Monday, February 20, 2006

The Meaningful Life

Interesting seminar today from Susan Wolf, on "Meaning in Life and Why it Matters". She began by noting that many of our important everyday activities -- particularly those relating to helping loved ones or advancing personal projects -- aren't obviously justified against the usual egoistic or impartial utilitarian standards. But they are obviously justified. So we need another model of practical justification to account for this. Wolf proposed that meaningful activities provide reasons for so acting, analysing 'meaning' as something that "arises from active engagement in projects of worth". (Similar analyses were made over at PEA Soup last year.)

Now, it sounds like 'meaning', so understood, is simply a component of welfare (or "the good life"), and so related activity justified on egoistic grounds. (In particular, the notion seems closely related to our global preferences, and issues discussed under point #4 here.) Wolf responded that the two might come apart (since meaningfulness does not exhaust considerations of welfare) and we might consider meaningful actions to be justified even in such cases. While they typically have some egoistic value, they seem to have a further value that is independent of this.

I think we can make better sense of this by appeal to the sort of 'indirect' reasons found in, say, indirect utilitarianism. There are familiar indirect utilitarian reasons for people to show special concern for loved ones, even if this general rule might fail to maximize utility in particular cases. Likewise, the paradox of hedonism provides us with egoistic reasons to pursue personal projects outside of ourselves, rather than attempting to directly advance our own interests. So I think we can accommodate the required justifications within existing frameworks.

The fact that the theoretical justifications are less obvious than we take them to be in everyday life is, I think, irrelevant. Such objections would apply to any appeal to 'indirect' reasons. Much of the attraction of these theoretical strategies, as I see it, is that they provide illuminating (and thus non-obvious) theoretical groundings for our everyday practical normative beliefs.

The 'generalized' nature of indirect reasons means that they apply even in particular odd cases where they lack direct justification (as noted above). But imagine a case where 'meaningfulness' and other values are radically and transparently disconnected. Perhaps God warns that every time you help a loved one or pursue a personal project, this will cause another innocent person to be tortured to death and you will be beset by agonizing pain. If this particular example isn't clear or convincing, let us simply say that you know that such activities will never promote your own interests, nor those of everyone generally. Upon reflection, can we really continue to hold that such actions could be justified? If not, we are committed to the indirect theory of justification. This is my preferred response. If you think they could still be justified, we might either agree with Wolf that the activities are independently justified (and given such rampant pluralism, we might as well go on and endorse super-human values too), or we might broaden the 'indirect' theory so that generally successful rules still apply even to individuals for whom the rules are transparently counterproductive.

That's the main point I wanted to discuss. But I'll also briefly mention Wolf's claim that the 'objectivity' requirement for meaningfulness (recall: you must be actively engaged in worthy projects) shows subjectivist - including preferentist - theories of well-being to be inadequate. I've previously argued that idealization through consideration of counterfactual preferences provides the subjectivist with the resources to be elitists (or pseudo-objectivists) in this way. Wolf suggested that such idealizations get the right result for the wrong reasons. (She presumably holds that our idealized selves would favour an object because they are in a position to recognize their objective worth -- and it's the latter fact, rather than our idealized preference for it, that really matters here.) I'm not convinced, mainly because I don't understand how the metaphysics of 'objective worth' is supposed to work. Idealized preferences clearly exist, quite unproblematically (albeit abstractly), so we can safely build our ethical theories around them. This other notion though, doesn't seem to correspond to anything real. So I think we'd do better to avoid it. But that's a whole 'nother debate.


  1. I dont really get Susan's position - it seems to be based on nothingness (gets an image of a blackness swallowing up fantasia). I guess I am particularly unsure about things being "obviously justified".

  2. I agree with Richard that activities like caring for a loved one, or struggling to improve a philosophy paper - which don't seem at first glance to be justifiable either from an egoistic or an impartial consequentialist perpsective - may be justifiable either on indirect utilitarian grounds or on indirect egositic grounds (having to do with the paradox of hednosim). There is a further question, though, as to whether the existence of such indirect justifications are necessary, in order for these actions to be justified at all. The existence of such indirect justifications in particular cases are often very uncertain, and it's not obvious to me why the justifiability of my caring for my friend must hang on the availability of an indirect justification of one of these other types. Of course, the independent plausibility or implausibility of indirect utilitarianism will have a lot to do with the plausibility that these meaning-contributing activities require justification by that theory (or with the plausiblity of the claim that these indirect-utilitarian justifications illuminate, rather than distort our understanding of our own values).
    A separte point: If I understand him, Richard claims that if one agrees that sometimes the fact that an action will contribute to the meaning of someone's life by enhancing one of his personal projects (caring for a loved one, pursuing his vocation as a creative artist or whatever)is not justified because the moral or personal costs are too great, then one is committed to the indirect theory of justification. But I don't see why. Rampant pluralism, of which I am a fan, does not commit one to the view that no amount of one type of disvalue can outweigh any amount of another type of value - at least if it does, I don't see why.
    --Susan Wolf

  3. On the latter point, my premise is not merely that projects could be unjustified if outweighed by moral and personal costs. You rightly note that this claim is far too weak to support my position uniquely. Rather, my claim was that a personal project could not possibly be justified if it were clearly both egoistically and impersonally disadvantageous. This is a much stronger claim, and seems to count against pluralism. (At least, I would expect pluralists to hold that any one type of value can potentially outweigh other types of values. You lack an explanation of why personal values could never outweigh both egoistic and impersonal values simultaneously.) But I expect you will want to deny this stronger claim of mine.


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