Meaning in Life and Why It Matters
A false dichotomy
Philosophical models of human motivation tend to fall into two categories. Egoistic models conceive of human beings as moved and guided exclusively by what they take to be in their own self-interest. Dualistic models hold that people are capable of being moved not only by self-interest, but by something ‘higher’ as well. Thus, Kant, for example, famously thought that in addition to being subject to inclinations, people are capable of being moved and directed by reason alone.
Closely linked to these two sorts of descriptive models of human motivation are prescriptive or normative models of practical reason. The descriptive thesis of psychological egoism, which holds that people exclusively do seek their own good is closely connected to (and frequently confused with) the normative thesis of rational egoism, which holds that people should do this if they are to be considered rational. Corresponding to the dual conception of human motivation we find a dual conception of practical reason. Sidgwick, for example, held that two perspectives offer people equally valid reasons to act - an egoistic perspective, which issues recommendations of what is most in an agent’s self-interest, and an impersonal perspective, which ranks actions in terms of us what is best “from the point of view of the universe.”
In ordinary discourse as well as philosophy, when we offer justifications for our actions or policies, we seem to have one of these two sorts of models in the backs of our minds. Most often, when asked to explain or justify our choices, we offer reasons that fall under the category of self-interest. When we are trying to persuade someone else to do something, we may appeal to self-interest – in this case, to the other person’s self-interest - even more. Still, there are occasions when invoking self-interest would simply be unconvincing, and some when such appeals would be unseemly, or at least beside the point. In these cases, we are likely to speak the language of duty: justice, compassion, or simply morality demands that we act in such and such a way, whether it contributes to our own good or not.
These models of motivation and practical reason, however, seem to me to leave out many of the motives and reasons that shape our lives. Moreover, the reasons they leave out are neither peripheral nor eccentric. To the contrary, they are the reasons and motives that engage us in the activities that make our lives worth living; they give us reasons to go on. They, and the activities they engender, give meaning to our lives.
My aim today is to bring out the distinctive character of these sorts of reasons and the special role they have to play in the quality of our lives. Specifically, I shall suggest that our susceptibility to these sorts of reasons is connected to the possibility that we live meaningful lives, understanding meaningfulness as an attribute that is not reducible to or subsumable under either happiness, as it is ordinarily understood, or morality. Today I shall be mainly concerned to explain the feature I call meaningfulness in life and present it in such a way as to make it seem worth wanting, both for ourselves and for those about whom we care. What I have to say, however, will be of little or no practical use. Though I shall offer a view of what it means for a life to be meaningful, I can offer none but the most abstract sorts of advice about how to go about living such a life. In my second lecture, therefore, after defending my view aginst one particulary important set of objections, I shall turn to the question of why it matters that we notice that there is such a category as meaningfulness, distinct from the categories of happiness and morality that we are more used to invoking in thinking about what to do and how to live.
Let me begin with some examples of the sort of reasons and motives I have in mind – reasons and motives that are not best understood in terms of their contributions either to our happiness or to our sense of what impersonal reason or morality demands. The most obvious examples are those in which we act out of love for particular individuals. When I visit my brother in the hospital, or help my friend move, or stay up all night sewing my daughter a Halloween costume, I act neither for egoistic reasons nor for moral ones. I do not believe that it is better for me that I spend a depressing hour in a drab cramped room, seeing my brother irritable and in pain, that I risk back injury trying to get my friend’s sofa safely down two flights of stairs, or that I forego hours of much-wanted sleep to make sure that the wings of the butterfly costume my daughter wants to wear in the next day’s parade will stand out at a good angle. But neither do I believe myself duty-bound to perform these acts or fool myself into thinking that by doing them I do what will be best for the world. I act neither out of self-interest nor out of duty or any other sort of impersonal or impartial reason. Rather, I act out of love.
