In “The Meaning and Value of Life” (1967) Paul Edwards (to whom we have already been introduced) notes that many religious thinkers argue that life cannot have meaning unless our lives are part of a divine plan and that at least some humans achieve eternal bliss. Non-believers are divided, some maintaining that life can have meaning without these religious provisos and others that it cannot. Edwards refers to these latter individuals as pessimists but wonders “whether pessimistic conclusions are justified if belief in God and immortality are rejected.”[i]
Schopenhauer’s Arguments – Edwards begins by examining Schopenhauer’s claims that life is a mistake, that non-existence is preferable to existence, that happiness is fleeting and unobtainable, and that death is a final destruction: “nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts, and struggles…All good things are vanity, the world in all its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover its expenses.”[ii] Schopenhauer reinforces these conclusions by emphasizing the ephemeral and fleeting nature of pleasures and joys: “which disappear in our hands, and we afterward ask astonished where they have gone … that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”[iii] Edwards thinks that this pessimism mostly reflects that Schopenhauer was a lonely, bitter, and miserable man. Still, persons of more cheerful dispositions have reached similar conclusions so we should not dismiss Schopenhauer’s too quickly.
The Pointlessness of It All – Next Edwards briefly considers the views of the famous trial attorney Clarence Darrow’s pessimism:
This weary old world goes on, begetting, with birth and with living and with death … and all of it is blind from the beginning to the end … Life is like a ship on the sea, tossed by every wave and every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves…[iv]
Not only is life purposeless but there is death: “I love my friends … but they all must come to a tragic end.”[v] For Darrow attachment to life makes death all the more tragic.
Next, he considers the case of Tolstoy. Perhaps no one wrote so movingly of the overwhelming fact of death and its victory over us all as Tolstoy. “Today or tomorrow … sickness and death will come to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort?”[vi] Tolstoy if you remember compared our situation to that of a man hanging on the side of a well holding on to a twig. A dragon waits below, a beast above, and mice are eating the stem of the twig. Would a small bit of honey on the twig really provide comfort? Tolstoy thinks not. Refusing to be comforted by life’s little pleasures as long as there were no answers to life’s ultimate questions, he saw but four possible answers to his condition: 1) remain ignorant; 2) admit life’s hopelessness but partake of its pleasures; 3) commit suicide; or 4) weakness, seeing the truth but clinging to life anyway. Tolstoy argues that the first solution is not available to the conscious person; the second he rejects because there are so few pleasures and to enjoy pleasures while others lack them would require “moral dullness;” he admires the third solution which is chosen by strong persons when they recognize life is no longer worth living; and the fourth solution is for those who lack the strength and rationality to end their lives. Tolstoy thought himself such a person.
Edwards wonders if those who share the pessimists’ rejection of religion might nonetheless avoid their depressing conclusions. He admits that there is much truth to the claims of the pessimists—that happiness is difficult to achieve and fleeting, that life is capricious, that death ruins our plans, that all these things cast a shadow over our lives—and we should consider these arguments well-founded. But does meaninglessness follow as Darrow and Tolstoy suggested?
Comparative Value Judgments About Life and Death – Edwards begins to answer by pointing to inconsistencies in the pessimist’s arguments. For instance, pessimists often argue that death is bad because it puts an end to life, but this amounts to saying that life does have value or else its termination would not be bad. In other words, if life had no value—say one was in a state of persistent, unending pain—then death would be good. One might say that life has value until the realization of death becomes clear, but this argument too is flawed—such a fixation on death is obsessive. Furthermore, claims that death is better than life or that it would have been better had we not been born appear incongruous. One can make comparisons between known things—that A is a better scientist or pianist than B—but if there is no afterlife as the pessimists contend, then death cannot be experienced and comparisons with life are meaningless.
The Irrelevance of the Distant Future – Edwards also attacks the claims of those who appeal to a “distant future” in which to find life’s meaning. He does not find it obvious that eternally long lives would be more meaningful than finite ones, for what is the meaning of everlasting bliss? And if future bliss needs no justification then why should bliss in this life need any?
The issue of the distant future also comes up regarding value judgments. Edwards argues that it makes sense to ask if something is valuable if we do not regard it as intrinsically valuable, or if it is being compared to some other good. But it does not make sense to ask this of something that we do consider intrinsically valuable and which is not in conflict with attaining some other good. We may meaningfully ask if the pain we experienced at the dentist is worthwhile since that is not the kind of thing we ordinarily enjoy doing, but we should not ask such questions about being happy or in love because we think such experiences are intrinsically valuable. In addition, Edwards finds concerns about the distant future irrelevant to most human concerns—we are typically concerned with the present or near future. Even if you and the dentist are both dead in a hundred years that does not mean that your efforts now are worthless.
The Vanished Past – Some claim that life’s worthlessness derives from the fact that the past is gone forever, which implies that the past is as if it had never been. Others claim that the present’s trivialities are more important than the past’s most important events. To the first claim, Edwards replies that if only the present matters then past sorrows, as well as past pleasures, do not matter. To the second claim, he points out that this is simply a value judgment about which he and others differ. While the pessimist might lament the passing years and the non-existence of the past, the optimist may take pride in realities actualized as opposed to potentialities unfulfilled. Still, Edwards admits that there is a sense in which the past does seem less valuable than the present, as evidenced by how little consolation to the sick or aged would be the fact that they used to be healthy. Thus the issue of the relative value of past and present is debatable.
