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June 21, 2011

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Hi! What other works on what makes lives meaningful would you recommend? Thanks. Best, Bruchelle

Jussi, I think (2) is a confused objection (to Arpaly and Haidt).

Briefly: being meaningful (in Wolf's sense) is a real normative property. So, when we imagine that the Error Theory is true, we are imagining that there is no such thing as being meaningful. This is so on any view about what properties and states underlie meaningfulness.


Bruchelle,

some of recent works on this area which I have enjoyed include:
John Cottingham: On the Meaning of Life
John Kekes: The Human Condition
Antti Kauppinen: "Meaningfulness and Time"
Neil Levy: "Downshifting and the Meaning of Life"
Michael Smith: "Is That All There Is?"
but I'm sure there's much more.

Jamie,

that's a bit dense but I think that I now get the point. So, for Wolf, 'the meaningful-making' properties are evaluative whereas, for Haidt and Arpaly, they are not. However, both parties should perhaps think that meaningfulness itself is an evaluative property, so under the error theoretic conditions both sides must agree that lives would lack meaning. That seems right.

However, maybe, the Haidt/Arpaly camp would be keen to deny that the property of meaningfulness itself is an evaluative property. Given that both ground their views of meaningfulness empirical studies on what makes humans fulfilled this might not be far fetched. In this case, the views would come apart again in the meaningfulness of the lives under error theoretic conditions.


I agree that Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a great book. The comments by Koethe, Adams, and Arpaly raise lots of good problems.

For those that want to read more on the topic, the Klemke and Cahn collection is pretty good. There aren't many surprises, but the collection is solid. Much of it is the citation list from the Edwards entry in the old Encyclopedia of Philosophy. His entry is also reprinted in the collection.

Since it hasn't been mentioned, the first chapter of Wielenberg's book Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe is on the meaning of life. It's excellent. As is the second chapter on divine command theory.

I've been thinking a bit about Wolf's arguments against purely objective theories, since on some mornings I find purely objective theories very attractive. Wolf asks us to imagine a slight variation on the original Sisyphus myth: Imagine that unbeknownst to Sisyphus, his daily rock rolling scares off angry vultures that would have otherwise decimated a small village (pp.21 and 38). In this scenario his life has good results. Purely objective theories of the meaning of life would say that Wolf's Sisyphus leads a meaningful life. But clearly he does not. So, the objection concludes, we should reject purely objective accounts.

I just don't share her intuitions about this case. I wonder what others think. As I see it, if his rock rolling prevents horrid vultures from spreading a disease or stealing the young children from a vulnerable town, his rock rolling is tremendously instrumentally good. If his rock rolling merely amuses the townsfolk, then, here too, his rock rolling would be somewhat good. Perhaps, if the amusement was great enough, or if it prevented a rash of suicides, the resulting value of Sisyphus's toil would cross the threshold of meaningfulness. Yes, the theory has this implication. But I do not see the problem. Surely the good effects would make his life meaningful in this regard. . . .

Jussi, the idea of meaning is a bit slippery, but I think that this might bolster your view about the subjective component.

Suppose that I set myself a very important goal in life. Fulfilling the goal means a lot to me simply because I think it very morally significant. I realize that I will be more successful in fulfilling the goal if I am less gripped, passionate, excited etc about it. I take a pill to reduce my levels of passion for the goal and I fulfill the goal. I don't see that my life is less meaningful than the life of the person who achieves the same goal but is more gripped by it than me.

Similarly, suppose that I could advance my pursuit of the goal in two ways: a) take a pill that improves my ability to become gripped by the goal; b) take a pill that makes me strongly averse to failing to achieve the goal. I recognize that b) will make me more likely to succeed in the goal than a). It seems to me that a) may be better for me with respect to well-being, but b) is better for me with respect to meaning.

We might conclude that being gripped, passionate etc are more important for my levels of well-being than for meaningfulness.


Aaron,

thanks for reminding about that case - it's an interesting one. There's several things to say about it. Firstly, even the purely objective accounts might hold onto the idea that the projects and activities that make life meaningful need to include the possibility of learning, developing skills, and so on. That would rule out the rock rolling activity even if there are objective reasons to act in that way.

