James Rachels on the Meaning of Life

Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris

James Rachels (1941- 2003) was a distinguished American moral philosopher and best-selling textbook author. He taught at the University of Richmond, New York University, the University of Miami, Duke University, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he spent the last twenty-six years of his career.

The final chapter of his book, Problems from Philosophy, explores the question of the meaning of life. (It was written as Rachels was dying of cancer.) Although Rachels admits the question of the meaning of life does come up when one is depressed, and hence can be a symptom of mental illness, it also arises when we are not depressed, and thus mental illness is not a prerequisite for asking the question. He agrees with Nagel that the questions typically results from recognizing the clash between the subjective or personal point of view—from which things matter—and the objective or impersonal view—from which they don’t.

Regarding the relationship between happiness and meaning, Rachel notes that happiness is not well correlated with material wealth, but with personal control over one’s life, good relationships with family and friends, and satisfying work. In Rachels view happiness is not found by seeking it directly, but as a by-product of intrinsic values like autonomy, friendship, and satisfying work. Nonetheless, a happy life may still be meaningless because we die, and in times of reflection we may find our happiness undermined by the thought of our annihilation.

What attitude should we take toward our death? For those who believe they don’t die, death is good because they will live forever in a hereafter. For them death “is like moving to a better address.”[i] But for those who believe that death is their final end, death may or may not be a good thing. What attitude should these people take toward death? Epicurus thought that death was the end but that we should not fear it, since we will be nothing when dead and nothingness cannot harm us. He thought that such an attitude would make us happier while alive. On the contrary, Rachels thinks that death is bad because it deprives us of, and puts an end to, all the good things in life. As Rachels so eloquently puts it:

After I die, human history will continue, but I won’t get to be part of it. I will see no more movies, read no more books, make no more friends, and take no more trips. If my wife survives me, I will not get to be with her. I will not know my grandchildren’s children. New inventions will appear and new discoveries will be made about the universe, but I won’t ever know what they are. New music will be composed, but I won’t hear it. Perhaps we will make contact with intelligent beings from other worlds, but I won’t know about it. That is why I don’t want to die, and Epicurus’ argument is beside the point.

Although death is bad, it does necessarily make life meaningless, inasmuch as the value of something is different from how long it lasts. A thing can be valuable even if it is fleeting; or worthless even if it lasts a forever. So the fact that something ends does not, by itself, negate its value.

There is yet another reason that a happy life might be meaningless—and that reason is that the universe may be indifferent. The earth is but a speck in the inconceivable vastness of the universe, and a human lifetime but an instant of the immensity of time. The universe does not seem to care much for us. One way to avoid this problem is with a religious answer—claim that the universe and a god do care for us. But how does this help, even if it is true? As we have seen, being a part of another’s plan does not seem to help, nor does being a recipient of the god’s love, or living forever. It is simply not clear how positing gods gives our lives meaning.

Rachels suggest that if we add the notion of commitment to the above, we can see how religion provides meaning to believer’s lives. Believers voluntarily commit themselves to various religious values and hence get their meaning from those values. But while you can get meaning from religious values you can also get them from other things—from artistic, musical, or scholarly achievement for example. Still, the religious answer has a benefit that these other ways of finding meaning don’t; it assumes that the universe is not indifferent. The drawback of the religious view is that it assumes the religious story is true. If it is not, then we are basing our lives on a lie.

But even if life does not have a meaning, particular lives can. We give our lives meaning by finding things worth living for. These differ between individuals somewhat, yet there are many things worth living for about which people generally agree—good personal relationships, accomplishments, knowledge, playful activities, aesthetic enjoyment, physical pleasure, and helping others. Could it nonetheless be that all of this amounts to nothing, that life is meaningless after all? From the objective, impartial view we may always be haunted by the suspicion that life is meaningless. The only answer is to explain why our list of good things is really good.

Such reasoning may not show that our lives are ‘important to the universe,’ but it will accomplish something similar. It will show that we have good, objective reasons to live in some ways rather than others. When we step outside our personal perspective and consider humanity from an impersonal standpoint, we still find that human beings are the kinds of creatures who can enjoy life best by devoting themselves to such things as family and friends, work, music, mountain climbing, and all the rest. It would be foolish, then, for creatures like us to live in any other way.[ii] 

Summary – Happiness is not the same as meaning and is undermined by death. Death is bad unless religious stories are true, but they probably are not true. Thus, while there is probably no objective meaning to life, there are objectively good things in life. We should pursue those good things that most people think worthwhile—love, friendship, knowledge, and all the rest.


[i] James Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 169.
[ii] Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, 174-75.

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