Meaning in the lives of humans and other animals


This paper argues that contemporary philosophical literature on meaning in life has important implications for the debate about our obligations to non-human animals. If animal lives can be meaningful, then practices including factory farming and animal research might be morally worse than ethicists have thought. We argue for two theses about meaning in life: (1) that the best account of meaningful lives must take intentional action to be necessary for meaning—an individual’s life has meaning if and only if the individual acts intentionally in ways that contribute to finally valuable states of affairs; and (2) that this first thesis does not entail that only human lives are meaningful. Because non-human animals can be intentional agents of a certain sort, our account yields the verdict that many animals’ lives can be meaningful. We conclude by considering the moral implications of these theses for common practices involving animals.

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  1. 1.

    We use ‘animals’ to refer to nonhuman animals for the sake of brevity.

  2. 2.

    Discussions of the issue are relegated to a few short paragraphs of Smuts (2013: 551, 558) and to a handful of views formulated so as to explicitly rule out the possibility of animal meaning. To his credit, Smuts sees “no reason to be speciesist about meaning” (558). Gruen (2014: 137) suggests that our practices involving animals often deprive their lives of meaning, which is to assume the view that we defend here.

  3. 3.

    Wolf (1997) rejects a clean distinction between meaning and well-being, because she argues that having a meaningful life is in one’s self-interest, as part of a pluralist conception of well-being. However, she clearly distinguishes meaning from happiness. We return to these questions in Sect. 5.

  4. 4.

    Positive psychology provides some empirical evidence. See UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center:

  5. 5.

    See e.g. Nozick (1981), Singer (1997), and Wolf (2010).

  6. 6.

    Also see Singer (1997): Henry Spira’s life was meaningful in virtue of its contribution to the reduction of animal and human suffering.

  7. 7.

    See Feldman (1986: 26) and Bradley (1998: 110, 118).

  8. 8.

    See Lewis (1955) and Bradley (1998: 110).

  9. 9.

    One might suggest they are somewhat meaningful since they causally contribute to pleasure. Bramble is committed to this implication, because his view is explicitly welfarist (2015: 14).

  10. 10.

    Smuts (2013: 551, 558).

  11. 11.

    Smuts is explicit about this: “the best, most precise, notion of the GCA includes accidental outcomes in the calculation of the meaning of life” (2013: 551).

  12. 12.

    Also see Nozick (1981: 582) and Kauppinen (2012: 346).

  13. 13.

    See Parfit (1976: 100–102), Schwartz (1978: 3–13), and Adams (1979) for the earliest discussions of the well-known ‘non-identity problem’. Ironically, each seems to have ‘discovered’ the problem independently around the same time.

  14. 14.

    Our point is cast in terms of the amount of value, but it could be made just as well in terms of quality.

  15. 15.

    Although the significance of either contribution might have been amplified by its uniqueness.

  16. 16.

    The example is discussed by Smuts (2013).

  17. 17.

    We do not want to rule out the possibility of “anti-meaningful” lives, lives that have a deficit of meaning (see Campbell and Nyholm 2015). We suspect one could offer plausible conditions under which a life would be anti-meaningful by replacing “valuable” in our analysis with “disvaluable”.

  18. 18.

    Wielenberg (2005) suggests that ‘intrinsically valuable activities’ might be relevant to meaning in life.

  19. 19.

    From here on, the terms ‘contributing’ and ‘contribution’ refer to both causal and constitutive contributions, and ‘valuable states of affairs’ (or ‘outcomes’) to states of affairs (or outcomes) that have final value.

  20. 20.

    For those unswayed by these commonplace examples, there is no shortage of competition. Take Marie Curie, Audrey Hepburn, Rosa Parks, Henry Spira, or feel free to substitute your own paradigms of meaningful lives.

  21. 21.

    Wolf allows that meaning can arise from commitment to projects “of a good kind” that nevertheless fail (2010: 107).

  22. 22.

    Taylor (2008), Wolf (1997).

  23. 23.

    Her hybrid theory is most succinctly captured by the slogan, “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (1997: 211).

  24. 24.

    However, many philosophers and psychologists agree that not all aspects of thought – including complex representations—require propositional attitudes (see e.g. Bermúdez 2003; Proust 2013).

  25. 25.

    Smuts (2013: 544–547) makes a similar point about George in It’s a Wonderful Life.

  26. 26.

    One may imagine variants of the hybrid theory, with different subjective conditions, such as a purely epistemic attitude (e.g. belief) about the objective worth of an activity. It is unclear, however, whether any subjective condition other than fulfillment would capture the basic appeal of hybrid theories.

