James lived a life of idle self-indulgence. He gambled, fornicated, drank his fill and ate the finest foods. The quintessential libertine. John, on the other hand, lived a life of charity and self-sacrifice. He worked to improve the lives of others, to relieve suffering, to combat poverty and illness. No doubt James had a good time, but surely John had the more meaningful life?
In essence, this is what Aaron Smuts’s article “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life” argues. The article contends that the following is the correct account of meaning in life:
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.
As noted in part one, this is a purely objectivist account of meaning. It is to be contrasted with subjectivist and hybrid accounts of meaning. Both of these require the person living the life to have a particular kind of subjective awareness in order for their life to be meaningful. The GCA rejects this, holding that being causally responsible for good is sufficient.
The problems with subjectivist and hybrid accounts were discussed in part one. In essence, they boil down to this: neither can deal with cases in which a person seems to be living a meaningful life but is subjectively unaware of this (the “error” problem). The go-to example of this was George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Bailey wasn’t happy with his life, but the message of the film is that his life was meaningful despite his lack of awareness. Smuts suggests that cases like this provide powerful counterexamples to subjectivist and hybrid theories.
But where does that leave the GCA? Does it simply win by default? No, of course not. The GCA needs to be rendered plausible in its own right. The remainder of this post considers how Smuts tries to do this. The discussion is quite fragmentary. It starts with a brief consideration of what they GCA actually says and then considers five possible objections to it (Smuts’s actually considers eight in his article but I’m ignoring three).
1. What does the GCA actually say?
The section heading might seem strange in light of the preceding definition of the GCA. Doesn’t that tell us what the GCA actually says? Not quite. We know from the definition that the GCA holds that meaningfulness is a function of the number and quality of the objective goods one is causally responsible for, but there are quite a few questions raised by this.
The main one being: what are the objective goods? Smuts’s doesn’t even attempt to offer an account of those goods in this article, but there are many candidate theories. For the hedonic utilitarian, the only objective good will be achieving maximum aggregate conscious pleasure (thus leading to a curious fusion of the GCA with a type of subjectivism), and meaning will be assessed relative to that. Alternatively, a proponent of new natural law theory might say that there are seven objective goods (life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, practical reasonableness, friendship, and sociality) against which the meaning of life may be assessed. Or one might adopt a capabilities or welfarist account of utilitarianism in order to identify the objective goods (this seems to be the approach Smuts favours). We won’t decide between those accounts now.
One thing that is worth considering, however, is the role of intrinsic and instrumental goods in the GCA. Several theorists — Wielenberg being the most prominent — hold that the pursuit of intrinsic goods is the key to meaning in life. Indeed, in determining whether or not an activity is meaningful, Wielenberg proposes an isolation test: would the activity still have value if it was isolated from all its typical consequences and sequelae? This test effectively filters out all non-intrinsic goods.
Interestingly, Smuts rejects Wielenberg’s purely intrinsic account of meaning. He argues that there is no good reason to exclude instrumental goods from our account of meaning in life. Providing food or shelter or financial assistance to others may not (always) be intrinsically good. Sometimes, it may just help people to secure other goods. But does that mean that someone who helps others in this manner lives a meaningless life? Smuts says “no”.
Now, it is possible to reconcile Wielenberg and Smuts’s views. It could be, as Wielenberg argues, that there two different kinds of theory one could offer about meaning in life — an internal and an external one — and it may be that Wielenberg is talking about internal meaning and Smuts is talking about external meaning. I won’t get into that issue here as it brings us back to the whole subjective-objective dispute, and requires some careful interpretation of Wielenberg’s argument. Suffice to say, there’s more going on here than we have time to cover in a short blog post.
I will say one thing, however. For those who are interested in articulating a theory of meaning that does not require immortality, intrinsic goods have an obvious appeal. They provide clear stopping points for the chains of justification one might require in order to obtain meaning. If there was nothing but instrumental goods, the chains of justification might need to go on forever.
Anyway, that’s enough on the general characteristics of the theory. Let’s move on now to discuss five objections to it. As we shall see, these objections are very similar. They all tend to claim that the GCA is over-inclusive — i.e. includes lives that shouldn’t be classed as meaningful.
2. Five Objections to the GCA
The first objection brings us back to the sad case of Sisyphus, condemned to rolling his rock up the hill for eternity, only to have it roll back down again every time he reaches the summit. This is the paradigmatic meaningless life. Now, suppose that Sisyphus’s actions actually provided amusement for the residents of a village located near the summit of the hill. In this sense, his life would be causally responsible for a minimal amount of good. Would that be enough to make his life meaningful?
In response to this, Smuts makes two moves. First, he bites the bullet and accepts that such a life would have some minimal degree of meaning. Second, he draws a distinction between a meaningful life and a life worth living. His argument would then be that a life with a minimal degree of meaning, may not be worth living, but that’s not to say it lacks meaning. Of course, this raises important questions about where the cut-off point lies between a life worth living and a life not worth living. That, however, is a topic for another day.