On the other hand, I think Wolf has a point here against strong objective theories.On thing to consider is an agent who purely accidentally and unknowingly takes part in activities that have objectively good consequences. It would be hard to think that her life is meaningful for that reason. So, one requirement might be that the agent must act for the relevant reasons the acting on which makes one's life meaningful. At the very least this requires being aware of the reasons as reasons. Now, if Sisyphus is aware of the additional reasons in Wolf's case then it is easier to have the intuition that his life has meaning. But, I'm not sure that this condition makes the theory any less objective.

Victor,

I think that's a good point against the emotional elements of the loving relation to the relevant projects and actions. I'm not sure how important Wolf thinks these are. It might be that the loving relation has also other volitional and cognitive aspects - such as reflective endorsement, wholeheartedness, diachronic stability, volitional necessity and so on that might beyond the pill cases. But it might be that we can run similar arguments against these features too.

I guess the basic question is why, in order for an agent's projects and activities to make her life meaningful, must the agent have such a rich and strong connection to them? I need to reread Wolf's book again more carefully but I don't think she addresses this. And, the kind of intuitions that your case brings up show that this is not obvious by any means. So thanks!

This is a very interesting post, thanks for bringing it to my attention.

I don't know much about this topic besides what is written above, but it seems to me that there are two ways to determine meaningfulness, and we are getting them confused.

The first is self-reflective. This determination can only be made by the person whose life is being examined. I think it is this way that applies to Wolf's argument.

The second way is determined by others external to the life which is being examined. This is where others view a life and judge its meaning.

I feel like these are very important to distinguish.

An example: My cousin is mentally retarded, and has lived in a vegetative state for all of his 22 years. If he could reflect upon his life, he may find no meaning at all, because he feels no passion, drive, or motivation to do any activity, let alone be successful in it. However, when considering his life from an external point of view, he has a very meaningful life. He is loved by many people, and has motivated legislative change in Massachusetts. His life has been meaningful in how people respond to it an in an inherently valuable way.

Only by considering how we determine meaningfulness can we properly evaluate it.

Again, I am no expert, and I am sure that there are plenty of objections to what I have stated above. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

Sarah

Jussi,

I haven't read Wolf's book (just your summary here) and I'm certainly not up to date on the "meaning of life" stuff, but something you said here struck me:

"Her life is a collection of fleeting moments where she goes from one activity to another without much reflection or unity."

I think you could 'test' the claim that someone whose life is a collection of fleeting moments by examining cases of anterograde amnesia and, maybe the best example, of someone with both retrograde and anterograde amnesia (Clive Wearing might be the most obvious example). My intuitions side with yours-I think someone like Wearing could have a meaningful life without meeting any of the four criteria that Wolf seems to require for such a life.

Hi Sarah,

no - that's exactly right. There's finding meaning from the first-person perspective and someone's life being meaningful from an external evaluative perspective. I think Wolf's theory is a view about the meaningfulness in the latter sense. On this emphasis, people can be and often are mistaken about whether their lives are meaningful. Not all lives that people find meaningful really are so.

However, I think your example brings about nicely a slightly different - a third - sense of meaningfulness which is external but different from the one Wolf discusses. That sense is perhaps close to whether someone's life is significant for people around them and even more generally.

Eric,

right. Of course, this example is a good objection only if there's some necessary diachronic aspect to the loving relation to one's projects and activities. I suspect that Wolf might believe that there is but it is worthwhile to point out that the loving relation has many other aspects for her too and perhaps these are all that really do the work.

After reading the two original lectures, I'm still not convinced of the necessity of even moderately objective value (in the sense Wolf intends).


If, as the Fulfillment View suggests, the only thing that matters is the subjective quality of one’s life, then it shouldn’t matter, in our assessments of possible lives, which activities give rise to that quality.

I would affirm this and explain the insights Wolf takes as reasons to find the Fulfillment View inadequate as, instead, interesting considerations about what the Fulfillment View demands given the contingent facts of human psychology. No need for a distinct Fitting Fulfillment View.

