Is a meaningful life a valuable life? And is a valuable life a meaningful life?
In order to answer to both questions this essay will analyse i) the need for human beings to have a meaning in life, ii) the impossibility of reaching an ‘external point’, iii) the difference between ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’ and their correlation, iv) existential ‘meaningfulness’ v) love as a ‘middle way’ between ‘self-interest’ and ‘morality’ vi) the insufficiency of love vii) the Bipartite View viii) existential absurdity ix) the consequences of immortality x) fulfilment as the link between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ in life. In conclusion it will demonstrate that ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ are interdependent in respect to human life, therefore a meaningful life is also valuable and a valuable life is also meaningful.
- Human life and its need of meaning.
Life is the state of being alive. Therefore, life can be defined, in scientific terms, as the period of time during which any organism conducts its vital functions such as breathing, blood circulation, regulation of body temperature etc. Therefore, in biological terms, if creatures have a meaning in life it is to survive and to make the species survive through reproduction. The preservation of the species could be considered the only purpose of life, or not even a purpose, but more an instinct of all living things, human beings included. On the other hand, human kind is different from other species because it has the use of intellect, which permits him to, not only survive, but also to make his life meaningful in a deeper, more abstract and sometimes more enduring sense, if possible. Indeed, ‘what is ‘valuable’ in typical human individuals is ‘intentional agency’, which is broadly conceived as the capacity to have beliefs, desires and preferences and to act on them in order to achieve one’s goals’ (Bortolotti, 2010). On one hand, it seems as if life is so ephemeral and contingent, because it concerns a precise and relatively short period of time, that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to attribute a meaning to it. On the other hand, it seems somehow necessary to find a meaning to individual life as well as to life in general, because otherwise humans would not have any reason to do anything that goes beyond the mere primitive need to survive; they would therefore live as animals. That is why human beings are perpetually looking for purpose, point, significance, depth and value.
- The external point.
According to Nozick (1990), ‘the notion of reality has various aspects or dimensions. The dimensions specify the notion of reality by describing its aspects and these same dimensions also provide the criteria for evaluating each object’. In ‘The Examined Life’, Nozick (1990) considers both ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ as two of those ‘evaluative dimensions’, since they both provide criteria for evaluation. According to Nagel (1989), it is a human tendency to see (or try to see) oneself from an external point of view. Therefore it is a human tendency to apply the ‘evaluative dimensions’ of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, used to make up the notion of reality, even to oneself. However, it is not clear whether it is possible for a human being to reach this ‘external point’ in evaluating oneself -and one’s own life- and, if so, to what this external point corresponds. According to Nagel (1989), a complete ‘objectivity’ about oneself is not reachable, and that is why he defines this attempt as an aspiration to take a ‘view from nowhere’. ‘The real problem with the external point of view is that it cannot remain a mere spectator once the self has expanded to accommodate it’ (Nagel, 1989). This means, that, despite of its attempts, the ‘objective self’ of human being cannot transcend from the ‘subjective self’, because the two selves are part of the same self, two sides of the same coin; they are tightly linked. Therefore, since ‘the objective self’ cannot reach ‘the external point’, both ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, despite of their being ‘evaluative dimensions’, cannot be considered fully ‘external’, since the ‘evaluator’ is always the human being.
III. The difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’, and their correlation.
Despite of the fact that ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ cannot be considered fully objective evaluative dimensions, ‘value’ is somehow ‘more objective’ than ‘meaning’. Indeed, according to Nozick (1990), the main difference between ‘value’ and ‘meaning’ is that ‘we need not look beyond something to find its (intrinsic) value, whereas we have to look beyond a thing to discover its meaning’. For example, Nozick (1990) thinks that ‘to seek to give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life’. That’s why Nozick (1990) considers ‘value’ inherent and ‘meaning’ relational. This difference between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ comes from their ‘primary home’. ‘‘Meaning’ and its cognates have their primary home in the semantic domain’ (Audi, 2005), which is ‘interpretable’ since it concerns words, while ‘value’ and its cognates have their primary home in the ‘countable’ domain, such as the economic one. Even if they originally belong to different domains, when applied to ‘life’, ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’ often overlap and they both tend to coincide with the word ‘important’. That is why it is really difficult to draw a line between a meaningful life and a valuable life. Despite of this difficulty, this essay will attempt to clarify the relationship between a meaningful and a valuable life and demonstrate that they are interdependent.
