Friday, May 21, 2010

Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life, Part II

I'm going to pick up where I left off in the previous post. In general, as I said, I am sympathetic to Wolf's view, but I'm having some problems with some of her arguments. In this post, I'll address three arguments she makes for the existence of a third kind of value, meaningful value, to add to egocentric and moral values. As I said in the earlier post, I agree that there are multiple types of value. I should add that it is not always obvious that moral value should take precedence over others. One might, following Woody Allen's somewhat juvenile question in Bullets Over Broadway, prefer to save the last copy of the collected works of William Shakespeare rather than save a human life. Supposing that Shakespeare does not add to the moral value of the universe as much as a human life does, then one is implicitly weighing the aesthetic value of Shakespeare against the moral value of the human life. And it is not entirely obvious which choice one should make. Hence, there may be sets of values that are not reducible to each other, and it may be possible that there is not always an easy answer to which should be preferred.

Wolf, as I noted in the previous post, wants to exclude egocentric values from grounding meaning. Clearly, there are egocentric goods, and these exist objectively, not just from the perspective of the individual. So, it's not clear why it's not meaning-grounding to benefit yourself. Wolf faces this question squarely, but her solution is a mess.

Why, she asks, if
"finding food and shelter for one's child, nursing one's partner back to health, rescuing one's wounded comrade from the hands of death are worthwhile activities, why shouldn't feeding, sheltering, healing and rescuing oneself be worthwhile as well? It may seem odd that if I benefit you and you benefit me, our activities may contribute to the meaningfulness of each other's [sic] lives but if we each tend to our own well-being, our actions will have no such effect" (p. 42).

Indeed, since Wolf, here at least, seems to take no notice of intention, we can act selfishly in a I'll-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-mine way and have meaningful lives, but those acting in equally selfish self-directed ways do not have meaningful lives. The best answer, to me, is to appeal to intentions as relevant to the worth of our actions, but I suspect Wolf does not want to do that since it is redolent of Kantian morality, and she wants a form of value independent of morality. Here's her solution (continuing directly):

This puzzle disappears, however, when we recall the distinctiveness of the category of meaningfulness and recognize that activities, projects or actions may be valuable in some way without being valuable in a way that contributes to meaningfulness. Certainly, if there is value in saving another person's life, there is value in saving one's own; certainly, taking care of oneself, seeking happiness, and avoiding pain, are sensible and worthwhile things to do. It can even be perfectly reasonable to do a Sudoku puzzle once in a while, or to keep a goldfish. But whether a life is meaningful has specifically to do with whether one's life can be said to be worthwhile from an external point of view. A meaningful life is one that would not be considered pointless or gratuitous, even from an impartial perspective (p. 42)

Wolf is trying to show that meaning depends on some form of value other than the egocentric. But she admits that saving one's life does have value. In fact, it has exactly as much value as saving someone else's life. So, here's the problem with this argument. If she recognizes that everyone's life has value, and uses that to justify her conclusion that one cannot obtain meaning from acting in self-interest, then her premise undermines her conclusion. From an impartial perspective, my life is just as important as your life, or his life, or her life. Impartiality demands that I act in my own interests, and so impartiality would require that my life has the same value as acting in others' interest has. So, if acting to benefit others has meaning-grounding value when impartially viewed, so must my acting to benefit myself.

Wolf continues:

Living in a way that connects positively with object, people, and activities that have value independent of oneself harmonizes with the fact that one's own perspective and existence have no privileged status in the universe. This is why engagement with things that have value independent of oneself can contribute to the meaningfulness of one's life in a way that activities directed at one's own good and valuable in no other way do not (p. 42).

Again, this is exactly why my acting in my own self-interest has to have exactly the same value as my acting in another's interest. Each of us has independent value. My perspective and existence have no privileged status, but neither does the other person's. The fact that we are not privileged over others is what makes it necessary that my value is the same, and not less than, anyone else's.

