Meanings of Lives
by Susan Wolf
The question, “What is the meaning of life?” was once taken to be a paradigm of
philosophical inquiry. Perhaps, outside of the academy, it still is. In philosophy
classrooms and academic journals, however, the question has nearly disappeared, and
when the question is brought up, by a naïve student, for example, or a prospective donor
to the cause of a liberal arts education, it is apt to be greeted with uncomfortable
What is so wrong with the question? One answer is that it is extremely obscure, if
not downright unintelligible. It is unclear what exactly the question is supposed to be
asking. Talk of meaning in other contexts does not offer ready analogies for
understanding the phrase “the meaning of life.” When we ask the meaning of a word, for
example, we want to know what the word stands for, what it represents. But life is not
part of a language, or of any other sort of symbolic system. It is not clear how it could
“stand for” anything, nor to whom. We sometimes use “meaning” in nonlinguistic
contexts: “Those dots mean measles.” “ Those footprints mean that someone was here
since it rained.” In these cases, talk of meaning seems to be equivalent to talk of
evidence, but the contexts in which such claims are made tend to specify what hypotheses
are in question within relatively fixed bounds. To ask what life means without a
similarly specified context, leaves us at sea.
Still, when people do ask about the meaning of life, they are evidently expressing
some concern or other, and it would be disingenuous to insist that the rest of us haven’t
the faintest idea what that is. The question at least gestures toward a certain set of
concerns with which most of us are at least somewhat familiar. Rather than dismiss a
question with which many people have been passionately occupied as pure and simple
nonsense, it seems more appropriate to try to interpret it and reformulate it in a way that
can be more clearly and unambiguously understood. Though there may well be many
things going on when people ask, “What is the meaning of life?”, the most central among
them seems to be a search to find a purpose or a point to human existence. It is a request
to find out why we are here (that is, why we exist at all), with the hope that an answer to
this question will also tell us something about what we should be doing with our lives.
If understanding the question in this way, however, makes the question
intelligible, it might not give reason to reopen it as a live philosophical problem. Indeed,
if some of professional philosophy’s discomfort with discussion of the meaning of life
comes from a desire to banish ambiguity and obscurity from the field, as much comes, I
think, from the thought that the question, whenmade clearer, has already been answered,
and that the answer is depressing. Specifically, if the question of the Meaning of Life is
to be identified with the question of the purpose of life, then the standard view, at least
among professional philosophers, would seem to be that it all depends on the existence of
God. In other words, the going opinion seems to be that if there is a God, then there is at
least a chance that there is a purpose, and so a meaning to life. God may have created us
for a reason, with a plan in mind. But to go any further along this branch of thinking is
not in the purview of secular philosophers.
If, on the other hand, there is no God, then there can be no meaning, in the sense of a point or a purpose to our existence. We are Thomas Nagel has what might be thought to be an even more pessimistic view –
viz, that even if there is a God, there is no reason God’s purpose should be our purpose,
no reason, therefore, to think that God’s existence could give meaning, in the right sense,
to our lives. We are simply a product of physical processes – there are no reasons for our existence, just causes.
At the same time that talk of Life having a Meaning is banished from philosophy,
however, the talk of lives being more or less meaningful seems to be on the rise.
Newspapers, magazines, self-help manuals are filled with essays on how to find meaning
in your life; sermons and therapies are built on the truism that happiness is not just a
matter of material comfort, or sensual pleasure, but also of a deeper kind of fulfillment.
Though philosophers to date have had relatively little to say about what gives meaning to
individual lives, passing references can be found throughout the literature; it is generally
acknowledged as an intelligible and appropriate thing to want in one’s life. Indeed, it
would be crass to think otherwise.
But how can individual lives have meaning if life as a whole has none? Are those
of us who suspect there is no meaning to life deluding ourselves in continuing to talk
about the possibility of finding meaning in life? (Are we being short-sighted, failing to
see the implications of one part of our thought on another?) Alternatively, are these
expressions mere homonyms, with no conceptual or logical connections between them?
Are there simply two wholly unconnected topics here?
Many of you will be relieved to hear that I do not wish to revive the question of
whether there is a meaning to life. I am inclined to accept the standard view that there is
no plausible interpretation of that question that offers a positive answer in the absence of
a fairly specific religious metaphysics. An understanding of meaningfulness in life, however, does seem to me to merit more philosophical attention than it has so far
received, and I will have some things to say about it here. Here, too, I am inclined to
accept the standard view – or a part of the standard view – viz., that meaningfulness is an
intelligible feature to be sought in a life, and that it is, at least sometimes attainable but
not everywhere assured. But what that feature is – what we are looking for – is
controversial and unclear, and so the task of analyzing or interpreting that feature will
take up a large portion of my remarks today. With an analysis proposed, I shall return to
the question of how a positive view about the possibility of meaning in lives can fit with
a negative or agnostic view about the meaning of life. The topics are not, I think, as
unconnected as might at first seem necessary for their respectively optimistic and
pessimistic answers to coexist. Though my discussion will offer nothing new in the way
of an answer to the question of the meaning of life, therefore, it may offer a somewhat
different perspective on that question’s significance.
