More Reflections on the Meaningful Life

Comments from a colleague solicited a recent blog post “Do We Make Our Lives Meaningful By How We Live Them?” In that post I reached this tentative conclusion:

… Not only do we live best by doing our duty and then recognizing that the outcome is out of our control, but we should remember that meaningful lives are those in which we are actively engaged as subjects in objectively projects—helping people, trying to achieve inner peace, pursuing the good, true, beautiful, etc. From an external perspective good results—people really being helped, more peace, truth, goodness, and beauty in the world—is an added bonus. So I now think … meaningful living is mostly about something inside of us … Still our lives are made even more meaningful to the extent that we affect the world for the better.

I still agree with the above, but further discussions with my colleague have helped understand the situation more clearly. Since we don’t know whether or lives are subjectively or objectively meaningful or meaningless, let’s put that issue aside. The main issues are: 1) whether meaning emanates primarily from our intentions, or from achieving our goals; 2) our actions are directed toward ourselves or others; and 3) whether meaning emanates primarily from a moral life rather or immoral one. In that case there are 8 possibilities:

1 – focus on intention, self-directed, immoral – Example – I intend to live the life of a self torturer, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

2 – focus on intention, self-directed, moral – Example – I intend to be a good monk, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

3 – focus on intention, other-directed, immoral – Example – I intend to live the life in which I torture others, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

4 – focus on intention, other-directed, moral – Example – I intend to help other people, and my life is meaningful independent of whether or not I’m successful.

5 – focus on consequences, self-directed, immoral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of being a self torturer,  and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

6 – focus on consequences, self-directed, moral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of being a good monk, and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

7 – focus on consequences, other-directed, immoral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of torturing others, and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

8 -focus on consequences, other-directed, moral – Example – I want to achieve my goal of helping other people and my life is meaningful if I’m successful.

Most of us would say that lives 2, 4, 6, & 8 are more meaningful than the other ones because they are moral lives. It seems morality has something to do with meaning. It is hard to say whether self or other directed lives are more important or whether intention or consequences or more important. Perhaps we need to attend both to our own development as well as other people and, at the same time, recognize that we might fail in both endeavors. So I still do believe that meaningful lives are both those that try to transform the self and, in the process, hopefully transform reality.

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