The Worthwhileness of Meaningful Lives

Abstract

The M → W thesis that a meaningful life must be a worthwhile life follows from an appealing approach to the axiology of life. Yet one of the most prominent voices in the recent philosophy of life literature, Thaddeus Metz, has raised multiple objections to that thesis. With a view to preserving the appeal of the axiological approach from which it follows, I here defend the M → W thesis from Metz’s objections. My defense yields some interesting insights about both a meaningful life and a worthwhile life: (i) a meaningful life should be firmly distinguished from a life with meaning, (ii) the value of a meaningful life must outweigh whatever disvalue the life has, (iii) a worthwhile life at a given time needn’t be a life worth continuing at that time, and (iv) the M → W thesis doesn’t preclude the possibility of something being part of what constitutes the meaningfulness of a life without also being part of what constitutes the worthwhileness of the life.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By ‘a good life’ I mean what some (e.g. Bloomfield 2014, pp. 10ff.) but not others (e.g. Feldman 2004, pp. 8ff.) appear to mean by ‘the good life’: a life characterized by goodness in general. A life characterized by goodness in general need not be understood as a life characterized by goodness simpliciter (“absolute” or “just plain” goodness, as it is sometimes called). Consonantly with the claim that there is no such thing as goodness simpliciter (see, e.g., Geach 1956, Thomson 2008, and Kraut 2011), a life characterized by goodness in general may be understood as a life characterized by at least one of the basic forms of goodness for or as. On the other hand, one may understand a life characterized by goodness in general as a life characterized by goodness simpliciter, if one finds compelling reason to do so in the light of recent defenses of the latter notion (e.g. Arneson 2010; Orsi 2013; Rowland 2016).

  2. 2.

    In his recent call to eliminate the concept of a worthwhile life, Fumagalli (2018) looks for, but fails to find, a role for the concept to play that cannot be played just as well by other available axiological concepts. I think he looks in the wrong place—in the domain of roles related to the delineation of varieties of a good life (or particular “dimensions of worth” in terms of which we assess lives, as he puts it), rather than in the domain of roles related to the articulation of a general criterion for a good life.

  3. 3.

    Metz’s (2012) primary aim is to undermine what we may call the “M = W” thesis—the conjunction of the M → W thesis and its converse—and he suggests various objections to it. The ones I will address in this paper are abstracted from putative examples of “meaningful lives that are not worthwhile” (p. 443), and so are best understood as being directed at the M = W thesis by being directed at the M → W thesis. The others are abstracted from putative examples of “worthwhile lives that are not meaningful” (p. 443), and so are best understood as being directed at the M = W thesis by being directed at the converse of the M → W thesis. Whatever the strength of these other objections, I pass over them here because my defense of the M → W thesis requires no commitment to either the M = W thesis or the converse of the M → W thesis. Indeed, along with Metz (though I suspect for different reasons) I think that both the M = W thesis and the converse of the M → W thesis are false.

  4. 4.

    As far as I can see, the objection under consideration doesn’t need to include the claim that a worthwhile life must realize some amount of disvalue. Nor should it include that claim, which seems vulnerable to counterexamples involving disvalue-free lives. Thus, consider the blessed afterlives postulated by certain religious traditions: these are supposed to be lives that proceed from previous lives of the individuals who live them, and blessed largely because they realize no amount of disvalue at all—lives in which “nothing morally evil” and “nothing sad, injurious, or painful” makes an appearance (Silverman 2017, p. 22). However strong our grounds are for denying the existence of such lives, it seems little more than a naturalist’s pretension to deny their mere possibility. And it is very intuitive to think that such lives are worthwhile.

  5. 5.

    There is no commitment here to any particular view about how the amount of value (similarly, the amount of disvalue) overall is determined, for example to an additive view according to which it is determined by summing the amounts of value realized in appropriately defined elements of the life. Further, to maintain that there is such a thing as the overall amount of value a life realizes is not to say anything about our epistemic capacities to gauge this amount precisely, as opposed to roughly in such terms as “large amount,” “very little,” etc. Finally, there is nothing here that precludes one from holding that a worthwhile life, like a meaningful life, must also be one whose overall amount of value is distributed in a certain way across temporally distinct elements of the life (cf. Kauppinen 2012 and Metz 2013, pp. 38ff.).

  6. 6.

    One might worry that the putative counterexample I have just given trades on an inappropriately narrow conception of an individual’s life—for example a conception according to which an individual’s life is just the mode of existence she is currently effecting, as contrasted with a conception according to which an individual’s life comprehends everything about her from the beginning of her existence to its end. But the worry would be misplaced, for there other convincing counterexamples that are consistent with the broadest of conceptions of an individual’s life. Here is one: from the beginning of her existence to her 110th year, Zoe’s life has been worthwhile, despite whatever disvalue it has realized. But for some time Zoe has known full well that if she continues to exist after her 110th year, her life will inevitably realize a sufficient amount of disvalue overall (again, say, mostly hedonic) to outweigh, overwhelmingly, the overall amount of value it realizes. In the light of this knowledge, and of course to the deep sadness of her loved ones, Zoe decides to end her existence as that year comes to a close. Here, Zoe’s life is worthwhile at the time of her death but it is not at that time worth continuing—not by her lights, at any rate.

  7. 7.

    Further reason for thinking that life can be worthwhile at a given time without being worth continuing at that time might be gleaned from Blumenfeld’s (2009) argument that a worthwhile life needn’t be a life that one should want to live over again.

  8. 8.

    Compare Metz’s view that although pleasure can enhance meaning in one’s life, it cannot even partially constitute meaning in one’s life (2013, p. 62).

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Acknowledgements

For their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article, I am indebted to Andrew Brook, Jordon Dodd, anonymous referees for this journal, and audiences at both a Canadian Philosophical Association annual meeting and a Carleton University Department of Philosophy colloquium. I am especially indebted to Metz for his helpful feedback; his generosity of spirit in helping me significantly improve a piece that is critical of some of his own work has been very much appreciated.

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Matheson, D. The Worthwhileness of Meaningful Lives. Philosophia 48, 313–324 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-019-00082-8

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Keywords

  • Axiology
  • Good life
  • Worthwhile life
  • Meaningful life
  • Meaning
  • Final value
  • Disvalue