As the egoistic and dualist models of practical reason leave out what we might call these “reasons of love”,1 so they seem to me also to leave out many of the reasons that move us to pursue nonpersonal interests about which we are especially passionate. Writing philosophy, practicing the cello, keeping one’s garden free of weeds, may demand more of one’s time and attention than would be optimal from the point of view of one’s own well-being. Yet in these cases, even more than in the cases involving loved ones, it is obvious that no impersonal perspective requires us to go on. Just as, in the case of acting for a loved one, it is the good of that other person that provides us with reason to act, what draws us on in these nonpersonal pursuits is a perceived or imagined value that lies outside oneself. I agonize over the article I am trying to write because I want to get it right – that is, because I want the argument to be sound, the view to be correct, the writing to be clear and graceful. It is not for my sake – at least not only for my sake – that I struggle so with my work. I do not know or care whether it is best for me – whether it is best that is, from the point of view of my self-interest – that I try to improve my work beyond a certain point, any more than I care whether it is best for me that I put so much energy into making my daughter happy. We might say that I struggle “for philosophy’s sake” rather than for my own, but that would be misleading and obscure as well as pretentious. Still, it seems to me that it is the value of good philosophy that is driving and guiding my behavior in this instance, as it might be the beauty of the music or of the potential garden that moves the cellist or the gardener to sacrifice ease, and exercise discipline in pursuing her goal.
It does not seem unnatural or forced to speak of the subjects of these examples as loving philosophy or music or flowers, and their love for these things may not only explain but may also justify their choices and behavior more than their love for themselves or for morality or some other impersonal and general good. Because of the similarities in the motivational and deliberative stance of these subjects to that of people who act out of love for individuals, I shall use the phrase “reasons of love” to cover the former as well as the latter type of case. My claim then is that reasons of love – whether of people, ideals or other sorts of objects - have a distinctive and important role in our lives, not to be assimilated to reasons of self-interest or to reasons of morality. Insofar as we fail to recognize and appreciate the legitimacy and value of these reasons, we misunderstand ourselves and our values and distort our concerns.
Not all actions that are motivated and guided by reasons of love are justified, however. Not all reasons of love are good reasons. For one thing, your love for something or someone is no guarantee that you know what is actually good for it, so although you may act in order to advance the interest of the object of your love, your action may not actually be in its interest. You might spoil your child, overwater your plants, cramp your philosophical style.
More interestingly, love can be misplaced or misguided; the energy and attention that you give to an object may be disproportionate to what that object merits.2 A wonderful woman might give up her career, her home, her friendships to follow and serve a man the rest of us see clearly does not ‘deserve her’. An impressionable teenager might sign over his trust fund to a cult with which he has become enamored, thereby losing both his financial security and the opportunity to benefit worthier and needier groups.
What I wish to defend, then, is the justifiability and importance of a subset of those actions and decisions that are guided by reasons of love. Roughly, I want to defend the importance of actions and patterns of action that positively engage with worthy objects of love, and to do so in a way that is independent of whether such actions maximally promote either the agent’s welfare or the good of the world. Being prone to be moved and guided by reasons of love, when the objects of love are worthy, is, I believe, at the core of our ability to live meaningful lives.
A Conception of Meaningfulness in Life
Academic philosophers do not talk much about meaningfulness in life. The term is more likely to be used by theologians and therapists, and by people who are in some way dissatisfied with their lives but are unable to pin down why. People sometimes complain that their lives lack meaning; they yearn for meaning; they seek meaning. People sometimes judge others to be leading exceptionally meaningful lives, looking upon them with envy or admiration. Meaning is commonly associated with a kind of depth, and the felt need for meaning is often connected to the worry that one’s life is empty or shallow. An interest in meaning is also frequently associated with thoughts one might have on one’s deathbed. When the word “meaningful” is used in characterizing a life (or in characterizing what is missing from a life), it calls something to mind, but it is not clear what, nor is it clear that it calls or is meant to call the same thing to mind in every context.
In offering a conception of meaningfulness, I do not wish to insist that the term is always used in the same way, or that what I have to offer as an analysis of meaningfulness can be substituted for that term in every context. On the other hand, I do believe that much talk of meaning is aimed at capturing the same abstract idea, and that my proposal of what that idea is fits well with many of the uses to which the word is put.
According to the conception of meaningfulness I wish to propose, meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. What is perhaps most distinctive about this conception of meaning, or about the category of value I have in mind, is that it involves subjective and objective elements, inextricably linked. “Love” is at least partly subjective, involving attitudes and feelings. In insisting that the requisite object must be “worthy of love,” however, this conception of meaning invokes an objective standard: Not any object will do, nor is it guaranteed that the subject’s own assessment of worthiness is privileged. One might paraphrase this by saying that, according to my conception, meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good or positive about it.
