Commentary on the Idea of an Objective Meaning of Life

(This post summarizes and comments on the posts of the last two weeks. For further details please consult those posts.)

Ellin’s suggestion that the moral life provides meaning is fruitful, as is Thomson’s suggestion that we add intellectual and aesthetic value for fully meaningful lives. But Britton’s comment that all these values may be necessary for meaning but not sufficient is telling. We could live virtuous lives and still question life’s meaningfulness. Yet Britton affirms that life is meaningful because there are meaningful relationships, and Eagleton furthers that claim with his emphasis on love of our fellows and the subsequent happiness derived as the meaning of life. Schlick’s emphasis on play adds greatly to our conception of the meaningful life. Such a life does not have to be infused with undo profundity, but with the playful attitude of the child. So truth, goodness, beauty, love, and play provide a nice list of the objective goods that provide meaning.

Wolf combines subjective engagement with the objective values of the moral, intellectual, and artistic domains. It is not enough that there are valuable things in life; one must be engaged in and passionate about their pursuit to fully achieve meaning. Cahn offers a subjectivist account of value against Wolf, but hedges his bet by introducing an objective value—bringing no harm. We might combine Cahn’s view with Wolf’s and say that meaningful lives consist of active engagement in projects that do no harm. Wolf then could grant the no harm clause as a minimum, but add that lives are even more meaningful if engaged in worthwhile projects that help others. To resolve this issue we probably need a resolution to the problem of the objectivity of value, and Wolf admits as much in her follow up lecture. Meaning itself must be some kind of objective value.

Rachels is confident that there are objective values. These values give us reasons to live in certain ways and provide limited meaning and consolation in a universe where we are always haunted by the specter of death and meaninglessness. Flanagan evokes a similar theme, focusing specifically on self-expression and self-transcendence that follow from things like our work and relationships. Frankl’s emphasizes objective ways to find meaning that are becoming familiar—relationships and work. His addition of bearing suffering is a unique contribution to ways of finding meaning in the world. Belshaw reiterates the theme that we find meaning in our lives in objective goods; and we should not ask what meaning objectively good things have, for that involves us in an infinite regress. To all of the above, Belliotti adds that leaving a legacy of our encounter with the meaning-providers of life contributes greatly to our search for meaning. Thagard takes us into new territory, connecting the objective values of love, work, and play to psychology and neurophysiology in order to explain why we experience meaning in these ways. Finally, Metz clarifies the essence of the ideas of most of these thinkers. Life is meaningful because there are good, true, and beautiful things in the world.

When considering these thinkers together we should note the consistency of thinking about the issue of meaning. There is great unanimity that personal relationships, productive work, and enjoyable play are meaningful activities. They are meaningful precisely because in each we may discover or create goodness, beauty, and truth. Enduring suffering nobly, self-expression, and leaving a legacy also exemplify specific activities that allow us to participate in truth, beauty, and goodness Together these thinkers disclose a universal theme. People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied.

Yet we are not. There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled. After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is? Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted. We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always. Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is to the specter of death that we now turn.

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