Chapter 8: Human well-being

Human well-being

Matthew Van Cleave

How do I live well? What is needed in order for my life to go well for me? In answering this question, many people would start listing different kinds of things that they desire and whose possession they believe would make their lives better. A common response for many people living in the United States today would probably be “having more money.” There’s something right about this response since it is difficult for us to imagine someone who is constantly having to worry about making ends meet as living well. But suppose that one lived in a utopian communist society where there wasn’t money and all one’s needs were met without the use of money—in such a society, would having money make one’s life better? Clearly not. So perhaps our original question can only be answered relative to a particular cultural context. This much seems to be obviously true. However, is there a way of answering our original question that is more universal? Is there any way to say in general what humans need in order to live well? If someone’s life is going well then what is it that that person has and that other people (whose lives are not going well for them) lack? These questions are addressing what philosophers call “well-being” and I will refer to this as the question of well-being. The question of well-being is a very old one that can be traced all the way back to Socrates in ancient Athens (469-399 BCE). In this chapter we will consider two competing ways of answering the question of well-being. Subjectivist theories of well-being claim that well-being is nothing other than the satisfaction of one’s desires (whatever they are). In contrast, objectivist theories of well-being claim that there are certain specific things that are needed in order to attain well-being. There could be many different versions of the objectivist theory. For example, one might claim that human well-being requires good health, good morals and happiness. To lack any one of these things, would be to lack the full measure of well-being that is possible for human beings. A different objectivist theory might put different things in the list, perhaps leaving some of those things out but adding others: autonomy, happiness, and friendship, for example. In the following we will explore the pros and cons of these different theories—the arguments for and against them—and see what kinds of things are at stake in this age-old debate.

There are some things that we value because they enable us to get something else and other things that we value for their own sake. A good example of the former would be money: the reason we value money is because of the other things it can get us (a house, a car, healthcare, security, and so on). Another good example of something we value because it enables us to get something else is gasoline (if we have a car, lawnmower, or something that uses gasoline). If one didn’t have a car or lawnmower then gasoline would no longer have any value. Philosophers refer to things that have value for us only because we value something else “instrumentally valuable.” Gasoline and money are paradigm cases of things that have instrumental value because they do not directly improve our well-being but do so only because they enable us to get some else. In contrast, things that we value directly, for their own sake and not for any other reason, are said to be “intrinsically valuable.” Some examples of things that have intrinsic value are friends, family members, a child, or your beloved pet.

We value these things in and of themselves and not simply because of what they bring us. Even if your child is making you very angry, you still love and value them. Another way of reformulating the question of well-being is as a question about intrinsic value: what things in the world have intrinsically value? The subjectivist’s answer to this question is: only the things we desire. The objectivist’s answer will differ depending on what version we are considering, but fairly common to any version of the objective theory will be things like happiness and autonomy. It is characteristic of the objective theory to claim that if something is truly intrinsically valuable then it remains so even if a person does not desire that thing. Thus, for example, the objectivist would say that happiness makes a person’s life better (increases their wellbeing) even if that person doesn’t desire to be happy.

Subjectivist theories of well-being

Subjectivist theories of well-being have a lot going for them. To see why, consider the following question: who is the person who is best placed to be able to determine whether my life is going well or not? The subjectivist’s answer to this is that I am the person who can best determine whether my life is going well—not my parents, my pastor, my teachers, my friends, or anyone else.

Perhaps my parents think it would be best for me to become a banker or my pastor thinks it would be best for me to go to church. The subjectivist denies that these really are good for me if I do not desire them. No one else but me can determine what is best for me—that is the subjectivist’s view on the matter. And that seems to accord with common sense since we believe ourselves to be the authorities on whether our lives are going well for us. How could anyone other than ourselves possibly determine that? We can thus say that subjectivist theories accord individuals a high level of personal authority. It seems to follow from this that people cannot really be mistaken about whether their lives are going well for them. That is, according to a subjectivist, if one thinks that one’s life is going well then it is going well and if one thinks that it is going poorly then it is going poorly. Perhaps sometimes people don’t know why their lives are going poorly and thus they seek out the help of a psychologist or other professional. But seeking help in this way is consistent with what the subjectivist is claiming since the person seeking the help knows that their life isn’t going well (they just need help in figuring out why). It’s not as if one would ever go to see a psychologist or other professional only to be told that actually their life was perfectly fine and then accept that they must have been mistaken. For the subjectivist, well-being is like physical pain. You can’t be wrong about whether you are in pain: if you think you’re in pain, then you are in pain. Likewise, according to the subjectivist, if you think your life is going well, then it is (and vice versa). Thus we can say that according to the subjectivist, our own assessment of our well-being is infallible.