This psychologically-informed Fulfillment View would include the fact that we typically place at least some value on whether others will value (or 'love') the fruit of our activities. No matter how well we are otherwise fulfilled by counting blades of grass, knowing that everyone else will think it a waste of time would thereby keep us from feeling fully fulfilled.

Wolf sometimes appears to positively support this idea that the concerns of others can constitute the kind of 'external' value required for meaning:


The feeling of being occupied with something of independent value, the engagement in an activity that takes one out of oneself, it seems to me, can be thrilling. Why? At least part of the reason, again, seems to be related to our social natures, and our desire not to be alone. [...] Others may actually appreciate what we are doing, or at least appreciate the same values as the ones that motivate us.

She goes on to say that we can be motivated by the hope of future appreciation even when others don't appreciate our work now.

Wolf's primary argument against the adequacy of the Fulfillment View comes from the thought experiment of Sisyphus Fulfilled, in which Sisyphus is injected with a substance that makes him love rolling the stone. Yet according to Wolf, 'the pointlessness of what he is doing doesn't change.'

I have two minor and one major objection to this. First, the use of a drug can manipulate our intuitions because we might think Sisyphus' true desires are still contrary to stone rolling (it would be better to imagine a Sisyphus who has always loved stone rolling and the gods mistakenly thinking this would be a terrible punishment for him). My second minor objection has to do with Wolf's conjecture that Sisyphus being made to love stone rolling may put him in a worse-off state than his original state of hating it. Why? Wolf conceives of the substance working either by 'inducing delusions' or by 'reduc[ing] his intelligence and his imaginative capacity.' These options merely give Sisyphus mistaken(!) means-desires rather than change his ends-desires. So the analogy seems to fail even as an account of the Fulfillment View.

My major objection is 'major' because it doesn't rely on what I consider faults of this particular analogy. If we specify that a person is completely subjectively fulfilled in some fruitless task (as far as everyone else is concerned), then we're discarding the psychology of 'our social natures, and our desire not to be alone' that Wolf highlights elsewhere. And if Sisyphus has absolutely no direct or indirect desire for others to appreciate his stone rolling, then his situation does not speak to the nature of our situation. His psychology is alien to our psychology.

On a more positive note, I really liked Wolf's point about the need to be actively engaged with the object of our love. I would classify this as another facet of common human desires, which typically goes into the mix whatever our idiosyncratic desires might be.

It might be worth distinguishing two features of the Sisyphus case:

1) stone rolling lacks objective value
2) stone rolling is simple

I think it odd to say that Sisyphus's life of stone rolling is very meaningful because of the second feature. The story of Sisyphus's life is short and boring. In contrast, it seems odd to say that Hitler's life lacked meaning. It just doesn't have a good meaning. Doesn't it seem intuitively right that Hitler's actions are more meaningful than Sisyphus's but objectively worse?

Garren,

I am actually quite symphatetic to Wolf's objective condition, and I do think she responses well here to the objections by Arpaly and Haidt.

With respect to your response to the counting of blades of grass example, there's at least two things to say. It might be true that typically people place value on whether others value their activities. However, I don't think this is true of everyone. And, counting blades of grass does not make those people's life any more meaningful. Secondly, we can imagine communities where counting blades of grass is a valued activity. It doesn't seem like the activity becomes any more meaningful-making in those communities.

Same goes with the Sisyphus case. You can imagine a version of the case where the person is brought up in the standard way to value stone rolling and where the society values stone-rollers. Doesn't make the lives in these communities any more meaningful.

Victor,

did anyone ever claim that stone rolling is meaningful because of it is simple? I'm sure the claim would be that it lacks meaningfulness just for that reason. Not sure what the point about Hitler is supposed to be. Sorry about this. I agree though that evil lives can be meaningful. This seems compatible with everything Wolf says. Even on her view the objective values and reasons that make lives meaningful can be non-moral values and reasons. She is careful to argue that not all practical reasons are either prudential or moral.