Let us begin, however, with the other question, that of understanding what it is to
seek meaning in life. What do we want when we want a meaningful life? What is it that
makes some lives meaningful, others less so?
If we focus on the agent’s, or the subject’s, perspective – on a person wanting
meaning in her life, her feeling the need for more meaning – we might incline toward a
subjective interpretation of the feature being sought. When a person self-consciously
looks for something to give her life meaning, it signals a kind of unhappiness. One
imagines, for example, the alienated housewife, whose life seems to her to be a series of
endless chores. What she wants, it might appear, is something that she can find more
This impression is reinforced if we consider references to “meaningful
experiences.” (The phrase might be applied, for example, to a certain kind of wedding or
funeral.) The most salient feature of an event that is described is meaningful seems to be
its “meaning a lot” to the participants. To say that a ceremony, or, for that matter, a job,
is meaningful seems at the very least to include the idea that it is emotionally satisfying.
An absence of meaning is usually marked by a feeling of emptiness and dissatisfaction; in contrast, a meaningful life, or meaningful part of life, is necessarily at least somewhat
rewarding or fulfilling. It is noteworthy, however, that meaningful experiences are not
necessarily particular happy. A trip to one’s birthplace may well be meaningful; a visit to
an amusement park is unlikely to be so.
If we step back, however, and ask ourselves, as observers, what lives strike us as
especially meaningful, if we ask what sorts of lives exemplify meaningfulness, subjective
criteria do not seem to be in the forefront. Who comes to mind? Perhaps, Ghandi, or
Albert Schweitzer, or Mother Theresa; perhaps Einstein or Jonas Salk. Cezanne, or
Manet, Beethoven, Charlie Parker. Tolstoy is an interesting case to which I shall return.
Alternatively, we can look to our neighbors, our colleagues, our relatives – some of
whom, it seems to me, live more meaningful lives than others. Some, indeed, of my
acquaintance seem to me to live lives that are paradigms of meaning – right up there with
the famous names on the earlier lists; while others (perhaps despite their modicum of
fame) would score quite low on the meaningfulness scale. If those in the latter category
feel a lack of meaning in their lives – well, they are right to feel it, and it is a step in the
right direction that they notice that there is something about their lives that they should
try to change.
What is it to live a meaningful life, then? What does meaningfulness in life
amount to? It may be easier to make progress by focusing on what we want to avoid. In
that spirit, let me offer some paradigms, not of meaningful, but of meaningless lives.
For me, the idea of a meaningless life is most clearly and effectively embodied in
the image of a person who spends day after day, or night after night, in front of a
television set, drinking beer and watching situation comedies. Not that I have anything
against television or beer. Still the image, understood as an image of a person whose life
is lived in hazy passivity, a life lived at a not unpleasant level of consciousness, but
unconnected to anyone or anything, going nowhere, achieving nothing – is, I submit, as
strong an image of a meaningless life as there can be. Call this case The Blob.
If any life, any human life, is meaningless, the Blob’s life is. But this doesn’t
mean that any meaningless life must be, in all important respects, like the Blob’s. There
are other paradigms that highlight by their absences other elements of meaningfulness.
In contrast to the Blob’s passivity, for example, we may imagine a life full of
activity, but silly or decadent or useless activity. (And again, I have nothing against silly
activity, but only against a life that is wholly occupied with it.) We may imagine, for
example, one of the idle rich who flits about, fighting off boredom, moving from one
amusement to another. She shops, she travels, she eats at expensive restaurants, she
works out with her personal trainer.
Curiously, one might also take a very un-idle rich person to epitomize a
meaningless life in a slightly different way. Consider, for example, the corporate
executive who works twelve-hour, seven-day weeks, suffering great stress, for the sole
purpose of the accumulation of personal wealth. Related to this perhaps is David
Wiggins’ example of the pig farmer who buys more land to grow more corn to feed more
pigs to buy more land to grow more corn to feed more pigs.
These last three cases of the idle rich, the corporate executive and the pig farmer
are in some ways very different, but they all share at least this feature: they can all be
characterized as lives whose dominant activities seem pointless, useless, or empty.
Classify these cases under the heading Useless.
A somewhat different and I think more controversial sort of case to consider
involves someone who is engaged, even dedicated, to a project that is ultimately revealed
as bankrupt, not because the person’s values are shallow or misguided, but because the
project fails. The person may go literally bankrupt: for example, a man may devote his
life to creating and building up a company to hand over to his children, but the item his
company manufactures is rendered obsolete by technology shortly before his planned
retirement. Or consider a scientist whose life’s work is rendered useless by the
announcement of a medical breakthrough just weeks before his own research would have
yielded the same results. Perhaps more poignantly, imagine a woman whose life is
centered around a relationship that turns out to be a fraud. Cases that fit this mold we
may categorize under the heading Bankrupt.
The classification of this third sort of case as an exemplification of
meaninglessness may meet more resistance than the classification of the earlier two.