To recap Edwards’ main points: 1) comparative judgments about life versus death are unintelligible; 2) the experience of a distant future will not necessarily make life worthwhile; 3) it makes no sense to ask if intrinsically valuable things are really valuable; and 4) the vanished past does not say much about life’s meaning. In sum, the pessimists have not established their arguments convincingly.
The Meanings of the “Meaning of Life” – If the pessimistic conclusions do not necessarily follow from the rejection of gods and immortality is there a reason for optimism? Can there be meaning without gods or immortality? To answer these questions Edwards appeals to Baier’s distinction between: 1) whether we have a role in a great drama or whether there is an objective meaning to the whole thing—what Edwards calls meaning in the cosmic sense; and 2) whether or not our lives have meaning from within or subjectively—what Edwards calls the terrestrial sense. It is easy to claim that someone’s life has meaning for them, but harder to defend the claim that life has meaning in the cosmic sense. It is important to note that to say one’s life has meaning in the terrestrial sense does not imply that such a life was good. A person might achieve the goals of their life, to be a good murderer for example, but it is easy to see that such a life is not good.
While it is easy enough to reject cosmic meaning—the pessimist’s view—it does not follow that rejection of cosmic meaning eliminates terrestrial meaning. It is perfectly coherent to proclaim that there is no cosmic plan but that one nevertheless finds their terrestrial life meaningful. Many individuals have achieved such meaning without supernatural beliefs. Moreover, the existence of cosmic meaning hardly guarantees meaning in the terrestrial sense. Even if there is an ultimate plan for my life I would need to know it, believe in it, and work toward its realization.
Is Human Life Ever Worthwhile? – Turning to the question of whether life is ever worthwhile, Edwards wonders what makes individuals ask this question and why they might answer it negatively. To say that life is worthwhile for a person implies that they have some goals and the possibility of attaining them. While this account is similar to the notion of meaning in the terrestrial sense, it differs because worthiness implies value whereas terrestrial meaning does not. In other words, terrestrial meaning implies only subjective value, whereas the notion of a worthwhile life implies the existence of objective values. In the latter case, we have goals, the possibility of their attainment, and the notion that those goals are really valuable. But Edwards claims that he doesn’t need objective values to determine the worthiness of a life, inasmuch as even the subjectivist will allow some distinction between good and bad conduct. He bases his argument on the agreement of “rational and sympathetic human beings.”
Still, the pessimists are dissatisfied. They grant that person’s lives may have meaning in the subjective sense but claim this is not enough “because our lives are not followed by eternal bliss.”[vii] Edwards counters that pessimists have unrealistic standards of meaning that go beyond those of ordinary persons—who are content with subjective meaning. According to the standards of pessimists, life is not worthwhile because it is not followed by eternal bliss, but this does not imply that it is not worthwhile by other less demanding standards. And why should we accept the special standards of the pessimist? In fact, Edwards notes that ordinary standards of living such as achieving our goals do something that the pessimists’ standards do not—they guide our lives.
Moreover, there are a number of questions we might ask the pessimist. Why does eternal bliss bestow meaning on life, while bliss in this life does not? Why should we abandon our ordinary standards of meaning for the special standards of the pessimists? This latter question is particularly difficult for the pessimist to answer—after all, nothing is of value to the pessimist. Still, pessimists usually do not commit suicide, suggesting that they believe there is some reason for living. And they often have principles and make value judgments as if something does matter. Thus there is something disingenuous about their position.
Is the Universe Better with Human Life Than Without It? – All of this leads to the ultimate question: is the universe better with or without human life in it? Edwards thinks that without an affirmative response to this question, no affirmative response can be given to the meaning of life question. He quotes the German phenomenologist, Hans Reiner, in this regard: “Our search for the meaning of our lives … is identical with the search for a logically compelling reason why it is better for us to exist than not to exist. … whether it is better that mankind should exist than that there should be a world without any human life.”[viii] A possible answer to this question appeals to the intrinsic meaning of the morally good a pre-condition which demands the existence of moral agents and a universe. In that case, it is better that the universe and humans exist so that moral good can exist. Of course, this claim is open to the objection that a universe and moral agents introduce physical and moral evil which counterbalances the good. In that case, whether it is better that the universe exists or not would depend on whether more good than evil exists.
Why the Pessimist Cannot be Answered – The upshot of all this is that one cannot satisfactorily answer the pessimist. Why? Because questions such as whether life is better than death or whether the universe would be better if it had not existed have no clear meaning. Is it better for humans and the universe to exist than not? Philosophers have answered the question variously: Schopenhauer answered in the negative, Spinoza in the positive. But Edwards concludes that there are no knock-down arguments either way. It is simply impossible to prove that “coffee with cream is better than black coffee,” or “that love is better than hate.”[ix]
Summary – Human life can have subjective, terrestrial meaning, and some lives are worthwhile as long as standards of meaning are not set too high. But pessimists ultimately cannot be answered if we need to show them that human existence is better than non-existence. We cannot know, all things considered if it is good that life exists.
[i] Paul Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E. D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press 2008), 115.
[ii] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 117.
[iii] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 117.
[iv] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 117.
[v] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 117.
[vi] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 118.
[vii] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 128.
[viii] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 130.
[ix] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” 133.