Category Archives: Meaning of Life – Subjective

Is the Meaning of Life Subjective?

(This post summarizes and comments on posts of the previous few weeks.)

Baier’s arguments against the religious conception of objective meaning are convincing, as is his claim that life can have subjective meaning nonetheless. Edwards expands on this theme, arguing that life can have terrestrial meaning even if we cannot show that existence itself is ultimately worthwhile. Edwards also claims that subjective meaning is enough for most people, but this argument is problematic. I do not think that ordinary people are content with subjective meaning. To the contrary, nearly the entire edifice of human culture—art, science, religion, philosophy—emanates from the desire to have our lives mean something in the cosmic sense. Those content with meaning in the terrestrial sense are the exception; those searching for the meaning of their lives in the cosmic context don’t have special standards as Edwards claims.

Flew makes the same basic claim, meaning is found in life even if there is no meaning of life, but he asks us to forego our dreams of immortality and make a better world. Barnes asks us to grow up and create meaning in a world without gods, comforted by the fact that there is some small immortality in the repercussions that emanate from our lives. For Barnes , we create the rules of the game. In the end, neither Flew nor Barnes satisfies our desire for meaning any more than Baier or Edwards. They all counsel us to accept that meaning in life is all we can get. But we want more than subjective meaning even if that’s all we can have.

In Martin’s analysis, we find despair—a fast car and a good woman cannot satisfy for long. The only comfort in his analysis is that death is a welcome relief from our insatiable appetites. Kekes moves the argument, further along, detaching meaning from anything objective, including morality. He thus brings us back to active engagement in our lives without moral limitations as the source of meaning. For Schmidt finding meaning in whatever we are engaged—such as coaching little league football—is about the best we can do, while Solomon suggests we choose a vision of life without telling us how to do this or whether some vision is better than others. Lund recommends that we give our lives meaning by searching for what we will probably never find, but that the searching is as close to meaning as we will probably ever come. These are all brave words from brave men, and their poignancy is felt deeply. Baggini’s account is the most uplifting, we can give our lives meaning by loving, but even love has its limits, is fragile, and exists without transcendental support.

Russell argued that persons free of metaphysical narratives can find some meaning in the beauty they create and the truth they find; Taylor argued that our labors are precisely what give our lives meaning, since they are motivated by our inner nature; Hare claimed that we bestow mattering on the world; Singer that we create meaning by creating and loving; and Klemke claimed that we can live without appeal by finding subjective meaning in art, work, and love. All these thinkers maintain that creating meaning is all we have left once objective meaning is lost. Still, something important is missing from all of these accounts. Something we deeply long for—that our labors matter not just to us but to the cosmos, and that we are part of something bigger than the attachment to our will. What such lives lack is objective meaning. Is loving computers, golf, sunsets, or children really enough?

Consider for example Hare’s response to his young guest. The reason that Meursault was relevant for the boy was because he identified with Meursault. True, the boy was not facing execution, but he recognized that we all die. The young boy was moved because he saw his own life revealed in a new way by the novel. Yes, the young man later admitted that things did matter to him, but suppose when asked if anything mattered to him the boy had said no? How then would Hare reply? Would he have screamed: “No, some things do matter to you!” If the boy demurred, then they would have been at an impasse, and that is why Hare counsels that some things are objectively valuable. But what if the young man denied this?

In the same way the beauty, perfection, work, art, and love that Russell and Taylor and Klemke appeal to seems tainted, not because they are not worthwhile and not because we might not care about them, but because they are not worthwhile enough to satisfy us. The foregoing discussion reveals the basic problem with creating your own meaning—such a requirement asks too much. How is a lone individual to make their lives meaningful by themselves against the backdrop of the infinity of space and time? Is it really something we can create, all by ourselves? Yes, we can collect baseball cards and find that meaningful, but surely that is not enough and we are right to be dissatisfied if there is nothing more to life than that. And even if we can shake our fist at the world, create some momentary perfection, have relationships or coach little league, how can we resist asking: is that all there is?

If transcendental support for meaning is absent, and subjective meaning is not enough, then we must turn to objective meanings and values inherent in human experience, ones that exist in the natural world. It is to such considerations that we now turn. (I will resume this discussion of the meaning of life the day after tomorrow.)

Richard Taylor on the Meaning of Life

Richard Taylor (1919 – 2003) was an American philosopher renowned for his controversial positions and contributions to metaphysics. He advocated views as various as free love and fatalism and was also an internationally known beekeeper. He taught at Brown, Columbia and the University of Rochester, and had visiting appointments at about a dozen other institutions. His best-known book is Metaphysics.

