There are two relevant senses of the term “meaning” in this context. In the first sense, meaning has to do with purpose and a sense of direction. For instance, a firefighter might find purpose in her job. It gives her some degree of satisfaction and adds significance to her life. She might think putting out fires and assisting people in need is one reason for her to get up in the morning and go about with her daily life. Being a firefighter is meaningful in a purpose-giving sense. Similarly, a priest might find a sense of direction in the social and religious role she occupies. When she feels lost, as I suppose most people do sometimes over the course of their lives, she finds guidance in her priesthood. Her social and religious position is accompanied with certain obligations, and expectations of how she should think and act, that function as a compass in life. She knows, or has the feeling she knows, what she will do tomorrow and the day after that, how she should face difficulties when they appear, and what kind of person she will be and what kind of life she will lead in ten years’ time. Being a priest is meaningful to her as it provides her with a sense of direction in life. It is meaning in this first sense, i.e., as purpose and a sense of direction, that Taylor targets.
In the second sense, meaning has to do with intelligibility. For instance, suppose we traveled in time to the ice-age, kidnapped a human being, and brought her back with us to, let us say, USA in the 21st century. The ice-age person would be socially disoriented there. She would lack the frame of reference needed to make conventions such as the 40-hour workweek and celebrating Christmas intelligible. Many social events and phenomena would be incomprehensible to her. Therefore, she would not be able to grasp the meaning of, for instance, Dolly Parton’s famous song “9 to 5” and the tradition of hanging stockings above the fireplace on the night of December 24.
Tamir considers meaning in the first sense, but also in the second. She argues that individualism alone cannot make an individual’s life, and the world she lives in, intelligible. I think Tamir is partly correct about meaning as intelligibility. Individualism alone cannot ground a frame of reference that enables interpretations of social events and phenomena. Social and historical interpretation is too epistemically demanding to build from a scarce resource such as individualism. Real understanding requires historical contextualization, an intuitive sense for political power struggles, statistical analyses, and much else.
However, I disagree with Tamir’s complete analysis. In her view, globalization leaves people socially disoriented, as it causes unifying narratives to disintegrate. Nationalism, she argues, enables individuals to expand their selves to the collective sphere, endows their lives with meaning, and allows them to feel as authors of their own lives. I think Tamir exaggerates the impact of globalization on how well people manage to orient themselves socially, that her belief in what nationalism can accomplish in this matter is too optimistic, and that she holds a too pessimistic view of what individualism can bring to the table if properly integrated as one element among many in social interpretation. Unfortunately, due to space constraints I will not pursue a detailed discussion of this disagreement.
At present, the topic is meaning in the first sense. Rosenblatt writes that liberalism “contains within itself the resources it needs” to meet its critics.Footnote 53 Drawing from such resources, I suggest a positive individualist theory of meaning that provides purpose and a sense of direction.
It is not a theory of the meaning of life, but a theory about meaning in life. The theory does not suffice to explain to individuals how socially and historically significant their lives are or answer their questions about Existence with a capital E. What is more, it is not a theory about virtue. In recent decades, theorists such as William A. Galston have acknowledged that liberalism needs to “give an account of individual virtue that supports rather than undermines liberal institutions and the capacious tolerance that gives liberal society its special attraction”.Footnote 54 Theories of virtue are theories of good character and the good life. The theory presented here is a theory of meaning, which is categorically different. It is possible that any given theory of virtue needs to encompass an account of meaning to be complete since meaning appears to be an integral part of the good life. While the theory presented in this article could be incorporated into theories of virtue, that project will not be further pursued here. The presently discussed theory provides meaning, in the sense that it provides the individual with purpose and a sense of direction, and it locates that meaning in the individual’s decision-making processes. Thereby, it falsifies the claim that individualism cannot provide meaning, in this sense. The theory substantively contributes to individuals’ lived experiences, making their lives richer. It informs people about what they should do with the sphere of liberty granted to them by liberalism.
Self-endorsement as a theory of meaning
The theory is that the continuous pursuit of critical and informed self-endorsement by a perfected, liberal, version of oneself is meaningful. It draws from historical liberal resources in two ways. First, the structure of critical and informed self-endorsement is taken from an individualist tradition of theorizing about personal autonomy first introduced in the 1970s and 1980s. Second, the moral content in the notion of “the perfected, liberal, version of oneself” is taken from a variety of historical ideas that together form a traditional, pre-change, liberal outlook. This subsection presents the procedural structure of the theory, whereas the normative content is discussed in the subsection that follows.