- Is Meaningfulness applicable to life?
Considering the concept of ‘meaningfulness’ in general, it is necessary to give a definition of ‘meaningful’. ‘Meaningful’ means both ‘having meaning’ and also ‘having a serious, important, or useful quality or purpose’ (New Oxford American Dictionary).
- 1. Semantic meaning.
If we consider the first meaning of ‘meaningful’ we realize not only that it is not possible to give a fully satisfactory explanation of what meaning is, but also that ‘meaningfulness’, according to some philosophers, is not applicable to life.
The attempt to give a definition to ‘meaning’ inevitably leads to circularity. Since the word ‘definition’ means ‘a statement of the exact meaning of a word’ (New Oxford American Dictionary), the concept of meaning is already contained in the concept of definition of a word. Therefore, giving a definition of meaning, without having a prior concept of meaning seems impossible.
Moreover, even if it were possible to give a definition of meaning without resorting to the concept of meaning, it would still be unclear whether ‘meaningfulness’ is applicable to life. Indeed, ‘some philosophers have been suspicious of the very concept of the meaning of life’, since, according to them, ‘only linguistic or ideational signs have meaning; life is not such a sign; therefore, life has no meaning’ (Gewirth, 2009).
- 2. Existential meaning.
However, Audi (2005) has confuted this thesis, demonstrating that, even if it is difficult, it is possible to attribute ‘meaningfulness’ to life, in its second acceptation of ‘having a serious, important or useful quality or purpose’. According to Audi (2005), in order to consider a life meaningful, it is necessary to distinguish between ‘semantic’ and ‘existential’ meaningfulness. ‘Semantic’ meaningfulness, the one that has been previously analysed, concerns the literal meaning of words, while the ‘existential’ one concerns existence and is therefore the relevant one in the attempt of building an account of a meaning in life. Indeed, Audi (2005) focuses on the latter in his paper called ‘Intrinsic Value and Meaningful Life’. In both cases -semantic and existential- ‘meaningfulness implies that there is a way to make sense of the phenomenon in question, indeed to interpret it in some way’ (Audi, 2005). However, while words necessarily have at least one meaning, ‘a life can be meaningful even if there is nothing it means’ (Audi, 2005). This is what Audi (2005) calls ‘the paradox of existential meaningfulness’. That’s because, unlike for words, it is really difficult, if not impossible, to find just one meaning of life. On the other hand, there can be many things, which, depending on the person, make his/her life meaningful. Therefore, there can be meaning in life without necessarily a meaning of life: ‘while the meaning in life is conferred by elements, including activities of our own that are up to us, at least indirectly, the meaning of life is conferred either by God or by some cosmic or other force beyond our control’ (Audi, 2005). Therefore, it seems as if the meaning in life has a subjective value, because it depends on the individual interpretation, while the meaning of life has an objective value, because it depends on a universal scheme. At this point Audi (2005) introduces another distinction between metaphysical meaning and existential meaning so that the former can be associated to the meaning of life and the latter to the meaning in life. The ‘metaphysical’ meaning of human life is called such, because it is ‘meta’ i.e. ‘after’ -from Greek- the Physics; therefore it transcends what is physical or natural. According to the metaphysical meaning of human life, the individual is inserted into a grand scheme, something which is over and above, ‘larger’ than the individual, which is often associated with a divine force; the existential meaning, on the other hand, does not have the presumption of going beyond the natural realm, but it considers humans in their physicality. In conclusion, having said that it is possible to attribute existential meaningfulness to human life, keeping in mind all the distinctions mentioned so far, which will be useful for the rest of the essay, this paper will now focus on Wolf’s account of a meaningful life.
- Love as a ‘middle way’ between ‘self-interest’ and ‘morality’.