In the concluding chapter of his 1967 book, Good and Evil (Great Minds Series), Taylor suggests that we examine the notion of a meaningless existence so that we can contrast it with a meaningful one. He takes Camus’ image of Sisyphus’ eternal, pointless toil as archetypical of meaninglessness. Taylor notes that it is not the weight of the rock or the repetitiveness of the work that makes Sisyphus’ task unbearable, it is rather its pointlessness. The same pointlessness may be captured by other stories—say by digging ditches and then filling them in forever. Crucial to all these stories is that nothing ever comes of such labor.

But now suppose that Sisyphus’ work slowly built a great temple on his mountaintop: “then the aspect of meaninglessness would disappear.”[i] In this case his labors have a point, they have meaning. Taylor further argues that the subjective meaninglessness of Sisyphus’ activity would be eliminated were the Gods to have placed within him “a compulsive impulse to roll stones.”[ii] Implanted with such desires, the gods provide him the arena in which to fulfill them. While we may still view Sisyphus’ toil meaningless from the outside, for externally the situation has not changed, we can now see that fulfilling this impulse would be satisfying to Sisyphus from the inside. For now, he is doing exactly what he wants to do—forever.

Taylor now asks: is life endlessly pointless or not? To answer this question he considers the existence of non-human animals—endless cycles of eating and being eaten, fish swimming upstream only to die and have offspring repeat the process, birds flying halfway around the globe only to return and have others do likewise. He concludes that these lives are paradigms of meaninglessness. That humans are part of this vast machine is equally obvious. As opposed to non-human animals we may choose our goals, achieve them, and take pride in that achievement. But even if we achieve our goals, they are transitory and soon replaced by others. If we disengage ourselves from the prejudice we have toward our individual concerns, we will see our lives to be like Sisyphus’. If we consider the toil of our lives we will find that we work to survive, and in turn, pass this burden on to our children. The only difference between us and Sisyphus is that we leave it to our children to push the stone back up the hill.

And even were we to erect monuments to our activities, they too would turn slowly turn to dust. That is why, coming upon a decaying home, we are filled with melancholy:

There was the hearth, where a family once talked, sang, and made plans; there were the rooms, here people loved, and babes were born to a rejoicing mother; there are the musty remains of a sofa, infested with bugs, once bought at a dear price to enhance an ever-growing comfort, beauty, and warmth. Every small piece of junk fills the mind with what once, not long ago, was utterly real, with children’s voices, plans made, and enterprises embarked upon.[iii]

When we ask what it all was for, the only answer is that others will share the same fate, it will all be endlessly repeated. The myth of Sisyphus’ then exemplifies our fate, and this recognition inclines humans to deny their fate—to invent religions and philosophies designed to provide comfort in the face of this onslaught.

But might human life still have meaning despite its apparent pointlessness? Consider again how Sisyphus’ life might have meaning; again if he were to erect a temple through his labors. Notice not only that the temple would eventually turn to dust, but that upon completion of his project he would be faced with boredom. Whereas before his toil had been his curse, now its absence would be just as hellish. Sisyphus would now be “contemplating what he has already wrought and can no longer add anything to, and contemplating it for an eternity!”[iv] Given this conclusion, that even erecting a temple would not give Sisyphus meaning, Taylor returns to his previous thought—suppose that Sisyphus was imbued with a desire to labor in precisely this way? In that case, his life would have meaning because of his deep and abiding interest in what he was doing. Similarly, since we have such desires within us, we should not be bored with our lives if we are doing precisely what we have an inner compulsion to do: “This is the nearest we may hope to get to heaven…”[v]

To support the idea that meaning is found in this engagement of our will in what we are doing, Taylor claims that if those from past civilizations or the past inhabitants of the home he previously described were to come back and see that what was once so important to them had turned to ruin, they would not be dismayed. Instead, they would remember that their hearts were involved in those labors when they were engaged in them. “There is no more need of them [questions about life’s meaning] now—the day was sufficient to itself, and so was the life.”[vi] We must look at all life like this, its justification and meaning come from persons doing what “it is their will to pursue.”[vii] This can be seen in a human from the moment of birth, in its will to live. For humans “the point of [their] living, is simply to be living…”[viii] Surely the castles that humans build will decay, but it would not be heavenly to escape from all this, that would be boredom: “What counts is that one should be able to begin a new task, a new castle, a new bubble. It counts only because it is there to be done and [one] has the will to do it.”[ix]

Philosophers who look at the repetitiveness of our lives and fall into despair fail to realize that we may be endowed, from the inside, with the desire to do our work. Thus: “The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in both beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.”[x] 

Summary – We give meaning to our lives by the active engagement our will has in our projects.