Perhaps these lives should not be considered meaningless after all. Nonetheless, these
are cases in which it is not surprising that an argument of some sort is needed – it is not
unnatural or silly that the subjects of these lives should entertain the thought that their
lives have been meaningless. Even if they are wrong, the fact that their thoughts are not,
so to speak, out of order, is a useful datum. So, of course, would be the sort of thing one
would say to convince them, or ourselves, that these thoughts are ultimately mistaken.
If the cases I have sketched capture our images of meaninglessness more or less
accurately, they provide clues to what a positive case of a meaningful life must contain.
In contrast to the Blob’s passivity, a person who lives a meaningful life must be actively
engaged. But, as the Useless cases teach us, it will not do to be engaged in just anything,
for any reason or with any goal – one must be engaged in a project or projects that have
some positive value, and in some way that is nonaccidentally related to what gives them
value. Finally, in order to avoid Bankruptcy, it seems necessary that one’s activities be at
least to some degree successful (though it may not be easy to determine what counts as
the right kind or degree of success). Putting these criteria together, we get a proposal for
what it is to live a meaningful life: viz., a meaningful life is one that is actively and at
least somewhat successfully engaged in a project (or projects) of positive value.
Several remarks are needed to qualify and refine this proposal. First, the use of
the word “project” is not ideal: it is too suggestive of a finite, determinate task, something
one takes on, and, if all goes well, completes. Among the things that come to mind as
projects are certain kinds of hobbies or careers, or rather, specific tasks that fall within
the sphere of such hobbies or careers: things that can be seen as Accomplishments, like
the producing of a proof or a poem or a pudding, the organizing of a union or a high
school band. Although such activities are among the things that seem intuitively to
contribute to the meaningfulness of people’s lives, there are other forms of
meaningfulness that are less directed, and less oriented to demonstrable achievement, and
we should not let the use of the word “project” distort or deny the potential of these
things to give meaningfulness to life. Relationships, in particular, seem at best
awkwardly described as projects. Rarely does one deliberately take them on and, in some
cases, one doesn’t even have to work at them – one may just have them and live, as it
were, within them. Moreover, many of the activities that are naturally described as
projects – coaching a school soccer team, planning a surprise party, reviewing an article
for a journal – have the meaning they do for us only because of their place in the
nonprojectlike relationships in which we are enmeshed and with which we identify. In
proposing that a meaningful life is a life actively engaged in projects, then, I mean to use
“projects” in an unusually broad sense, to encompass not only goal-directed tasks but
other sorts of ongoing activities and involvements as well.
Second, the suggestion that a meaningful life should be “actively engaged” in
projects should be understood in a way that recognizes and embraces the connotations of
“engagement.” Although the idea that a meaningful life requires activity was introduced
by contrast to the life of the ultra-passive Blob, we should note that meaning involves
more than mere, literal activity. The alienated housewife, presumably, is active all the
time – she buys groceries and fixes meals, cleans the house, does the laundry, chauffeurs
the children from school to soccer to ballet, arranges doctors’ appointment and
babysitters. What makes her life insufficiently meaningful is that her heart, so to speak,
isn’t in these activities. She does not identify with what she is doing – she does not
embrace her roles as wife, mother, and homemaker as expressive of who she is and wants
to be. We may capture her alienated condition bysaying that though she is active, she is
not actively engaged. (She is, one might say, just going through the motions.) In
characterizing a meaningful life, then, it is worth stressing that living such a life is not
just a matter of having projects (broadly construed) and actively and somewhat
successfully getting through them. The projects must engage the person whose life it is.
Ideally, she would proudly and happily embrace them, as constituting at least part of what
her life is about.
Finally, we must say more about the proposal’s most blatantly problematic
condition – viz, that the projects engagement with which can contribute to a meaningful
life must be projects “of positive value”. The claim is that meaningful lives must be
engaged in projects of positive value – but who is to decide which projects have positive
value, or even to guarantee that there is such a thing?
I would urge that we leave the phrase as unspecific as possible in all but one
respect. We do not want to build a theory of positive value into our conception of
meaningfulness. As a proposal that aims to capture what most people mean by a
meaningful life, what we want is a concept that “tracks” whatever we think of as having
positive value. This allows us to explain at least some divergent intuitions about
meaningfulness in terms of divergent intuitions or beliefs about what has positive value,
with the implication that if one is wrong about what has positive value, one will also be
wrong about what contributes to a meaningful life. (Thus, a person who finds little to
admire in sports – who finds ridiculous, for example, the sight of grown men trying to
knock a little ball into a hole with a club , will find relatively little potential for meaning
in the life of an avid golfer; a person who places little stock in esoteric intellectual
pursuits will be puzzled by someone who strains to write, much less read, a lot of books
The exception I would make to this otherwise maximally tolerant interpretation of
the idea of positive value is that we exclude merely subjective value as a suitable
interpretation of the phrase.
