Steven Cahn’s “Meaningless Lives?”: A Reply to Wolf

Steven Cahn is Professor of Philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center and the author or editor of many philosophical textbooks. Cahn rejects Wolf’s distinction between meaningful and meaningless lives, arguing that it does not make sense to judge a life meaningful or meaningless. While Wolf does not offer a theory of objective value, she does give examples of activities that are meaningful, some that are meaningless and some that she is uncertain about. Her examples are:

  1. Meaningful activities include: moral or intellectual accomplishments, personal relationships, religious practices, mountain climbing, training for a marathon, and helping a friend.
  2. Meaningless activities include: collecting rubber bands, memorizing the dictionary, making handwritten copies of great novels, riding roller coasters, meeting movie stars, watching sitcoms, playing computer games, solving crossword puzzles, recycling, or writing checks to Oxfam and the ACLU.
  3. Uncertain cases include: a life obsessed with corporate law, being devoted to a religious cult, or being a pig farmer who buys more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs…[i]

Cahn seizes on how controversial these cases are. Why are some meaningful and some not? What about all the other cases she mentions? Is golf a useful way to spend your time? Some think so, others don’t. And even if some activity is mindless and futile, does that mean it is meaningless? Weightlifting may be mindless and futile, but does that make it meaningless? Many might think it meaningless to read articles about the meaning of life, and then write articles about the meaning of life which are in turn read by others. Cahn concludes that lives that don’t harm others should be appreciated as relatively meaningful.

Summary – Meaningful lives consist of finding happiness without doing harm to others.


[i] Steven Cahn, “Meaningless Lives?” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008), 236.

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