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[i] Richard Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 136.
[ii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 136.
[iii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 139.
[iv] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 140.
[v] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[vi] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[vii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[viii] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 141.
[ix] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 142.
[x] Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” 142.

Robert Solomon on the Meaning of Life

Robert C. Solomon (1942 – 2007) received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and was Quincy Lee Centennial Professor of Philosophy and Business at the University of Texas at Austin for many years until his death. (He was a colleague of mine in the early 2000s, although I didn’t know him well.) In a chapter of his book, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, Solomon asks: “What is the meaning of life? This is the big question—the hardest to answer, the most urgent and at the same time the most obscure.”[i] The question usually arises when we something has gone wrong in our lives, whereas if our everyday lives are filled with activity we seldom think about the question.

Solomon first considers the meaning of the word meaning in the question. Often the meaning of something is what it refers to—like a word or a sign—but what do our lives refer to?  We might say they refer to other people or the universe or a god, but this does not seem to be the same kind of reference. Nonetheless, many people do think of their lives as having meaning by reference to something outside themselves like their children, or gods, or an afterlife.

Regarding children, Solomon argues that if the meaning of someone’s life is their children we can immediately ask, what is the meaning of your children’s lives and their children, ad infinitum? It is hard to see how this all makes your own life meaningful. Regarding gods, it is again hard to see how this answers the question. For now, we must ask: why did gods create us? If for some purpose, what was it? Why do gods need worlds anyway, what is the meaning of the world? It is not clear how gods would solve the problem. Regarding the afterlife, similar questions emerge. Is this life so insignificant that only reference to another one could make it significant? Why does the fact that the next life lasts longer make it more meaningful? What should we do in this life to be rewarded in the next? So the questions re-emerge: what should we do, what is important, how should we live? So while it is true that people dedicate their lives to their children or their gods or a possible afterlife, none of these answers really answer the question—they just raise more questions like: What is the meaning of our children’s lives? How do I live to serve a god? What is the purpose of an afterlife?

Perhaps then life is meaningless since nothing external can give it meaning.  Solomon replies that the fact that there is no external meaning outside of life does not imply that there is no meaning in life. In the same way that words have meaning in context, our lives may have meaning in context. If we truly devote them to our children or our gods, we can give our lives meaning.

Solomon further argues that the question of meaning in life does not require a specific answer so much as a vision of life in which you have a role. This vision is important since it colors the way you see the world. For example, if you think life is a business contract you will probably see it differently than someone who sees it as a gift from the gods. Some of these grand images of life which can give it meaning include life as: a game, tragedy, mission, story, art, adventure, disease, desire, nirvana, altruism, honor, learning, frustration, relationships, or an investment.

If life is a game, you might not take it too seriously, but still, want to win or be a good sport. If life is a story, you might see yourself as the hero of an unfolding narrative to be judged by the quality of the role you played. If life is a tragedy, living one’s life bravely in the face of our inevitable death may be the best we can do. If life is a joke, we could see our lives less seriously and laugh at them. If life is a mission, you might convert others, bring about revolution, raise children, advance science or promote morality. If life is an art, we may want to create our lives as ones with beauty, style or class. If life is an adventure, we would live life to the fullest, taking risks and enjoying challenges. If life is a disease, then all ends in death. If life is desire, the satisfaction of desire brings meaning; if life is nirvana, then the goal is to eliminate desire and achieve tranquility. If life is altruism, we live for others even if they do not reciprocate. If life is honor, then we must fulfill expectations and do our duty. If life is learning, we derive satisfaction from learning, from growing and developing our potential. If life is suffering, perhaps the best we can do is detach ourselves through contemplation or self-denial. If life is an investment, we think of the time of our lives as capital invested to gain a reward—say money or fame. And if life is relationships, then love and friendship are most important.

Solomon does not prescribe any one of these over another; instead, he presents them as various images or visions which can give meaning to human life. Thus meaning is something we create, by choosing to live in accord with our own vision of a meaningful life.

Summary – We create meaning by living in accord with our vision of life.