The second objection focuses on the problem of evil intent. Suppose there is a person with consistently selfish and destructive intentions. They try to do bad things but, as it happens, they happen to bring about some good. The GCA seems to hold that their life is meaningful, despite their subjectively malicious intentions. Surely that is absurd? (Note: Smuts links this to another objection, saying much the same thing. I’m treating them as being equivalent here).
There are four possible replies to this. First, one could argue that such an individual is not really a “cause” of objective good. The counterexample seems to assume that if one is a conduit, or transitive, cause of some outcome, then one is causally responsible for it. But that seems like a bit of stretch. If my mother gives me a cheque for a million pounds, and asks me to present it to a specified charity on her behalf, am I really causally responsible for the good that might arise from this donation? Surely not, and surely the same could be said about (at least some) individuals with malicious intentions. Second, the morally hideous nature of the intentions and beliefs of such a person must factor into the overall calculation of how objectively good their actions were. That is to say: the fact that they had malicious intentions may offset the good they cause. Third, there may be nothing wrong with saying that a person lived an accidentally meaningful life. And fourth, consider the opposite case in which someone with good intentions inadvertently brings about a lot of bad. Smuts doesn’t think it is counterintuitive to suggest that they have (“accidentally”) lived a meaningless life. But if that’s right, then the original case of the person with malicious intentions may not be a true counterexample to the GCA.
The third objection is slightly more complex, relying as it does on claims about causation across different possible worlds. According to counterfactual theories of causation, to say that A caused B is to say (roughly) that if A did not exist, B would not exist. In other words, that if in some possible world A does not exist and B does exist, then A is not the cause of B. Admittedly, that’s a very rough account of counterfactual theories of causation, but it suffices to make a point about causation and meaning. Imagine that there are two possible worlds, W1 and W2, and that they are equal in terms of the amount of objective good in each. Now suppose that the only difference between these two possible worlds is that you exist in W1 but not in W2. Finally, suppose that in W1 you seem to be responsible for some objective good. Then the question arises: notwithstanding your contribution to the good in W1, is it not true to say that your life lacks meaning? After all, your life makes no overall difference to the amount of objective good in each world?
Objections of this sort are one reason why Wielenberg distinguishes between internal and external accounts of meaning. His concern is that on a purely externalist account of meaning, it would be true to say that your life lacks meaning because it makes no difference to the world. But on an internalist one — one that is directly indexed to you — this problem does not arise. Smuts rejects the whole notion of external meaning for the same reason that people reject counterfactual theories of causation: they are not very good at accounting for cases of causal overdetermination. To see the problem, consider the life of Hitler, which everyone will agree (I presume) lacked meaning. Suppose it is true that one day during his youth he did something good, made someone happy, or relieved some suffering. Now, it could well be that the social and economic conditions in Germany after WWII were such that, if Hitler did not exist, someone else would have led a fascist party to power, set up something equivalent to the Third Reich and caused an equal amount of suffering. In that case, we would have two different possible worlds, one in which Hitler did some good and a lot of bad, and another in which Hitler does not exist and someone else did an equal amount of bad. The external account of meaning would imply that, in this case, Hitler led a meaningful life. But this is clearly absurd, so there must be something wrong with the external account.
A fourth objection to the GCA relies on a variation of Nozick’s infamous experience machine argument. This argument was thought to refute a purely hedonic/subjective account of value. It presented us with the opportunity to live out our lives in an elaborate virtual reality machine that would provide us with a continuing stream of pleasurable experiences, or to go on living in the real world, with its usual ups and downs. The fact that many people reject the opportunity to live in the experience machine is thought to suggest that pleasure is not the sole good. Now imagine a slight variation on this, involving a results machine argument (Nozick himself identified this). In this version of the argument, we are presented with a machine that would bring about any results in the world that we might bring about, without requiring any activity or effort on our part. With such a machine, we could be causally responsible for a lot of good, but surely our lives would lack meaning if all we did was press some buttons on this machine?
Smuts offers two replies. The first goes back to our earlier worries about the nature of causal responsibility. Arguably, a plausible theory of causal responsibility would reject the notion that by simply pressing a button on the results machine one becomes causally responsible for its outcomes. This, however, is highly contentious. A second, better, reply holds that the value of achievement should feature in a plausible account of objective good. In other words, bringing about good with achievement is better than bringing about good without achievement. Thus, since the results machine blocks achievement, it makes life less meaningful.
The fifth and final objection holds that the GCA is false because it implies that animals could live meaningful lives. After all, animals could be causally responsible for some good, and so would meet the conditions set by the GCA. Smuts’s reply to this is admirably direct: what’s wrong with that? Why can’t we say that animals live meaningful lives?
That brings us to the end of this series of posts. To quickly recap, there are three general accounts of meaning in life: (i) subjective; (ii) objective; and (iii) hybrid. Smuts holds that objective accounts are to be preferred over subjective and hybrid accounts. His main reason for this is that subjective and hybrid accounts do not allow for the possibility of error, i.e. the possibility that someone is mistaken about the meaning of their lives.
Building on this, he then defends a particular kind of objective theory (the GCA), which holds that one’s life is meaningful in virtue of and in proportion to the amount of objective good one is casually responsible for. Many object to the GCA on the grounds that it is over-inclusive, but as we have just seen, Smuts thinks it is possible to fend off such objections.