John Kekes is Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Albany. He begins his essay “The Meaning of Life” as follows: “Most of our lives are spent in routine activities … It is natural to ask then why we should continue on this treadmill.”[i] One answer is that nature, instinct, and training impel us to struggle. To seek more is to “misuse the respite we occasionally enjoy from the difficult business of living.”[ii] Many throughout the world struggle for the basics of life, without much time to worry about the meaning of life. Those in first world countries struggle instead for wealth, honor, and prestige, but when there is time left over for reflection they often wonder whether such things really do matter; they wonder about the meaning of it all.
What Gives Life Meaning? – Maybe life has no meaning. We may have evolved to ask questions, and have the time to ask them, but this doesn’t mean we can answer them. Life may just be a brute fact, to be explained only by laws of nature. There may be no other meaning. We could respond to all this with cynicism or despair, but these poison the enjoyment of life. “Despair and cynicism cleave us into a natural self and a preying, harping, jeering, or self-pitying self. We are thus turned us against ourselves. Reflection sabotages our own projects.”[iii] This is why so many avoid deep questions and go on living as best they can. However, such avoidance is possible only if we are doing well. For as soon as the young look forward, the old look backward, or the sick look at their present state, the question of meaning will arise. But even if we are doing well, shouldn’t we ask about meaning? Would it not be foolish to engage in projects which may not be valuable? In short, no matter what our situation, we are brought back to the question of the meaning of life.
Kekes now turns to the famous crisis of meaning experienced by John Stuart Mill’s. Mill had meaning in his life— he wanted to improve the world—and then lost it as he recounts in his autobiography. He thought that even if all his desires for a better world were satisfied he would still not be happy because, of any proposed meaning, one can always ask: “and why does that have meaning?”[iv] What happened was that Mill became disengaged from his projects, he became disillusioned. It was not that his life was worthless, pointless, destructive, trivial or futile—from an objective point of view his life was meaningful. What happened was that he no longer cared about or identified with his projects. Kekes responds that even if Mill’s life was intrinsically meaningful and subjectively engaging, that would still not be sufficient for meaning because one can always conclude that all projects are ultimately absurd.
A similar notion is captured by Nagel’s sense of the absurd—the pretension with which we take ourselves internally versus the apparent external insignificance of our lives. Still, many have taken the eternal perspective and remained concerned about human welfare; thus merely taking that perspective does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless. For Mill the issue was not that his life appeared absurd from a universal perspective but rather that he stopped caring about it, and he became desultory precisely because he stopped caring. Thus sometimes we lose commitment to our projects, not because they lack something, but because our will and emotions are not engaged in them. This leads Kekes to ask: “what is it that engages our will and emotions, and gives meaning to our lives, given that our projects are not defective and we do not suffer from a sense of absurdity?”[v] Typically we respond to this question with religious and moral answers.
The Religious Answer – The religious approach says value must come from the outside in terms of a cosmic order. Specific religions are interpretations of the cosmic order through revelation, scripture, miracles, church authority, religious experience, etc. While science tells us something of this order, it does not tell us everything. But we want to know everything about the cosmic order gives meaning to our lives. Furthermore, the better we know the order, the better our lives will go. If we are like dogs tied to carts drawn by horses, if that is the cosmic order, then the best we can do is to go along with the order and not oppose it. The Stoics thought we must conform to the order, while religious thinkers generally believe that the order is good. The key to meaning then is to find this order and live in harmony with it.
But there are problems with religious answers. First of all, we have no direct access to the cosmic order since all evidence comes from the natural world. Thus we cannot know if there is a cosmic order or, if there is, what form it takes. Moreover, even if the natural world did point to a cosmic order, this would not be enough to give us meaning, since we still would not know anything about the nature of that cosmic order. Furthermore, even if we could infer something of the cosmic order from the natural world that still would not be enough. Think again of Sisyphus. He knows his fate but temple building was not his purpose, it was the gods. He was enslaved by them. How then can their purposes give his life meaning? Sisyphus, pyramid builders, and dogs tied to carts—none of their lives have meaning.
So not only must there be a cosmic order but that order must be both necessary and good. Do we have any reason to believe this? Kekes thinks not. Can we derive inferences about the cosmic order from the natural world? No. If we are hones we must accept that the cosmic order, if it really is reflected by the natural world, is good, bad, and indifferent. So if the cosmic order must be good for our lives to have meaning, then they do not have meaning, since the cosmic order is at most partly good. In sum, the religious answer fails because 1) we have no reason to believe there is a cosmic order; 2) if there is one we know nothing about it; and 3) if we did infer something about the cosmic order from the natural world, reasonable persons would conclude it was not exclusively good.