There is some sense in which benefiting another is producing a good that is independent of oneself. Since one is benefiting someone else, that benefit could exist whether I do or not--the benefit does not depend ontologically on my existence although it does causally. I think Wolf is unclear here. She tends to say that the value must have a source outside oneself (although I may be missing a clearer statement that comports better with my view), so the value needs must come from someone else. But the only position that really makes sense here is that the value is objectively real, not what its source is (if it makes sense to talk of the source of value). If we accept that something gets meaning-grounding value only from an external source, then we have to ask what the source that meaning-grounding value has. This leads then either to circularity or to an infinite regress. She seems to endorse the circularity view--my life can have meaning but helping you, and your life can have meaning from helping me. But this makes no sense; unless our lives have objective value, they cannot provide meaning for each other. My life cannot have meaning in virtue of your life having meaning, while your life has meaning in virtue of my life having meaning. Similarly, if my life has meaning because it gets it from someone else's life having meaning, and that other person's life has meaning because of its connection to yet a third person etc., then we have an infinite regress of meaning-grounding value, and no one's life has meaning. I suppose Wolf would say that each life has an objective value independent of everyone else, but, if that's the case, then I don't see how she can reject self-directed activities as meaning-grounding.

But she can say that the meaning derives from the value each individual has, so some self-directed activities can have meaning provided they do not conflict with other-directed values that outweigh them. In other words, the key is that one's activities can have meaning when directed solely towards one's own benefits, but they should not do so at the expense of a greater good for others. So, people's failure to help others can undermine their lives' meaning even if helping oneself could provide some meaning-grounding value. If I act selfishly, that has some value, but if it entails that I not help others, or I help myself explicitly at the expense of others, then the net value is negative, and my life then lacks meaning. This raises enormous difficulties, however, because it requires that we be able to weigh different, possibly incommensurable, values against each other in order to determine whether one's life is meaningful. For example, my life's epistemic value might be greater than its lack of moral value, in that I create great works of philosophy (ha!) that outweigh the negative value of my failing to help my fellow humans. But how are we to determine when such a balance is positive or negative?

In sum, Wolf tries to rule out self-directed actions as grounding meaning, but to do so she appeals to an objective, "God's-eye-view" of the universe, which itself undermines the claim that other-directed but not self-directed actions can ground meaning. There are problems with the view that any of these values can provide meaning in that they seem to require us to be able to weigh or measure values with respect to each other, and it is hard to see how to determine proper weights. That difficulty notwithstanding, I think this is the solution we have to accept.

Wolf makes two more arguments for the existence of a meaning-grounding value that is independent of moral or egocentric value. The first argument is based on our intuitive judgments of several examples. The second is based on an argument from conflicts of values given by Bernard Williams. I'll take the Williams argument first since it is shorter, and the examples second.

Williams argues that there are often conflicts of values between our moral duty and other values, and that we should not always, immediately, or obviously prefer the moral value to the others. For example, doing our moral duty need not take precedence over our own commitments and values. Perhaps I could do more benefit to the world if I gave up philosophy and devoted my life to famine relief. Perhaps I should abandon my family in order to help more people in famine-ravaged countries. But I need not, indeed should not, do these things even if they are moral obligations I have. Williams argues for this by claiming that such values--as doing philosophy or loving one's family--are sometimes necessary for us to have a reason to live. I could not help with famine relief if I abandoned my family and love for philosophy because that might undermine the very ability to help others because I would no longer care for the world, would have no incentive to continue to help others because I would have (taking Wolf's interpretation) drained my life of all meaning.

This argument is actually a moral argument for valuing other things besides aiding with famine since giving up everything would actually undermine our ability to do long-term good. It in fact claims that I have a moral duty to myself to make my life livable so that I might do more good overall. Thus, unfortunately, this does not establish the existence of a non-moral objective value. There might be such a value (and I think there is), but this final move does not establish it. Perhaps we should be satisfied with the intuition that, even if we all believed that people's lives would be better off were we to devote ourselves to famine relief, we still would think our lives were lacking if we gave up everything else we cared for in favor of working for famine relief.