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[i] Robert Solomon, The Big Questions (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010), 44.

Summary of David Schmidt’s: “The Meanings of Life”

David Schmidt (1955- ) is Kendrick Professor of Philosophy and joint Professor of Economics at the University of Arizona. In “The Meanings of Life” (2002) he admits that philosophy may not be able to deal with the question of the meaning of life, but he’ll try to understand “life’s meaning by reflecting on what it has been like to live one.”[i] Schmidt begins by contrasting the existential attitude—that life’s meaning is of extreme importance and that we must give meaning to our lives—with the Zen attitude—that meaning is not something to worry about and that meaning is found simply by being mindful in the present. Schmidt doesn’t take sides on this matter, admitting that he is no sage and that it is hard to talk profoundly about such matters.

He next notes that while some lives mean more than others, meaning has limits. Why? Because: 1) meaning in life does not last; 2) meaning changes; 3) meaning may not be deep enough to fulfill our longings; 4) life may be the kind of thing that cannot have deep meaning; and 5) life is short. Ultimately our most lasting achievements are ephemeral. Although there are limits to meaning, that does not mean life is meaningless. Schmidt agrees with Taylor that being fully engaged in our lives, however trivial they might seem from a universal perspective, is what gives them limited meaning. Still, sadness accompanies knowing that the meaning of our lives is limited.

Schmidt now lists some of the components of meaningful lives, although he admits there are many ways to live them. First they have impact, maybe not on the cosmos, but on something important to you like your family. So you should not look for an impact where you don’t have any, but where you do. Schmidt wonders about Nozick’s claim that you need to leave permanent traces in the world—a higher standard for meaning—but suggests that we should probably be content with less. Features of meaningful lives are:

  • Meanings are symbolic – For example, we can give meaning to simple worms if we want. Meanings need not be intrinsic, only meaningful to us. Of course two persons could have the same experience with one finding it meaningful, the other finding it meaningless.
  • Meanings are choices – We choose whether our lives have sufficient meaning for us. If we choose to view them as meaningless, then we should not worry about it since that is meaningless too. And if we can’t enjoy meaninglessness, then we should choose to treat life as meaningful.
  • Meanings track relationships – Our lives derive meaning when they mean something to the people around us. Our lives communicate things to others—that they are important or we care about them—and maybe their meaning is in what they communicate.
  • Meanings track activity – Most of us don’t want to plug into “the matrix-like happiness machine” which suggests we want more than experiences; we want the meaning that comes from activities. This raises questions as to whether you would think life in the machine was objectively or only subjectively meaningful. Meaning also seems related to the activity of making contact with external reality, something we cannot do in the machine.

In order to experience deep meaning, we need to bring a personal touch to life or decorate our house in Schmidt’s metaphor. Life is the picture we put on the bare walls. As we age we may lament the path we chose, or regret that we could only choose one path. Maybe meaning is being attentive to the path we chose and, though we cannot state what the meaning of life is, we can still enjoy the process. Just engaging in certain activities—coaching little league football in his example—is sometimes sufficient.

Schmidt wrote a postscript to his original article after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. In it he claimed that the encounter with death had not changed his view of the meaning of life. You cannot live each day as if it is your last and it is hard to make permanent traces in the world. Some say that life is meaningful if we finish painting one big picture which has an impact; others maintain that meaning comes from painting many smaller pictures, which has the advantage of something being done if the brush is taken away unexpectedly. Schmidtz says that our lives can be meaningful because of the little pieces of our lives that slowly add up, even if they never produce a completed work of art.

Summary – Being engaged in our lives is what gives them meaning. There are a few things we can say about life’s meaning, but we can never state its meaning with clarity. The best we can do is find meaning in what we are engaged in.

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[i] David Schmidt, “The Meanings of Life” in Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 92.

Summary of John Kekes’: “The Meaning of Life”

John Kekes is Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Albany. He begins his essay “The Meaning of Life” as follows: “Most of our lives are spent in routine activities … It is natural to ask then why we should continue on this treadmill.”[i] One answer is that nature, instinct, and training impel us to struggle. To seek more is to “misuse the respite we occasionally enjoy from the difficult business of living.”[ii] Many throughout the world struggle for the basics of life, without much time to worry about the meaning of life. Those in first world countries struggle instead for wealth, honor, and prestige, but when there is time left over for reflection they often wonder whether such things really do matter; they wonder about the meaning of it all.

