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Constraint-Free Meaning, Fearing Death, and Temporal Bias


This paper focuses on three distinct issues in Fischer’s (2020) Death, Immortality, and Meaning in Life, viz. meaning in life, fearing death, and asymmetrical attitudes between our prenatal and postmortem non-existence. I first raise the possibility that life’s total meaning can be negative and argue that immoral or harmful acts are plausibly meaning-detracting acts, which could make the lives of historically impactful evil dictators anti-meaningful. After that, I review Fischer’s two necessary conditions for meaning in life (i.e. not being significantly deluded and having free will) and argue against each. In the second section, I review Fischer’s argument that we should fear death in virtue of it bringing about a permanent loss of our viewpoint. I offer an opposing argument that only intrinsic (not extrinsic) badness is a fitting object of fear. Since death is extrinsically bad, it cannot merit fear, even though it can be the appropriate object of other negative attitudes (e.g. lament). In the third and final section, I consider Fischer’s solution to the asymmetry problem, which appeals to the rationality of temporal bias. I then raise two worries about it. I first argue that temporal bias is not necessarily, as Fischer claims, survival conducive. I then argue that, even if it is, this may actually be an epistemic defeater (rather than justifier) for the rationality of temporal bias.

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  1. Unless otherwise noted, all in-text citations refer to Fischer (2020).

  2. I’m not the first to suggest this possibility, however. It’s been mentioned in the very recent literature on meaning in life at least twice. Thad Metz (2013: 64–65) briefly alludes to it in his and Stephen Campbell and Sven Nyholm (2015) offer a sustained defense of so-called “anti-meaning”.

  3. Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this possibility.

  4. For further interesting discussion of this film in relation to meaning in life, see Kimberly A. Blessing (2005).

  5. Someone might push back here and suggest that Truman wasn’t actually significantly deluded since he truly believed that “people loved him.” However, this belief is only accidently true since his more precise beliefs about the way people cared for him were all false. Likewise, his more precise beliefs about anything happening to him on a daily basis were all false. This should suffice for it to be the case that he was significantly deluded.

  6. A related worry is that these necessary conditions may give rise to hypersensitivity worries about meaning, ones that parallel the hypersensitivity worries Theron Pummer (2017) raises for non-hedonistic accounts of well-being. As we reach the border of someone being “significantly deluded” a miniscule change in the degree to which they are deluded could make them meet this necessary condition for meaningfulness and so, if their life already contained an abundance of meaning-conferring goods, suddenly make their lives incredibly meaningful. But it seems quite odd for a very small change in the degree to which someone is deluded to make such a large difference in how meaningful their lives are, viz. from being completely meaningless to, say, maximally meaningful.

  7. One interesting response available to Fischer is to flesh out the not being significantly deluded criteria in terms of having accurate beliefs about what one tried to do, rather than one what actually did. Then, the person in the experience machine could meet that criteria and so have a meaningful life. This might prove too much by Fischer’s own lights, however, since it would get the intuitively wrong verdict in his The Experience Machine case. But that is perhaps a smaller bullet to bite than the verdict in my Two Experience Machines case. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  8. It’s worth noting that some other prominent views in the meaning literature entail that significantly deluded lives can be meaningful even if the proponents of such views don’t state this explicitly. For instance, it seems that Susan Wolf’s Passion and Objectivity requirements can be met if someone is passionate about discovering necessary truths and discovering such truths is objectively good Wolf (2012: 14–19). Likewise, the two conditions for Ben Bramble (2015: 447) seem to be clearly meetable in the experience machine since one can obtain objective or subjective goods in the experience machine and obtaining those goods presumably makes the world impartially better. It at least makes the world impartially better insofar as it increases the well-being of the person in the experience machine! Finally, Stewart Goetz (2016) argues in his that life in an experience machine could be the most meaningful life possible if God exists, fulfilling God’s purpose for us is meaning-conferring, God’s purpose for us just is to be perfectly happy, and hedonism is true.

  9. See Fischer (2011) as but one notable example.

  10. For an overview of Epicureans who make this claim, see Travis Timmerman (2019).

  11. For an argument that no negative attitudes of any kind toward death are warranted, see Ben Bradley (2021). See also Bradley (2015). For an argument against the conditional claim that “If death is bad, then it merits fear,” see Adam Patterson (2021).

  12. My view does have an implication that some may find counterintuitive. Consider two people, one of whom is certain that they’ll die within a day, while the other is only 99% confident that they’ll die within a day. So, my view entails that the latter person can fear that they will die tomorrow, while the former can’t. Though, the former person can have all sorts of other negative attitudes toward death (e.g. lament). It just wouldn’t make sense for them to fear that they will die tomorrow. This implication seems correct to me, though I grant that it’s contestable. Thanks for an anonymous referee for pushing me on this point.

  13. I’ll use the term “birth” loosely to refer to the moment one comes into existence.

  14. This solution was first defended in Thomas Nagel (1970). Frederik Kaufman has done the most to develop and defend this objection. See, most notably, Kaufman (1996). However, see Timmerman (2018) for an argument against this solution and Kaufman (2021) for a reply.

  15. For the original description of the case, see Derek Parfit (1984: 165–166).

  16. One response available to Fischer is to suggest that Dutch-Booking is only indicative of irrational preferences in (metaphysically) possible worlds.

  17. For more on Dutch-Booking arguments against temporal bias, as well as a variety of other independent arguments against temporal bias, see Dougherty (2011), Greene and Sullivan (2015), and Sullivan (2018).

  18. Though, see Greene et al. (2021) for a work in experimental philosophy that shows this judgment is not widely shared among non-philosophers. As anecdotal evidence, at least one anonymous referee did not share this judgment nor did Amanda. She would both prefer that she had the more painful surgery in the past and that I had the more painful surgery in the past.

  19. See Joyce (1998: ch. 6), Joyce (2007), Street (2006, 2016). For a reply to the latter, see Chappell (2017).


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I would like to thank Justin Capes, John Martin Fischer, Felipe Pereira, two anonymous referees, and the audience at the 2021 Pacific American Philosophical Association meeting for very helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Timmerman, T. Constraint-Free Meaning, Fearing Death, and Temporal Bias. J Ethics 26, 377–393 (2022).

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