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A few years ago, Susan Wolf gave a pair of lectures titled: Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. These have recently been put into book form along with some responses. Since the book is overdue locally, I read through a slightly less polished PDF version (and will be quoting from that). Anyway, I warmed up to Wolf's approach pretty fast when I read this bit:
"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."This is a bit like Paul Ziff's treatment of the meaning of "good" — at its most general — as answering to certain interests implied by context. Seemingly different usages of "good" can be understood in this more abstract fashion. Wolf wants give an abstract explanation of meaning-in-life talk that works for specific instances. How does her "conception of meaningfulness" shake out? Before getting into details, it's important to understand what she means by the phrase "reasons of love."
Reasons of Love
Kant sought for moral principles in a kind of rational willpower that didn't depend one bit on consequences or, especially, human desires:
"That an action done from duty derives its moral worth, not from the purpose which is to be attained by it, but from the maxim by which it is determined, and therefore does not depend on the realization of the object of the action, but merely on the principle of volition by which the action has taken place, without regard to any object of desire."Philippa Foot challenged this idea by suggesting that the pursuit of some human desires could be what morality is really all about:
— Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
"It will surely be allowed that quite apart from thoughts of duty a man may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help if he can. Of course he must want not the reputation of charity, nor even a gratifying role helping others, but, quite simply, their good. If this is what he does care about, then he will be attached to the end proper to the virtue of charity and a comparison with someone acting from an ulterior motive (even a respectable ulterior motive) is out of place."Just because I'm following my own desire to help another person doesn't make my action selfish. Our desires can be self-oriented or other-oriented. It's not a stretch to say that a person acting out of other-oriented desires is acting out of love, i.e. acting for reasons of love. This might explain why we don't worry about people (or robots) with poor reasoning as much as we worry about those with excellent reasoning but who lack other-oriented desires.
— Philippa Foot, Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives
Does this mean that acting for moral reasons and acting for reasons of love are equivalent? Susan Wolf says no. We can have and pursue desires which aren't particularly self-oriented, but they aren't particularly moral either. These desires might be oriented toward other people (e.g. helping a friend move) or they might be oriented toward impersonal interests (e.g. keeping a garden free of weeds). Wolf's categories look something like this:
My DesiresWolf admits she is lumping together two categories under the "reasons of love" label, but this is because she wants to emphasize that there are desires (and therefore reasons) which fall outside of the other categories:
No One's Desires
- Self-oriented (selfish reasons)
- Impersonal interest oriented (reasons of love)
- Other-oriented Non-moral (reasons of love)
- Other-oriented Moral (moral reasons)
- Kant's notion of moral duty (dualistic moral reason)
"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."Maybe you're skeptical. If you have an expansive view of morality, you might want to put both categories of other-oriented desires together. This would imply that, for example, a desire to help a kid learn to read would be both a reason of love and a moral reason. Environmentally minded folks might even want to make impersonal projects like preserving biodiversity a moral issue. Most fundamentally, isn't love itself a moral positive? This is all fine. I understand Wolf to be talking about strong moral imperatives when she talks about morality. We don't expect everyone to personally go out of their way to combat illiteracy or preserve an obscure plant species the way we might expect them to go out of their way to combat hunger or injustice.
The important thing about reasons of love is that they're personal and passionately held. Yours and mine can be quite different, and that's ok. I don't have to love your spouse the way you love your spouse. I don't need to feel the same thrill participating in cosplay culture that you do.
As you may have guessed by now, these personal and passionately held reasons of love are a central figure in Wolf's views on what it means for a life to be meaningful.
Engaging With What We Love
"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."This is the first of the two parts of Wolf's "conception of meaningfulness." She's trying to capture the idea of finding your passion and actively pursuing it. This is subjective and can vary a lot from person to person, especially since she's talking about passions which aren't self-oriented desires or universal moral duties. Maybe I have a passion for dance, or writing about philosophy, or competitive video gaming. I don't think Wolf mentions it, but we might put charity causes here which are clearly moral but the particular cause isn't something we expect everyone to be involved with. So organizing and then participating in a breast cancer walk could count as a personal passion for an individual.
All of these things bring us "feelings of fulfillment" that living a merely selfish life or living only for an abstract moral code doesn't seem to provide. What's especially interesting about fulfillment so construed is that what fulfills me may not be the same as what's healthy or comfortable for me, or what makes me happy, or what morality demands. Our reasons of love can be in competition with these other human goods.
