Joseph Ellin: Morality and the Meaning of Life

Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris

Joseph Ellin (1937 – 2011), professor emeritus at Western Michigan University and civil rights activist, received his Ph.D. from Yale University. He concludes his 1995 book, Morality and the Meaning of Life: An Introduction to Ethical Theory, with a discussion of how meaning in life is found in objective values.

How the Question of the Meaning of Life Arises – The question might arise because we are depressed or unhappy with our careers, love life, or health; or from the realization that we will be forgotten after we die. It might also arise because of the subjectivity of value. If values are subjective then what we do may not matter, since nothing then would be objectively right or wrong. And if nothing matters then why do anything or care about anything? A final reason the question arises is that thoughtful human beings ask: Why are we here? What does it mean? Is life going somewhere or just perpetuating itself? We want answers, hence the popularity of philosophies and religions that provide them.

Is the Meaning of Life a Kind of Knowledge? – Can the meaning of life be stated as a proposition, as knowledge or information to be passed along to others? If so is this knowledge interesting, like physics or biology, or is it useful, like plumbing or carpentry? This knowledge should not be merely interesting, since it is supposedly so important, so it should be useful. Its usefulness derives not because it makes one rich or helps someone achieve a goal; it would be useful because it’s intrinsically valuable, it enhances one’s life, it allows one to live it differently or see why life really is worth living. And there can be knowledge like this. If you worried that you had no friends and found out that you did, you would feel better, you would see your life differently. Now if you worried that life had no meaning what knowledge would remove that anxiety? Would knowledge that God loves you or that Buddha was your personal savior do it for you? It is not clear whether any fact or piece of information could be the meaning of life, thereby dispelling your doubts about life’s meaning.

Instead, Ellin suggests that the meaning of life might be ineffable. Perhaps it is a kind of wisdom—knowing how to live well—that cannot be verbalized but when possessed makes self-evident both how one should live and the meaning of life. But even supposing there is knowledge capable of being grasped by the mind that cannot be stated, and which also reveals the meaning of life, how can one be sure they have such knowledge? How do they know—or how do we know—that they are not mistaken about possessing this knowledge? So it is hard to see how the meaning of life can be a piece of knowledge because either it can be stated propositionally—in which case it is hard to see how any fact could be the meaning of life—or it cannot be so stated—in which case one wonders if one has found it.

Moreover, even if one knew that the meaning of life was x, knowing that fact by itself does not make life meaningful. To make life meaningful you must act on your knowledge by loving God, making friends, seeking knowledge or whatever you are supposed to do. But these are not facts; they are prescriptions or injunctions concerning action.

Is the Meaning of Life Happiness? – Perhaps what is missing in a meaningless life is happiness. If you think life has no meaning maybe you are unhappy. What is the relationship between meaning and happiness?  Meaning may be a necessary condition for happiness—you cannot be happy without meaning—but people differ in what makes them happy and what they think is meaningful. Or meaning may be a sufficient condition for happiness—if you have meaning, you have happiness. For instance, if you do noble work that gives your life meaning you would be happy, even if you lack all other elements of happiness. Maybe then happiness and meaning occur together if you have one you have the other. Of course, this does not mean that they are the same thing, and it does not tell us what meaning is.

Nevertheless, we do have reason to think that having meaning and being happy are not the same, for we can be unhappy for many reasons, lack of meaning is just one of them. So even if meaning is a necessary condition for happiness, it is not sufficient. Having meaning does not guarantee happiness, although it does prevent a certain kind of unhappiness, the kind that follows from lack of meaning.

The Death Argument – So what is lost when we lose meaning? What does life not have when meaning is lost? A good way to understand this is to look again at Tolstoy, for whom death undermined meaning. But does death take the meaning out of life? Tolstoy’s argument is:

Life is good;
Death ends this goodness; thus
Death is bad; thus
Life is meaningless.

As Ellin points out this argument does show that death is bad, but it does not show that death removes meaning. In fact, the badness of death reveals the goodness of life. Most persons fear death precisely because they want to live. Still, some argue that death is not bad because it is nothing and cannot harm you. Ellin agrees that death cannot harm you but it is still bad because your annihilation is harmful to you, it is the greatest harm that can befall you. Other reasons for thinking death is not evil include the idea that eternity would be boring or that the prospect of death forces us to do things we would otherwise put off.

Despite these arguments, Ellin concludes that death is bad. It is something that we want to avoid but which is inevitable. The best we can do is to be as unconcerned about our not being alive in the future, as we are now about our not being alive in the past. Still, the evil of death does not show that life is meaningless.

Repetitive Pointlessness, Ultimate Insignificance, and Absurdity – What other considerations might lead then to the conclusion that life is meaningless? Ellen notes three. First, there are Camus’ ideas about the repetitiveness and pointlessness of Sisyphus’ labor. Ellin responds that most lives are not like this, containing at least some variation as well as goals that give those lives a point.  He also wants to know what would count as a meaningful life. Either you can state what makes life meaningful or you cannot. If you can state this but claim that no one can achieve it—you must win a noble prize and be immortal—why should we accept your high standards for a meaningful life? If you cannot state what counts as a meaningful life but say that life cannot have a point by definition—you beg the question. To show that life is meaningless you have to show that what most people think gives life meaning does not. To do this Camus would have to show that every life is like Sisyphus’. Needless to say, this would be nearly impossible.