Assuming that it is possible to attribute meaning to life, a meaningful life is a life worth living. Therefore, the question to answer now is what it is that makes it so. According to Wolf (2010), ‘being prone to be moved and guided by reasons of love, when the objects of love are worthy, is the core of our ability to live meaningful lives’. Wolf (2010), in order to arrive at this conclusion, starts from an original division of perspectives, which offer people valid reasons to act: an egoistic perspective and an impersonal one. The former is related only to the individual, to his/her self-interest; the latter concerns the community, the universe. However, many times people do not act neither out of self-interest nor out of duty or any other sort of impersonal or impartial reason, but rather out of love (Wolf, 2010). Interestingly, love is not only considered as ‘love for particular individuals’, but also as love for certain fields, ideals, activities or things such as philosophy, music or flowers. In these cases, indeed, the reason to act lies ‘outside oneself’, but also, ‘outside other people’, it lies in the thing itself. For example, when writing her essay, Wolf (2010) says, it is the love for the essay itself which drives her, her desire to make it sound, solid, coherent, well structured etc. Therefore, the reasons of love are a valid alternative to the reasons of self-interest and impersonal or impartial reasons, such as those of morality.
- Love is not sufficient.
However, not all actions that are motivated and guided by reasons of love are justified, for two reasons, according to Wolf (2010). The first reason is that love for something or someone is no guarantee that a person knows what is actually good for it, so although he/she may act in order to advance the interest of the object of his/her love, his/her action may not actually be in its interest. People might spoil their child, overwater their plants, cramp their philosophical style. The second reason is that love can be misplaced or misguided; the energy and attention that people give to an object may be disproportionate to what that object merits. Therefore, according to Wolf (2010), in order to have a meaningful life it is not only important to act out of reasons of love, but it is also necessary that the objects of love (either a person or an activity) are worthy and that people interact with them in a positive and active way. So now the question is: how do we judge whether an object of love is worthy of love? There must be an objective standard. However, love seems antithetical to objectivity since it is an irrational and subjective intense feeling. One parameter to judge the worthiness of the object of love, according to Wolf (2010), is that it is ‘larger than oneself’. However, ‘larger’ than oneself cannot mean ‘of greater value’ because, in this case, a life devoted to the care of a single other individual cannot be considered meaningful, for the value of the one cared for is presumably just equal to rather than larger than the value of the person who cares (Wolf, 2010). Therefore, ‘larger than oneself’ is better interpreted as something ‘other than oneself’, something whose value is independent of and has its source outside of oneself (Wolf, 2010).
VII. The Bipartite View.
Wolf (2010) makes a distinction between the ‘Fulfilment view’, the ‘Larger-than-oneself view’ and ‘The Bipartite view’. According to the ‘Fulfilment view’ it does not matter which activities or objects one has the passion for, as long as fulfilment is reached. Since everyone finds his fulfilment in a different way, according to this view the meaning of life is totally subjective. The meaning depends exclusively on the person’s own interpretation; he/she creates his own meaning. However, this does not seem a plausible view, because it leads to the conclusion that, since the person’s inner states are the only ‘judges’, even a life dominated by activities that most of the people would be tempted to call worthless, can be considered meaningful, as long as it provides fulfilment to the person, or at least as long as the person thinks so. In order to prove the fallacy of this thesis, Wolf (2010) uses ‘Sisyphus’s life’, that is commonly treated as ‘a paradigm of meaningless existence’. According to the ancient myth, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a heavy stone up and down the hill in an endless cycle. Taylor (2000) suggests a ‘thought experiment’, according to which, thanks to a substance inserted in his veins by the gods, Sisyphus is fulfilled by his task. Therefore, if fulfilment is considered as a sufficient condition in order to have a meaningful life, Sisyphus’s life should be considered meaningful, after the insertion of the substance. However, this argument still does not seem correct, because there is the need of an objective parameter. That is why Wolf (2010) introduces the ‘Larger-than-oneself view’, according to which the object of love must be ‘independent’ of oneself, as previously said. The object of love must be intrinsically valuable, which means ‘valuable in itself’ and not in relation to something else. Unlike in the ‘fulfilment view’, according to the ‘larger than oneself view’, the meaning does not involve inner states of the person, it does not depend on the person’s beliefs, but rather on some items on the objective list, therefore it is discovered and not created. However, this last view is still incomplete, because it does not take into account the ‘fulfilment’ of the person, which, even though not sufficient, is a necessary element for a meaningful life. In the end, the most plausible view for Wolf (2010) seems the ‘bipartite one’, which is the union of the two previous views, because it states that ‘in order for a life to be meaningful both an objective and a subjective condition must be met: meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness’.