  27. 27.

    See Hurley and Nudds (2006) for more discussions from psychologists and philosophers.

  28. 28.

    See Rowlands (2012, forthcoming).

  29. 29.

    Rosati draws from Velleman (1991).

  30. 30.

    See e.g. evidence discussed by Varner (2012).

  31. 31.

    Paul (2015) offers a detailed discussion of transformative experience.

  32. 32.

    See e.g. Korsgaard (2006).

  33. 33.

    Rowlands (2012) argues that animals, because they can act on moral emotions that respond to (external) reasons, can be moral subjects. But he denies they can be moral agents. We need not assume that animals must be moral subjects to have meaningful lives, but if they are, then the above examples are even more compelling.

  34. 34.

    Cheney and Seyfarth (2007) deny that propositional thought requires propositional language, but they argue that baboons have a Fodorian “language of thought”.

  35. 35.

    Sebo (2015: 6–8) argues that perceptual agency includes the capacity to deliberate (non-propositionally) about what to do, using e.g. trial-and-error experiments, cognitive maps, and proto-conditionals. We do not think meaning requires the ability to deliberate about it, but we agree that animal agency involves some capacity to deliberate (non-propositionally).

  36. 36.

    Sebo cites “philosophers and scientists [who] have started to accept” the category of perceptual agency: e.g. Bermúdez (2003) (‘level 1 rationality’), Camp (2009) (maps and charts), Cussins (1992) (‘cognitive trails’), Gibson (1979) (‘affordances’), Millikan (2006) (‘pushmi-pullyu representations’), among others. They “are all describing the same basic kind of process, a process whereby we act on normative perceptual experiences rather than on normative propositional judgments.” (p. 6).

  37. 37.

    We thank Cheshire Calhoun for offering this example.

  38. 38.

    See e.g. Frey (1987) and Nozick (1974: 50).

  39. 39.

    The distinction between “internal” and “external” meaning helps to capture the sense in which a subject’s (externally) meaningful life need not be meaningful to her (i.e. internally) (see Wielenberg 2005).

  40. 40.

    Also see Donaldson and Kymlicka’s (2011: 104) model of “dependent agency”, which is “exercised in and through relations with particular others in whom they trust, and who have the knowledge needed to recognize and assist the expression of agency.”.

  41. 41.

    See Gruen (2011: 149–150) for a compelling discussion.

  42. 42.

    Some will find it contentious whether such humans can have meaningful lives. We assume it is a virtue of a theory of meaning if it leaves open the possibility. Calhoun (2015) says that a meaningful life is something one leads (not just has), and she appears to rule out that animals can lead their lives. It is unclear, however, given that her view purports to apply to cognitively disabled humans, why it could not apply to nonhuman agents of comparable cognitive sophistication.

  43. 43.

    Moral status, on many views, happens to depend on the very capacities that make a meaningful life possible, such as higher cognition or narrative selves (Varner 2012). But, as Nozick (1974: 50) wonders: “Are certain forms of treatment incompatible with … having meaningful lives?” Should we “maximize the total ‘meaningfulness’ score of the persons of the world?”.

  44. 44.

    Gruen (2014), as mentioned early on, recognizes the ethical significance of meaningful lives for animals.

  45. 45.

    Varner (2012) uses the term “merely sentient.”.

  46. 46.

    One might understand this suggestion as being an alternative way of expressing Sebo’s central thesis in his (2015).

  47. 47.

    Wolf (1997, 2010). Wolf’s objective-list theory, however, sets a fitting fulfillment condition on meaning which implies that animals cannot have good lives, since meaning and other items on her list require cognitive sophistication beyond their reach (as pointed out by McDaniel, unpublished). But surely the implication that animals cannot have good lives is much less plausible than the view that they can have meaningful ones. Also see Lin (2015) for an articulation of this objection to theories of well-being that require welfare subjects to have a high degree of cognitive sophistication.


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We owe a significant debt to Dale Jamieson and Robert Elliot, as well as Cheshire Calhoun, Stephen Campbell, Sari Kisilevsky, Rob MacDougall, Collin O'Neil, Regina Rini, and an anonymous referee for this journal for their encouragement and incisive comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Duncan Purves.

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Duncan Purves and Nicolas Delon have contributed equally to the production of this paper.

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Purves, D., Delon, N. Meaning in the lives of humans and other animals. Philos Stud 175, 317–338 (2018).

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  • Meaning in life
  • Value
  • Well-being
  • Non-human animals
  • Susan Wolf