A second consideration that might lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless is our ultimate insignificance.  Russell thought that the vast expanses of space and time discovered by science reveals the insignificance of our lives. For Russell cherishing perfection, mathematics, art, love, and truth is the best attitude to adopt in an uncaring universe. In this way, we preserve our ideals without wishful thinking. Ellin responds that the presence or absence of the universe has nothing to do with meaning. If the rest of the universe was absent if only earth existed, why would that add to meaning? And if it does not, then why does the presence of a vast universe destroy meaning?

A final consideration that might lead to thinking that life is meaningless results from the notion of absurdity. The idea that life is absurd, irrational, and pointless is common to many modern thinkers, especially existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, who responded that individuals must create their own values and meaning. Still, others maintain that life is not a tragedy but a farce, and the appropriate response accepts that we are ridiculous. Although there are many responses to the supposed meaninglessness of life—Tolstoy’s leap of faith, Camus’ defiance, Russell’s upholding ideals, Sartre’s terror—Ellin doubts that we must accept life’s meaningless in the first place.

“Big Picture” Meaning and Faith – Is your life meaningful if it is part of a larger scheme? How does a big picture view give something meaning? Ellin gives the examples of a shortstop in baseball or a soldier in an army. In both cases, their actions appear unimportant, pointless, and meaningless unless you understand the big picture of which they are a part. We often understand the meaning of activity in precisely this way. Ellin argues that we want a big picture to explain: 1) the purpose of all life; 2) our individual lives by reference to that purpose; 3) how suffering and death are necessary for that purpose; and 4) how life is good.

The big picture is usually explained by a story, but not any story will do—being food for a super race making an intergalactic journey will not do. Such a story satisfies the first three criteria, but not the fourth. Religious stories typically fulfill all four criteria but they may not be true. Note that we don’t need to believe all the details of the story, we only need to believe that there is a big picture. After all, life may be like a movie of which we have only seen fragments. We don’t know the meaning of the movie, but we can believe there is one anyway; we can have faith that if we saw the entire movie, we would understand its meaning. True we don’t know this with certainty but deep truths are often beyond our grasp. Believing in a big picture is thus a reasonable option; and it is reasonable to believe that life makes sense after all. But why believe in something for which there is little or no evidence? How do we believe in something when we don’t know what that something is? And how does such a belief differ from no belief, since it tells you nothing about what to do or value?

Is the Question of Meaning Meaningful? – Ellin now adumbrates the typical objections of the logical positivist. Words, sentences, and actions refer to things but life refers only to itself, hence it cannot be the kind of thing that has meaning. Thus the question does not make sense. To put the point another way, a question only makes sense if we have some idea of the range of answers to the question.  With the meaning of life question, we don’t know what would count as an answer. The upshot of all this is that we feel even less secure of proposed solutions.

If Life Has No Meaning, What Then? – In summary, Ellin claims that the meaning of life is not a piece of knowledge, not the same as happiness, but not ruled out by death. The arguments from repetitive pointlessness, ultimate insignificance, and absurdity are not entirely convincing, but neither are the arguments that there is a big picture from which to derive meaning. This all suggests that life may have no meaning, or that if there is meaning it is beyond us, or that the question makes no sense. Some, like Tolstoy, respond to this situation with an optimistic belief that the big picture is good; others, like Camus and Russell, respond with heroic pessimism toward an ultimately meaningless cosmos.

Both the optimists and pessimists agree that life must have meaning to be worthwhile. Could it be that this is mistaken? Ellin suggests that while life as a whole may have no meaning, individuals lives still can. You can have friends and knowledge and love and all the rest; you can say of a life that the world is better because that person lived. But the universe cannot give you meaning, you must give meaning to your life: “…meaning is not a kind of knowledge at all … but at bottom a feeling, a sense of well-being from having made a difference.”[i]

So it appears Ellin agrees with the subjectivists, but not quite. He now asks: Will any activity suffice in giving one’s life meaning? No, he argues. Finding things you are good at and developing those talents is not sufficient, inasmuch as being a wonderful child torturer or crime boss would satisfy those requirements. Lives better off not lived; those that did not make useful contributions to the world are not meaningful. Immoral lives are not meaningful: “… a truly valuable life is one of which more people than not have reason to be glad that the life was lived.”[ii]Although there is no ultimate justification for our lives; we can still give them meaning. But to have the most meaning possible, morality must be part of our lives—it is the means to the objective values of love, friendship, loyalty and trust that make life worth living.

Summary – The meaning of life is not a kind of knowledge, not the same as happiness, not completely undermined by death, not made obvious by religious stories, and, if actual, possibly unknowable. Still, nothing compels us to accept that life is meaningless for we can derive meaning from life by discovering objective moral goods and leading live in accord with them.


[i] Joseph Ellin, Morality and the Meaning of Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995), 325.
[ii] Ellin, Morality and the Meaning of Life, 327.

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