To be autonomous is to be self-governing, i.e., to be one’s own master. Autonomy is generally held to be a property that can be enjoyed by beings with some minimal capacity of self-directedness.Footnote 55 The concept of autonomy is comprised of both negative and positive elements. Negatively, autonomous persons are not subject to the control of external influences such as coercion or manipulation. Positively, autonomous persons have the capability to reflect upon their own desires, choose whether to be moved by them, and carry out their decisions in practice.
One of the most influential traditions of theorizing about personal autonomy, which came to be called “split-level” theories, began to take shape in a series of books and articles in the 1970s and 1980s.Footnote 56 In brief, according to split-level theories an agent is autonomous if, and only if, she endorses her own decisions, acts, or way of life, on a higher level of critical and informed self-reflection. Consider the following example for illustration. Smith is an alcoholic. She has an immediate and almost irresistible wish to consume alcohol. However, Smith also has a stable and more deeply fixed wish to lead a long and healthy life. When considering this wish, which she often does, she always thinks of it as “real,” as opposed to the “non-real” wish to consume alcohol. Smith’s wish to lead a long and healthy life is on a higher level than her wish to consume alcohol. According to split-level theories, the wish on the lower level is non-autonomous. If Smith had endorsed the wish to consume alcohol upon critical and informed self-reflection, it would instead have been autonomous.
The split-level way of thinking can be adopted by individualists in a theory of meaning. Harmonizing one’s lower level desires with one’s higher level desires is rewarding; it is psychologically motivating and, usually but not necessarily, one element among others in the development of good character. But it is a life-long and difficult project. Desire harmonization necessitates self-awareness, strategies, and discipline, among other things. Qualitative self-endorsement of the kind that is central to this theory requires two types of self-reflection, corresponding to the different desire-levels.
I call reflections about the set of desires one has and the kind of person one is for reflections about one’s manifested self. One’s manifested self is a product of biological, social, and self-chosen causes. Biology influences our manifested selves by, for instance, affecting our tendency to develop depression.Footnote 57 The influences from social factors are vast. For instance, the way we are brought up and the kind of education we receive greatly influence our manifested selves. Such factors shape who we are. Self-chosen causes involve the decisions we make that affect how our lives take shape, such as the relationships we develop and maintain as adults.
Qualitative reflections about one’s manifested self requires awareness of the self as such, but also of how one is socially situated. For instance, Smith cannot fully understand and account for her manifested, alcoholic, self unless she has some basic understanding of the physical and psychological effects of alcohol, the social function of alcohol consumption (such as why it is commonly consumed at parties but not during sessions in parliament), the general expectations and norms in society about alcohol and the values that guide these, and so on. It also requires awareness of the influences from various social forces affecting one’s intersectional identity. For instance, to fully understand how she is socially situated, Smith needs to consider her manifested self from the perspective of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, and other intersectional factors.Footnote 58 Thus, reflections about one’s manifested self is epistemically demanding. It is probable that one needs help and guidance from others to fully understand one’s manifested self. To paraphrase Tamir (see block quote above), reflections about one’s manifested self rely on a system of interpretation that allows one to understand oneself and the world one lives in.
Reflections about the set of desires one wants to have and the kind of person one wants to be upon critical and informed self-reflection are here called reflections about one’s perfected self. The perfected self is a theoretical construct that represents the complete realization of one’s innermost desires and dispositions. Contrary to our manifested selves, which are often internally conflicting and irrational, the perfected self is coherent and instrumentally rational. Of course, it should not be taken to resemble real-world beings; it is a theoretical construct that functions as an aid for real-world decision-making.
One’s perfected self may change over time. It is probable that the deepest wishes a person holds as a teenager are different from those the same person holds when she is old. That is one reason why self-endorsement needs to be ongoing to be truly qualitative. A person who has embarked on the life-long journey of desire-harmonization must continuously reflect upon, and be open to revise, her deepest wishes. Furthermore, one’s perfected self is deeply connected to one’s physical and psychological capabilities, tendencies, and characteristics. Therefore, not everyone’s perfected selves are identical. Smith’s perfected self is a person who leads a long and healthy life. Her friend Jones’s perfected self is instead a short-lived, hedonist, daredevil. The perfected self may also be incomplete. A real-world person who reflects about the set of desires she wants to have and the kind of person she wants to be does so against a frame of reference limited to her particular experiences, knowledge, and beliefs. It is probable that she will face problems and find herself in situations she could not have anticipated when reflecting about her perfected self. The perfected self needs to be constructed in recognition of this fact. It should preferably be equipped with strategies on how to deal with the unknown; “how would the perfected version of me respond to new and unfamiliar situations?” Finally, the perfected self is not necessarily a good self; a thoroughly evil person may, for instance, have the entrenched wish to be selfish and condescending.