Presumably, we would need to have an active engagement and passion for famine relief for this argument to work. What I'm trying to cast doubt on here is not Wolf's analysis of meaning, but her assertion that there is a third category of value.

So, if we have doubts about the existence of meaning-value as opposed to moral value, we would have to be satisfied with this sense that our lives would be lacking if they did not contain family, interpersonal relations, or lacked any commitment to pursue our capacities to their fullest potential or pursue epistemic or aesthetic values. I can endorse this intuition, but the only claim here that seems to point to a distinct meaning-value is the familial and interpersonal relations since the examples of other values could be considered epistemic or aesthetic.

This brings me to Wolf's examples that are supposed to support this meaning-value. The examples are: Visiting a friend at the hospital, doing philosophy, and making a fancy dessert. The problem I have is that the value of each of these seems to fit one of the three categories already mentioned: aesthetic, epistemic, and moral.

Visiting a friend in the hospital, even if that friend is in a coma and thus derives no benefit from your visit, is clearly a moral duty and a moral good. Wolf points out that we do not do it because it is our duty but out of love for our friend. Surely that is often true, but it does not follow that it is for that reason not a moral action. We often do morally good things for motives other than because they are our duty (pace Kant).

Doing philosophy has epistemic value. It exemplifies good reasoning and aims at truth, a value that is independent of moral value. Perhaps it also represents a moral value in that we have a duty to develop our talents. (In fact, Wolf considers that one of the reasons for her to do philosophy, but she does not seem to consider this a moral value.)

Lastly, her baking an elaborate dessert could qualify as an aesthetic value. Wolf is dismissive of the idea of simply eating good chocolate as a meaningful activity, and so this is the weakest of her examples. I'm a little unclear why baking the cake and eating the cake have such different value. I think it must be because baking the cake is a difficult labor of love which involves true sacrifice and artistic merit, and eating it is just gustatory delight. If that's so, then the artistic merit of the activity is what makes it valuable, and that fits my category of aesthetic value.

This leaves me with a brief caution. I do not think that Wolf has adequately established the existence of a third meaning-grounding value. The examples she gives all seem to fit categories that we already accept. She may be perfectly happy to endorse the existence of these other categories of value as grounding meaning. I do not think she intends for her meaning-grounding value to be the only value that can ground meaning. Moral value ought to be sufficient (given the other criteria for meaning), and so then should epistemic or aesthetic value. The caution is that talking about this third type of value as meaningful or meaning-value suggests that other types of value cannot ground meaning, and that would be a mistake (one I am fairly sure Wolf does not intend to make).

In conclusion, I find the general intuitive support for her overall theory fairly strong. Meaning in life is, I agree, "active engagement in projects of worth." But I think she overlooks some categories of objective worth and fails to establish a third, rather undefined other category. The case of interpersonal or familial relations seems to me to be genuinely important and valuable, and I do not know how to fit this into any other category. So, I might endorse interpersonal, aesthetic, epistemic and moral values as values that ground meaning. But we must be aware that the net effect of our projects must be positive; we cannot weight ourselves as being more valuable than others even though we should treat ourselves as valuable. Our meaning does not just depend on our project taken in isolation to have worth, but it requires that our projects not preclude other projects that have greater worth that we could equally well pursue nor cause us to neglect other projects that we should pursue.

The difficulty with this proposal is that we would have to weigh these different values against each other implicitly in order to determine whether a life is meaningful, and such a task presents considerable difficulty. I do not want to overstate the difficulty of this, however, since very often in our lives it will be obvious which task has the greater value. Whatever benefit I get in playing a video game (say, a greater ability to solve logic puzzles or greater hand-eye coordination) is far outweighed by my duty to my loved ones or my responsibility to pursue philosophy as rigorously as possible. We can and do make comparative judgments all the time even if the exact grounds for such comparisons may elude us. I take this to be a project for another time, however.

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