What most sets subjectivist theories apart from objectivist theories is this issue of fallibility. For the subjectivist, our well-being depends on whether or not our desires are satisfied—whether or not we get what we want. But those desires themselves cannot be criticized. If what I most want is to be a hermit and live in the mountains herding sheep, then achieving this is what would make my well- being high. If what I want is to play video games all day while eating junk food, then this is what would make my well-being high. I might not always know what it is that I most deeply desire—perhaps I need help figuring out what my deepest desires are—but whatever they are, satisfying them is what would be most conducive to my well-being. For the subjectivist, there’s no sense in which my desires themselves can be flawed or mistaken or not good for us to have.

Rather, my desires define what is good for me. An apparent exception to this would be cases in which some of my desire conflict with other desires. For example, suppose that I really want to each chocolate cake but I am allergic to chocolate. In that case, perhaps it wouldn’t be good for me to eat the chocolate cake even if I want it. However, this is only because there is some other desire that is stronger—in this case, the desire not to have an allergic reaction to the chocolate cake. But there’s no reason that the subjectivist can’t account for what’s going on here. It is simply a case in which one desire (the desire not to have an allergic reaction) is stronger than the other (the desire to eat the cake) and in such cases the subjectivist claims that what is in our best interest is to act on the strongest desire. So the only reason for not acting on a desire is because doing so would undermine an even stronger desire. This would be the subjectivist’s way of explaining why one shouldn’t act on certain strong desires if those desires are illegal and one had a high chance of getting caught. For example, a serial killer who strongly desired to kill people (think of someone like Hannibal Lecter) would have their well-being increased by killing people. The only reason that acting on these desires would be bad for Hannibal is because of the possibility that he would get caught and go to prison (and thus no longer be able to live his serial killer life anymore). If Hannibal also strongly desired to not get caught and go to prison, then it is that stronger desire that would act as a constraint on his desire to kill people in creative ways. But the desires in and of themselves are beyond criticism, according to the subjectivist. If we imagine a world in which Hannibal knew for sure he would never get caught, then the subjectivist would admit that killing people unequivocally increases Hannibal’s well-being. The same point applies to less macabre cases, such as the drug addict who wants nothing other than to be high. If that is what they most desire, then the satisfaction of that desire unequivocally increases that person’s well-being. Imagine the son of a wealthy but negligent parent who funds their son’s drug habit, paying for all of their living expenses and drugs. If all the son wanted to do in life was drugs (and nothing else), then the satisfaction of this desire is what would most increase his well-being. This follows directly from subjectivism’s features of personal authority and infallibility, outlined above.

Since everyone’s desires are different and since subjectivism defines an individual’s well-being in terms of the individual’s desires, it follows that well- being is pluralistic for the subjectivist. Pluralism here simply means that there are many different kinds of lives that would count as equally well-lived. Since the only thing that has intrinsic value for the subjectivist is one’s deepest desires, and since individuals’ desires can differ radically, it follows that what it means for individuals to have a high level of well-being can also differ radically. The drug addict son of the wealthy negligent parent would have a high level of well-being and so would the self-taught musician who works hard throughout their life to finally achieve widespread acclaim and a Grammy award and so would innumerable other kinds of lives: the fireman who wanted nothing more than to be a fireman his whole life, the physicist who wanted nothing other than to be a physicist her whole life, the lawyer, the philosopher, the triage nurse working in a war zone, the stay-at-home father, the photojournalist documenting the atrocities of war. All of these very different kinds of lives would count as equally well-lived as long as they had achieved what they most deeply desired. If we think that there are indeed many, many different ways of living equally well-lived lives, then subjectivism explains why this is so.

Objectivist theories of well-being

As noted above, what most distinguishes objectivist from subjectivist theories is their stance on the relationship between desires and well-being: subjectivists think that our desires define well-being and thus do not think our desires can be flawed or mistaken whereas objectivists think that our desires can be flawed or mistaken. The most minimalist type of objectivism is a view called hedonism.

