A lot of interesting work has been done recently on what makes lives meaningful. One brilliant example of this is Susan Wolf’s recent wonderful book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters. It consists of two short lectures, critical commentaries by John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt, and responses by Wolf herself. What I want to do here is to introduce quickly Wolf’s ‘Fitting Fulfillment’ View, and then I'll raise a potential objection to it.
According to Wolf, all meaningful lives have both a ‘subjective’ and an ‘objective’ element to them. These elements can make lives meaningful only together. Wolf’s view of the subjective side is highly complex. The starting-point is the idea that agent’s projects and activities ultimately make her life meaningful. However, this happens only when the projects and activities satisfy two conditions on the subjective side and one on the objective side.
Firstly, in order for one’s projects and activities to make one’s life meaningful, one must be at least somewhat successful in carrying them out. This does not mean that one must fully complete one’s projects and excel in the activities but, other things being equal, the more successful one is in one’s projects and activities the more they can contribute to the meaningfulness of one’s life.
Secondly, one must have a special relation to one’s projects and activities. This special relation has several overlapping aspects which seem to have two main aspects. I’ll call one of them the ‘loving relation’. Thus, Wolf often seems to claim that one must love the relevant projects and activities, experience subjective attraction towards them, and be gripped and excited by them. This seems to imply that one must be passionate about the relevant projects and activities. It also seems to entail that our willingness to pursue the relevant projects must be diachronically stable (and even constitute ‘volitional necessities’).
The second aspect could be called the ‘fulfilment side’. This means that, when one is successfully engaged in one’s projects and activities, one must experience some positive sensations – fulfilment, satisfaction, feeling good and happy and the like. Wolf is careful to emphasise that there need not be single felt quality present in all cases. Rather, there is a range of the positive experiences some of which need to be present in each case.
Finally, on the objective side, one’s projects and activities must be objectively worthwhile. One way to think about this is to start from the idea that one can be more or less successful in the relevant projects and activities. This seems to entail that the relevant projects and activities are difficult to complete and master in the beginning. As a result, one can become better in them through practice.
The objective element of Wolf’s view requires that some objective values are promoted either during this process or as a consequence of completion. There are some basic reasons to take part in the activities and to try to succeed in the relevant projects. These reasons are neither purely prudential nor necessarily universal moral reasons. Wolf is a pluralist about which projects and activities are objectively worthwhile (she takes no substantial stand in order to avoid any criticism of elitism). She also emphasises that saying all of this is fairly neutral metaethically.
There are various elements of Wolf’s view that we might contest. I’ve listed most of them here. My own worry is the last one.
1) Projects and Activities. It might be that the emphasis on these rules out certain views about meaningful life. Someone might claim that relationships to other people or states such as knowledge can make lives meaningful.
2) The Objective Element. Some of the commentators (like Arpaly and Haidt) question the requirement of objective worthwhileness. I did like Wolf’s responses to these objections often based on specific examples. I also began to think of the (impossible) scenario in which Error Theory would be the true metaethical view. On Wolf’s view, in this situation, all lives would lack meaning whereas, on the Arpaly/Haidt view, lives would still be meaningful as the purely subjective criteria would be satisfied. I find the first alternative more plausible.
3) The Fulfilment and Success elements. One might argue that one needn’t be successful at all in the relevant projects and activities. This objection is nicely explained in Koethe’s and Adams’ criticisms. And, even if one is successful, it could be argued that one need not experience any positive phenomenal experience. So, think of John Cook Wilson’s life-project of trying to show that non-Euclidean geometries are inconsistent. His life-project was unsuccessful but it seems right that his life was still meaningful. I think Wolf has a nice response to this. The idea is that, even if Cook Wilson did not achieve his overall goal, during his project he achieved many intermediate goals and acquired new skills. I’m less certain about what to say about the phenomenal side.
4) The loving element. Wolf argues that a person who lives a meaningful life must have various rich subjective relations to her projects and activities. She must love them, experience attraction to them, be gripped and excited by them, and so on. She must perhaps even be passionate about them. I started to think of a person who would lack all these relations to her projects and activities. This person might be (i) unreflective (she has no self-reflective reflexive attitudes (neither cognitive nor conative) towards her first-order beliefs and plans), (ii) spontaneous (no activities grips or excites her but she feels like doing different activities at different times), (iii) dispassionate (she doesn’t really love anything or feel passionate about anything – neither does she feel much pleasure), (iv) episodic (she has no long-term projects or volitional necessities), and so on. Her life is a collection of fleeting moments where she goes from one activity to another without much reflection or unity.
And, yet, this person would have ordinary first-order beliefs and intentions, and she would take part in different worthwhile activities with at least some success. She might occasionally do (different kinds of) work, engage in short relationships, do different kinds of exercising, study new worthwhile things, admire different art forms, help others in different ways, and so on just in the same way as normal people but more fleetingly and less passionately. My intuitions about these cases are less clear than they should be but it would be hard to claim that this person’s life would necessarily have to lack meaning.