It will not do to allow that a meaningful life is a life involved in projects that seem
to have positive value from the perspective of the one who lives it. Allowing this would
have the effect of erasing the distinctiveness of our interest in meaningfulness; it would
blur or remove the difference between an interest in living a meaningful life and an
interest in living a life that feels or seems meaningful. That these interests are distinct,
and that the former is not merely instrumental to the latter can be seen by reflecting on a
certain way the wish or the need for meaning in one’s life may make itself felt. What I
have in mind is the possibility of a kind of epiphany, in which one wakes up – literally or
figuratively – to the recognition that one’s life to date has been meaningless. Such an
experience would be nearly unintelligible if a lack of meaning were to be understood as a
lack of a certain kind of subjective impression. One can hardly understand the idea of
waking up to the thought that one’s life to date has seemed meaningless. To the contrary,
it may be precisely because one did not realize the emptiness of one’s projects or the
shallowness of one’s values until that moment that the experience I am imagining has the
poignancy it does. It is the sort of experience that one might describe in terms of scales
falling from one’s eyes. And the yearning for meaningfulness, the impulse to do
something about it will not be satisfied (though it may be eliminated) by putting the
scales back on, so to speak. If one suspects that the life one has been living is
meaningless, one will not bring meaning to it by getting therapy or taking a pill that,
without changing one’s life in any other way, makes one believe that one’s life has
To care that one’s life is meaningful, then, is, according to my proposal, to care
that one’s life is actively and at least somewhat successfully engaged in projects
(understanding this term broadly) that not just seem to have positive value, but that really
do have it. To care that one’s life be meaningful, in other words, is in part to care that
what one does with one’s life is, to pardon the expression, at least somewhat objectively
good. We should be careful, however, not to equate objective goodness with moral
goodness, at least not if we understand moral value as essentially involving benefiting or
honoring humanity. The concern for meaning in one’s life does not seem to be the same
as the concern for moral worth, nor do our judgments about what sorts of lives are
meaningful seem to track judgments of moral character or accomplishment.
To be sure, some of the paradigms of meaningful lives are lives of great moral
virtue or accomplishment – I mentioned Ghandi and Mother Theresa, for example.
Others, however, are not. Consider Gauguin, Wittgenstein, Tchaikovsky – morally
unsavory figures all, whose lives nonetheless seem chock full of meaning. If one thinks
that even they deserve moral credit, for their achievements made the world a better place,
consider instead Olympic athletes and world chess champions, whose accomplishments
leave nothing behind but their world records. Even more important, consider the artists,
scholars, musicians, athletes of our more ordinary sort. For us too, the activities of
artistic creation and research, the development of our skills and our understanding of the
world give meaning to our lives – but they do not give moral value to them.
It seems then that meaning in life may not be especially moral, and that indeed
lives can be richly meaningful even if they are, on the whole, judged to be immoral.
Conversely, that one’s life is at least moderately moral, that it is lived, as it were, above
reproach, is no assurance of its being moderately meaningful. The alienated housewife,
for example, may be in no way subject to moral criticism. (and it is debatable whether
even the Blob deserves specifically moral censure.)
That people do want meaning in their lives, I take it, is an observable, empirical
fact. We have already noted the evidence of self-help manuals, and therapy groups.
What I have offered so far is an analysis of what that desire or concern amounts to. I
want now to turn to the question of whether the desire is one that it is good that people
have, whether, that is, there is some positive reason why they should want this.
At a minimum, we may acknowledge that it is at least not bad to want meaning in
one’s life. There is, after all, no harm in it. Since people do want this, and since there are
no moral objections to it, we should recognize the concern for meaning as a legitimate
concern, at least in the weak sense that people should be allowed to pursue it. Indeed,
insofar as meaningfulness in one’s life is a significant factor in a life’s overall well-being,
we should do more than merely allow its pursuit: we should positively try to increase
opportunities for people to live lives of meaning.
Most of us, however, seem to have a stronger positive attitude toward the value of
meaningfulness than this minimum concession admits. We do not think it is merely all
right for people to want meaning in their lives – as it is all right for people to like country
music, or to take an interest in figure-skating. We think people positively ought to care
that their lives be meaningful. It is disturbing, or at least regrettable, to find someone
who doesn’t care about this. Yet this positive assessment ought to strike us, at least
initially, as somewhat mysterious. What is the good, after all, of living a meaningful life,
and to whom?
Since a meaningful life is not necessarily a morally better life than a meaningless
one (the Olympic athlete may do no more good nor harm thanthe idly rich socialite), it is
not necessarily better for the world that people try to live or even succeed in living
meaningful lives. Neither is a meaningful life assured of being an especially happy one,
however. Many of the things that give meaning to our lives (relationships to loved ones,
aspirations to achieve) make us vulnerable to pain, disappointment and stress. From the
inside, the Blob’s hazy passivity may be preferable to the experience of the tortured artist
or political crusader. By conventional standards, therefore, it is not clear that caring
about or even succeeding in living a meaningful life is better for the person herself.
