Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Objective

Objective Meaning of Life

(This post summarizes and comments on the posts of the last two weeks. For further details please consult those posts.)

Ellin’s suggestion that the moral life provides meaning is fruitful, as is Thomson’s suggestion that we add intellectual and aesthetic value for fully meaningful lives. But Britton’s comment that all these values may be necessary for meaning but not sufficient is telling. We could live virtuous lives and still question life’s meaningfulness. Yet Britton affirms that life is meaningful because there are meaningful relationships, and Eagleton furthers that claim with his emphasis on love of our fellows and the subsequent happiness derived as the meaning of life. Schlick’s emphasis on play adds greatly to our conception of the meaningful life. Such a life does not have to be infused with undo profundity, but with the playful attitude of the child. So truth, goodness, beauty, love, and play provide a nice list of the objective goods that provide meaning.

Wolf combines subjective engagement with the objective values of the moral, intellectual, and artistic domains. It is not enough that there are valuable things in life; one must be engaged in and passionate about their pursuit to fully achieve meaning. Cahn offers a subjectivist account of value against Wolf, but hedges his bet by introducing an objective value—bringing no harm. We might combine Cahn’s view with Wolf’s and say that meaningful lives consist of active engagement in projects that do no harm. Wolf then could grant the no harm clause as a minimum, but add that lives are even more meaningful if engaged in worthwhile projects that help others. To resolve this issue we probably need a resolution to the problem of the objectivity of value, and Wolf admits as much in her follow up lecture. Meaning itself must be some kind of objective value.

Rachels is confident that there are objective values. These values give us reasons to live in certain ways and provide limited meaning and consolation in a universe where we are always haunted by the specter of death and meaninglessness. Flanagan evokes a similar theme, focusing specifically on self-expression and self-transcendence that follow from things like our work and relationships. Frankl’s emphasizes objective ways to find meaning that are becoming familiar—relationships and work. His addition of bearing suffering is a unique contribution to ways of finding meaning in the world. Belshaw reiterates the theme that we find meaning in our lives in objective goods; and we should not ask what meaning objectively good things have, for that involves us in an infinite regress. To all of the above, Belliotti adds that leaving a legacy of our encounter with the meaning-providers of life contributes greatly to our search for meaning. Thagard takes us into new territory, connecting the objective values of love, work, and play to psychology and neurophysiology in order to explain why we experience meaning in these ways. Finally, Metz clarifies the essence of the ideas of most of these thinkers. Life is meaningful because there are good, true, and beautiful things in the world.

When considering these thinkers together we should note the consistency of thinking about the issue of meaning. There is great unanimity that personal relationships, productive work, and enjoyable play are meaningful activities. They are meaningful precisely because in each we may discover or create goodness, beauty, and truth. Enduring suffering nobly, self-expression, and leaving a legacy also exemplify specific activities that allow us to participate in truth, beauty, and goodness Together these thinkers disclose a universal theme. People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied.

Yet we are not. There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled. After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is? Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted. We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always. Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is to the specter of death that we now turn.

Thaddeus Metz: “The good, the true, and the beautiful: toward a unified account of great meaning in life”

(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 PhD 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 are 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.

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[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.

 

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.

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.

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

Summary of Susan Wolf’s, “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life”

Susan R. Wolf (1952 – ) is a moral philosopher who has written extensively on meaning in human life. She is currently the Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She addresses the topic of the meaning of life, among other places, in her essay: “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life.”

Wolf begins by asking: “In what does self-interest consist?” Now the concept of self-interest is straightforward: “Self interest is interest in one’s own good. To act self-interestedly is to act on the motive of advancing one’s own good.”  But the content of self-interest—what really is in our self-interest—is problematic.

To better understand the content of self-interest (SI) she follows Derek Parfit’s distinction between three types of SI: 1) hedonistic theories which connect SI with happiness construed as pleasure and lack of pain; 2) preference theories which hold that SI is whatever you want even those things don’t make you happy or give pleasure; and 3) objective-list theories in which SI is independent or prior to one’s preferences. Wolf argues that meaningfulness is an element or ingredient of a good or happy life, and she is thus committed to meaning being in one’s SI in the objective-list sense for the goodness of a meaningful life “does not result from making us happy or its satisfying the preferences of the person whose life it is.” Still. meaningful lives will generally be fulfilling and thereby make us happy.

Next Wolf claims that our need for meaningful lives center on questions of whether life is worth living has any point, or provides sufficient reason to go on. Paradigms of meaningful lives include lives of moral or intellectual accomplishment, whereas meaningless lives include those lived in quiet desperation or in futile labor. In short, Wolf claims that: “… meaningful lives are lives of active engagement in projects of worth.”[i]

Active engagement refers to being griped or excited by something. Active engagement relates to being passionate rather than alienated about something, whereas being engaged is not always pleasant since it may involve hard work. Projects of worth suggest that some objective value exists, and Wolf argues that meaning and objective value are linked. While Wolf offers a philosophical defense of objective value she claims that “there can be no sense to the idea of meaningfulness without a distinction between more and less worthwhile ways to spend one’s time, where the test of worth is at least partly independent of a subject’s ungrounded preferences or enjoyment.”[ii]

To see this point, first consider that people’s longings for meaning are independent of whether they find their lives enjoyable. They may have a fun life but might come to think it lacks meaning.  Second, why do we seem to have an intuitive sense of meaningful and meaningless lives? Most of us would agree that certain kinds of lives are or are not meaningful.  Both of the above suggest that objective values are related to meaning.

This leads Wolf to reiterate that meaningful lives are ones actively engaged in worthwhile projects. If one is engaged in life, then it has a point; looking for meaning is looking for worthwhile projects. In addition, this view shows us why some projects are thought of as meaningful and others are not. Some projects are meaningful but boring (like writing checks to the ACLU), whereas others are pleasurable (like riding roller coasters) but don’t seem to give meaning to life. In this context, Wolf notes Bernard Williams’ distinction between categorical desires, whose objects are worthwhile independent of our desires; and all other desires, whose objects worthiness, presumably, depends on our desires. In short, she is saying some values are objective.

To reiterate, meaningful lives link active engagement with objectively worthwhile projects. Lives lived without engagement lack meaning, even if what they are doing is meaningful since the person living such a life is bored or alienated. However, lives lived with engagement are not necessarily meaningful, if the objects of the engagement are worthless since those objects lack objective value. Wolf summaries her view as follows: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”[iii] 

Summary – Meaningful lives consist of one’s active engagement with objectively worthwhile things.

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[i] Susan Wolf, “Meaning in Life” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008), 232.
[ii] Wolf, “Meaning in Life,” 233.
[iii] Wolf, “Meaning in Life” 234-35.