Loving What's Worthwhile
The other part of Wolf's "conception of meaningfulness" has to do with a worry that might have come up when you read the last couple of paragraphs: doesn't it matter which passions we pursue? Would a person's life be meaningful if she pursues passions that are pointless? What about passions that are wickedly dangerous to others?
Wolf uses Richard Taylor's thought experiment of Sisyphus fulfilled. Instead of feeling bad about rolling a boulder up a hill forever, this Sisyphus loves rolling the boulder uphill all day every day. Since he is subjectively fulfilled by following his passion, shouldn't we characterize him as living a meaningful life? Wolf writes:
"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."For this objective feature, Wolf appeals to another common way of talking about meaning in life: being involved with something "larger than oneself." Of course this is figurative; it doesn't mean that caring for a physically larger person counts while caring for a physically smaller person would not (otherwise, sorry babies!). Wolf takes it to mean that a person with a meaningful life must be engaged with something that has value beyond or outside the value she herself places on it. If Sisyphus is the only one who esteems boulder rolling, then his love for boulder rolling may make him feel fulfilled but it doesn't give his life meaning in the bigger picture outside of his mind.
This might not sound objective enough to you. Wolf wrestles with this problem too. On the one hand, she wants to be "minimally exclusive" when it comes to defining the kind of objectivity required. On the other hand, she wonders how we could maintain, e.g. that adding an observer who feels fulfilled by watching Sisyphus merrily roll his bounder would suddenly make Sisyphus' life meaningful. How could multiplying subjective valuers create objective value? After a few pages, Wolf concludes:
"Though I believe we have good reason to reject a radically subjective account of value, it is far from clear what a reasonably complete and defensible nonsubjective account will look like. The absence of such an account gives us all the more reason to be tentative in our judgments about what sorts of project deserve inclusion in the class of activities that can contribute to the meaningfulness of a life."She's inclined to call some activities objectively worthwhile (even if no one else appreciates them) and others not worthwhile (even if lots of people value them), yet she tries hard to avoid the charge of snobbery by admitting it's hard to be sure which is which, or to even apply any certain methods of making such determinations.
Putting these two parts together, Wolf sums up her "fitting fulfillment" view like this:
"[M]eaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness, and one is able to do something good or positive about it."Or is that three parts? It's multi-part at any rate. But why would a single concept — meaningfulness — have distinct parts like this? Wolf argues that these parts are intertwined even when we talk in ways that make them seem like separate concerns. In subjectivity, an element of objectivity:
"[M]eaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way."
"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."And in objectivity, an element of subjectivity:
"[W]hen 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."I'm surprised she didn't include a Yin Yang diagram. While I was reading Wolf's paper, I wanted to say that fulfillment (subjective) and meaning (objective) could simply be treated as separate, peer ideas. Now I'm not so sure. She makes an interesting point about background assumptions when we talk about one idea or the other. Plus, it's a fact that we casually use "meaning" to refer to both aspects. Perhaps we do operate on a two-fold conception of meaning in life.
Human Nature & The Nature of Value
I'm one of those people who gets uncomfortable when the term "objective value" comes up. Means-end value, I understand. Subjective valuing, I understand. But I come up empty when I try to grasp value that is neither means-end nor subjective. I want to collapse Wolf's objective element into one or both of the kinds of value that make sense to me.
So how about this: because intellectually mature humans are social beings by nature, a significant portion of our subjective fulfillment is held hostage by the valuing of others. We crave appreciation, if not for ourselves then at least for our projects or for the results of our projects. I may love tapping piano keys randomly, but if I realize that no one else appreciates or even would appreciate this form of music, my social desires are frustrated. Wolf touches on this idea when she writes about "our need (or wish) not to be alone" and to "see (or try to see) oneself from an external point of view."
What about joyful Sisyphus? If he is fully satisfied because he loves boulder rolling and isn't frustrated even knowing that no one else could share his appreciation for boulder rolling, then — in a sense — he isn't human. He may share my DNA, but his psychology is alien to me. On this view, only subjective value is needed. The constraint on activities we call "meaningful" comes from typical human nature, not from an impersonal source of value.
Now what would be really interesting would be another society (with human DNA or not) that so differs in their valuings that our projects are meaningless to them, and their projects are meaningless to us. This implies neither our lives nor their lives would be meaningful in a sense that transcends all valuers, but I don't understand what it would mean for life to be meaningful in that sense anyway.