Hedonists say that there’s only one thing needed for well-being and that is happiness. It doesn’t matter what makes you happy; all that matters is that you are happy. As long as you are happy, the hedonist says, your life is going well for you. On the other hand, if you are not happy at all—in the extreme, if you have never been happy—then your life is going maximally poorly for you.

Hedonists also conceive of happiness not simply as sensate pleasure (think of things like the taste of really good food, the feeling of sex, or a really nice back massage), but as enjoyment. Enjoyment is different than sensate pleasure because it is a state of mind or attitude that you take towards some experience or state of affairs. For example, you might enjoy the feeling in your stomach when you go down the big hill in a roller coaster or you might enjoy certain kinds of painful sensations, such as having a really tight muscle massaged. This is why a masochist (a person who enjoys inflicting pain on themselves) is also being a good hedonist: they enjoy the pain. For the hedonist, happiness is about enjoyment and different people can enjoy very different kinds of things.

What makes hedonism an objectivist rather than subjectivist account of well- being is that people might not want to be happy. Suppose someone sincerely desires to be unhappy—and not just for a while, but all the time. Suppose they desire this because they think that it is proper or appropriate for them to be unhappy. Perhaps they even think that their well-being consists in their being unhappy. Can you think of such a case? (Stop and actually try to come up with a case before reading on.[1]) If there are such cases, then the difference between hedonism and subjectivism becomes clear. Hedonism would say that the lives of such individuals are not going well, since they are not happy. Subjectivism, on the other hand, would say that insofar as unhappiness is what such individuals most deeply desired, it follows that their well-being was high. This might sound paradoxical, but it follows from defining well-being in terms of what an individual most deeply desires.

Nevertheless, hedonism is a very subjective kind of objectivism. What I mean is that it allows for a very wide range of different kinds of lives that count as equally well-lived—what we have called pluralism. It is not completely pluralistic, since it would say that someone who desired to be unhappy (and achieved that desire) as having low well-being. Nevertheless, it would still say that the serial killer and rich, lazy drug addict had high well-being. However, these kinds of cases might seem to pose an objection to hedonism: if hedonism says that these individuals lives are going really well for them and if we think that these aren’t really good lives that are being lived, then perhaps that means there is something wrong or limited about hedonism as a theory of well-being. It is for this reason that objectivists typically move beyond hedonism, adding other things besides happiness, that are required for a life well-lived. What other things might be required for well-being besides happiness? Some common things that philosophers suggest are: autonomy, personal growth, friendship, morality, and knowledge. Consider what it would mean to say that personal growth is necessary for one to achieve a well-lived life. If personal growth is necessary, then the life of the rich, lazy drug addict who did nothing other than sit around all day getting high would not count as a well-lived life, even if we grant that that person enjoys this life.

You might think that some of the things listed correlate well with happiness. For example, if people have more autonomy in their lives, they tend to be happier. It is an interesting empirical question whether this is so, but even if it is, we can nevertheless envision lives that have the highest levels of happiness but that lack autonomy. For example, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presents a society in which everyone is happy, but they have been (in essence) conditioned to be happy. For example, citizens are conditioned to take a special drug called “soma” any time they begin to feel unhappy. The drug makes them feel happy again and they don’t even really understand the ways they’ve been conditioned by the controllers of the society. Moreover, they’ve been conditioned from a young age to only want the things that the controllers of the society deems it legitimate for them to want. In this way, the society has been set up so that everyone always gets what they want (and so are almost always happy) and in the few cases in which they aren’t happy, they take a magical wonder drug that makes them happy again. The lives of such individuals certainly contain happiness, but they do not contain autonomy since they are being controlled by external factors that they do not understand. For this reason, objectivists who think that autonomy is necessary for well-being would deny that the lives of the citizens of Brave New World have the highest level of well-being, even if we grant that they are as happy as possible. Since the people in Brave New World are not in control of their lives, they lack autonomy and thus are not living as well as they could be.

One of the points in favor of the objectivist account of well-being is that it allows us to say what is deficient about certain kinds of lives that we do not consider to be well-lived, even if the person living them thinks they are. The objectivist for whom autonomy is necessary for living well can explain what is lacking in the lives of the citizens of Brave New World. The objectivist for whom person growth is necessary for living well can explain what is lacking in the life of the rich, lazy drug addict. The objectivist for whom morality is necessary can explain what is deficient in the life of the serial killer. And so on.