What Gives Life Meaning? – Maybe life has no meaning. We may have evolved to ask questions, and have the time to ask them, but this doesn’t mean we can answer them. Life may just be a brute fact, to be explained only by laws of nature. There may be no other meaning. We could respond to all this with cynicism or despair, but these poison the enjoyment of life. “Despair and cynicism cleave us into a natural self and a preying, harping, jeering, or self-pitying self. We are thus turned us against ourselves. Reflection sabotages our own projects.”[iii] This is why so many avoid deep questions and go on living as best they can. However, such avoidance is possible only if we are doing well. For as soon as the young look forward, the old look backward, or the sick look at their present state, the question of meaning will arise. But even if we are doing well, shouldn’t we ask about meaning? Would it not be foolish to engage in projects which may not be valuable? In short, no matter what our situation, we are brought back to the question of the meaning of life.

Kekes now turns to the famous crisis of meaning experienced by John Stuart Mill’s. Mill had meaning in his life— he wanted to improve the world—and then lost it as he recounts in his autobiography. He thought that even if all his desires for a better world were satisfied he would still not be happy because, of any proposed meaning, one can always ask: “and why does that have meaning?”[iv] What happened was that Mill became disengaged from his projects, he became disillusioned. It was not that his life was worthless, pointless, destructive, trivial or futile—from an objective point of view his life was meaningful. What happened was that he no longer cared about or identified with his projects. Kekes responds that even if Mill’s life was intrinsically meaningful and subjectively engaging, that would still not be sufficient for meaning because one can always conclude that all projects are ultimately absurd.

A similar notion is captured by Nagel’s sense of the absurd—the pretension with which we take ourselves internally versus the apparent external insignificance of our lives. Still, many have taken the eternal perspective and remained concerned about human welfare; thus merely taking that perspective does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that life is meaningless. For Mill the issue was not that his life appeared absurd from a universal perspective but rather that he stopped caring about it, and he became desultory precisely because he stopped caring. Thus sometimes we lose commitment to our projects, not because they lack something, but because our will and emotions are not engaged in them. This leads Kekes to ask: “what is it that engages our will and emotions, and gives meaning to our lives, given that our projects are not defective and we do not suffer from a sense of absurdity?”[v] Typically we respond to this question with religious and moral answers.

The Religious Answer – The religious approach says value must come from the outside in terms of a cosmic order. Specific religions are interpretations of the cosmic order through revelation, scripture, miracles, church authority, religious experience, etc. While science tells us something of this order, it does not tell us everything. But we want to know everything about the cosmic order gives meaning to our lives. Furthermore, the better we know the order, the better our lives will go. If we are like dogs tied to carts drawn by horses, if that is the cosmic order, then the best we can do is to go along with the order and not oppose it. The Stoics thought we must conform to the order, while religious thinkers generally believe that the order is good. The key to meaning then is to find this order and live in harmony with it.

But there are problems with religious answers. First of all, we have no direct access to the cosmic order since all evidence comes from the natural world. Thus we cannot know if there is a cosmic order or, if there is, what form it takes. Moreover, even if the natural world did point to a cosmic order, this would not be enough to give us meaning, since we still would not know anything about the nature of that cosmic order. Furthermore, even if we could infer something of the cosmic order from the natural world that still would not be enough. Think again of Sisyphus. He knows his fate but temple building was not his purpose, it was the gods. He was enslaved by them. How then can their purposes give his life meaning? Sisyphus, pyramid builders, and dogs tied to carts—none of their lives have meaning.

So not only must there be a cosmic order but that order must be both necessary and good. Do we have any reason to believe this? Kekes thinks not. Can we derive inferences about the cosmic order from the natural world? No. If we are hones we must accept that the cosmic order, if it really is reflected by the natural world, is good, bad, and indifferent. So if the cosmic order must be good for our lives to have meaning, then they do not have meaning, since the cosmic order is at most partly good. In sum, the religious answer fails because 1) we have no reason to believe there is a cosmic order; 2) if there is one we know nothing about it; and 3) if we did infer something about the cosmic order from the natural world, reasonable persons would conclude it was not exclusively good.