Yet, as I have already mentioned, those of us who do care that our lives be
meaningful tend to think that it is a positively good thing that we do. We not only want
to live meaningful lives, we want to want this – we approve of this desire, and think it is
better for others if they have this desire, too. If, for example, you see a person you care
about conducting her life in a way that you find devoid of worth – she is addicted to
drugs, perhaps, or just to television, or she is overly enthusiastic in her career as a
corporate lawyer – you are apt to encourage her to change, or at least hope that she will
find a new direction on her own. Your most prominent worry may well be that she is
heading for a fall. You fear that at some point she will wake up to the fact that she has
been wasting or misdirecting her life, a point that may come too late for easy remedy and
will, in any case, involve a lot of pain and self-criticism. But the fear that she will wake
up to the fact that she has been wasting her life (and have difficulty turning her life
around) may not be as terrible is the fear that she won’t wake up to it. If you came to feel
secure that no painful moment of awakening would ever come because your friend (or
sister or daughter) simply does not care whether her life is meaningful, you might well
think that this situation is not better but worse. We seem to think there is something
regrettable about a person living a meaningless life, even if the person herself does not
mind that she is. We seem to think she should want meaning in her life, even if she
doesn’t realize it.
What, though, is the status of this “should”, the nature or source of the regret?
The mystery that I earlier suggested we should feel about our value in meaningfulness is
reflected in the uneasy location of this judgment. If my own reaction to the woman who
doesn’t care whether her life is meaningful is typical, the thought that she should, or
ought to care is closer to a prudential judgment than it is to a moral one. (If there is a
moral objection to a person who lives a meaningless life and is content with that, it is not,
in my opinion, a very strong one. The Blob, after all, is not hurting anyone, nor is the
idle rich jet-setter. She may, for example, give money to environmental causes to offset
the damage she is doing in her SUV, and write generous checks to Oxfam and UNICEF
on a regular basis.) The thought that it is too bad if a person does not live a meaningful
life (even if she doesn’t mind) seems rather to be the thought that it is too bad for her.
The closest analogue to this thought in the history of ethics of which I am aware is
Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia. His conception of the virtuous life as the happiest
life is offered as a conclusion of an enlightened self-interest. According to standard
conceptions of self-interest, however (either hedonistic or preference-based), it is not
obvious why this should be so, and, unfortunately, Aristotle himself does not address the
question explicitly. Rather, he seems to think that if you do not just see that the virtuous
life, in which one aims for and achieves what is “fine,” is a better, more desirable life for
yourself, that just shows that you were not well brought up, and in that case, there is no
point trying to educate you.
Our question, the question of whether and what kind of reason there is for a
person to strive for a meaningful life, is not quite the same as the question of whether and
what kind of reason there is to aspire to virtue, – though, when one is careful to interpret
“virtue” in the broad and not specifically moral way that Aristotle uses the term, it is
closer than it might seem. Still, as I say, Aristotle does not really address the question,
and so, though I take my line of thought to be Aristotelian in spirit, a scholarly study of
Aristotle’s texts is not likely to be an efficient way of finding an answer to the question
What reason is there, then, if any, for a person to want to live a meaningful life? I
have said that we seem to think it would be better for her, that it is, at least roughly, in her
self-interest. At the same time, the thought that she should care about meaning seems to
depend on claims from outside herself. Even if there are no desires latent in her
psychology which meaningfulness would satisfy, we seem to think, there is reason why
she should have such desires. She seems to be making some kind of mistake.
If my analysis of what is involved in living a meaningful life is right, then the
question of why one should care about living a meaningful life is equivalent to the
question of why one should care that one’s life be actively and somewhat successfully
engaged in projects of positive value. The source of perplexity seems, in particular, to be
about the reason to care that one’s projects be positively valuable. As long as you are
engaged by your activities, and they make you happy, why should one care that one’s
activities be objectively worthwhile?
The answer, I believe, is that to devote one’s life entirely to activities whose value
is merely subjective, to devote oneself to activities whose sole justification is that it is
good for you, is, in a sense I shall try to explain, practically solipsistic. It flies in the face
of one’s status as, if you will, a tiny speck in a vast universe, a universe with countless
perspectives of equal status with one’s own, from which one’s life might be assessed.
Living a life that is engaged with and so at least partially focussed on projects whose
value has a nonsubjective source is a way of acknowledging one’s non-privileged
position. It harmonizes, in a way that a purely egocentric life does not, with the fact that
one is not the center of the universe.
The basic idea is this: The recognition of one’s place in the universe, of one’s
smallness, one might say, or one’s insignificance, and of the independent existence of the
universe in which one is a part involves, among other things, the recognition of “the
mereness” of one’s subjective point of view. To think of one’s place in the universe is to
recognize the possibility of a perspective, of infinitely many perspectives, really, from
which one’s life is merely gratuitous; it is to recognize the possibility of a perspective, or
rather of infinitely many perspectives, that are indifferent to whether one exists at all, and
so to whether one is happy or sad, satisfied or unsatisfied, fulfilled or unfulfilled.
In the face of this recognition, a life that is directed solely to its subject’s own
fulfillment, or, to its mere survival or towards the pursuit of goals that are grounded in
nothing but the subject’s own psychology, appears either solipsistic or silly.