Self-endorsement is the process of harmonizing one’s manifested self with one’s perfected self. It is to adopt desires, live according to standards, and be the kind of person that would be endorsed by one’s perfected self, according to the characteristics it has at the time. For instance, suppose Jones is at a party and is offered a new, illegal, drug with unknown origin and effects. Jones is reluctant to take it. Her perfected self—a short-lived, hedonist, daredevil—may not endorse this reluctance. To harmonize her two desire-levels, Jones should take the drug. However, Jones is the ultimate arbiter in this matter. It is also possible that her reluctance to take the drug indicates Jones has not correctly identified her perfected self, and that she should therefore engage in further self-reflection about her innermost desires. The theory of qualitative self-endorsement is procedural, not substantive; it suggests a positive structure, but is silent on which desires, characteristics, and ways of life should be pursued, and does not answer to whether an agent such as Jones has failed to harmonize her desires or whether she has failed to correctly identify her perfected self.
In this theory of meaning, self-endorsement is different from self-realization. The latter is to think about what one wants to become and try to become that. Self-realization is an ideal that may be difficult to achieve in practice, as we realistically cannot become the perfected version of ourselves; a person who sets out to fully realize her perfected self will probably fail. That pessimistic prognosis is likely to reduce the value of a self-realizing project in terms of purpose and direction. This does not mean that ideal theory is never appropriate.Footnote 59 But at least to many, a project that is likely to fail does not provide as much purpose and direction as a project that, at least sometimes or in some respects, actually succeeds. Self-endorsement, to the contrary, could be achieved on a daily basis. For instance, it may be difficult for Smith to become a person who leads a long and healthy life. She is likely to fail if she would try. However, she could succeed in self-endorsement of particular desires and decisions, such as whether to have one more drink before going to bed. Her manifested self could be harmonized with her perfected self in this small, yet possibly psychologically important, decision.
Adjusting one’s lower level desires in accordance with one’s higher level desires provides purpose and direction in life; Smith chooses to not have one more drink before going to bed because she has adopted self-endorsement by her perfected self as a guiding principle. It is a way of life, something one’s other projects and agendas relate to and build from, and which permeates one’s social activities, habits, occupational choices, and much more. Once one has adopted qualitative self-endorsement, or desire-harmonization, as a guiding principle it soon becomes the organizing thing one does. Everything else one does follows from it. Self-endorsement provides purpose, as it is reason-giving in preference forming and decision-making. It provides a sense of direction, as it suggests how one should lead one’s life. Therefore, qualitative self-endorsement provides meaning.
The theory of qualitative self-endorsement locates meaning in individuals’ decision-making processes. Contrast this with, for instance, the firefighter mentioned above who finds purpose in life in putting out fires and assisting people in need, and the priest who finds a sense of direction in life in her priesthood. In those examples, meaning is located in social roles or phenomena external to the individuals. Similarly, Tamir locates meaning in nationalist narratives, and Deneen locates meaning in social communities. The theory presented here is thus fundamentally different from those alternatives, as it locates meaning in something internal to individuals.
The perfected, liberal, self
The principle of continuous informed and critical self-endorsement is procedural. It guides behavior formally, encouraging individuals to adjust their manifested selves to their perfected selves, but not substantively, as it is silent on the normative content of perfected-ness; a perfected self is not necessarily a good self. But the complete theory presented in this paper is that of a perfected, liberal, self. The notion adds normative content to the procedural principle of self-endorsement. Without this content, the complete theory of meaning would have been “empty” in a similar way as much post-war liberal individualism has been. In what follows, I discuss relevant values from the history of liberalism that together make up the normative content I believe should guide self-endorsement by our perfected selves.
As Rosenblatt has noted, liberalism is a highly contentious concept. For instance, some historians argue the ideology originated in Christianity whereas others instead think it took shape in a battle against Christianity.Footnote 60 It is therefore difficult to define liberalism without committing to some theory of its history and moral essence. For the present purposes, I follow Duncan Bell in his conceptualization of liberalism as “the sum of the arguments that have been classified as liberal, and recognised as such by other self-proclaimed liberals, across time and space”.Footnote 61 This includes, among other things, arguments presented by Roman political thinkers that liberals have later adopted as their own, or as part of their tradition, and historical arguments about how liberals have conducted practical politics since the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century.
