Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Good Life

On the July 4th Philosophy Bites podcast, Nigel Warburton interviews philosopher Susan Wolf as she talks about her views on meaning in life.  Not to be confused with The Meaning of Life.  As to that question, as wife-Annette will confirm, I believe the question is flawed.  Why are we here?  What's it all about?  What's it all for?  These questions are meaningless because their answers are unknowable.  It could be that a great, benevolent being created us all at the snap of hir fingers (or least after 6 days hard work and one day in front of the TV).  It could be that our universe is a science experiment run by a being from some larger "outer" universe.  It could be that we live inside an extremely detailed computer simulation and consist of nothing more than data.  Heck, I can't even prove any of you exist outside my mind.  The point is, none of these hypotheses can be proven.  These questions are the realm of religious faith, Monty Python, Descartes, The Matrix, Inception, etc.

No, the topic of the podcast was meaning in life.  What gives a life meaning or value.  Some may say (and I'll admit to this frame of thought in my past) that in order to have a good life all you need is to be happy.  Happiness will indeed bring enjoyment to life but, as Susan Wolf points out, that doesn't mean your life will have any meaning.  For example, I might absolutely adore playing Sudoku.  I play it any chance I get and derive great enjoyment from it.  But I think it would be hard to argue that such a life would be meaningful or have value (and yes, I am equating a "good life" with a "meaningful life"). 

So maybe in addition to being happy, I also lead a moral life.  I adhere to the morals of my society.  I live in service to my community.  External observers would judge me as a Good Man.  Would I then be said to have a meaningful life?  Certainly leading a moral life has value but, according to Susan Wolf, it's not enough.

The argument Susan Wolf puts forward is that in order for an activity to have meaning it needs to be both subjectively meaningful (i.e. have significance or be meaningful to the person engaging in the activity) and be objectively meaningful in the society in which one lives.  A simple example Susan Wolf puts forward is that of making a Halloween costume for her daughter late into the night of October 30th (the night before Halloween).  This activity certainly did not give her any pleasure and she probably would have been better served with a few extra hours of sleep.  Nor was the creation of the costume in any sense moral or in service to her community.  However, the activity is meaningful to her because she is doing something in service of her child.  Furthermore, in our society we recognize service to our loved ones as an activity that has value.  Therefore, it is an activity that adds meaning to Susan's life.

Possibly the weakest aspect of the argument is around objective definition of meaning.  Susan Wolf will be the first to point out that she makes no claim to any sort of objective definition of meaning or value.  No set of properties by which we can neatly categorize activities into meaningful or not meaningful.  In the absence of such properties or rules we're left to rely on intuition and accepted norms.  This is why we believe that Sudoku is not a meaningful activity and that, say, volunteering your time at a homeless shelter is a meaningful (and moral for that matter) activity. 

So with this definition in mind I humbly submit the following types of activities as meaningful: service to others, creation, invention, pursuit of excellence, pursuit of knowledge.  Naturally we can't spend every minute of our lives in categorically meaningful activities.  We need to engage, for example, in life essential activities as dictated by the biological rules of our bodies.  Furthermore, we're only human and will likely engage in purely enjoyable but not necessarily meaningful activities (computer gaming, Sudoku and Fail blogs happen to be some of the activities that bring me pleasure but are in no way meaningful).  I think the point is to try to fill as much of our time as possible, whether at home or at work, in meaningful activity in order to have a good life.  This idea shines a particularly baleful light on addictions, whether physiological additions (like alcoholism) or social addictions (like gambling or pornography), which essentially fill one's time with pleasurable activities (or miserable activities in pursuit of pleasurable activities) none of which has any life meaning or value.

I'm curious what other activities people hold to be meaningful in life (remember, both subjectively as well as objectively).  Leave a comment!


Kimota94 aka Matt aka AgileMan said...

For many years, I've had a simple metric that I use in such matters: I try to imagine myself on my deathbed, reflecting on what I've done in my life. Would I be filled with regrets, or would I be content with how I had spent whatever time I'd been allotted? If the former, I lived my life poorly; if the latter, I can die happily.

That outlook often helped me prioritize conflicting demands on my time (typical case: work vs home life) in ways that I think worked out well for me. I can't imagine too many people, on their death bed, moaning, "If only I'd agreed to work that weekend back in '05 like my boss wanted..." On the other hand, I imagine many will look back at the times they favoured unnecessary, "faux crisis" work obligations over time with their now-grown-up children, and despair.

Very interesting blog post, Pete.

Kevin Hendry said...

Of course Sudoku is meaningless. You should have been playing Zengaku all this time. Now that would have been meaningful!

Peter Scheyen said...

Kevin: I should have seen that one coming ;-)

Peter Scheyen said...

Matt: I'm party way re-reading the 7 Habits and just finished habit 2 which starts with an exercise in picturing your funeral and the eulogies that would be given.

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