Hello Jussi

your description of Wolf's view indicated that the projects must be worthwhile to contribute to meaning. I take it that you don't think that Hitler's projects were worthwhile.

Hi Victor,

thanks for the clarification. I find the Nazi examples always awkward to discuss and less illuminating than others. The old rule is that you lose an argument if you need to bring them up.

There's a couple of things to say though for the Arpaly view about this kind of cases. First, I think one can reasonably deny that Hitler's life had meaning. I know you find this odd but I'm not so sure about my intuitions.

Second, in so far as one things that his life was meaningful, one can say the same thing as Wolf says about incomplete projects. I know this is going to sound horrid but you might think that Hitler's evil over-all project had sub-projects which were related to some objective values (such as being a political leader, for instance). One could think that the pursuance of these worthwhile projects made his life meaningful even if over-all he had far better reasons not take part in anything he was involved in (well, maybe it was ok for him to paint water colours).

Thanks Jussi

We can replace Nazis with any other wrongdoers if you like (seems a shame to lose an argument in this way).

The question is this: can wrongdoing render a life meaningful, and if so why. We agree, I think, that it can. Your comment suggests one possible reason: that this depends on whether the wrongdoing has objectively valuable components or sub-projects. I'm not sure, though. Being a political leader isn't worthwhile in itself. It is worthwhile only if one is a good political leader. Also, it seems that being a thief or a drug-smuggler could be meaningful, and that doesn't seem to depend on there being good sub-projects to thieving or drug-smuggling. I am tempted to say, then, that complex planned activities can render a life meaningful regardless of whether these activities are worthwhile. Perhaps we should distinguish between whether a person's life has meaning and whether we value the meaning that it has.

Right - I'm starting to feel more comfortable here. Thiefs and drug-smugglers seem easier to me. If someone's life just consists of thieving and drug-smuggling for no further purpose, then it seems to be that these lives are meaningless (well, maybe there are skill requiring worthwhile subprojects involved in these too). If thiefs and drug-smugglers use the rewards of their work to fund further projects such as family lives or whatever, then it seems that it is those projects that make the lives meaningful and not the means by which they are pursued.

I'm fairly pluralist about what subprojects can be worthwhile elements of a meaningful life. Running big organisations like countries seem to me fall in the worthwhile side. After all, many people pursue this project and they are admired for it even if they do horrid things. I think you might be right that H failed to run a country well. But, as Wolf notes, a complete success is not required in the projects that make one's life meaningful. I don't want to spend too much time thinking about what Hitler's subprojects were intrinsically worthwhile. I just think that for a Wolfean arguing this seems fairly plausible.

I'm still not convinced.

Consider a person who takes some goal to be valuable, commits themselves to that goal, develops a complex plan to achieve it, and achieves it. We can give a narrative account of the pursuit of the goal from the person's perspective.

One conception of meaning treats this as sufficient for the person's life to be meaningful. Another conception requires something further - that the value of the goal, or some feature of the plan, has objective value rendering it worthwhile.

Don't we want both conceptions available to us? After all, we surely want to treat the person who has complex but valueless plans differently from Sisyphus. For example, if his conduct does not violate the criminal law, we may refrain from interfering with the former person on the grounds that respect for his conception of the good is required. That seems less plausible in Sisyphus's case. And the wrongdoer might be encouraged to understand the negative meaning of his life, which may require a different response than Sisyphus should be encouraged to make to his life.

We can make these conceptions available to us by distinguishing between the meaning of a person's life and whether we value that meaning.

Are these two 'conceptions' conceptions of one and the same thing? Are they in conflict with one another? If they are then at most one of them is the correct conception of meaning. If they are not in conflict with one another, then they use the term meaning in different senses. I have no objections to stipulating two different senses of meaning even if there is then the question of which of these senses is closer to the ordinary usage of meaningful life.

I agree that we should treat a person who has to develop complex plans to achieve goals differently. But, here the objectivist has an easy way out. She can say that there is something worthwhile about projects that include complex plans: the required practical deliberation, the skills one needs to develop, the human interaction and co-operation in which one has to take part, the perfection of human capabilities, and so on.

