|George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life
I’ve occasionally dipped my toe into the literature on the meaning of life and reported back my findings on this blog. I don’t know if anyone has found these reports to be interesting or worthwhile. I worry that my approach to the topic has been too piecemeal and unsystematic, gradually feeling its way into the key debates and concepts, without ever properly sketching out the broad theoretical topography. But perhaps that is the only way one can really learn about a topic like this.
This post (and its successor) are going to be more of the same I’m afraid. They are going to take a look at Aaron Smuts’s article “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life”, which defends a particular kind of theory of meaning in life. Starting out, we can note three general types of theory one might have:
Subjective Theories: According to these theories one’s life is meaningful if and only if a certain set of conditions is met, where those conditions all explicitly involve subjective awareness or experience of a certain kind (i.e. the conditions for a meaningful life are subjective in nature).
Objective Theories: According to these theories one’s life is meaningful if and only if a certain set of conditions is met, where none of those conditions require subjective awareness or experience of a certain kind (i.e. the conditions for a meaningful life are objective in nature).
Hybrid Theories: According to these theories one’s life is meaningful if and only if a certain set of conditions is met, where those conditions include some objective conditions and some subjective conditions.
Each of the theories attempts to locate the necessary and sufficient conditions for meaning. They differ in terms of the nature of the conditions. Smuts argues that only objective theories are plausible. In particular, he argues for a Good Cause Account (GCA) of meaning, which runs something like this:
Good Cause Account (GCA): A person’s life is meaningful in virtue of and in proportion to the amount of objective good they are causally responsible for.
I want to summarise and comment on Smuts’s case for the GCA. This will take me a couple of posts. In the remainder of this post, I’ll look at his arguments against subjective and hybrid theories, specifically those from Richard Taylor and Susan Wolf. In the next post, I’ll look at how he articulates and defends the GCA.
1. Subjective Accounts of Meaning in Life
Richard Taylor wrote a famous paper about the meaning of life back in the 1970s (maybe earlier, I’m not sure). He cleverly titled it “The Meaning of Life”, and made use of the classic myth of Sisyphus to illustrate his key points, thereby ensuring its continuing anthologisation (I’m being facetious. Ignore me.). In the paper, Taylor makes some interesting arguments though none of them are particularly well fleshed-out. The main argument defends a subjectivist account of meaning in life.
Taylor asks us to imagine a paradigmatic case of a meaningless life. He fixes on the example of Sisyphus, doomed to roll a large boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time he reached the top, the boulder rolled back down and his task would start again. This seems to epitomise meaninglessness. Taylor then proposes an additive test for meaningfulness. In other words, he asks to add things to Sisyphus’s life until it becomes meaningful. This way we will find the sufficient conditions for meaning (and if we add and subtract things we might even find the necessary conditions too).
Adopting this process, Taylor argues that simply giving Sisyphus’s actions an objectively good or valuable end won’t do the trick. For instance, he asks us to imagine that Sisyphus’s boulders are used to construct something of great artistic value such as a cathedral. Would that make his life meaningful? Taylor argues that it wouldn’t because such productions have no enduring value: they will eventually crumble, fall and be swept under the rug of cosmic history. (This is a bad argument, but I won’t explain why here. See my earlier post on Nagel’s arguments for absurdity).
So Taylor proposes instead that we simply make Sisyphus happy to perform his task. In other words, that we give him a strong and overwhelming desire to roll boulders up a hill. This, Taylor argues, will do the trick. It will give fulfillment and meaning to Sisyphus’s life in a way that giving his actions some objectively desirable or valuable end will not. Taylor calls this the “Fulfillment” Account:
Fulfillment Account: A person’s life is meaningful in virtue of and in proportion to the extent to which their desires are fulfilled.
Smuts critiques this theory in fairly short order, borrowing in part from Erik Wielenberg’s criticisms. As Wielenberg points out, a purely subjectivist account of meaning has some seemingly absurd implications. For instance, the life of the sadistic torturer and the life of the grinning excrement-eater (Wielenberg’s example, not mine) are meaningful on this account. Indeed, they are as meaningful as, and possibly even more meaningful than, the life of the person who desires to cure cancer and succeeds.
In addition to this, Smuts’s argues that subjectivist theories cannot make room for the possibility of error when it comes to assessing the meaning of your own life. On the fulfillment theory, if you are not happy with your life, then it lacks meaning. But surely this cannot be. Smuts’s uses one of his favourite examples to illustrate this point: the life of George Bailey from the film It’s a Wonderful Life. In the film, George plans to commit suicide because he thinks his life is meaningless. But an angel comes along and shows George what Pottersville (the town in which he lives) would have been like if he had never been born. In doing so, the angel shows George how meaningful his life really is, and how many people have relied upon and benefitted from his existence. George made a mistake. His life was meaningful even though he wasn’t enjoying it. The fulfillment theory doesn’t allow for this.
For these reasons, Smuts rejects the subjectivist account of meaning. I have to say I’m not entirely convinced. The objections rely heavily on our intuitive reactions to particular cases, which can be okay, but Taylor was aiming for a somewhat counter-intuitive account of meaning in his article so I wonder if the dismissal is a little too quick.
2. Hybrid Accounts of Meaning in Life
Even if a purely subjectivist account of meaning is flawed, it seems plausible to say that some subjective conditions must be satisfied in order for life to be meaningful. A life filled with pain and misery doesn’t look like it would be worthwhile, certainly not from the perspective of the one living it. This is where hybrid theories come into play. They accept that purely subjective theories have their problems, but they want to retain some subjectivity in our accounts of meaningful lives.
The most important proponent of a hybrid theory is, probably, Susan Wolf. She defends something we shall call the fitting-fulfillment theory of meaning. This can be defined as follows:
Fitting-Fulfillment Account: A person’s life is meaningful if they are subjectively fulfilled by pursuing objectively valuable ends.
This account cleverly avoids the Wielenberg-style criticisms of the fulfillment account by adding a “fittingness” requirement. Neither the life of the sadistic torturer nor that of the grinning excrement-eater will be meaningful on this account. They may both have fulfillment, but they do not pursue objectively valuable ends. Thus, they fail to meet the “fittingness” requirement for meaning. Nevertheless, fulfillment is still an integral part of this account. One cannot have a meaningful life without it.
And therein lies the problem for Smuts. Although the fitting-fulfillment account addresses some concerns about the subjectivist account, it still does not resolve the error problem. George Bailey’s life would still be meaningless on this account because he was not fulfilled by it. But, again, Smuts submits that this is just plain wrong: his life was meaningful, he just didn’t realise it. If that’s right, then the fitting-fulfillment account must be wrong.
Once again, significant weight rests upon one’s reaction to the counterexample. One concession that Smuts makes is to say that the fitting-fulfillment account may work if our goal was to identify the conditions for an ideal life. Even the staunchest advocate of an objectivist account would concede that George Bailey’s life is better after the angel corrects his mistake. But a theory of meaning is not, according to Smuts, a theory of ideals. It is about crossing a threshold, not attaining an ideal. The error problem points out that the threshold can be crossed without a certain type of subjective awareness.
If Smuts’s criticisms are correct, the way is cleared for a purely objectivist account of meaning in life. But such an account does not simply win by default. It must be rendered plausible in its own right. In the next post, we’ll see how Smuts tries to do this.