(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, January 13, 2106.)
Thaddeus Metz is Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He grew up in Iowa and received his Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1997. After teaching at the University of Missouri-St. Louis for a number of years, he relocated to South Africa in 2004. He is probably the most prolific and thoughtful scholar working today on an analytic approach to the meaning of life, publishing more than a dozen articles on the subject including the entry on the meaning of life in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Metz most recent and summative statement on the topic is found in his 2010 essay: “The good, the true, and the beautiful: toward a unified account of great meaning in life.” Of the good, true, and beautiful, Metz begins by asserting: “I aim to make headway on the grand Enlightenment project of ascertaining what, if anything, they have in common.”[i] Metz asks if there is some single property which makes the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic worth admiring or striving for. Put as a question: is there something that the lives of a Gandhi, Darwin, or Beethoven might share that is admirable and worthwhile and which thereby confer great meaning to their lives?
In his search for “a unification of moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and aesthetic creation,”[ii] Metz does not explore that a god’s purposes unify the triad, or that the long-term consequences of the triad give meaning to life for a simple reason—we are more justified in thinking that one of the triad gives life meaning than we are in thinking that a god exists or that moral, intellectual or aesthetic activity will have good long-term consequences. Given this disparity in our epistemic confidence, we should not hold that our triad is grounded in the gods or consequences.
Instead, Metz focuses on a “non-consequentialist naturalism, the view that the good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life (at least partly) insofar as they are physical properties that have a superlative final value obtaining independently of their long-term results.”[iii] In other words, ethical, intellectual, and aesthetic actions lead to certain accomplishments that are intrinsically worthwhile. And the reason is that such actions make it possible for individuals to transcend themselves. But how do moral, intellectual, and artistic activities allow for self-transcendence and, simultaneously, give meaning? Metz answers by distinguishing seven consequentialist, naturalistic theories of self-transcendence that account for how it is that moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and aesthetic creation provide meaning. He lists them from weakest to strongest and explains why each fails. He then proceeds to present his own account.
The first and weakest self-transcendent account of meaning is captivation by an object. According to this view, the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to something else. One’s total absorption in artistic feeling, moral goodness, or intellectual inquiry is self-transcendence. Yet this account fails for it is not necessary to be absorbed or captivated by an activity for it to be one of moral achievement—working in a soup kitchen—nor is it sufficient since one may be captivated by something trivial or imaginary—like video games.
This leads to the second form of self-transcendence, close attention to the real. According to this view, the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to some real natural object. The essence of the good, true, and beautiful is found in captivation by the real, physical, and natural. Metz objects, citing that absorption on the navel, for example, does not provide meaning. Perhaps then we need to be absorbed with real objects which are also valuable.
This consideration leads to the third form of self-transcendence, connection with organic unity. Here the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning by shifting the focus from ourselves to a relationship with a whole that is beyond us. Metz thinks this partially explains the value of helping others, and of having children and relationships because persons are valuable insofar as they are organic unities. Art also unifies content, form, and technique into a single object. But this account does not explain much of the true. The importance of metaphysics and the natural sciences are not well explained this way either. For example, developing a theory of quarks may give meaning to one’s life, but so could developing a theory about anything trivial. Intrinsic value then—the conditions constitutive of meaning—does not seem to reduce to organic unity.
This consideration leads to the fourth form of self-transcendence, advancement of valuable open-ended goals. Here the good, true and the beautiful confer meaning to the extent that we make progress toward worthwhile states of affair that cannot otherwise be realized because our knowledge of these states changes as we try to achieve them. The ends of meaningful activities cannot ultimately be achieved precisely because, as the activities evolve, so too do the ends.
Metz is willing to grant that the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness are open-ended, but he rejects that this open-endedness confers meaning upon them. Ending racial discrimination, painting the Mona Lisa, or discovering biological evolution confer meaning not because they are open-ended pursuits, but because they are closed-ended as it were. They each accomplished something even though justice, beauty, and truth are still open-ended pursuits. Furthermore, to say that moral achievement, intellectual reflection, or aesthetic creation confer meaning because they progress toward valuable goals begs the question. We want to know what makes such things meaningful, so it does no good to simply state that they are valuable. We want to know how the good, true, and beautiful confer meaning.
These considerations lead to the fifth form of self-transcendence, using reason to meet standards of excellence. According to this form of self-transcendence the good, the true, and the beautiful confer meaning in life when we transcend our animal nature with our rational nature to meet certain objective criteria. And we must exercise our reason in exemplary ways to gain meaning. But what are these standards of excellence? What rational activities using reason satisfy the criteria? Why not exercise reason for fiendish ends, as in criminal pursuits?
These questions lead to the sixth form of self-transcendence, using reason in creative ways. Here the good, the true, and the beautiful confer meaning in life insofar as we transcend our animal nature with our rational nature in creative ways. Life is redeemed through the creative power of artists and thinkers who bring new values into the world. Yet this theory has trouble accounting for the apparent meaninglessness of the creative criminal. It also cannot account for moral virtue, which often has nothing to do with creativity.
These questions lead to the seventh form of self-transcendence, using reason according to a universal perspective. According to this view the good, the true, and the beautiful give meaning to life when our reason transcends our animal nature to realize states of affairs that would be appreciated from a universal perspective. Art, scientific theories, and moral deeds all satisfy this criterion. Great art reveals universal themes; great science discovers universal laws; and great moral deeds take everyone’s interests into account and are approved of from an impartial perspective. Metz considers this the best account of a self-transcendent theory of meaning. Yet it is inadequate because much that could be approved of from this universal perspective would be trivial, and not the source of great meaning—writing a novel about dust or distributing implements for toenail cutting.
Having surveyed various naturalistic and non-consequentialist theories that tried to capture how the good, true, and beautiful give meaning to life, and having found them wanting, Metz proposes his own theory of self-transcendence: “The good, the true, and the beautiful confer great meaning on life insofar as we transcend our animal nature by positively orienting our rational nature in a substantial way toward conditions of human existence that are largely responsible for many of its other conditions.”[iv]
Metz explains this focus on fundamental conditions by considering the difference between a well-planned crime and moral achievements such as providing medical care or freeing persons from tyranny. The latter actions respect personal autonomy, support other’s choices and confer meaning. Intellectual reflection that gives meaning explains many other facts and conditions about human nature or reality. Knowledge of human nature tells us about aspects of ourselves; scientific knowledge about the world explains reality; and great art explores facets of human experience—love, death, war, peace—which are themselves responsible for so much else about us. In each case, meaning derives when the true, good, and beautiful address fundamental issues.
One might object that reading trashy fiction or pondering that 2 + 2 = 4 involve reason and focus on fundamental conditions, but don’t confer meaning. Metz replies that substantial effort is necessary to fully meet his standard, and that is missing in the above examples. In addition, we might add that significant advancement over the past is also necessary for meaning. Not simply doing, knowing, or making what was done, known, or made before, but the bringing forth of something new. All of this leads to his conclusion: that we can transcend ourselves and obtain great meaning in the good, the true, and the beautiful “by substantially orienting one’s rational nature in a positive way toward fundamental objects and perhaps thereby making an advancement.”[v]
Summary – Meaning is found by transcending oneself through moral achievement, intellectual reflection, and artistic creation.
[i] Thaddeus Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” DOI: 10.1017/S0034412510000569. 1. Cambridge Online 2010, 1.
[ii] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 2.
[iii] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 3.
[iv] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 13.
[v] Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.” 19.