It's hard to have intuitions without specifying what the complex plans are plans for. At least I don't have any intuitions about pursuing and achieving complex plans per se.

The questions of refraining raise a whole bag of different questions.

So let's stipulate that there are two different senses. I'm not sure which is closer to ordinary usage. I suspect that on ordinary usage does not require a person's projects to be worthwhile.

An atheist meets a priest. He says - 'I think that what you do is worthless'. He doesn't seem committed to - 'I think that what you do is meaningless'.

Jussi,

I realize a lot of people will be sympathetic to the objective condition; and I'm not trying to argue against anyone upholding it if they're already disposed to do so. I'm just saying that someone who doubts activities can have greater or lesser objective worth (in the relevant sense) can easily re-interpret Wolf's 'Fitting Fulfillment View' as a subordinate consideration to the 'Fulfillment View.'


It might be true that typically people place value on whether others value their activities. However, I don't think this is true of everyone. And, counting blades of grass does not make those people's life any more meaningful.

There may well be exceptions to the psychological rule. But I suspect what's going on when you say their lives won't gain meaning by engaging in uniquely-valued activities is that you — and other normal people like you — wouldn't be fulfilled, so you project this imagined lack of fulfillment on the grass counter.

Put another way, I'm claiming Wolf's sense of meaning can easily be understood as coming only from her subjective feelings, it's just that — for her and most other people — this happens to require doing things that can be appreciated by others.

Hi Folks,

Victor wrote: "An atheist meets a priest. He says - 'I think that what you do is worthless'. He doesn't seem committed to - 'I think that what you do is meaningless'."

I am not sure about this.

Consider asking the priest what *he* would think if he realized that what he did was worthless. (I will switch to a monk to make it cleaner)

An atheist meets a christian monk. He says - 'I think that what you do is worthless'. The monk would probably (should?) say, "If I came to believe that your view was right, I would quit the abbey and think my years devoted to prayer there were meaningless."

Given this background I am thinking the athiest should believe the monk's prayer practice is worthless *and* meaningless.

But realizing a supposed hinge proposition of your practice ("God exists") is false, is different from realizing you were doing something bad.

I think I agree with Victor: Someone who devotes her time to writing letters to Santa is doing something worthless and meaningless, but someone who devotes his time to telling little kids that Santa does not exist is doing something meaningful but bad.

Jussi,

However, maybe, the Haidt/Arpaly camp would be keen to deny that the property of meaningfulness itself is an evaluative property. Given that both ground their views of meaningfulness empirical studies on what makes humans fulfilled this might not be far fetched. In this case, the views would come apart again in the meaningfulness of the lives under error theoretic conditions.

I had a little chat about this today with one member of the Haidt/Arpaly camp. We agreed that it is a bit difficult to decide whether meaningfulness is itself an evaluative property.
But look, utilitarians "ground their views" of which outcomes are good on empirical stuff about what promotes happiness. This does not suggest (does it?) that utilitarians are keen to deny that the goodness of outcomes is itself an evaluative property.

We decided that insofar as we understand it, meaningfulness is indeed an evaluative property. The Open Question test seems to us to confirm this (naturalistic ascriptions leave open questions of meaningfulness; ascriptions of meaningfulness appear to close some questions of value). But it is a somewhat exotic property, and neither of us was very confident about it.

Thanks everyone for your very interesting and useful comments!

Victor,

I know this will be a very tricky issue and intuitions seem to be fairly indeterminate given how holistic meaningfulness judgments of lives or 'what one is doing' are. In the atheist case, it is easy to understand the atheist to be appraising the social work aspects of priesthood.

Garren,

there's a lot to be said here. For one, I think we could be expressivists about the objectively valuable element of meaningfulness. It might be that projection of our own values is part of how the concept of meaningfulness works. Yet, accepting this, does not commit one to anything like the subjectivist mere fullfilment view (as Blackburn always goes on to emphasise).