Is morality necessary for living well?

Jake is a morally despicable person. He lives selfishly without regard for others and regularly lies, cheats and steals. In general his is willing to harm other people in order to get what he wants. After enough time, Jake eventually has lots of money and cushy life but he has no friends. Or at least no true friends. The “friends” he has are people whom he pays, in some form or other, to be around. Jake is truly alone. But he doesn’t care; he likes it that way. Is Jake living well? He is according to a subjectivist account of well-being, but he wouldn’t be according to an objectivist account that requires any of the items listed above. In particular, Jake’s life lacks moral goodness and so any account of well-being that required that would count Jake’s life as not as well-lived as it could have been had he been a moral person. Of course, Jake’s life also lacks friendship and arguable he lacks friendship because he lacks morality. If so, it appears that morality is functioning as something that has instrumental value: morality is important because without it one cannot have significant friendships. Friendship, in this case, is the thing that has intrinsic value and morality is important only because it helps us to achieve it. If this is so, the objectivist would not say that morality itself is necessary for a good life, since its value is only instrumental, not intrinsic.

So is morality itself necessary for living well, apart from any other things of value which it might bring about? Plato famously thought that morality (justice) was necessary for living well and he defends a view like this in his most famous work, The Republic. However, contrary to what Plato thought, there are good reasons for thinking that morality is not necessary for human well-being. Imagine a character who cheats his way to the top, trampling over others to get there.

This could be an investment banker, real estate tycoon, or even the leader of nation. By all appearances from the outside, this person is happy, has significant relationships, possesses autonomy and personal growth. It really seems that this person has it all, it’s just that they are a total asshole. Why do we resent such a person? Arguable we resent them because their life is going really well despite the fact that they are not a morally good person. If it were a really bad person whose life was also not going well for them then we might not resent them so much. It is the fact that this person’s life is going well that makes us resent them. It seems unfair and unjust that they should be living well while being so despicable. But notice that in order to make sense of our resentment in this case, we are granting that this person’s well-being is very high, which seems to entail that morality is not necessary for a high level of well-being. Plato thought that if an individual was immoral this was evidence of a soul in disarray—of someone who lacked “psychic harmony.” Such a person, Plato thought, was really unhappy on the inside, contrary to external appearances. Thus Plato thought that we shouldn’t really envy or resent such a person since, contrary to appearances, their well-being wasn’t really high at all. This is his answer to the question of why we ought to be moral: because to be moral is to be in a state of psychic harmony and the state of psychic harmony defines well-being. But how could Plato know that psychic harmony defines well-being? In the case of an individual who outwardly appeared to be living as well as possible, why think that they weren’t? Plato’s theory seems to run counter to the empirical evidence, which is that there are cases of people who live highly immoral lives and yet have the highest levels of well-being by any way we could measure.

Return to the case of the serial killer who is living well according to any of the measures we have considered: he is happy, autonomous, has achieved personal growth, is knowledgeable, and so on. If you doubt this could be the case then just consider an individual like Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal is certainly not living a moral life, but his life certainly seems to be going well for him—that is, he has a high level of well-being. The question of well-being is not a question about morality. Highly immoral people are able to live lives that go well for them by any of the measures we have considered. To claim that morality is non- instrumentally necessary for well-being seems to go against the evidence. One can live well without living morally. That is why we hold such resentment towards such people.