Essentially, the idea is that a person’s life can be meaningful only if she cares fairly deeply about some things, only if she is gripped, excited, interested, engaged, or as I earlier put it, if she loves something– as opposed to being bored by or alienated from most or all that she does. Even a person who is so engaged, however, will not live a meaningful life if the objects or activities with which she is occupied are worthless. A person who loves smoking pot all day long, or doing endless crossword puzzles, and has the luxury of being able to indulge in this without limit does not thereby make her life meaningful. Finally, this conception of meaning specifies that the relationship between the subject and the object of her attraction must be an active one. Mere passive recognition and a positive attitude toward an object’s or activity’s value is not sufficient for a meaningful life. One must be able to be in some sort of relationship with the valuable object of one’s attention – to create it, protect it, promote it, honor it, or more generally, to actively affirm it in some way or other.
Aristotle is well-known for his use of the endoxic method in defending moral and conceptual claims. He takes the endoxa,3 “the things which are accepted by everyone, or by most people or by the wise” as starting points for his inquiries. If a view can explain and support these common beliefs, or, even better, if it can bring them into harmony with each other, that counts as an argument in its favor.
In that spirit, I suggest that my view might be seen as a combination, or a welding together, of two other, more popular views that one often hears offered, if not as analyses of meaning in life, at least as ingredients – sometimes as the key ingredient – in a life well lived. First is the view that it doesn’t matter what you do with your life as long as it is something you love. Find your passion. Figure out what turns you on, and go for it.4
Second, it is often said that in order to live a truly satisfying life, one must be able to be a part of something ‘larger than oneself.’5 Though I think that the reference to the size of the group or the object one aims to benefit or be involved with is misleading, it is not unreasonable to understand such language metaphorically, as a way of gesturing toward the aim of participating in or contributing to something whose value is independent of oneself. Understood this way, the first view, (‘find your passion’) may be understood as a way of advocating something similar to the subjective element contained in my proposed analysis of meaningfulness, while the second view, (‘be part of something larger than yourself’) urges us to satisfy the objective condition.
Each of these more popular views is sometimes couched in the vocabulary of meaning, and in each case there is a basis for that choice in our ordinary uses of the term. When thinking about one’s own life, for example, a person’s worry or complaint that his life lacks meaning is apt to be an expression of dissatisfaction with the subjective quality of his life. Some subjective good is felt to be missing. One’s life feels empty. One longs for finding something to do which remedies this gap and makes one feel fulfilled.
On the other hand, when we consider the lives of others, our tendency to characterize some as especially meaningful and others as less so is apt to track differences in our assessments of the objective value of what these lives are about. When we look for paradigms of meaningful lives, who comes to mind? Gandhi, perhaps, or Mother Theresa, or Einstein, or Cézanne. By contrast, Sisyphus is a standard exemplar of a meaningless existence. Our choice of these examples seems to be based on the value (or lack of value) we take these people’s activities to have, rather than on the subjective quality of their inner lives.
Insofar as the conception of meaningfulness I propose joins these views together, it may be seen as a partial affirmation of both these more popular views. From my perspective, both these views have something right about them, though each also leaves something crucial out.
The Fulfillment View
Let us turn our attention, then, to the first of the popular views I mentioned, the one that stresses the subjective element, urging each person to find his passion and pursue it. It is easy to see why someone would support this advice, and find plausible the claim that being able to pursue a passion adds something distinctive and deeply good to life. For the advice, at least as I understand it, rests on the plausible empirical supposition that doing what one loves doing, being involved with things one really cares about, gives one a kind of joy in life that one would otherwise be without. The reason one should find one’s passion and go for it, then, is because doing so will give one’s life a particular kind of good feeling.
Let us refer to the feelings in question as feelings of fulfillment. Such feelings are the opposite of the very bad feelings of boredom and alienation. Although feelings of fulfillment are unquestionably good feelings, there are many other good feelings, perhaps more comfortably classified as pleasures, that having nothing to do with fulfillment. Riding a roller coaster, meeting a movie star, eating a hot fudge sundae, finding a great dress on sale, can all give one pleasure, even intense pleasure. They are unlikely to contribute to a sense of fulfillment, however, and indeed, it is easy to imagine that a person who has an abundance of opportunities for such pleasures might still find something lacking in her life.
Further, someone whose life is fulfilling has no guarantee of being happy in the conventional sense of that term. Many of the things that grip or engage us make us vulnerable to pain, disappointment, and stress.
