Summary of R. W. Hepburn’s, “Questions about the meaning of life”


Unanswerable Question and Worthwhile Projects

R. W. Hepburn (1927-2008) grew up in Aberdeen Scotland and was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. In his 1965 essay “Questions about the meaning of life,” Hepburn claims that traditionally the question of the meaning of life tends to be conjoined with metaphysical, theological, and/or moral claims—that the gods have a plan; that the cosmos has a goal; that justice reigns, that death must be overcome, etc. What then is an analytic or naturalistic philosopher to do? Typically they argue either we: a) cannot talk intelligently about meaning of life; or b) must talk about meaning in a completely different way from the traditional way to make sense out of the question. Hepburn opts for the latter.

Hepburn asserts that meaningful lives are purposeful, or pursue valuable ends. This implies that meaning is not found but created—we must make value judgments—and this holds whether or not there are cosmic trends or a cosmic order. Moreover, the claim that there are gods is just a claim about the facts and nothing follows from that about what ought to be valued. So nothing about meaning follows from the truth or falsity of religion.

If we switch the question from what is the meaning of life to what is its purpose we encounter two problems. First the idea of the purpose of life presupposes a single purpose, whereas there are multiple purposes for a human life; and second the question suggests that we are a mere artifact, tool, or instrument. Second the issue is problematic because it is incompatible with moral autonomy, since on this account we simply are something to be used. Thus there are two reasons to disconnect questions about meaning from metaphysical and theological claims. First such claims are about facts only and not about values; and second if a life is given meaning by its role as divine artifact, this denies moral autonomy.

Additionally, two other thoughts lead to the separation of metaphysics from meaning. First, if we consider the familiar claim that life is meaningless if death is the end, then we see the irrelevance of metaphysics to our question. There is no obvious connection between finitude and disvalue or between infinity and value. Flowers that die have value while an eternity of meaninglessness is a plausible notion. Thus metaphysical concerns about death do not straightforwardly connect to meaning questions. And second the quest for meaning is often thought of as the possession of some esoteric metaphysical or theological knowledge. Tolstoy thought that peasants had such knowledge insofar as they were not generally as depressed as intellectuals. As a rejoinder Flew pointed out that this does not mean the simple-minded possess some knowledge that Tolstoy did not, but rather that they possess some peace of mind that Tolstoy lacked.[i] Hepburn agrees with this line of thinking which suggests that the answer to our query is not metaphysical but psychological or ethical. All these considerations weigh against the argument that meaning connects with metaphysical or theological claims.

Furthermore, if we consider Tolstoy’s or John Stuart Mill’s crisis of meaning we see that pursuing worthwhile projects is not enough for meaning either. We may think our projects valuable while still doubting they give our lives meaning. According to Hepburn finding meaning is not merely justifying our projects—we work to feed our children—but being energized and fulfilled by our projects. He contends that meaningful lives fuse these concerns; they pursue (morally) worthwhile projects that satisfy us. But it is not egoistic to want one’s worthwhile projects to be compelling or interesting. In fact we often judge lives to be less meaningful because they fail to be morally worthwhile or personally compelling.

The foregoing considerations lead Hepburn to conclude: “The pursuit of meaning … is a sophisticated activity, involving a discipline of attention and imagination.”[ii] What then of Tolstoy’s peasants? Hepburn argues that they possessed a weak sense of knowing how to live. They had not mastered techniques to deal with depression—they were not depressed—rather they were unaware of the kind of thoughts a Tolstoy or Mill might have. They knew how to live like babies know how to cry. But this weak sense of meaning is not enough if we see meaning as a problem that demands a reply. In that case we demand a stronger response to the question of how to live than the peasants gave; a response to the problematic context of life’s difficulties and possible means of overcoming them.

