What makes for a meaningful life? There are many proposed answers to this question. Some argue that God is necessary for a meaningful life; some argue that objectively fulfilling projects are necessary; some argue that the satisfaction of desires is enough; and some argue that nothing could make our lives meaningful. In today’s post I want to take a look at Steven Luper’s answer to that question.
Luper defends something he calls the “Achievementist View” of meaning in life. According to this, meaning is dependent upon our achieving certain goals. This is a highly subjectivist theory of meaning, and it distinguishes meaning from other related properties such as “purpose” and “well-being”. It also highlights the connections between meaning and seemingly unrelated properties like “identity”.
In what follows, I outline the main constituents of Luper’s theory. I generally refrain from overly-critical comments. I’m primarily interested in just setting out the theory and eliciting feedback from readers, not in critiquing it. This is because I find the theory both perplexing and intriguing. I find it perplexing because it seems to fall foul of several obvious objections. But I’m nevertheless intrigued because Luper is well aware of these objections, and brushes them aside with conviction.
Consequently, I’m left wondering whether there isn’t more to the theory than first meets the eye. In particular, I’m left wondering whether it doesn’t actually accurately capture what a meaningful life looks like from the “inside”, i.e. from the perspective of the one who lives it. I should add that I’m also interested in the theory because it suggests that certain forms of technological assistance can actually undermine the meaningfulness of our lives.
I base this discussion on Luper’s contribution to the Cambridge Companion to Life and Death.
1. A Quick Overview of the Achievementist View
The Achievementist View, at least as Luper defines it, is based on two key ideas:
The Whole Life Thesis: What bears meaning is the entirety of one’s life, not just particular parts or aspects thereof.
The Achievementist Thesis: What confers meaning on the whole of one’s life is whether one has achieved one’s aims.
The first of these is interesting insofar as it is denied by others. Some think that meaning arises out of particular moments or temporal slices of one’s life. Some think a combination of both is needed. For example, Thaddeus Metz, in his recent book about the meaning of life, argues that both the whole life and particular parts thereof constitute its meaningfulness. Interesting though this debate is, it need not concern us greatly here (except at the end when we look at some arguments for the absurdity of life).
It is the second thesis that is the important one. It claims that in order to have meaning, one must have a life plan: a set of coherent goals or ends that one wishes to achieve. It is only if those ends are achieved that one lives a meaningful life. Luper is adamant that this is very different from a desire-fulfillment theory of meaning. One can have one’s desires fulfilled without actually achieving anything.
Consider a simple example. One of my desires might be to laugh and have a good time. Going to see the stand-up comedian Louis CK could enable me to do both. But this wouldn’t mean that I had achieved those desires. Quite the contrary in fact. It is the other party — Louis CK in this instance — that is doing all the desire-fulfilling work for me. I am simply a passive recipient and beneficiary of his achievements.
The achievementist rejects this passive model. In order to achieve one’s ends, some active agency-like involvement in the task is required. Thus, for example, suppose one of my aims is to become completely self-sufficient in the production and maintenance of my own food supply. So I go out and buy the necessary animals and plant seeds. I dig up my land, plant the seeds, house and feed the animals, look after them through good times and bad. At the end of this process I can be said to have achieved something. If I simply hire another person to do all the work, I’ll have achieved nothing.
I find this view particularly interesting in light of the (increasing) role of technology in aiding our desire-fulfillment. At the moment this role is still limited. A satellite navigation system will help me to get to my destination, but for the time being I’m still doing the driving. Thus, for the time being I’m still playing an active part in achieving my goal of getting to that place. But what if technology completely takes over? What if we each have a team of robot assistants to cater to our every desire? Will that rob us of meaning in life? If the achievementist view is to be believed, it would. Perhaps this is something we should guard against.
2. Achievements and Purposes
The concept of an achievement is closely-related to that of a purpose. A purpose represents some object or end of one’s life; an achievement is an object or end that confers meaning. Nevertheless, purposes are distinct from achievements.