It will later be useful to bring to mind the fact that the feelings of fulfillment are but one kind of positive feeling that potentially compete with other kinds: spending one’s time, energy, money, and so on, on the projects that fulfill you necessarily reduces the resources you have for engaging in activities that are ‘merely’ fun. Moreover, to the extent that one’s sources of fulfillment are also sources of anxiety and suffering, the pleasure one gets from pursuing these things may be thought, at least from a hedonistic perspective, to be qualified or balanced by the negative feelings that accompany it. For now, however, the fact that most of us would willingly put up with a great deal of stress, anxiety, and vulnerability to pain in order to pursue our passions can be seen as providing support for the idea that fulfillment is indeed a great and distinctive good in life. Insofar as the view that urges us ‘to find our passion and go for it’ expresses that idea, there is a lot to be said for it. From here on, I shall refer to this as “The Fulfillment View.”
Because feelings of fulfillment are different from and sometimes compete with other types of good feeling, types which are more paradigmatically associated with terms like ‘happiness’ and ‘pleasure’, it is plausible to interpret the Fulfillment View as a proposal for what gives meaning to life. To someone who finds himself puzzled by why, despite having a good job, a loving family, and a healthy body, he feels that something is missing from his life, it provides an answer. To someone trying to decide what career to pursue, or more generally, how to structure his life, it advises against focusing too narrowly at the superficial goals of ease, prestige and material wealth. Nonetheless, the Fulfillment View, as I have interpreted it, is a form of hedonism, in that its prescription for the best possible life (in which is included the possession of meaning) rests exclusively on the question of how a life can attain the best qualitative character. Positive experience is, on this view, the only thing that matters. 6
For this very reason, it seems to me, the view is inadequate as it stands. If, as the Fulfillment View suggests, the only thing that matters is the subject quality of one’s life, then it shouldn’t matter, in our assessments of possible lives, which activities give rise to that quality. If the point of finding one’s passion and pursuing it is simply to be fulfilled – that is, to get and keep the feeling of fulfillment, then it shouldn’t matter which activities or objects one has a passion for. Considering a variety of lives, all equally fulfilling, but differing radically in the sorts of things that give rise to that fulfillment, however, may make us wonder whether we can really accept that view.
Imagine, in particular, a person whose life is dominated by activities that most of us would be tempted to call worthless, but which nonetheless give fulfillment to the person whose life it is. I earlier mentioned the case of the person who simply loves smoking pot all day, and another (or maybe the same person) who is fulfilled doing crossword puzzles, or worse (as personal experience will attest), Sudokus. We might also consider more bizarre cases: a man who lives to make hand-written copies of the text of War and Peace; or a woman whose world revolves around her love for her pet goldfish. Do we think that, from the point of view of self-interest, these lives are as good as can be – provided, perhaps, that their affections and values are stable, and that the goldfish doesn’t die?
Initially, perhaps, not everyone will answer these questions in the same way; some will not know what to think. In part, I believe this is because we are uncomfortable making negative judgments about other people’s lives, even about imaginary other people who are conceived realistically enough to be stand-ins for real people. We are especially uncomfortable making negative judgments that diverge from the judgments the characters would make about their own lives. To avoid this problem, let me approach these questions by way of reflection on a more stylized philosophical example – namely, the case of Sisyphus Fulfilled.
Sisyphus, in the ancient myth, is condemned to an existence that is generally recognized as awful: He must roll a heavy stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again, so that he must roll it back up again in an endless cycle. He is condemned eternally to a task that is boring, difficult and futile. Sisyphus’s fate is generally recognized as awful because, as Albert Camus famously pointed out, his existence is absurd. Sisyphus’s life7, therefore, has been commonly treated as a paradigm of meaningless existence.
The philosopher Richard Taylor, however, in a discussion of life’s absurdity, suggests a thought experiment according to which the gods take pity on Sisyphus, and so insert a substance in his veins which transform him from someone for whom rolling that stone is nothing but an arduous and unwelcome chore to someone who loves stone-rolling more than anything else in the world (or in the afterworld, as the case may be). There is nothing the transformed Sisyphus would rather do than roll that stone. Stone-rolling, in other words, fulfills him. Sisyphus has found his passion (or perhaps his passion has found him), and he is pursuing it to his life’s content. The question is, what should we think of him? Has his life been transformed from horribly unfortunate to exceptionally good? Taylor thinks so, but some of us might disagree.
As I have already noted, the reason Sisyphus has traditionally been taken as a paradigm of a meaningless existence is that he is condemned to the perpetual performance of a task that is boring, difficult and futile. In Taylor’s variation, Sisyphus’s task is no longer boring – no longer boring to Sisyphus, that is. But it is still futile. There is no value to his efforts; nothing ever comes of them. Even if due to divine intervention, Sisyphus comes to enjoy, even to feel fulfilled by his activity, the pointlessness of what he is doing doesn’t change.
