Ethical Realism

January 15, 2010

What is the Meaning of Life?

“The meaning of life” actually refers to various intrinsic values—various values that “really matter.” To live a meaningful life is to attain and promote intrinsic goods. I have argued that at least one intrinsic value exists, but I believe that there are more. Let’s consider what philosophers believe to have intrinsic value:

  1. Pain
  2. Pleasure
  3. Happiness
  4. Virtue
  5. Good will
  6. Human existence
  7. Consciousness


I have already argued that pain has intrinsic disvalue, and other philosophers agree, such as Epicurus and John Stuart Mill. Zimmerman gives evidence that even Socrates believed that pain is intrinsically bad. “At one point Socrates says that the only reason why the pleasures of food and drink and sex seem to be evil is that they result in pain and deprive us of future pleasures.”1 If anything has intrinsic value, then it is pretty undeniable that pain has it. We feel that pain is bad and we know other people feel pain in a similar way that we do.

“Pain” isn’t just a physical feeling. It’s every sort of emotional pain and suffering. Knowing someone we love died can be more painful than a great deal of physical pain.


If pain has intrinsic disvalue, then it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think pleasure has intrinsic value. The same philosophers who believe that pain is intrinsically bad also believe pleasure is intrinsically good. We experience that pain is bad and pleasure is good and we know other people do as well.

“Pleasure” isn’t just a physical feeling, like pleasure from eating food or having sex. It can also refer to the emotional delight and enjoyment that comes with our personal success, spending time with friends, and so on.

Friedrich Nietzsche tended to criticize pleasure and pain for being superficial rather than unimportant.2


Many philosophers equate “happiness” with “pleasure,” but there is a lot more to be said about happiness. It’s much like joy and delight, but it doesn’t necessarily refer only to “momentary” feeling. It seems to refer more to a consistent sort of state of mind or existence. To be happy isn’t just to feel good that moment, but to constantly feel that you have a fulfilling life, even when you are currently in pain. Momentary pain is not enough to invalidate our sense of having a good life.

Happiness as I discuss it here does seem to be close enough to pleasure to also be “experienced as good,” so it is a good candidate for having intrinsic value. The opposite of happiness could be depression, which seems intrinsically bad.


I’m not sure if many great philosophers thought that virtue has intrinsic value, but it is often mentioned as being of the utmost importance. The Stoics are probably the best example of a philosophical group that might think that virtue has intrinsic value because they often said that “nothing is good except virtue, and nothing is bad except vice.”

I am not convinced that virtue as such is an intrinsic value. I believe virtue is best defined as “being willing and able to do good.” This is certainly of the utmost importance because it is so helpful to doing good things. However, it isn’t clear that virtue is worth having just for its own sake.

Good will

Immanuel Kant defines “good will” as the kind of force that can put practical reason into action as a separate force from desire. It sounds like he believes that good will has intrinsic value, but Zimmerman cautions us to be careful when interpreting Kant’s understanding of value (ibid). Certainly good will could be of the utmost importance, but that might be only because it enables us to do what is right.

Human Existence

Although one of the most important values we have is human existence, the greatest philosophers tend not to list this as an intrinsic value. Friedrich Nietzsche and Kant both discuss the high importance of human life.

It is difficult to justify the value of human existence apart from intuition because it isn’t clear that we can experience our existence as such. We can experience what it is like to exist, but we can’t experience an X that is at any moment experienced as good.


The intrinsic value of consciousness seems like a reasonable alternative to mere “human existence.” First, human existence without consciousness doesn’t seem to have any value. Second, animals with consciousness also seem to have intrinsic value. Third, it seems possible to rate the quality of consciousness. A low quality of consciousness might be unintelligent and small-minded. Some fish probably would fit into having a low quality of consciousness.

A high quality of consciousness seems to be the consciousness of people, great apes, elephants, and dolphins.

John Stuart Mill said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” He thought that this intuitive statement was evidence that “intellectual pleasure” is better than physical pleasure. However, it might actually be evidence that certain forms of consciousness are intrinsically better than others.3

Nietzsche argued that some people are better than others in some sense other than moral virtue itself. If he is right, then it might be that people have different levels of consciousness, and Mill might be right that it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”


This essay was not intended to prove what has intrinsic value, but it does seem beneficial to consider what great philosophers have thought to have intrinsic value (or anything else they believe to be of the utmost importance). Pleasure and pain are the best candidates for intrinsic value, which might be why many people find hedonism attractive. However, hedonism might ignore and neglect other important intrinsic values.


1Zimmerman, Michael J. “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 14 Jan. 2010. <>.

2For example, see aphorism 701 of his Will to Power.

3Mill, John Stuart. “Chapter 2: What Utilitarianism Is” Utilitarianism. 14 Jan. 2010. <>.

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