All of this raises an interesting question: “Could a man’s life have or fail to have meaning, without his knowing that it did or did not have meaning?”[iii] On the one hand, Hepburn contends that lives could be meaningful without the people living those lives being aware of their meaning—for example if they did not realize the valuable contributions they made. On the other hand, it is odd to say that someone did not know the meaning of their life but that a biographer would discover it later. Regarding those who are “unreflectively happy or unhappy, it would be most natural to say that they have neither found nor failed to find the meaning of life.”[iv] Tolstoy’s peasants are of the unreflective type, they have not found the meaning of life because they have never seen it as problematic; whereas if Tolstoy achieved their peace of mind he could be said to have found meaning, as he was aware of the problematic elements of life. Therefore those who have never been troubled by life’s difficulties cannot be said to have solved a problem.

What is particularly difficult to reconcile with meaning is death. Some, like Tolstoy, believe that without immortality there is no meaning; others claim that death or immortality are irrelevant to meaning. Hepburn argues that though mortality and meaning may be compatible, one may still be troubled by the thought that death detracts from meaning. More generally we might be troubled that the effort we put forth in life is so great compared with the effect of our lives. (Yeats captured this thought: “When I think of all the books I have read, wise words heard, anxieties given to parents … my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.”[v])

Hepburn states that disappointment in life might take one of two forms. From an external standpoint an observer of your life would be disappointed that you did not fulfill your promise—in Hepburn’s analogy they expected a symphony but only witnessed an overture—or from an internal perspective you might be disappointed in yourself, that you did not produce the music you wanted to. Philosophers sometimes argue that you should not be disappointed. Even if you are not immortal, even if you do not write a great symphony, a short piece of music has value nonetheless. Better not to worry about your shortcomings; better to enjoy a life and its small accomplishments. But what of endless suffering leading to death? Does this not make life futile and meaningless? Hepburn claims that some lives may afford the possibility of meaning, while others may not.

He also recognizes a fundamental difference between the naturalist and the theist. The naturalist will always find a tension between a subjective anthropocentric view in which a life can have meaning, and the objective sub species aeternitatis view from where it is hard to see meaning. For the theist there is a harmony between meaning in human life and eternal meaning. Without such harmony, the theist claims, there cannot be meaning in life.

Throughout his discussion Hepburn assumed that Christian theism provides a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life question. But now he notes two challenges to this view: 1) that no afterlife could compensate for the suffering in this world or, using the musical analogy, if the overture was bad enough no music that followed could compensate; and 2) that there it is morally objectionable that a god’s plan give life meaning inasmuch as this conflicts with moral autonomy.

Hepburn regards this second objection as particularly strong. If the otherness and power of a god is stressed, then human moral judgment will be trivial compared to divine purpose. Nonetheless worshipping a god does not have to entail the abandonment of moral autonomy; it could be directed to the moral perfection and beauty of a god, and to actively internalizing that perfection as far as possible. So worshipping need not abrogate moral autonomy, and neither does acting in accord with what one believes is a god’s will. All one needs are good reasons to believe that following a god’s will is a better way to achieve some good than transgressing that will. Of course none of this shows that there are gods; that they have qualities one ought to worship; that these qualities are internally consistent or consistent with the world; that infinite gods have finite qualities; or that we could know their will. Thus the problem with the theistic conception of meaning is all of the difficulties with the plausibility of theism itself.

By contrast naturalistic philosophers seek a substitute for the immortality that gives the theist meaning. Rejecting religious metaphysics they try to find meaning only in beliefs they accept. This leaves naturalists open to the disturbing prospect that life may have no comprehensive, discoverable, or possible meaning. Hepburn concludes that we should consider the more limited notion of meaning—that there can be subjective purposes and better ways of living.

Summary – Hepburn maintains that theological and metaphysical realities are of little help in answering meaning questions. Instead we should focus on worthwhile projects that we find satisfying and interesting. We probably cannot answer the question of the meaning of life from a comprehensive, external point of view, but we can try to live as well as possible.


[i] Antony Flew, “Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2000), 209-218
[ii] R. W. Hepburn, “Questions about the meaning of life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 266.
[iii] Hepburn, “Questions about the meaning of life,” 267.
[iv] Hepburn, “Questions about the meaning of life,” 267.
[v] Hepburn, “Questions about the meaning of life,” 268.

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