Aristotelian accounts of human well-being

One way of arguing for objectivist accounts of well-being is to determine what kinds of things human beings universally, cross-culturally value. If a kind of life that lacks autonomy is universally judged to be not as good as one that has autonomy then ceteris paribus (Latin for “all other things being equal”) a life that has autonomy is better than a life that lacks it. The same goes for other things that objectivists think directly (non-instrumentally) improve one’s well-being— happiness, growth, knowledge, and so on. In short, we know that these things are intrinsically valuable because people have always (cross-culturally) valued them. This raises the question of why it is that people value these things but it also raises the question of whether people are right to. After all, for most of human history human societies have practiced various forms of domination and subjugation of the weak and disenfranchised but this does not mean that they were right to do so. One way of trying to answer these questions is to advert to claims about human nature. What I am calling an Aristotelian account of well-being is an objectivist account of well-being that grounds claims about well-being in claims about human nature. The key idea coming from Aristotle is the idea that what it means to say that something is a good x derives from facts about x’s purpose. Aristotle’s argument appears in a passage from a text called the Nicomachean Ethics. There Aristotle argues that the function or purpose of human beings is what only human beings can do. So, for example, the purpose of human life cannot simply be living, since that is something that humans share with plants. Nor can the purpose of human life be the mere use of our sensation (such as pain or pleasure), sense perception and locomotion, since other animals share those capacities with humans. So which of our capacities are characteristically human—ones that only human have? For Aristotle, it is our reason that is distinctively human. Since reason is our characteristically human capacity, it follows that human well-being requires developing excellence in those activities that utilize our reason. Without the development of our characteristically human capacities, humans could not achieve eudaimonia—the Greek word Aristotle used to capture the notion of human flourishing.

We needn’t have a narrow view of what Aristotle means by “reason” and many philosophers who followed in Aristotle’s footsteps didn’t. Karl Marx, for example, uses an Aristotelian account of human well-being to ground his criticism of late 19th century industrial capitalism. By that time, factories had come to replace medieval guilds—groups of craftsmen—who would build, say, a chair or table from start to finish. Whereas craftsmanship took fine motor skills, thought, knowledge, and planning—all the kinds of things that fall under this broader notion of “reason,” factory work was mind-dumbingly dull. A life that consisted of the same simple and thoughtless tasks performed over and over again did not enable individuals to develop their characteristically human capacities. Sure, they enabled wealthy business owners to increase their profits, but Marx saw that this was at the cost of the quality of the individual workers’ lives.

One of the things that characterizes human beings is our use of culture to radically transform our basic biological activities. For example, both humans and non-human animals engage in activities like eating, mating, and fighting— these are essential biological activities for animals. But only humans transform these activities into something artistic—where the activities and associated objects themselves become ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. From the biological perspective, the point of eating is to maintain the metabolism needed to live, the point of sex is to pass on one’s genes, and the point of fighting is to establish dominance or survive violence directed at you. Only humans radically transform these activities into things where the purpose of the activity does not have to do with survival but rather with pleasure. We develop gourmet cooking where the main goal is not sustenance but development of our palates; we develop erotic literature, new sexual positions, and birth control, whose main goals are not reproduction but pleasure; and we develop things like mixed martial arts fighting whose main goal is not dominance or survival but development and demonstration of the art and skill itself. The main point of these activities is not their original biological function.

If you need to convince yourself of this just consider activities like wine tasting where you don’t actually drink the wine, or a cooking show where the judges eat only a sample of the whole dish, or a boxing match between two friends or brothers. In short, humans create new domains with radically different purposes—purposes that transcend our narrow biological imperatives and thereby create new domains of value. This transcending of the merely biological can take place only insofar as we our using our characteristically human capacities.

To see how the Aristotelian account of human well-being compares to the subjectivist account of well-being, consider our earlier example of the wealthy, lazy drug addict. Assuming this person wants nothing other than to be high on drugs all day, the subjectivist would say that their well-being was as high as it could possibly be. But the Aristotelian would deny that this person’s well-being was high at all because they are in no way using or developing their characteristically human capacities. On the other hand, in being a successful serial killer, the serial killer may be fully utilizing and developing their characteristically human capacities. If you doubt this then consider a character like Hannibal Lecter, a highly intelligent doctor and aesthete who seems to have developed his characteristically human capacities about as highly as any individual could. So in this case the Aristotelian and subjectivist accounts of well-being would actually agree.

The main problem with Aristotelian accounts of human well-being is that they attempt to derive an “ought” from an “is.” In philosophy, the is/ought gap is the idea that one cannot logically derive a claim about what ought to be the case from a claim about what is the case. Claims about how humans ought to live cannot be simply derived from claims about how humans do live. The simplest way for me to explain the is/ought gap has to do with human reproduction.

