Ethical Realism

December 29, 2009

What Does “Meaning of Life” Mean?

Filed under: ethics,metaethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 9:47 am
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I am interested in the best “purpose for life” rather than answering the question, “Why were we created?” These are related questions for some people, but I want to know if anything really matters.

I am not going to try to answer the question, “Is there a meaning of life?” in this essay. Instead, I want to clarify what the question means. What would it mean if there is a meaning of life? What would it mean if there isn’t? The belief that there is a meaning of life (i.e. that something really does matter) is basically what philosophers call “intrinsic value.” If something really matters, then it has a very important sort of value. In general, we want to increase the number of good things and decrease the number of bad things in the world.

Intrinsic values has been part of philosophical discourse for thousands of years, but it has rarely been described well, and even philosophers seem to misunderstand what “intrinsic values” are supposed to refer to. In order to describe intrinsic values, I will discuss the following:

  1. What the term “intrinsic value” does and does not refer to.
  2. How people misunderstand intrinsic values

What the term “intrinsic value” does and does not refer to.

My definition of intrinsic values

Intrinsic values have the following three characteristics:

  • If something has intrinsic value, then it is good in itself just for existing.
  • If something has intrinsic value, then all things equal, it is appropriate to promote it.
  • If something has intrinsic value, then it is good no matter who attains it.

Something is often said to have intrinsic value if it is “good for its own sake” or “good in itself” or has “absolute worth.” The idea is that some things (perhaps pleasure, happiness, and human life) are good whether or not they are useful in any sense. Intrinsic value is not merely about what we desire, and it seems to make little sense to say that certain things (such as happiness) is really valuable to me, but not for you. It would be better for everyone to be happy than not. It would be better for more people to exist than less. It is bad to lose our happiness or to lose our life.

Intrinsic value seems like a requirement for morality. Killing is wrong if human life is “good in itself” just for existing. Causing pain is wrong if happiness is “good in itself” just for existing. In order to know why an action is morally justified, we want to know why our action produces good things (or doesn’t produce anything bad.) All things equal, it is a good idea to promote something intrinsically good (such as happiness.) All things equal, it is good to avoid something intrinsically bad (such as suffering). If something is intrinsically good, then it is good no matter who attains it. Assuming happiness has intrinsic value, it’s better for two people to be happy than one. Assuming suffering has intrinsic disvalue, it’s better for one person to suffer than two.

If you decide to eat chocolate, then you might say that you did it to get pleasure. This makes perfect sense to most people. The chocolate might not be healthy, but it does give us something we understand to have value.

If you decide to make money, then we might want to know why. If you reply, “money is the meaning of life,” then we will have a good reason to worry. Money simply isn’t “good in itself.” Money has to be used for something good. If money is needed to buy food, then we might still wonder if the action is justified. What’s so good about food? If you reply that food is necessary to survive, then we might again ask what’s so good about survival. Either survival is not really important “in itself” and we will want to know why you want to survive, or survival (human life) must be “good in itself.”

There is an ancient question in philosophy, “Are things good because they are desired, or are they desirable because they are good?” Intrinsic values is an answer: Things are not merely good because they are desired. Some things are desirable because they are good. Happiness is experienced as being wonderful, and that why we desire it. We don’t want to say that happiness is good just because we desire it.

We think that morality is inescapable. We can opt out of some of our obligations, but not our moral obligations. You are obligated to be a good doctor if you are a doctor, but you can decide to quit. You are obligated to refrain from killing people, but you can’t opt out of that obligation. You can’t say, “Well, I don’t care about morality,” or “I don’t want to be a good person anymore.” Intrinsic values can explain why morality is inescapable: There is something of real value. It would be horrible to destroy something that has real value (happiness or human life.)

We think that helping others makes sense. To help other people attain happiness or avoid pain makes perfect sense if happiness is intrinsically good, and helping others avoid pain makes sense if pain is intrinsically bad. People who are selfish and are willing to harm others to benefit themselves are criticized because they fail to realize that some things “really matter” and are good or bad no matter who attains it. To say that pain is only bad when I feel it, but it isn’t bad when other people feel it seems absurd.

Some people insist that morality only requires empathy, but empathy tends to give us pain. We don’t necessarily want to feel bad when other people feel bad. We might have the choice to stop having empathy by training ourselves to be “desensitized.” Perhaps violence in movies can help us stop empathizing with other people. If nothing “really matters,” then to insist that we improve our sense of empathy rather than neglect it seems irrational. To merely want to coerce others into being moral seems oppressive, and if nothing really matters, it would also seem totally unjustified.

Final Ends

Aristotle introduced the idea of “final ends” or “ultimate ends.” (Basically meaning “final goals” or “ultimate goals.”) His point was that we psychologically accept that some goals are worth having (even if they aren’t useful), but others aren’t. Wanting to eat chocolate for pleasure might be worthy enough to justify eating chocolate sometimes. Wanting to avoid a headache seems to be a good reason to take an aspirin. Aristotle seemed to think that final ends were intrinsic values, but they don’t have to be. Instead, final ends might be strictly description of our psychology. Although final ends are things we desire for their own sake, they might not “really matter.”

In other words, desiring something (in itself) is not the same thing as something being good in itself. We would desire happiness just because we enjoy it, even if we found out that happiness “doesn’t really matter.” Intrinsic values usually seem to be final ends (things we desire for their own sake), but not all final ends are necessarily intrinsic values. Money can be valued for its own sake, but it doesn’t have intrinsic value.

