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Meaningfulness: A Third Dimension of the Good Life


This paper argues that an adequate conception of a good life should recognize, in addition to happiness and morality, a third dimension of meaningfulness. It further proposes that we understand meaningfulness as involving both a subjective and an objective condition, suitably linked. Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness. In other words one’s life is meaningful insofar as one is gripped or excited by things worthy of one’s love, and one is able to do something positive about it. The paper concludes with some speculations about how this conception of meaningfulness might help to explain the conditions under which social volunteering can be especially rewarding.

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  1. The phrase is used by Harry Frankfurt in much the same way as I use it and for purposes that largely overlap with mine in Frankfurt (2004). Like me, Frankfurt sees our susceptibility to reasons of love as essential to the possibility that we live meaningful lives. He forcefully rejects the conditions on which reasons for love can ground claims of meaning that I defend in what follows, however.

  2. The first way in which reasons of love may be mistaken parallels mistakes to which what we might call ‘reasons of self-interest’ and ‘reasons of morality’ are subject. I may think that something is in my self-interest when it is actually harmful; I may think morality requires or allows me to do what in fact is morally wrong. It is not obvious that the second way in which an apparent reason of love can be wrong has parallels in these other categories. There may be no such thing as caring too much about one’s own good or about morality.

  3. Aristotle, Topics 1.1 100b 21-3. For an excellent discussion of the endoxic method, see Kraut, (2006).

  4. One of those silly books that were on sale at the cashiers’ desks at Barnes & Noble several years ago advanced that view. The book, by Greive (2002) was called The Meaning of Life. Richard Taylor offers a more serious and provocative defense of the view in Richard Taylor, Good and Evil (1970), Chapter 18.

  5. Not surprisingly, it is common to hear religious leaders speak in these terms, but many others do as well. For example, Peter Singer draws on this conception of the good life in his book, How Are We To Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest (1993).

  6. The Fulfillment View might be considered a plausible extension of J.S. Mill’s view that an enlightened hedonist must take into account the differences in quality as well as quantity of pleasure in conceiving of the best possible life. See Mill (1861).

  7. More precisely, it is Sisyphus’s afterlife that is considered awful because absurd and meaningless. See especially Camus (1955).

  8. Taylor (1970).

  9. This does not always work. It is a standard part of the requirements of a child who is training for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, as it is for many middle and high school programs, that she put in a number of hours of community service. Not surprisingly, the degree to which the participants of these programs find their service activities rewarding varies widely.

  10. Nagel (1986).

  11. Of course, there is no guarantee that such a thought will put the feelings in question to rest. Many people are upset by the thought that they are mere specks in a vast universe. They are upset, that is, by their smallness, their inability to make a big and lasting splash. My remarks—aimed at reminding them of the quality, not the quantity, of their contribution to the universe—does not speak directly to this concern. Such people will just have to get over it—their desire is unsatisfiable.

  12. These remarks, I think, add to the plausibility of interpreting popular references to being involved in something ‘larger than oneself’ in terms of the idea that one should be engaged with a value that has its source outside of oneself. The thought is that such a value exists metaphorically in a public space—it is accessible to others, and so makes one at the least a potential member of a community, larger than oneself.

  13. Williams (1973), p. 87.

  14. This is not unrelated to the interest in our actions being ‘justifiable to others’ that Thomas Scanlon stresses in his account of the motivation and reason to be moral. See, e.g., Scanlon (1998). The interest I have in mind, to which meaning rather than morality answers, however, is broader, if not metaphorical, embracing not only the possible points of view of one’s fellow human beings, but the imaginable point of view of an even more external, nonhuman observer.

  15. See (Raz (2003), p. 33). He writes, ‘As art forms, social relations and political structures are created by social must their distinctive virtues and forms of excellence depend on social practices that create and sustain them. In these cases, it would seem that not only access to these values, but the values themselves, arise with the social forms that make their instantiation possible.’

  16. It would be interesting to explore parallels and disanalogies between this issue and the issue, discussed by Richard Titmuss and others, of whether societies do better if they acquire blood for hospitals by donations rather than by paying for it.

  17. It connects especially with the related idea that, due to our social natures, we are in some way rewarded by the thought that we are ‘at least notionally part of a community, sharing values, to some degree, and a point of view’, discussed in Sect. 5.


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Correspondence to Susan Wolf.

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Wolf, S. Meaningfulness: A Third Dimension of the Good Life. Found Sci 21, 253–269 (2016).

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  • Happiness
  • Meaningfulness
  • Objective attractiveness
  • Subjective attraction
  • The good life