In light of this, many will feel that Sisyphus’s situation remains far from enviable. Something desirable seems missing from his life despite his experience of fulfillment. Since what is missing is not a subjective matter – from the inside, we may assume that Sisyphus’s life is as good as can be – we must look for an objective feature that characterizes what is lacking. The second popular view I brought up earlier names, or at least gestures toward, a feature that might fit the bill.
The Larger-than-oneself View and the Bipartite View
That second view tells us that the best sort of life is one that is involved in, or contributes to something ‘larger than oneself,’ though contemplation of the case of Sisyphus should be enough to show that this must be understood metaphorically. We might understand the view as one that recommends involvement in something more important than ourselves – something, in other words, that is larger than ourselves not in size but in value. If the recommendation is to be taken as a criterion for a meaningful life, however, I would be inclined to argue against this interpretation, too. For one thing, if we assume that the value of one person’s life is as great as the value of another’s, this criterion would seem to rule out the possibility that a life devoted to the care of a single other individual – a disabled partner, for example, or a frail, aging parent, could live a meaningful life, for the value of the one cared for is presumably just equal to rather than larger than the value of the person who cares. When we try to assess projects and activities that are not principally aimed at the benefit of one or more human beings, the difficulties with such a view appear even worse. Presumably, a dog is not more important than oneself – but what about two dogs, or six? And what about projects and activities that are not directed toward promoting anyone’s welfare at all? Is philosophy or poetry or basketball something ‘larger than oneself’ in value? It is difficult to know what such questions even mean.
A more promising interpretation of the view that links meaningfulness to involvement with something larger than oneself takes the metaphor of size less seriously. Its point, on this interpretation, is not to recommend that one get involved with something larger than oneself, but rather with something other than oneself – that is, with something whose value is independent of and has its source outside of oneself. Presumably, Sisyphean stone-rolling has no such value – nor, it seems, does pot-smoking or Sudoku-solving. But devotion to a single, needy individual does satisfy this condition as much as devotion to a crowd. Philosophy and basketball appear to meet this criterion, too, since the value of these activities, whatever it is, does not depend on one’s own contingent interest in them.
If we interpret the advice that one get involved with something ‘larger than oneself’ in this way, it might be thought to represent a second and independent criterion for a fully successful and flourishing life. Combining this advice with the Fulfillment View, one might think, yields a better, bipartite conception of meaningfulness than either view taken on its own. The Fulfillment View directs our attention to a subjective component a meaningful life must contain. But, as the case of Sisyphus Fulfilled led us to see, even a life that fully satisfies the subjective condition may be one we are hesitant to describe as meaningful, if objectively the life is unconnected to anything or anyone whose value lies outside of the person whose life it is. By conjoining the Fulfillment View with the injunction to get involved with something ‘larger than oneself,’ we get a proposal that appears to remedy the problem: On this bipartite view, in order for a life to be meaningful both an objective and a subjective condition must be met.
If meaningfulness is understood to refer to a particular category or dimension of value, however, it would be puzzling if it turned out to depend on the satisfaction of two unrelated conditions. The proposal I favor, which identifies meaning with a property in which subjective and objective components are suitably linked, conceives of meaningfulness in a more unified way. On my conception of meaningfulness, one can see how the subjective and objective elements fit together to constitute a coherent feature a life might possess. Besides, if we really consider the two conditions of meaningfulness proposed by the Bipartite View as criteria to be taken separately, it is not clear that they contribute to the goodness of a person’s life at all.
Consider again the suggestion that a life in which a person contributes to something larger than himself (suitably interpreted) is more meaningful than a life that serves only the needs and desires of the person whose life it is. I introduced this idea in answer to the question of what (desirable feature) might be missing from a life like that of Sisyphus Fulfilled (or the pot-smoker, or Sudoku-player), that prevents it from representing a life we would want for ourselves or for those we love. We can add stipulations to these examples that guarantee that the protagonists’ lives and activities do contribute to some independent value. Imagine, for example that unbeknownst to Sisyphus, his stone-rolling scares away vultures who would otherwise attack a nearby community and spread terror and disease. Or imagine that the pot-smoker’s secondary marijuana smoke is alleviating the pain of the AIDS victim next door. If Sisyphus and the pot-smoker do not know or care about the benefits their lives are producing, however, it is hard to see how the fact that their lives yield those benefits – that they contribute, in other words, to something larger or other than themselves – should make us any more inclined to describe their lives as meaningful (or to find their lives desirable) than we were before we learned of these consequences.