A person who lives a largely egocentric life – who devotes, in other words, lots of
energy and attention and care toward himself, who occupies himself more specifically
with satisfying and gratifying himself, expresses and reveals a belief that his happiness
matters. Even if it doesn’t express the view that his happiness matters objectively, it at
least expresses the idea that it matters to him. To be solely devoted to his own
gratification, then, would express and reveal the fact that his happiness is all that matters,
at least all that matters to him. If, however, one accepts a framework that recognizes
distinctions in nonsubjective value, (and if one believes, as seems only reasonable, that
what has nonsubjective value has no special concentration in or connection to oneself)
this attitude seems hard to justify.
To accept that framework is, after all, to accept the view that some things are
better than others. To me, it makes sense partially to understand this literally: Some
things, it seems to me, are better than others: people, for example, are better than rocks
or mosquitoes, and a Vermeer painting is better than the scraps on my compost heap.
What is essential, though, is that accepting a framework that recognizes distinctions in
nonsubjective value involves seeing the world as value-filled, as containing with it
distinctions of better and worse, of more and less worthwhile, if not of better and worse
objects per se, then of better and worse features of the world, or activities, or
opportunities to be realized. Against this background, a life solely devoted to one’s own
gratification or to the satisfaction of one’s whims seems gratuitous and hard to defend.
For, as I have said, to live such a life expresses the view that one’s happiness is all that
matters, at least to oneself. But why should this be the only thing that matters, when there
is so much else worth caring about?
Those familiar with Thomas Nagel’s book, The Possibility of Altruism, may have
recognized an allusion to it in my suggestion that a life indifferent to meaning was
practically solipsistic. The allusion is significant, for the argument I am making here,
though it is directed to a different conclusion, bears a strong resemblance to the argument
of that book. Nagel’s argument invites us to see a person who, while evidently trying to
avoid or minimize pain to himself, shows total indifference to the pain of others, as a
practical solipsist in the sense that he fails, in his practical outlook, to recognize and
appreciate that he is one person among others, equally real. Roughly, the suggestion
seems to be that if you appreciate the reality of others, then you realize that their pains are
just as painful as yours. If the painfulness of your pain is a reason to take steps to avoid
it, then, the painfulness of their pain should provide reasons, too. To be totally
indifferent to the pain of others, then, bespeaks a failure to recognize their pain (to
recognize it, that is, as really painful, in the same way that yours is painful to you).
This is not the occasion to discuss the plausibility of Nagel’s interpretation of the
pure egoist as a practical solipsist, nor even to describe Nagel’s complex and subtle
position in enough detail to be able fairly to evaluate it. What I want to call attention to
has to do not with the substance of the argument but with the type of argument it is:
specifically, Nagel’s argument suggests that appreciation of a certain fact – in this case,
the fact that you are just one person among others, equally real – is a source of practical
reason – in this case, it gives you reason to take the pains of others to constitute reasons
for action. If Nagel is right, we have reason to care about the pain of others that is
grounded, not in our own psychologies (and more specifically, not in any of our own
desires), but in a fact about the world. His suggestion is that a person who fails to see the
pain of others as a source of reason acts ‘as if’ the pain of others is not real, or not
painful. But of course the pain of others is real and is painful. Such a person thus
exhibits a failure not just of morality or sympathy, but of practical reason, in the sense
that his practical stance fails to accord with a very significant fact about the world.
My suggestion that we have reason to care about and to try to live meaningful
rather than meaningless lives resembles Nagel’s in form. Like him, I am suggesting that
we can have a reason to do something or to care about something that is grounded not in
our own psychologies, nor specifically in our own desires, but in a fact about the world.
The fact in question in this case is the fact that we are, each of us, specks in a vast and
value-filled universe, and that as such we have no privileged position as a source of or
possessor of objective value. To devote oneself wholly to one’s own satisfaction seems
to me to fly in the face of this truth, to act “as if” one is the only thing that matters, or
perhaps, more, that one’s own psychology is the only source of (determining) what
matters. By focusing one’s attention and one’s energies at least in part on things,
activities, aspects of the world that have value independent of you, you implicitly
acknowledge your place and your status in the world. Your behavior, and your practical
stance is thus more in accord with the facts.
Admittedly, this is not the sort of reason that one must accept on pain of
inconsistency or any other failure of logic. Just as a person may simply not care whether
her life is meaningful, so she may also simply not care whether her life is in accord with,
or harmonizes with the facts. (It is one thing to say we should live in accord with the
facts of physics, geography, and the other sciences. Living in accordance with these facts
has evident instrumental value – it helps us get around in the world. But living in a way
that practically acknowledges, or harmonizes with the fact that we are tiny specks in a
value-filled world will not make our lives go better that way.) Such a person cannot be
accused in any strict sense of irrationality. Like noninstrumental reasons to be moral, the
reason to care about living a worthwhile life is not one that narrow rationality requires
one to accept. At the same time, it seems appropriate to characterize my suggestion (and
Nagel’s) as one that appeals to reason in a broader sense. For my suggestion is that an
interest in living a meaningful life is an appropriate response to a fundamental truth, and
that failure to have such a concern constitutes a failure to acknowledge that truth.
