Summary of Kai Nielsen’s “Death and the Meaning of Life”

Kai Nielsen (1926 – ) is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Calgary. Before moving to Canada, Nielsen taught for many years at New York University. He is a prolific author and a well-known contemporary philosopher.

In a 1978 essay, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” Nielsen argues that for intellectuals in the modern world belief in an afterlife is virtually impossible to hold. Nonetheless, he wants to resist the common view that death renders our lives meaningless. He claims to feel no terror or dread when contemplating death, despite the fact that he is convinced it means his utter annihilation. He admits to enjoying life and not wanting to die but, powerless to prevent the inevitable, he “takes rational precautions against premature death and faces the rest stoically … Death should only be dreadful if one’s life has been a waste.”[i] He also wonders why must we “suffer angst, engage in theatrics and create myths for ourselves. Why not simply face it and get on with the living of our lives?”[ii]

Of course, critics claim that life is meaningless without an afterlife, gods, and morality. Concerning morality Nielsen argues that things are right and wrong independent of gods. To support this claim he summons Plato’s famous argument against equating the god’s power with what is right. The key is that naked power does not imply goodness—we do not want to reduce morality to power worship. “The crucial thing to see is that there are things which we can recognize on reflection to be wrong, God or no God, and that we can be far more confident that we are right in claiming that they are wrong, than we can be in claiming any knowledge of God’s or God’s order.”[iii]

Furthermore, the absence of a god and an afterlife does not mean that life is pointless. True there may be no meanings of life, but that does not mean there are no purposes in life. It may be that the cosmos does not grant the former but that hardly denies us the latter. And the goals and ends that we seek in this life are sufficient “to make life meaningful in the sense that there are in our lives and our environment things worthwhile doing, having or experiencing, things that bring joy, understanding, exhilaration or contentment to ourselves or to others.”[iv] That such things are not eternal does not make them meaningless.

He admits that critics will argue that something is missing in this account—namely an objective meaning independent of the success of our subjective projects. This had led some to postulate hope in an afterlife that fulfills their aspirations and has led others to abandon hope altogether. Nielsen advocates a different position. Why not hope that through our strivings we can make this world a better place: “a truly human society without exploitation and degradation in which all human beings will flourish?”[v] Such hope is consistent with both secular and religious ideals and is far more intellectually respectable than positing other worlds to give life meaning.

Summary – We find subjective meaning by making the world better, even if there is no objective meaning.


[i] Kai Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life ed. E.D. Klemke (Oxford University Press, 2000), 154.
[ii] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 155.
[iii] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 156.
[iv] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 157.
[v] Nielsen, “Death and the Meaning of Life,” 158.

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