The word “liberalism” stems from the Latin liber, which means both “free” and “generous,” and liberalis, which means “befitting a free-born person”.Footnote 62 To the ancient Romans, the noun liberalitas, which corresponds to liber and liberalis, referred to “a noble and generous way of thinking and acting toward one’s fellow citizens,” as opposed to “selfishness” or “slavishness,” which was to think and act with regard only to one’s own self and pleasures.Footnote 63 Liberalitas was a moral attitude the Romans thought of as essential to a free society. The great Roman political thinker Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) described it as “the bond of human society”.Footnote 64 Roman historian Jed W. Atkins writes that liberalitas, together with justice, promoted “social cohesion within a competitive political culture by preventing harm and promoting interdependence”.Footnote 65
The meanings of the words liberal and liberality remained almost unchanged at least until the Enlightenment. During the Middle Ages, the word liberality was “overlaid with Christian values such as love, compassion, and especially charity”.Footnote 66 French, German, and English dictionaries from this time defined “liberal” as “the quality of someone ‘who likes to give’,” and “liberality” as “the quality of giving or spending freely”.Footnote 67 During the Renaissance, liberality was treated as “a moral virtue that moderated men’s ‘desire and greed for money’”.Footnote 68 After the Reformation the word “liberal” appeared in King James’s Bible, then referring to “generous giving, especially to the poor”.Footnote 69 During the colonization of North America, some demanded liberality of the whole community, so that its people were obliged to “think of the public good before themselves”.Footnote 70
The perfected self should be liberal in the Roman sense of the term. It is a characteristic of a person who recognizes the interdependence of individuals and the importance of acting and living as a member of a social whole. Being liberal in this sense is also to adhere to a mutual obligation of individuals to be generous, help those who are in need, and share each other’s ends in life. The suggestion that the perfected self should be liberal in this sense does not follow from some supreme moral principle. Instead, it is based on reasons inherent to the notion itself; it is valuable to be generous, feel compassion with those in need, recognize the interdependence of individuals, and so on. What is more, the suggestion reconnects ideological liberalism with its linguistic roots, offering a semantically more traditional ideology than the post-change liberalism that, at least to many, denotes moral “emptiness.” Throughout the remainder of this subsection, I use “the liberal self” instead of the longer “the perfected, liberal, self” to make reading more comfortable.
In Fawcett’s theory of the history of liberalism, the first liberals searched for a new order after the turmoil of early industrial capitalism and late 18th century revolutions.Footnote 71 The old order had been static and characterized by social determinism, the new order had to be dynamic and capable of withstanding and incorporating social change. Early liberals had a dream about “order in a masterless world” to be “shaped by distrust of powers, monopolies, and authorities, by faith that the human ills of warfare, poverty, and ignorance were corrigible in this world, and by unbreachable respect for the enterprises, interests, and opinions of people, whoever they were”.Footnote 72 These convictions served as guiding ideas that interlocked and reinforced each other. Accordingly, Fawcett takes the early liberalism for “a practice guided by four loose ideas,” namely conflict, resistance to power, progress, and respect.Footnote 73 Together, they formed “the liberal outlook”.Footnote 74 I adopt this outlook as part of the moral identity of the liberal self.
Fawcett argues that respect for others meant for the early liberals that people should be treated with equal respect regardless of their background, beliefs, and enterprises. Thus, the individual, an abstract model of human beings defined through properties shared by all humans but devoid of properties that separate them from each other, entered the liberal argument; “[l]iberals began to talk of defending the individual much as people today speak of saving the whale or protecting the planet, as if individuals were simultaneously many things and one”.Footnote 75
The view I present on this particular topic may deviate from Fawcett’s. In my view, respecting others as individuals is different from respecting them as particular subjects. As particular subjects, human beings are worthy of respect or disrespect depending on specific factors, such as what they do and what they are or what they believe. As individuals, human beings are worthy of respect full stop. They are members of a set of beings that liberals recognize as equally valuable. In practice, this means human beings should enjoy equal political rights and liberties as individuals. Their background, beliefs, enterprises, and so on, should not matter to their political status as equals. Liberals may still praise or condemn others as particular subjects based on factors specific to them. For instance, they may direct blame against a person who fails to do her duty but would express this blame respectfully because the blameworthy person is an individual of equal status.