VIII. Absurdity as a result of the tension between objectivity and subjectivity.
However, this inevitably leads to the ‘irreparable’ tension mentioned at the beginning of this essay, between objectivity and subjectivity. Indeed, Wolf (2010) in her ‘Tanner Lecture II’ stresses the importance of an ‘objective component’ in giving an account of ‘meaningfulness’ in life, but she also states that she has no positive account of ‘non-subjective value’ with which she is satisfied. That’s because, as previously said, it is impossible for the human being to reach radically objective accounts -of value in this case-. That would require ‘the objective self’ to transcend entirely from ‘the subjective self’ in order to gain a fully external point of view. However, as previously said, this is not possible because ‘the objective self’ and the ‘subjective self’ are two ‘selves’ of the same ‘self’, two sides of the same coin, which are therefore inseparable. That’s why the ‘objective self’, which is perpetually trying to detach itself from the ‘subjective self’ does not succeed. The ‘objective self’’s attempt to detach itself from the ‘subjective self’ derives from its need to fuse with the universe. Its need to fuse with the universe, in turn, comes from the awareness of its ‘littleness’ compared to the ‘cosmic vastness’. Therefore, since the objective self does not succeed in reaching a completely external point of view and detach itself from the ‘subjective self’, it is still inevitably engaged in the particular contingent life by which the ‘subjective self’ is totally absorbed. Therefore, in the self there is a continuous tension between the ‘subjective self’, which leads towards a ‘blind self-importance’, and the ‘objective self’, which leads towards a ‘nihilistic detachment’ as a result of the awareness of the self’s ‘littleness’ in respect to the ‘cosmic vastness’. This juxtaposition is precisely what causes the absurdity of human existence (Nagel, 1989). Actually, the absurdity consists even in trying to answer the question to what it is that makes a life meaningful, since a human life is so insignificant compared to the rest of the universe. It can seem a ‘bourgeois indulgence’, a pastime of people who don’t have anything better and more important to do. Moreover, even if that is not the case, considering that ‘to seek to give life meaning is to seek to transcend the limits of one’s individual life’ (Nozick, 1990) and ‘transcending the limits’ is not possible, it would seem as if there are no possible solutions for human beings to give life meaning, a part from immortality.
According to many philosophers, immortality is desirable, because the chances to give life a meaning would be infinite, since the temporal restrictions would be eliminated. On the other hand, the existentialists seem to have said that death was what gave meaning to life, if anything did, just because it was the fear of death that gave meaning to life (Bortolotti, 2010); therefore, eliminating death would consequently eliminate the meaning of life. However Williams (1973) does not go that far, he only analyses whether death is reasonably regarded as an evil or not. He reaches the conclusion that death should not be regarded as evil and that immortality is not desirable because it would inevitably lead to boredom or fragmentation. Boredom would be caused by the fact that everything that could happen and make sense to one particular human being had already happened to her/him, no matter whether the relevant life goals have been satisfied or not. The only way to avoid boredom seems to be the change of goals, but then the ‘radical shift of life goals’ would lead to fragmentation. Every change of goals and memories, caused by varied experiences, would correspond to a sort of ‘inner death’ so that the life of a person would then be decomposed into many different ‘mini-lives’ (Bortolotti, 2010). However, this would undermine the continuity of identity and the coherence of life goals that, according to Gallagher (2003), is a necessary element for a meaningful life (Bortolotti, 2010). In conclusion, William (1973), even without reaching the radical conclusion that the meaning of life is death, shows that death should not be regarded as evil and that immortality is not desirable. Therefore, immortality does not seem to be the right solution for ‘the absurdity’ of human existence.