Brad,

well, I do think that there are many worthwhile subelements of almost any religious project - even that of monks. I think I would count meditation even as a worthwhile activity even if it does not have any external consequences necessarily to anyone else. These projects remain just as valuable even if the beliefs on which they are based might be false.

Jamie,

I agree with all you say. I've been thinking that, if the Arpaly/Haidt side believes that meaningfulness is an evaluative property, this has an interesting consequence for the dialectic. In that case, they cannot have any metaethical or metaphysical objections to Wolf's view that objective evaluative properties are required for making lives meaningful. After all, now they are accepting one such objective evaluative property themselves - namely meaningfulness. They need to have some other first-order grounds for denying that objective evaluative properties belong to the meaningful-makers.

I, too, would be inclined to question Wolf’s requirement of objective worthwhileness. But if we omit this requirement, the remainder of Wolf’s theory seems to nicely explain the nature of meaningfulness (though I should say that I haven’t read the commentaries in the book).

I am confused, though, as to why the truth of the error theory would imply that lives would be meaningless even on such a subjective account of meaningfulness.

True: a Wolfian might say about such an account, “Oh, the subjective theorist couldn’t possibly be talking about what I’m talking about when I say ‘meaningful’ --- I mean to express a property that is irreducibly evaluative or normative. The subjective theory is a non-starter when it comes to my property.”

But is this reasoning conclusive? Surely the Wolfian is giving a theory about the nature of the (or at least an --- as earlier comments attest) ordinary, publicly-shared concept of meaningfulness. That is what makes the theory an interesting piece of philosophy. And if he or she is doing that, then he or she cannot simply declare that the concept is irreducibly evaluative. The best theory about the deep nature of meaningfulness might be reductive. This theory might require us to abandon other parts of widely held explicit theories of meaningfulness, too.

(It seems to me that the same points could also be made about evaluative-ness or normativity.)

Jason,

firstly, Wolf is fairly neutral about the nature of meaningfulness. According to her, it is one of the properties that make life better. She is also neutral metaethically about the nature of objective values and reasons. So, the discussion between me and Jamie was very speculative. And, we did agree with you that much depends on what Wolf's opponent says about the nature of meaningfulness

It's probably fair to point out that Wolf wants to offer a conception of meaningfulness which she thinks 'fits well with many of the uses to which the word is put'. She also says that she has in mind a 'category of value'.

I do have a question for you though. You say that 'the remainder of Wolf's theory seems to nicely explain the nature of meaningfulness'. Could you expand a bit why you think this? Why is it that one can have a meaningful life only if one has a rich, loving relation to one's projects and activities? Why does meaning in life require passion, excitement, and attraction? Why cannot one live a meaningful life just by having projects and by taking part in activities?

Hi Jussi,

I am not sure that I want definitely to commit to the subjective version of Wolf's view. But perhaps the rich subjective relations to projects could be defended in the following way.

When people desire to live a meaningful life, they do not merely desire to pursue projects that are important in the abstract or from some detached point of view. Nor would it be enough to pursue projects that are notionally important to them. Rather, they desire to live a life that they experience as meaningful while living it, one that resonates with them in a certain way.

This is some evidence that the ordinary concept of meaningfulness has first-personal elements. And indeed, I think that Wolf should be read as analyzing a concept with first-personal elements (even if it may also have third-personal ones). She is not simply concerned with some more external concept of meaningfulness --- e.g., the concept at issue in Sarah’s comment.

Now, those who attach great importance to varieties of external meaningfulness (e.g., Christians) might protest that my argument confuses meaningfulness with well-being (a possibility Victor noted earlier). But at the same time, the more clearly I comprehend purely external forms of meaningfulness, the less important they seem! And that is an indication that they were not what we were interested in at the outset.

Note that, even with first-personal elements included, there is still an objective fact as to whether a given person’s life is meaningful. So this is not a simple form of subjectivism or relativism. Indeed, even if we were to take the view in the direction I proposed earlier --- according to which your life is meaningful only if it involves successful engagement with projects (etc.) that are important to you, provided that you also have rich subjective relations to these projects (etc.) --- a person’s estimate of the meaningfulness of their own life would not be authoritative.

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