Just like intrinsic values, final ends are not merely useful. Pain is pretty useful, but we still hate pain. We don’t say pain is good, even though it is very helpful to us to have a capacity for pain. To say that pain is bad is to say that it is bad for its own sake. We wouldn’t want to have pain “just for the heck of it.”

The reason that Aristotle called final ends “final” is because he imagined that they would be the last justification you need for an action. He saw that there can be a long chain of justifications: Getting a job helps get money, getting money helps get food, getting food helps us survive. The final justification for getting a job in this example is survival. Most people would agree that survival is desired for its own sake, and it would be quite strange for someone to challenge such a justification and say, “So what? Survival is terrible!” (Survival might not be so great if we would experience too much pain, but avoiding pain seems to be a final end as well.)

Instrumental value

We often confuse intrinsic value with instrumental value or “usefulness.” A machine gun might be useful at killing people, but guns do not have intrinsic value. Money might be useful at helping us survive, but money is not intrinsically valuable. Usefulness is relevant to ethics because we need to know how to achieve our goals. Even if we find out that intrinsic values exist, we still need to know how to promote them. The fact that happiness is intrinsically good is less controversial than the best way to attain happiness for oneself or others.

Although we often say worthless things are “useless,” intrinsic values are useless qua intrinsic value. It isn’t the usefulness of intrinsic values that make them good. They are good despite not being useful. If we found out that there is no meaning of life and nothing really matters, things could still be useful. A machine gun could be useful to kill people, for example. Although we might say that machine guns are “good for killing people,” we might still wonder if machine guns are “really good.”

People often argue that pain isn’t really bad considering that it is often part of our learning experiences. This means that pain can be useful, but it doesn’t mean that pain isn’t intrinsically bad. Many of us believe that pain is intrinsically bad precisely because there is something bad about pain despite the fact that it can be useful. It’s horrible for a child to suffer greatly before dying from a disease at least partly because the pain is horrible. Torturing people is also horrible at least partly because of the pain. It would be pretty absurd to say that pain is good, even when it doesn’t lead to anything good. Useful things can lead to something good, but they aren’t really good on their own.

How people misunderstand intrinsic values

There are at least three ways that people have commonly misunderstood intrinsic values: One, people confuse it with usefulness. Two, people don’t understand that intrinsic values can have different implications depending on the situation. Three, people don’t understand that we can disagree about what has intrinsic value.

People confuse intrinsic values with usefulness

Some people argue that pain can’t be bad because it does us a lot of good. Pain is part of how we learn survival skills. Touching fire teaches us that fire is dangerous. Getting cut with a knife teaches us that knives are dangerous. However, this is merely to point out that pain can be useful for attaining something good. Pain is not something worth seeking for its own sake. We don’t want to experience pain unless it leads to something of significant worth. In other words, pain is not worth avoiding at all costs. Whether or not pain is an acceptable consequence of our actions depends on the situation. Whether or not something intrinsically good is worth attaining can depend on the situation. (e.g. Pleasure isn’t worth attaining when it leads to illness.)

Pain can be useful to attain other intrinsic values, but that doesn’t prove that pain is good. That only proves that pain might be an acceptable cost to attain various benefits. Sometimes an action is appropriate despite the fact that pain will occur, such as when we decide to go to college (because the knowledge we hope to gain will be of greater value than the pain we will endure). Pain is part of our cost/benefit analysis and pain is considered to be a “cost” rather than a “benefit.”

Intrinsic values can have different implications depending on the situation.

Some people have argued that masochists seek pain, so pain can’t be intrinsically bad. This appears to be nothing more than a misunderstanding of “intrinsic value.” Masochists do not seek pain because they think pain is worth seeking for its own sake. They get some kind of pleasure from various painful experiences, and they decided that the pain is worth having. For example, I love it when a horror movie gives me fear, even though fear is not a comfortable emotion. Why? Because fear also gives us an adrenaline rush. In other words, masochism is just one more situation when pain might be acceptable. Pain isn’t an acceptable cost unless it leads to something of significant value.

To seek pain in some situations (such as mutual sexual acts involving masochism) is merely evidence that seeking pain isn’t always “wrong,” but that is only because the cost can be worth attaining certain benefits. All things equal, it is wrong to cause pain. We can only justify causing pain when we have a good reason for doing so.

People don’t understand that we can disagree about what has intrinsic value.

Someone might argue that it is possible for the masochist to seek pain for its own sake, but our psychological desires don’t prove that something has intrinsic value. Some people can simply be wrong. Many people love money for its own sake, but they are wrong to think money has intrinsic value.

Although I disagree that masochists really do seek pain for its own sake, it is always possible that a better example of disagreement can be found. Not everyone agrees about what has intrinsic value, such as those who believe money does.

Agreement doesn’t prove that something has (or doesn’t have) intrinsic value. Instead, we need to examine our actual moral experiences and decide which theory is the best explanation for them.


If happiness and human life really matter as we often assume, then we don’t have to make up our own meaning of life because the meaning of life is to promote happiness and the survival of human beings. (Of course, there might be several things that have intrinsic values that could be added to the list.) I am not saying that every waking moment must be devoted to helping others because we can only demand that each person attains a certain level of virtue. I am not saying that everyone should be doctors or scientists. There appears to be a huge variety of ways we need to contribute to humanity, and we are often most productive when we become specialists and do what we most enjoy. We need some people to be doctors, others to be theoretical philosophers, others to be scientists, others to be comedians, and so on. You can decide how to promote intrinsic values on your own, but we are all obligated to avoid doing significant harm.


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