After having demonstrated that life is somehow ‘absurd’ and that immortality is not the right solution in order to give human life meaning, the only option available in order to maintain existential ‘meaningfulness’ in life is to find a link between ‘meaning’ and ‘value’, between the ‘subjective self’ and the ‘objective self’ and between the individual and the rest of the universe, finding the ‘objective element’ missing in Wolf’s account of a meaningful life. According to Wolf (2010), the ultimate reason why it is important to interact in a positive way with a worthy object of love is ‘fulfilment’. Considering fulfilment as a form of pleasure, pleasure seems to be both the cause and the effect of what is ‘meaningful’. Indeed, in order to have a meaningful life, it is important to go along with passion, or more in general to what gives pleasure, and also the result of doing that will be even more pleasure. However, it seems as if ‘pleasure’ cannot be the only measure of ‘worth’ of an action, because there can be activities which provide pleasure, despite of being of little value. That’s why Audi (2005) mentions ‘the Aristotelian principle’, according to which, ‘when other things are equal, we should prefer those experiences that engage our more complex faculties, especially our rational faculties-including the aesthetic- in virtue of which we are beings capable of thought and creativity’. Indeed, according to Audi (2005), the good things which make a life meaningful are: creativity and high-excellence; a substantial reduction in the suffering of others or (less clearly) to enhance their happiness; rich human relationships; pleasing God. Since this essay is taking into account only the ‘temporal’ life, without considering the potential existence of a God, ‘pleasing God’ will be excluded. On the other hand, the other three ‘things’ can be subsumed in Wolf’s definition of ‘love’, since love is intended not only in respect to other people, but also in respect to some activities. Also, the ‘Aristotelian principle’ can be applied in all three cases because there are not only activities, which are more ‘intellectually stimulating’ than others, but also people. Moreover, the first meaning of ‘fulfilment’, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary is ‘satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character’. This highlights the fact that pleasure comes from the feeling of ‘completeness’, which can be reached only using not only the physical, but also the ‘intellectual’ faculties. Since using the intellectual faculties is universally considered valuable, it becomes clear that what is valuable is also what provides pleasure. Since meaningfulness is what is enjoyable and valuable, valuable is what is good and useful, and what is good and useful is also enjoyable, therefore enjoyment is the link between ‘meaningful’ and ‘valuable’. Therefore, despite of the individual differences, despite of the different interpretations of ‘meaningfulness’ in life, it seems clear that it is possible to find some objective parameters. Indeed, going along with passions and pleasures is good as long as it engages our rational faculties; love is what creates interpersonal connections in the society, when for people, what makes people improve, when for activities, what provides fulfillment and ultimately gives life meaning.
In conclusion, a meaningful life is also a valuable life and a valuable life is also a meaningful life. This is because ‘value’ is like the ‘objective self’ and ‘meaning’ is like the ‘subjective self’. ‘Value’ and ‘meaning’, with respect to human life, are so tightly linked that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate them. Therefore, ‘the tighter the connection with value, the greater is the meaning’ (Nozick, 1990) and the tighter the connection with meaning, the greater is the value. Indeed, not only is a meaningful life valuable, because being valuable is necessary in order to be meaningful, but a valuable life is also meaningful, because being meaningful, which implies the enjoyment of the individual, is necessary in order to be valuable.
Audi, R. (2005). Intrinsic value and meaningful life. Philosophical Papers, 34(3), 331-355.
Baird, R. M. (1985). Meaning in life: Discovered or created?. Journal of Religion and Health, 24(2), 117-124.
Bortolotti, L. (2010). Agency, life extension, and the meaning of life.
Burnyeat, M. F. (1980). Aristotle on learning to be good. Essays on Aristotle’s ethics, 69-92.
Dworkin, R. (1993). Life is sacred. The New York Times Magazine, 36-60.
Gallagher, S. (2003). “Self-Narratives in Schizophrenia,” in T. Kircher and A. David (eds.) The Self in Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Cambridge University Press, 336–57.
Gewirth, A. (2009). Self-fulfillment. Princeton University Press.
Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. oxford university press.
Nozick, R. (1990). Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. Simon and Schuster.
Sanders, S. and Cheney, D. (1980) The Meaning of life: questions, answers, and analysis.
Taylor, R. (2000). Does life have a meaning?
Williams, B. (1973). The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality. Problems of the Self, 82-100.
Wolf, S. (2010). Meaning in life and why it matters. Princeton University Press.