In light of this discussion, I take respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are as a characteristic of the liberal self, where respect is understood as an appropriate consideration of others as individuals.Footnote 76 The liberal self shows human beings a kind of respect compatible with full equal respect for everyone. In its fundamental attitudes, the liberal self does not favor or discriminate others based on factors such as their sexuality, skin color, religious beliefs, political interests, and other factors that separate them, but treats everyone as individuals of equal social, political, and moral status.
Respect for others is closely connected to distrust of power. Skeptical to power, the early liberals wanted to develop institutions that would prevent “domination by any one power, section, or interest”.Footnote 77 Fawcett mainly focuses on public power, which includes the state’s power over the citizen, of wealth over poverty, and of majorities over minorities. Among other things, public power can be used to obstruct people’s aims and enterprises, intrude on their privacy, and exclude the poor, the uneducated, and the unorthodox from protection. Liberals resisted public power by seeking ways to contain or channel it institutionally. One example of this is found in the constitutional separation of legislative, executive, and judiciary powers.
Following Fawcett, I take distrust of power as a characteristic of the liberal self. This means the liberal self resists domination, whether it targets the own person or others’, and whether it is exercised by others or by one’s own group. The liberal self prevents dominant power from emerging and dismantles it where it exists. This distrust is not only for public power but also for local and domestic, such as for the domination of one group over another in the workplace or of one member over the others in a family. The liberal self seeks to distribute power to individuals.
What is more, the early liberals believed in progress. They thought that both individuals and society at large could, and would, become better over time. Liberals had dreams about material prosperity, social equality, democracy, improvement of character, and other things they thought could be realized. They campaigned for women’s rights, worker’s education, and help for the poor, among other things.Footnote 78 However, their commitment to both progress and respect for persons led to a difficulty. On the one hand, liberals held the view that people must be allowed to choose their way of life for themselves and flourish in their own way. On the other, liberals also had substantive ideas of the good and the right; “liberals were teachers, preachers, and leading men in their communities, used to telling people what to do and how to behave”.Footnote 79 Fawcett illustrates this struggle by quoting Lord Acton: “[m]y liberalism admits to everyone the right to his own opinion and imposes on me the duty of teaching him what is best”.Footnote 80
Most importantly for the present purposes, liberals believed in improvement for individuals personally and materially; that “through hard work and good habits you could get ahead and stand financially on your own”.Footnote 81 I thus take faith in human progress as a characteristic of the liberal self. This means the liberal self has faith in that humans can change to the better both morally and materially. They are not molded into fixed shapes or set to live under predetermined circumstances but can change both themselves and their situations.
This faith does not necessarily result in a laissez faire policy toward others, i.e., that progress will take place by itself if only people are left alone. Faith in progress is not the belief that things always solve themselves. Instead, it may just as well mean that one does not give up when supporting others in their endeavors. Faith in progress may motivate the liberal self to continue trying, or to assist their peers long after others have judged that there is little or no hope of improvement. It is an optimistic attitude to social, moral, and material change.
Finally, Fawcett distinguishes liberals from conservatives and socialists by employing a theory of their different views on conflicts in society. Liberals believed that ethical and material conflict within society is unescapable. Groups such as producers, consumers, owners, workers, natives, migrants, religious believers, atheists, rationalists, skeptics, and so on, form and act upon interests that cannot be breached or eradicated. This is one major reason why liberals supported the development of power-separating institutions in society that work to channel conflicts peacefully. Conservatives, Fawcett argues, had thought of society prior to the events that led to the rise of liberalism as “a harmonious, orderly whole”.Footnote 82 Conflicts, in their view, were new and alien phenomena in society. Socialists, to the contrary, agreed with liberals that conflicts in society are unescapable, but thought they would end once material inequalities were overcome.Footnote 83
Following Fawcett, I take the acknowledgement of inescapable ethical and material conflict within society as a characteristic of the liberal self. This means the liberal self does not entertain or indulge in the comforting but mistaken belief that all conflicts can be overcome. Instead, the liberal self properly engages with conflicts through mitigating strategies, diplomacy, and compromise.
Thus, the liberal self should be characterized by Fawcett’s theory of liberalism as respect for people whatever they think and whoever they are, distrust of power, faith in human progress, and the acknowledgement of inescapable ethical and material conflict within society. As in the above, this suggestion does not follow from some supreme moral principle but is based on reasons inherent to Fawcett’s theory; the four loose ideas reflect characteristics that individuals should adopt as part of their perfected selves.