As we have already seen, the truth to which I am proposing a meaningful life
provides a response is the truth that we are, each of us, tiny specks in a vast and value-
filled universe. Like the truth that we are, each of us, one person among others, equally
real, it opposes what children and many adults may have a tendency to assume – namely,
that they are the center of the universe, either the possessor or the source of all value. (It
is because both Nagel’s truth and mine are opposites of that assumption that both might
plausibly be understood as alternatives to practical solipsism.) Unlike Nagel’s truth,
mine is not specifically addressed to our relation to other people. A person may,
therefore, appreciate and practically express one of these truths and not the other.
Whereas an appropriate response to the equal reality of other people may be, if Nagel is
right, an embrace of morality or something relating to morality, my proposal is that an
appropriate response to our status as specks in a vast universe is a concern and aspiration
to have one’s life wrapped up with projects of positive value.
Perhaps, however, I have not made it clear why this is an appropriate response.
The question may seem especially pressing because the thought that we are tiny specks in
a vast universe, and the sense that it calls for or demands a response has, in the past,
tended to move philosophers in a different direction. Specifically, the thought that we are
tiny specks in a vast universe was in the past closely associated with that murky and
ponderous question to which I referred at the beginning of my talk – the question of The
Meaning of Life. The thought that we are tiny specks in a vast universe has indeed often
evoked that question, and, to those who either do not believe in or do not want to rest
their answers in the existence of a benevolent God, it has more or less immediately
seemed also to indicate an answer. Considering their answer to the question of the
Meaning of Life and contrasting it with my response to the fact of our smallness, may
clarify the substance of my proposal.
The train of thought I have in mind is one that has, with variations, been
expressed by many distinguished philosophers, including Camus, Tolstoy, Richard
Taylor, and, curiously, Nagel himself. For them, the recognition of our place in the
universe – our smallness, or are speckness, if you will – seems to warrant the conclusion
not only that there is no meaning to life as such but also that each individual life is
On the view of these philosophers, a life can be meaningful only if it can mean
something to someone, and not just to someone, but to someone other than oneself and
indeed someone of more intrinsic or ultimate value than oneself. Of course, anyone can
live in such a way as to make her life meaningful to someone other than herself. She can
maintain her relationship with parents and siblings, establish friendships with neighbors
and colleagues. She can fall in love. If all else fails, she can have a child who will love
her, or two children, or six. She can open up an entire clinic for God’s sake. But if a life
that is devoted solely to yourself, a life that is good to no one other than yourself lacks
meaning, these philosophers not implausibly think, so will a life that is devoted to any
other poor creature, for he or she will have no more objective importance than you have,
and so will be no more fit a stopping place by which to ground the claim of
meaningfulness than you. Nor, according to this train of thought, will it help to expand
your circle, to be of use or to have an effect on a larger segment of humankind. If each
life is individually lacking in meaning, then the collective is meaningless as well. If each
life has but an infinitesimal amount of value, then although one’s meaning will increase in proportion to one’s effect, the total quantity of meaning relative to the cosmos will remain so small as to make the effort pathetic.
From the perspective of these philosophers, if there is no God, then human life,
each human life, must be objectively meaningless, because if there is no God, there is no
appropriate being for whom we could have meaning.
From this perspective, my suggestion that the living of a worthwhile life
constitutes a response to a recognition of our place in the universe might seem
ridiculously nearsighted, as if, having acknowledged the mereness of my own
subjectivity, I then failed to acknowledge the equal mereness of the subjectivity of others.
But I think this misunderstands the point in my proposal of living a life that realizes
nonsubjective value, a misunderstanding that derives from too narrow a view about what
an appropriate and satisfactory response to the fact of our place in the universe must be.
The philosophers I have been speaking about – we can call them the pessimists –
take the fundamental lesson to be learned from the contemplation of our place in the
universe to be that we are cosmically insignificant, a fact that clashes with our desire to
be very significant indeed. If God existed, such philosophers might note, we would have
a chance at being significant. For God himself, is presumably very significant and so we
could be significant by being or by making ourselves significant to Him. In the absence
of a God, however, it appears that we can only be significant to each other, to beings, that
is, as pathetically small as ourselves. We want to be important, but we cannot be
important, and so our lives are absurd.
The pessimists are right about the futility of trying to make ourselves important.
Insofar as contemplation of the cosmos makes us aware of our smallness, whether as
individuals or as a species, we simply must accept it and come to terms with it. Some
people do undoubtedly get very upset, even despondent when they start to think about
their cosmic insignificance. They want to be important, to have an impact on the world,
to make a mark that will last forever. When they realize that they cannot achieve this,
they are very disappointed. The only advice one can give to such people is: Get Over It.