The Moral Answer – The moral approach concerns the good independent of the gods, even if a god’s will might reflect that good. We need to know what is good if we are to know how pursuing it gives meaning to life, and ethics looks for this in the natural world. Here we are concerned not with ethics in the narrow sense of what is right, but in the wide sense of what is good. To better understand this let us go back to Taylor. He thought meaning for Sisyphus could be subjective if he wanted to push rocks; that would make his life meaningful independent of the fact that the project seemed meaningless from an objective point of view. So it is wanting to do our projects that makes them meaningful, meaning comes from us. In other words, meaning is subjective; it does not come from the projects themselves. Therefore the subjective view of meaning is that “a life has meaning if the agent sincerely thinks so, and it lacks meaning if the agent sincerely denies it.”35 By contrast, the objective view states that “lives may lack meaning even if their agents think otherwise, for they may be mistaken.”[vi]

There are three reasons to reject the subjective view and accept the objective. First, if meaning is subjective, then there is no difference whether we want to pursue a project because we are being indoctrinated or manipulated, or because we truly think it meaningful after reflection. On this view discovering that we were simply wired to want something, say to push boulders up hills forever, would not change our minds about an activity’s meaningfulness. But this seems wrong; discovering any of this should change our minds about meaning! Subjective desire or active engagement may be part of the meaning of life, but it does not seem to be all of it.

Second, even if we truly want to roll rocks, and have not been manipulated into wanting this, such a desire alone does not make the act meaningful unless it matters to us that rocks are rolled. We could still ask of this non-manipulated desire, why do it? So even if we are not manipulated, and want to do something that matters to us, we still do not have enough for meaning because questions about the value of our desires remain. Are we being manipulated by gods, media, or indoctrination? Do things matter to us because of upbringing, education, or society? We simply cannot answer questions like these without considering how reality is independent of us. This leads us back to the objective view.

Third, we pursue projects because we think they would make our lives better but they may not do so. We may change our minds about a project when it does not make our lives better, concluding that the project was not meaningful after all. But if believing a project meaningful were sufficient to making it meaningful, the subjective view of meaning, then we would not change our minds like this. All of this counts against the subjective view of meaning.

Now it might be said in defense of the subjective view that these three objections show that the truth of our beliefs does not affect whether our lives are meaningful. This is partly right and partly wrong. It is true we may find our projects meaningful even if we are manipulated or our projects are not good, but it is false that meaning is subjective. Objective considerations about wants being manipulated and beliefs being false still matter, since knowledge of these may destroy our belief in meaning. Thus in addition to subjective considerations, objective ones matter as well, for example, that we have non-manipulated desires and true beliefs. Subjective willing, whether of a god or human, is not enough for meaning; for a meaningful life, we must subjectively want some objective things that really make our lives better. However, none of this presupposes a cosmic order; there can be things that are really good without positing a cosmic order. In summary, the moral approach says that our lives are meaningful if: 1) they are not worthless pointless, futile, etc; 2) we reject the view that all projects are absurd; 3) there are projects we want to pursue; 4) our desired projects will actually make our lives go better.

Conclusion – But when we ask about making our lives go better, do we have in mind morally or non-morally better? We could follow Socrates and say the morally good life is both the satisfying and the meaningful life, but this will not do and the moral answer fails. Why? First, morally good projects may not be satisfying; and second, even if morally good projects are satisfying it does not follow that only morally good lives are satisfying. It could be that either immoral or non-moral projects give meaning. That people can get meaning from immoral projects shows that the moral answer is mistaken.

Both moral and religious answers fail because they seek a general answer to the question, thereby failing to sufficiently emphasize individual differences. This seems to lead us back to the subjective view but, as we saw earlier, we had multiple reasons for rejecting that view.  Since neither the subjective nor objective approach works we might be led to again consider the religious or moral approaches but, as we saw previously, they both failed. The former because there is no reason to think there is a cosmic order that confers meaning, and the latter because immoral lives can be meaningful.

This all leads Kekes to advance a pluralistic approach to meaning in life—meaningful lives take a plurality of forms. A central claim of the pluralistic approach is that all approaches giving general answers are mistaken. The other basic claim is that morally bad lives may be meaningful and morally good lives may not be. Thus, contrary the orthodox view, what makes a life meaningful and what makes it good are distinct.

Summary – Meaningful lives are not pointless, futile, trivial, or absurd and involve pursuing activities agents find engaging and life-bettering. These activities are found in the natural world, thus excluding a religious answer; and these activities may be immoral, thus excluding the moral answer. There are no general answers as to what activities or projects a subject will find rewarding and engaging.

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[i] John Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E. D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press, 2008), 239.
[ii] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 239.
[iii] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 241.
[iv] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 244.
[v] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 250.
[vi] Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” 250.