Susan R. Wolf: The Importance of Objective Values

Susan R. Wolf elaborated on her ideas about meaning in life that we previously discussed in two lectures delivered at Princeton in 2007. In those lectures she argued that meaning is not reducible to either happiness or morality. While philosophers often argue that individual happiness or impersonal duty motivate actions, Wolf maintains that meaning does too.  She thus seeks a middle way between recommendations to “follow your bliss” or “do your duty.”

To explain this she differentiates between the Fulfillment view—that meaning is found in whatever fulfills you—and the Larger-Than-Oneself view—that meaning if found in dedicating yourself to something larger than yourself.  The fulfillment view satisfies subjectively but may lack objective value; whereas the larger-than-oneself view suffers from the reverse, it may be objectively meaningful but not subjectively fulfilling. The solution combines the best features of both. Meaningfulness in life thus comes from engaging in, being fulfilled by, and ultimately loving things objectively worthy of love. (The subjective attraction and objective attractiveness she spoke of earlier.) Furthermore, she argues that subjective fulfillment depends on being engaged in the objectively worthwhile—counting cracks on the sidewalk will not do, but pursuing medical research could. Therefore the subjective and objective elements are inextricable linked.

This leads Wolf back to the question of objective meaning. How does one answer Steven Cahn’s objection that meaning is subjective? While Wolf does not provide a theory of objective value, she does claim that there are subject-independent values, since at least some things are valuable to everyone. If this is true then the truth or falsity of whether a life is meaningful is subject-independent, although Wolf defers from assessing the meaningfulness of other’s lives.

The concept of meaning also has explanatory power, explaining why people do things for reasons other than self-interest or duty. In short, meaningfulness matters. It may not be the only value, but it is valuable nonetheless. So the concept of meaning is ultimately unintelligible without some notion of objective value, despite the fact that we cannot specify this value with much precision.

Summary – Meaning is a value distinct from both happiness and morality, but it relies on the reality of some objective value, however non-specifically that is defined.

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