The Moral Answer – The moral approach concerns the good independent of the gods, even if a god’s will might reflect that good. We need to know what is good if we are to know how pursuing it gives meaning to life, and ethics looks for this in the natural world. Here we are concerned not with ethics in the narrow sense of what is right, but in the wide sense of what is good. To better understand this let us go back to Taylor. He thought meaning for Sisyphus could be subjective if he wanted to push rocks; that would make his life meaningful independent of the fact that the project seemed meaningless from an objective point of view. So it is wanting to do our projects that makes them meaningful, meaning comes from us. In other words, meaning is subjective; it does not come from the projects themselves. Therefore the subjective view of meaning is that “a life has meaning if the agent sincerely thinks so, and it lacks meaning if the agent sincerely denies it.”35 By contrast, the objective view states that “lives may lack meaning even if their agents think otherwise, for they may be mistaken.”[vi]
There are three reasons to reject the subjective view and accept the objective. First, if meaning is subjective, then there is no difference whether we want to pursue a project because we are being indoctrinated or manipulated, or because we truly think it meaningful after reflection. On this view discovering that we were simply wired to want something, say to push boulders up hills forever, would not change our minds about an activity’s meaningfulness. But this seems wrong; discovering any of this should change our minds about meaning! Subjective desire or active engagement may be part of the meaning of life, but it does not seem to be all of it.
Second, even if we truly want to roll rocks, and have not been manipulated into wanting this, such a desire alone does not make the act meaningful unless it matters to us that rocks are rolled. We could still ask of this non-manipulated desire, why do it? So even if we are not manipulated, and want to do something that matters to us, we still do not have enough for meaning because questions about the value of our desires remain. Are we being manipulated by gods, media, or indoctrination? Do things matter to us because of upbringing, education, or society? We simply cannot answer questions like these without considering how reality is independent of us. This leads us back to the objective view.
Third, we pursue projects because we think they would make our lives better but they may not do so. We may change our minds about a project when it does not make our lives better, concluding that the project was not meaningful after all. But if believing a project meaningful were sufficient to making it meaningful, the subjective view of meaning, then we would not change our minds like this. All of this counts against the subjective view of meaning.
Now it might be said in defense of the subjective view that these three objections show that the truth of our beliefs does not affect whether our lives are meaningful. This is partly right and partly wrong. It is true we may find our projects meaningful even if we are manipulated or our projects are not good, but it is false that meaning is subjective. Objective considerations about wants being manipulated and beliefs being false still matter, since knowledge of these may destroy our belief in meaning. Thus in addition to subjective considerations, objective ones matter as well, for example, that we have non-manipulated desires and true beliefs. Subjective willing, whether of a god or human, is not enough for meaning; for a meaningful life, we must subjectively want some objective things that really make our lives better. However, none of this presupposes a cosmic order; there can be things that are really good without positing a cosmic order. In summary, the moral approach says that our lives are meaningful if: 1) they are not worthless pointless, futile, etc; 2) we reject the view that all projects are absurd; 3) there are projects we want to pursue; 4) our desired projects will actually make our lives go better.
Conclusion – But when we ask about making our lives go better, do we have in mind morally or non-morally better? We could follow Socrates and say the morally good life is both the satisfying and the meaningful life, but this will not do and the moral answer fails. Why? First, morally good projects may not be satisfying; and second, even if morally good projects are satisfying it does not follow that only morally good lives are satisfying. It could be that either immoral or non-moral projects give meaning. That people can get meaning from immoral projects shows that the moral answer is mistaken.
Both moral and religious answers fail because they seek a general answer to the question, thereby failing to sufficiently emphasize individual differences. This seems to lead us back to the subjective view but, as we saw earlier, we had multiple reasons for rejecting that view. Since neither the subjective nor objective approach works we might be led to again consider the religious or moral approaches but, as we saw previously, they both failed. The former because there is no reason to think there is a cosmic order that confers meaning, and the latter because immoral lives can be meaningful.
This all leads Kekes to advance a pluralistic approach to meaning in life—meaningful lives take a plurality of forms. A central claim of the pluralistic approach is that all approaches giving general answers are mistaken. The other basic claim is that morally bad lives may be meaningful and morally good lives may not be. Thus, contrary the orthodox view, what makes a life meaningful and what makes it good are distinct.
Summary – Meaningful lives are not pointless, futile, trivial, or absurd and involve pursuing activities agents find engaging and life-bettering. These activities are found in the natural world, thus excluding a religious answer; and these activities may be immoral, thus excluding the moral answer. There are no general answers as to what activities or projects a subject will find rewarding and engaging.
[i] John Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E. D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press, 2008), 239.
[ii] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 239.
[iii] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 241.
[iv] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 244.
[v] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 250.
[vi] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 250.