One major reason for this is that “purpose” has a faintly “externalist” or “objectivist” ring to it. In other words, people often talk about life’s purpose when they mean to refer to something that is external to and larger than the agent him or herself. Luper rejects any attempt to collapse the achievementist view into such an objectivist view. For him, the purposes at the heart of the achievementist view are dependent on self-directed goals.
This raises an obvious issue: can anyone (e.g. God) dictate to you what makes your life meaningful? In other words, can another agent set goals for you and can your achievement of those goals confer meaning on your life? Luper’s answer is a nuanced (and I presume religiously agnostic) one. He rejects Kurt Baier’s view that purposes conferred by God turn us into mere instruments or tools in His own life plan. Instead, Luper thinks that we could, meaningfully, form part of another being’s life plan. But this would require joint planning. Our achievements could involve work with a community of like-minded individuals. Nevertheless, we are always, on Luper’s view, gatekeepers of our own meaning. We must always play an active role in deciding what the goals of our lives will be.
3. Meaning and Identity
There is also a close and important relationship between meaning and identity, but not in the sense that “identity” is typically debated by philosophers. As it is typically debated by philosophers, the concept of identity is understood in terms of numerical identity, i.e. in terms of that set of properties (if any) that makes it true to say that “I” am the same person now as I was five years ago. This conception of identity has no direct bearing on the issue of meaning, except in the limited sense that existence over time might be important to our achievements.
There is, however, another concept of identity which has an important bearing on the issue of meaning. To avoid confusion, Luper introduces a new label for this concept, that of critical identity. This the set of personal properties that makes our lives worth living. More precisely, it is the set of critical features, i.e. personal properties, the loss of which would make us indifferent to our continued survival.
Luper breaks this concept of critical identity down into several parts. In particular, he highlights the notion of a conative identity, an identity we take on that gives purpose and direction to our lives (as the achievementist view demands). The conative identity is essential for meaning, but it is not the only thing that is critical. The cultivation of a moral identity might also be critical, so Luper leaves the door open to possibilities like these in his account of critical identity.
The important thing for Luper is that the critical identity is not something we are born with, nor is it something that we necessarily acquire. It is something that we need time to develop and must choose to take on. Hence it is possible, on his account, to live a completely directionless and purposeless life, one utterly devoid of meaning or critical identity. Furthermore, it is possible on his account for “us” — in the sense of our numerically identical selves — to survive the loss of our critical identities. But that loss will, as far as Luper’s concerned, be phenomenologically equivalent to our deaths: once we lose our critical identities, we lose the will to live.
4. Meaning and Welfare
There is often felt to be a close connection between meaning and well-being. Indeed, some theorists think that meaning reduces to well-being. Luper encourages us to resist this reduction. He argues instead that there are important differences between meaning and well-being.
He illustrates this by referring to one of the main (but not sole) constituents of our well-being, namely: our happiness. This is often interpreted in terms of our conscious pleasure or amusement. It is one of the things that is intrinsically good for us. There could, of course, be many other things that are intrinsically good for us. And our well-being will be determined by our share of this total set of intrinsically good (for us) things. But we’ll focus on the happiness example for now because everyone seems to agree that, even if there are other intrinsic goods, happiness must be part of the picture.
Luper accepts that achievements and intrinsic goods often go hand-in-hand, hence why it is so tempting to reduce meaning to welfare. But there are at least two important distinctions. The first is that meaning is not summative in the same way as welfare. Generally speaking, and ceteris paribus, it is better to have more welfare than less. In other words, the more happy experiences you can add to your life, then the more welfare that life will be said to have had. But an achievement confers meaning on life even if the individual whose life hangs it is had one merely one goal to be achieved. Quantity does not matter.
The other important distinction has to do with the obvious potential for meaning and welfare to diverge. For example, it is possible, on Luper’s account, to live a life full of well-being and happiness, and yet devoid of achievements. Luper thinks we should try to avoid such a life. He argues, using Nozick’s experience machine as his starting point, that meaning is a greater good than happiness. He also argues that although a certain minimum degree of happiness might be needed in order to make life worth living, we are better off if we aim for happiness indirectly through the pursuit of our goals. For it is often in achieving our aims that we experience the greatest satisfaction.