In any case, it seems to me that when the recommendation to get involved with something larger than oneself is offered, it is typically offered in the hope, if not the expectation that if one does get so involved, it will make one feel good. The thought is that if one tries it, one will like it, and one will like it in part because of one’s recognition that one is doing something independently valuable.8 The suggestion, then, that one gets meaning in life through involvement with something larger than oneself, may be most charitably interpreted as a suggestion that is not meant to be taken in isolation. If one gets involved in something larger than oneself – or, as I have interpreted it, in something whose value is (in part) independent of oneself – then, if one is lucky, one will find that involvement fulfilling, and if that happens, then one’s life will both seem and be meaningful. If one’s involvement brings no such reward, however, it is unclear that it contributes to meaning in one’s life at all.
Just as the objective condition sometimes associated with meaning seems more plausible when it is understood to function in conjunction with some assumptions about the subjective attitudes that accompany its satisfaction, the subjective condition seems more plausible when understood in conjunction with objective constraints. When someone recommends that you find your passion and go for it, it seems, there is a hope, if not an expectation, lurking in the background, too. The hope is that the passion you find will be an intelligible one, within a certain range. You will not be passionate – at least not for too long – about stone-rolling, or Sudokus, or caring for your goldfish, or making handwritten copies of War and Peace. `
In my earlier discussion of Sisyphus Fulfilled, I expressed sympathy with those who, unlike Richard Taylor, found something desirable missing from Sisyphus’s life, despite his being subjectively quite content. There is room for an even stronger disagreement with Taylor, however, that I want to consider now. Specifically, one might wonder whether the transformation that Sisyphus undergoes from being unhappy, bored and frustrated to being blissfully fulfilled makes Sisyphus better off at all. One might think that it actually makes him worse.
From a hedonistic perspective, of course, Sisyphus’s transformation must make his life better, for the only changes in Sisyphus are subjective, replacing negative feelings and attitudes for positive ones. From a nonhedonistic perspective, however, these changes come at a cost. When I try to understand the new Sisyphus’s state of mind – when I try to imagine how someone might find stone-rolling fulfilling – I can conceive of only two possibilities: On the one hand, I can think of the substance in Sisyphus’s veins as inducing delusions: They make Sisyphus see something in stone-rolling that isn’t really there. On the other hand, the drug in his veins may have reduced his intelligence and his imaginative capacity, thus eliminating the possibility of his noticing the dullness and futility of his labors or of being able to compare it to other more challenging or worthwhile things that, had the gods not condemned him, he might be doing instead. In either case, Sisyphus is in at least one respect worse off than he was before his transformation – he is either afflicted by mental illness or delusion or diminished in his intellectual powers.
Opinion may divide over whether, all things considered, the transformation makes Sisyphus worse or better off. Those in strongest sympathy with Mill’s claim that it is better to be a human unsatisfied than a pig satisfied may think that however bad the fate of the classical Sisyphus, the fate of the transformed Sisyphus is worse. Others may conclude that since Sisyphus is condemned to roll stones in any case, it is better for him to be happy with, or more precisely, fulfilled by his lot than otherwise. Even those who hold the view that it is better to be Sisyphus happy than Sisyphus unhappy, however, may agree that it is better still not to be Sisyphus at all.
To me, the first scenario, in which the transformed Sisyphus is deluded, seems a more plausible way to understand what it would be for Sisyphus to be or to feel fulfilled by stone-rolling, for “fulfillment” seems to me to have a cognitive component to it that requires seeing the source or object of fulfillment as being in some independent way, good or worthwhile. Even deep and intense pleasures, like lying on the beach on a beautiful day, or eating a perfectly ripe peach, would not naturally be described as fulfilling. To find something fulfilling is rather to find it such as to be characterizable in terms that would portray it as having value beside the pleasure it gives its subject.9
Imagining Sisyphus in terms of either scenario, however, can explain why we might hesitate to describe the life of Sisyphus Fulfilled as meaningful – and similarly, I would argue, why we would withhold that label from the life of the fulfilled pot-smoker, goldfish-lover, or Tolstoy-copier. Imagining these characters on the model of either scenario would, in any case, help to explain why we might regard their lives as far from ideal. Earlier I suggested that we might judge these lives to be ‘missing something,’ a phrase that suggests a feature separable from fulfillment that these lives lack, rendering them less than optimally meaningful (if meaningful at all). In light of our discussion, we can now see that even the apparent condition of meaningfulness they do satisfy – viz., the condition of being fulfilled – is in a certain way defective and less desirable than fulfillment that stems from a more fitting or appropriate source.