Rather than fight the fact of our insignificance, however, and of the mereness of
our subjectivity, my proposal is that we live in a way that acknowledges the fact, or, at
any rate, that harmonizes with it. Living in a way that is significantly focussed on,
engaged with, and concerned to promoted or realize value whose source comes from
outside of oneself, does seem to harmonize with this, whereas living purely
egocentrically does not. Living lives that attain or realize some nonsubjective value may
not make us meaningful, much less important, to anyone other than ourselves, but it will
give us something to say, to think, in response to the recognition of perspectives that we
ourselves imaginatively adopt that are indifferent to our existence and to our well-being.
At the beginning of this paper, I raised the question of how the meaning of life –
or the absence of such meaning – was related to the meaningfulness of particular lives.
As I might have put it, does it really make sense to think that there can be meaningful
lives in a meaningless world? In light of this discussion, we can see how the answer to
that question might be “yes” while still holding on to the idea that the similar wording of
the two phrases is not merely coincidental.
If I am right about what is involved in living a meaningful life – if, that is, living a
meaningful life is a matter of at least partly successful engagement in projects of positive
value – then the possibility of living meaningful lives despite the absence of an overall
meaning to life can be seen to depend on the fact that distinctions of value (that is, of
objective value) do not rely on the existence of God or of any overarching urpose to the
human race as a whole. Whether or not God exists, the fact remains that some objects,
activities and ideas are better than others. Whether or not God exists, some ways of
living are more worthwhile than others. Some activities are a waste of time.
People are sometimes tempted to think that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing
matters. They are tempted to think that if we will all die, and eventually all traces of our
existence will fade from all consciousness, there is no point to doing anything; nothing
makes any difference. Tolstoy evidently thought this sometimes, and gave eloquent
voice to that view. But the reasoning is ridiculous. If one activity is worthwhile and
another is a waste, then one has reason to prefer the former, even if there is no God to
look down on us and approve. More generally, we seem to have reason to engage
ourselves with projects of value whether God exists and gives life a purpose or not.
Putting things this way, however, fails to explain why we use the language of
meaning to describe lives engaged in activities of worth. Putting things this way there
seems to be no connection at all between the question of whether there is a meaning to
life and the question of whether individual lives can be meaningful. I believe, however,
that there is a connection, that shows itself, or perhaps that consists in the fact that the
wish for both kinds of meaning are evoked by the same thought, and that, perhaps, either
kind of meaning would be an appropriate and satisfying response to that thought. The
thought in question is the thought (the true thought) that we are tiny specks in a vast
universe. It is a thought that is apt to be upsetting when it first hits you – at least in part
because, looking back from that position, it may seem that one had until then lived “as if”
something opposite were true. One had lived perhaps until then as if one were the center
of the universe, the sole possessor or source of all value. One had all along assumed one
had a special and very important place in the world, and now one’s assumption is
undermined. One can see how, in this context, one might wish for a meaning to life. For
if there were a meaning – a purpose, that is, to human existence that can be presumed to
be of great importance, then, by playing a role, by contributing to that purpose, one can
recover some of the significance one thought one’s life had. Like the pessimistic
philosophers I talked about a few minutes ago, I doubt that that path is open to us. But
there seems another way one can respond to the thought, or to the recognition of our
relatively insignificant place in the universe, that is more promising, and that can, and
sometimes does, provide a different kind of comfort. If one lived one’s life, prior to the
recognition of our smallness, as if one was the center of the universe, the appropriate
response to that recognition is simply to stop living that way. If one turns one’s attention
to other parts of the universe – even to other specks like oneself – in a way that
appreciates and engages with the values or valuable objects that come from outside
oneself, then one corrects one’s practical stance. If, in addition, one is partly successful
in producing, preserving, or promoting value – if one does some good, or realizes value,
then one has something to say, or to think in response to the worry that one’s life has no
Only if some suggestion like mine is right can we make sense of the intuitions
about meaningfulness to which I called attention in the earlier part of this paper.
According to those intuitions the difference between a meaningful and a meaningless life
is not a difference between a life that does a lot of good, and a life that does a little. (Nor
is it a difference between a life that makes a big splash and one that, so to speak, sprays
only a few drops.) It is rather a difference between a life that does good or is good or
realizes value and a life that is essentially a waste.
According to these intuitions, there is as sharp a contrast between the Blob and a life devoted to the care of a single needy individual as there is between the Blob and someone who manages to change the world for the better on a grand scale. Indeed, there may be an equally sharp contrast between the Blob and the monk of a contemplative order whose existence confers no benefit or change on anyone else’s life at all. Ironically, along this dimension, Tolstoy fares exceptionally well.
Thus it seems to me that even if there is no meaning to life, even if, that is, life as
a whole has no purpose, no direction, no point, that is no reason to doubt the possibility
of finding and making meaning in life – that is no reason, in other words, to doubt the
possibility of people living meaningful lives. In coming to terms with our place and our
status in the universe, it is natural and appropriate that people should want to explore the
possibility of both types of meaning. Even if philosophers have nothing new or
encouraging to say about the possibility of meaning of the first sort, there may be some
point to elaborating the different meanings of the idea of finding meaning in life, and in
pointing out the different forms that coming to terms with the human condition can take.