Thursday, May 20, 2010

Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life

I've just finished reading Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life, at least the two chapters in which she makes her main argument. I've found a lot in the book to agree with, but I have a few concerns as well.

I've learned a new term for the method of testing our theories against commonsense or ordinary intuitions. This is called the "Endoxic method", and is basically the method used by Aristotle. I'm not sure this method requires that we rely on careful consideration of individual cases, which is a common philosophical method, or whether this can be more generally applied. At any rate, I will follow her in considering our intuitions about carefully considered individual cases.

Wolf's theory is not meaning of life but meaning in life. One purported implication is that meaning of life involves a transcendental purpose or goal, but, since there is no such purpose, we would say that there is no meaning of life. But there can still be a meaning in life.

Wolf's theory is that meaning in life consists of "active engagement in projects of worth." This theory has three elements. (1) There must be a passionate attachment to the project. (2) The person must be able to contribute positively and actively to that project. (3) And the project must have independent worth, worth whose value depends at least in part on elements outside the agent.

This is probably on the right track. By requiring independent worth, it avoids the problem that meaning would be a purely subjective matter. That is definitely right; if meaning has anything to do with what we should want or how we should live, then it has to be objective, or at least not merely subjective. No matter how happy I might feel about my life, if I find out at the end of my life that it has actually been dedicated to harming people or doing nothing of merit at all, then I would think that my life had always been meaningless, or at least have less meaning. For example, suppose I spent my life assembling computer boards thinking that I was constructing a valuable part of computers given to poor children to make their lives better. Suppose that it turns out that I have been instead assembling computer parts for an alien race that is using them to make weapons with which they will enslave the human race. Discovering this would lead me to reconsider the meaning and value of my life even if I had felt all the subjective passion and engagement one could wish. (Correction: In chapter 2 she considers cases much like this one. Also note that she requires a positive contribution. So if one fails because of incompetence or bad luck to achieve any positive good in one's endeavors even if they are subjectively fulfilling and objectively worthwhile, they would still be meaningless. At least, we could say that the person's life was missing something, and a life in which such contributions were made is superior.)

Wolf's argument is two-fold. First, she just says that when we consider lives we would think of as meaningful, we invariably pick people whose actions had large-scale beneficial consequences of some sort: Einstein, Mother Theresa, etc. People do not generally think of someone who was happy engaging in something with no worth. No one says, "The most meaningful life is that of the most stoned person in the world."

Second, she considers lives that people often consider meaningless, such as the prototypical Sisyphus, and what these lives have in common is that the tasks they are engaged in are futile, useless or otherwise without any potential benefit to anyone.

She also argues that a feeling of fulfillment is necessary for meaning. This is fairly well-supportable as well. If one is doing something of value but without caring about one's actions, while feeling a sense of alienation from one's labors, for example, then one might reasonably think that one's life is missing something.

This view is not actually all that new. Thomas Nagel hints at something like this in "The Absurd." Her more original contribution is to suggest that the typical division of types of value into egocentric values and moral values is too limited. She believes there are objective values of another sort. The third sort of value she considers is values of love. Some things we do are motivated not, or at least not primarily, by happiness or self-interest. Neither do we do them, at least not primarily, because they are morally good. Some such actions are working exceptionally hard on your philosophy papers, helping your children, gardening or cooking for your love of growing things or wonderful foods.

This third type of thing can have objective value to provide meaning in life. Egocentric values cannot qualify as meaning-giving values even there are objective facts about what is in one's best interest, but (I'm inferring a bit here) moral values or reasons of love can provide that objective value.

But what about these reasons of love? First, they cannot be simply subjective values. It cannot be that anything is equally worthwhile provided we love it. Some of her examples, however, do lead me to have some worries about this. One example is of her love for baking, which she thinks is a worthwhile activity. But at other times she notes that a love of chocolate is not worthwhile and cannot give meaning to life (provided the other requirements obtain). My question is: what are these values? "Reasons of love" sound great, but the love is irrelevant to the value of the activity; the love provides the subjective element of meaning, not the objective element of worth. (At least, that's my view. I am not sure she would agree.)

Moral values are not the only objective values independent of subjective acceptance. There are objective epistemic values and, probably, objective aesthetic values. These would be reasonable things objectively to ground meaning in life. For example, Einstein's life could be considered objectively valuable because of its contribution to human knowledge (an epistemic value). Similarly, Shakespeare's life could be meaningful because of its devotion to creation of the greatest literary works in the English language (an aesthetic value). Perhaps even Wolf's cooking can constitute an aesthetically valuable activity. My conclusion here is that if Wolf cannot account for the value in terms of one of these established objective axiological categories, but only in terms of the love that one feels for an activity, person or group, that is prima facie evidence that this further activity is not objectively valuable.

Wolf would say that many of our activities, and some of those we take to be most valuable, are based on personal relationships whose value cannot be effectively be captured in moral, epistemic, aesthetic or egocentric terms. The effort we put into helping our children or loved ones is valuable independently of any moral value it might have or egocentric value it has for us or our happiness. I am inclined to think that if the activity is valuable it is because it benefits them; it is therefore morally valuable. If your activity does not benefit your children (say, you spend much more time on your child's Halloween costume than your child or anyone else would ever notice), and you do not develop a habit of doing more for your child than is strictly necessary such that such a habit benefits them, then it seems to me you are wasting that time. If your activity, or the extra time spent on the activity, is only justified in terms of your love for the person it benefits or the goal it subserves.

Perhaps there is such a thing as interpersonal value, something that, for example, makes our duties to our loved ones stronger than equivalent duties to people to whom we have no relation. But the love for the people or activities must be irrelevant to the objective worth of the activity.

Wolf is sensible in defending her position on objective value not on the basis of some theory of objective value but on the general need for there to be objective values. One can argue that pure subjectivism is inadequate without giving a theory of what objective value is. However, she does say a bit more about justifying these meaning-grounding values. I will take that question up in a later post.

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