The Fitting Fulfillment View Defended
I earlier argued that the popular view that takes meaning to involve contributing to something larger than oneself is most charitably understood as a criterion that includes a background assumption about the subjective feelings and attitudes that one’s contributions will engender. Analogously, I suggest, the popular view that meaning is a matter of finding and pursing one’s passion is best understood against the background assumption that one’s passion will fall within a certain objective range.
The endoxic method thus supports a conception of meaningfulness that involves subjective and objective components, suitably linked. It supports the idea that meaning in life arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something about it. The question remains, however, why such a feature should be thought or felt to be desirable. What, if anything, is so good, so distinctively good, about loving objects worthy of love, and being able actively to engage with them in a positive way? An advantage of my conception of meaning, in addition to its being supported by the endoxic method, is that it identifies a feature of a life for which an intelligible and plausible answer to this question can be given.
We have already noted that being able to be actively engaged with things that one loves affords one a particularly rewarding type of subjective experience – it is, if you will, a high quality pleasure. Like the Fulfillment View, the Fitting Fulfillment View (for lack of a better name) identifies a feature that gives this recognizable benefit to the person whose life possesses it. According to the latter view, however, what is distinctively valuable is not the state or ongoing experience of fulfillment considered in itself. Rather, what is valuable is that one’s life be actively (and lovingly) engaged in projects that give rise to this feeling, when the projects in question can be seen to have a certain objective kind of worth. Why should this be something that matters to us? If having this in one’s life answers a human need, what human need is it?
At least part of the answer, I believe, has to do with a need, or at least an interest or concern, to be able to see one’s life as valuable in a way that can be recognized from a point of view other than one’s own. We can better understand this need, and perhaps quell the doubts of those who are skepticial of its existence, if we see its connection to other features of human psychology with which we are familiar from other contexts.
One such feature that has long been of interest to philosophers has been especially emphasized by Thomas Nagel – namely, the human tendency, to see (or try to see) oneself from an external point of view. Humans have a tendency to aspire to see things, including themselves, without bias; they take up a detached perspective on their lives; they aspire to a kind of objectivity. Nagel has characterized this as an aspiration to take a ‘view from nowhere;’ others have talked about this feature in terms of a God’s eye point of view.
In addition, humans have a need to think well of themselves – a need for self-esteem. Being prone to imagine oneself from an external point of view, to see oneself as if from without, the wish that from that point of view one will be able to see oneself and one’s life as good, as valuable, as a proper source of pride seems to follow straightforwardly.
Still, the strength of that wish, and the peculiarly poignant feelings that can accompany it seem to me to involve something further, that, I suggest, is related to our social natures, and to our need (or wish) not to be alone.
Contemplation of one’s mortality, or of one’s cosmic insignificance can call up the sort of feelings I have in mind. The thought that one lives in an indifferent universe makes some people shudder, and leads them to despair. Reminding oneself of the fact, if it is a fact, that one has lived or is living in a way that is actively and, we may stipulate, somewhat successfully, engaged in projects of independent value may put these feelings to rest. For by living in a way that is partly occupied by and directed toward the preservation or promotion or creation of something independently valuable, one does something that can be understood, admired or appreciated from others’ points of view, including the imaginary point of view of an impartial observer.10
The fact that the feature focused on by the Fitting Fulfillment View can
bear on our reactions to thoughts about the human condition, that it can even offer some solace to those who are distressed when they think about our insignificance, gives further support to the idea that this feature is reasonably identified with ‘meaningfulness,’ since it makes the association between meaningfulness and the age-old philosophical topic of the Meaning of Life more than a coincidence.
