: “Do we live our lives?”[iii] In one sense the answer is obvious—we spend time not dead—but Flanagan wants to know if we act freely or are merely controlled like puppets. So questions about the value of living involve issues about who we are and what kinds of things are true about us.

Flanagan argues that even happiness is not enough to guarantee that life is worthwhile, inasmuch as a life may contain much happiness and still be meaningless. Happiness is not sufficient for meaning, since one might derive happiness from evil things, and it may not be necessary either, since a meaningful life may be devoid of happiness. But even if happiness is a component of a worthwhile life, he argues that identity and self-expression are more crucial. “Wherever one looks, or so I claim, humans seek, and sometimes find worth in possessing an identity and expressing it.”[iv] Identity and self-expression are necessary but not sufficient conditions for worthwhile living, since we need to clarify what forms of identity and expressions of it are valuable.

But what if there is no self to find meaning through self-expression? There are three standard arguments supporting the idea that we are not selves. First, maybe I am just a location where things happen from a universal perspective. Second, I may simply be the roles I play in various social niches, with self just a name for this apparent unity. Third, my apparent unity may be just various stages which change as we age. Regarding this last argument, Flanagan concedes that there is no same self continuing over time, but that this does not show there is no self, just that it changes over time. Even granting the second argument that I am a social construction; I am still something, so the death of self does not follow. The first argument suggests determinism; but even if I am determined, I am still an agent who does things. So these death-of-subject arguments, while deflating our view of self, don’t destroy it. Flanagan agrees that humans are contingent and don’t posses eternal souls—but this does not mean they are not subjects.

But why is there anything at all? And why am I one of the things that is? Such questions invite answers such as: 1) the gods decided that the universe and creatures should exist and I have the chance to join them if I follow their commands; or 2) we don’t know why there is anything except to say that the big bang and subsequent cosmic and biological evolution led to me. Flanagan notes that neither answer is satisfactory, because both posit something eternal—gods or physical facts. But that does not answer why there is something rather than nothing. (Reminiscent of earlier claims that we can’t answer ultimate why questions.)

And yet many find the first story comforting, presumably because it links us with transcendent meaning. The second story has less appeal to most since it raises questions about one’s significance, moral objectivity, concept of self, and ultimate meaning. But is the first story really more comforting than the second? How do the gods’ plans make my life meaningful? And if the gods are the origin of all things are they really good? Thus it does not seem that either the theological or scientific story about origins can ground meaning in our lives.

Thus Flanagan suggests that we look elsewhere for meaning. Perhaps a person’s meaning comes from relationships with others, or with work, or from nature—from things we can relate to in this life. After all, the scientific story never says that life does not matter. In fact a lot of things matter to me, from mundane things that I love to do—hiking and travel—to more long term projects that matter even more—learning, loving, and working creatively. This means that we are creatures that thrive on self-expression and, to the extent that we are not thwarted in this desire, can ameliorate the human condition and diminish the tragedy of our demise by this expression. As Flanagan concludes:

This is a kind of naturalistic transcendence, a way each of us, if we are lucky, can leave good-making traces beyond the time between our birth and death. To believe this sort of transcendence is possible is, I guess, to have a kind of religion. It involves believing that there are selves, that we can in self-expression make a difference, and if we use our truth detectors and good detectors well, that difference might be positive, a contribution to the cosmos.[v]

Summary – We find meaning through self expression in our work and in our relationships.


[i] Owen Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000), 198.
[ii] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 198.
[iii] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 199.
[iv] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 200.
[v] Flanagan, “What Makes Life Worth Living?” 206.

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