We must also accept two unwelcome implications of the achievementist view. The first is that it allows for a meaningful life to be a very unhappy one (as mentioned above). The second is that it allows for a meaningful life to be a partially evil one. This second implication in interesting. It follows because on the achievementist view all that matters is the achievement of our self-directed goals. These goals could include ones that involve the shirking of our moral responsibilities and duties. Luper illustrates by reference to the life of Paul Gaguin, a famous artist who shirked his responsibilities to his wife and family by moving to Tahiti to paint.
5. Meaning and Absurdity
A common sticking point in the debate about meaning in life is the belief that nothing could provide us with meaning; that our lives are fundamentally absurd. Luper identifies two separate strands of argument underlying the absurdist case and claims that the achievementist can resist both.
The first argument is the argument from fragility or precariousness. This stems from the observation that our lives are far too fragile to sustain meaning. We can have as many goals or projects as we life, but they can all be snuffed out in an instant. Luper gives the poignant example of the children who were permanently entombed by the lava flowing from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. But that is simply a poignant example. We are all, in a sense, living in the shadow of the volcano: constrained, limited and ultimately expunged by factors beyond our control. True, the strength of those factors can wax and wane over time, but they are always there.
Luper thinks the achievementist can easily sidestep this worry about fragility. Again, what matters from the achievementist perspective is that our self-directed goals are achieved. All we need to do is to insulate those goals from the constraints and limitations we face. Thus we can pick modest goals, ones that are tailored to our particular circumstances, and focus on those. The meaningfulness of our lives will not be diminished.
This answer raises another worry. It seems to allow for extremely modest or trivial goals to count as meaningful. For example, someone whose life project is to count all the grains of sand on a particular patch of beach could, on this view, live a meaningful life (provided the goal is achieved). But that seems wrong. Many people think that some goals are meaning-conferring and some are not. To be precise, they think one has to pursue goals of objective worth in order to live a meaningful life. This view is shared by many of the leading contemporary theorists of meaning, e.g. Susan Wolf, Thaddeus Metz, Aaron Smuts and Erik Wielenberg.
Luper rejects their theories by arguing that the objectivist view is “difficult to defend” (he never says why). He also tries to neutralise the problem by arguing that even if it is true that trivial goals count on the achievementist view, people who think about their life plans and try to create a critical self, will tend to pick more serious goals anyway. So it seems like Luper is trying to have it both ways: objectively valuable goals aren’t needed on his account, but they’ll tend to be pursued by those who take it seriously. I find this problematic.
The second argument adopted by the absurdist is the argument from finitude or mortality. This stems from the common concern that our lives are finite; that our goals, even when achieved, will not be permanent; and that permanency is needed to make our lives meaningful. This is a common belief among the religious. Unsurprisingly, Luper rejects it. Part of the reason for this is that the argument may arise solely because we have faulty goals or aims, such as the goal of permanency or immortality. Since these cannot be achieved, we should drop them and focus on things that are attainable. They will provide us with the meaningfulness that we need.
Luper accepts that the length of life can have an impact on meaning. The shorter time we have, the less opportunity for achievement. Nevertheless, he thinks the impact of mortality on welfare and happiness is more significant. As noted, these goods tend be summative: the more the merrier. And finitude definitely impacts on the volume of positive experiences we can have.
One final point emerges from this discussion of mortality and meaning. Luper notes that many people feel that their lives are less meaningful as the spectre of death approaches, and they become experientially absorbed in the process of dying. While not wishing to deny the reality of those subjective experiences, he argues that the achievementist view resists any claim that life is less meaningful as a result of those experiences. What counts for the achievementist is whether goals have been achieved across the totality of one’s life (the Whole Life Thesis). Those achievements are not diminished by the process of dying.
Okay, so that brings us to the end of this summary of the achievementist view. As you can see, it offers a highly subjectivist theory of meaning in life. It claims that meaning is entirely determined by the achievement of self-directed goals. These goals can be trivial, selfish and even partly evil. That does not matter. All that matters is that the subject pursuing them perceives them as being worth his or her time.
It is this last point that makes me wonder whether Luper’s theory captures what it is to live a meaningful life from the “inside”. Maybe this is something that the more common objectivist theories neglect?