A longing for fulfillment, and an admiration for lives engaged in projects that are fitting for fulfillment, are not restricted to times when we are especially cognizant of the human condition, however. Even when we are not thinking about our relation to the cosmos, we may intelligibly want to do something whose value extends beyond its value for us. Indeed, even if we never explicitly formulate a desire for our lives to be connected to something of independent value, the unarticulated sense that we are so connected may affect the quality of our experience. The feeling of being occupied with something of independent value, the engagement in an activity that takes one out of oneself can be thrilling. At least part of the reason why again seems to be related to our social natures, and our desire not to be alone. If we are engaged in projects of independent value – fighting injustice, preserving a historic building, writing a poem – then presumably others will be capable of appreciating what we are doing, too. Others may actually appreciate what we are doing, or at least appreciate the same values as the ones that motivate us. This makes us at least notionally part of a community, sharing values, to some degree, and a point of view. Even when no one knows what we are doing, or when no one appreciates it, however, the thought that it is worth doing can be important to us. The scorned artist or lonely inventor, the scientist whose research no one seems to approve, may be sustained by the thought that her work is good, and that the day may come when others understand and value it.11
Although I have suggested that the desirability of living in a positive relation with something of value from an independent source is related to our sociability, these last examples show that the relation may be indirect, perhaps even metaphorical. People who, for any number of reasons, cannot or do not wish to live around or be in intimate contact with other people, may still live meaningful and fulfilling lives. (Some artists, for example, may make art for an only dimly conceived posterity.) Conversely, for some people, the support, approval and admiration of others is not enough to make them feel fulfilled by what they are doing, or to judge their own lives as meaningful.
It may be suspected that the interests I am discussing are exclusively bourgeois, or that they are confined to an even narrower class of academics and other intellectuals. If one has to struggle to get enough to eat for oneself and one’s family, to get shelter from the cold, to fight a painful disease, a concern with whether one is engaged in projects of independent worth may seem to be a frivolous luxury. The fact that an interest in a meaningful life may not surface until one’s more basic needs are met is no reason to dismiss its importance, however. Nor does it seem to me that the fact that a person does not consciously articulate an interest in ensuring that some of the projects or things with which his life is bound up can be judged to have independent worth is enough to warrant the view that whether they have such worth is irrelevant to him. Bernard Williams once wrote, with respect to the question of life’s being desirable, that “it gets by far its best answer in never being asked at all.”12 Similarly, I think, for a person whose life is meaningful, the need to think about it might never come up. If a person is actively engaged in valuable projects, he may be getting feedback from these projects that enhances his life even if he is unaware of it.
Our interest in being able to see our lives as worthwhile from some point of view external to ourselves, and our interest in being able to see ourselves as part of an at least notional community that can understand us and that to some degree shares our point of view, then, seem to me to be pervasive. By engaging in projects of independent value, by protecting, preserving, creating, realizing value whose source lies outside of oneself, one can satisfy these interests. Indeed, it is hard to see how one could satisfy these interests in any other way.
Reflecting on the pervasiveness of these interests, and of the way a life of ‘fitting fulfillment’ answers to them will, I hope, support both my proposal that meaningfulness is a matter of active and loving engagement in projects of worth and my claim that this feature, distinct from both happiness and morality, deserves to be included in a conception of a fully successful human life.
For much of my lecture today, I have stressed the subjective aspect of a meaningful life – that is, the aspect that assures a meaningful life of being fulfilling, and to that extent feeling good. This emphasis brought out what my view of meaningfulness has in common with the simpler Fulfillment View (the view that says one should find one’s passion, and go for it) and allowed me to make an easy argument for a way in which a meaningful life was good for the person who lives it. When we consider what deep human interests or needs a meaningful life distinctively answers to, however, it is interesting to notice that the objective aspect of such a life needs to be stressed. Our interest in living a meaningful life is not an interest in our life feeling a certain way – it is an interest that it be a certain way, specifically, that it be one that can be appropriately appreciated, admired, or valued by others at least in principle13; that it be a life that contributes to or realizes or connects in some positive way with independent value. We do not satisfy those interests simply by thinking or feeling that they are satisfied any more than we satisfy our interest in not being alone simply by thinking or feeling that we are not alone. To have a life that not just seems meaningful but is meaningful, the objective aspect is as important as the subjective.
Many questions about this conception of meaningfulness and its importance remain. Though my discussion so far has been scattered with examples of activities that do as well as those that do not tend to enhance meaning, according to my conception, I have not offered any sort of general or systematic criteria for sorting these out. Nor have I yet addressed, or even so much as acknowledged, the resistance many in the audience are no doubt feeling toward my references to objective value, or to the corresponding view that some activities or projects are more fitting than others to be the object of one’s life’s central passions. I shall begin my lecture tomorrow by responding these questions before turning to the second set of issues promised by the two lectures’ title. By the end of tomorrow’s lecture, then, I shall have tried to convince you not only of what meaning is, but of why it matters.
University of North Carolina