  1. Human beings have always reproduced
  2. Therefore, human beings ought to reproduce

Does 2 follow from 1 alone? That is, if 1 is true, does 2 have to be true? To answer affirmatively is to attempt to bridge the is/ought gap. And that doesn’t work. Just because human beings have always reproduced, it doesn’t follow that we should continue to. That would only follow if we assumed that human ought to continue to exist and this is a separate “ought” claim that has been challenged by some![2] In general, just because x is (and has always been) the case, it doesn’t follow from that alone that x ought to be the case. The “ought” claim is a new type of claim that can only be justified by some further “ought” claim.

The problem with Aristotelian accounts of human nature is that they make this same mistake in trying to derive a claim about what constitutes human well-being (how humans ought to live) from claims about human nature (how human beings are). Even we set aside questions about whether there really is a human nature, which some philosophical traditions (such as existentialism) have denied, there remain deep questions about how those claims are supposed to inform our account of human well-being. The subjectivist’s retort to the Aristotelian is that if a person in no way desires x, then x will not improve that person’s life at all. Consider a person who has tried developing their characteristically human capacities and doesn’t like it at all. They don’t care for gourmet food or pioneering new sexual positions or learning new things about the world. All they want to do is eat junk food (which has been designed specifically to target our more “animal” nature—fatty, salty, sugary foods) and watch reruns of Happy Days while sitting in a massage chair and having mood enhancing drugs pumped intravenously into their bodies. This is what makes this person happy and this is what they most want—nothing else is as pleasurable and everything else they find boring. The objection to the Aristotelian account of well-being is that it claims that this person’s well-being would be increased precisely by not doing the things that they most want to do. And that seems not only heavy- handed but also false to subjectivists.

What’s the meaning of life?

One question that might be thought to bear on the question of well-being is the question: what is the meaning of life? If there was a meaning of life, then it would seem that this should inform how we ought to live our lives. When philosophers ask if life has a meaning, by “meaning” they mean “purpose.” Consider an individual’s life: they live, performing many of the same activities day after day, and eventually die. One can pan out and consider not only individual human lives but humanity as such. At some point in the evolutionary past of the earth, early hominids evolved into homo sapiens—human beings.

Eventually humans developed the ability to ask themselves philosophical questions about the meaning of life. Many of our earliest myths can be seen as attempts to address questions about our purpose: where we came from, who we are, and what our destiny ultimately is. Are human beings simply a cosmic accident or is there a reason we are here—something we are supposed to accomplish as individuals, as a species? If there is a reason that human beings are here then knowing that reason would seem to be relevant to human well-being.

There are broadly two different views of the meaning of human existence. On one view, the only meaning that exists is the meaning that individuals can create for themselves in this lifetime. Call this subjective meaning. Subjective meaning could be things like having children or travelling or finding a career that one really loves. It is characteristic of subjective meanings that then end when that individual’s life ends. Thus, subjective meaning is not permanent. Whatever meaning an individual was able to achieve in their life will pass away. In all likelihood, at some point in time any memories or knowledge of you will fade from this earth. We can put this picturesquely as saying that there is some point in time at which your name will be uttered for the last time. In contrast, transcendent meaning is a meaning that extends beyond your life here on earth—and even beyond the existence of the earth itself—and is permanent in the sense that it does not cease to exist. Allow me to indulge for a minute and explain a specific view according to which life has transcendent meaning. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian family. It was a wonderful childhood. I had loving parents, wonderful siblings, was never in want, and had an excellent education with lots of interesting experiences. My family and I believed that this life and this earth would eventually come to an end, but that for those who believed the right things and lived the right way, they would continue to live a life of bliss in heaven. For my family growing up, life had a transcendent meaning: our purpose in life was to come to know god and to lead others to know god as well. The purpose of life on earth was to fulfill the “great commission” which basically meant convert the world’s population to Christianity. The things that we fundamentally valued the most would continue to exist in another realm— heaven—for all eternity. According to this view, what it meant to live well was directly related to transcendent meaning. Such a view does not deny that subjective meanings exist, it just claims that they are not as important as transcendent meaning for the purposes of how we ought to live.

The most common way to account for the existence of transcendent meaning is through certain religious views of the world (such as the one explained above). That is because god/heaven is transcendent—that is, god/heaven exists beyond this universe—and thus can ground transcendent meaning. In contrast to such views, naturalism denies that there exists anything beyond the universe that could ground transcendent meaning. According to naturalism[3], which draws on a scientific understanding of the universe (including of human beings), there is only subjective meaning. All of human existence is just a temporary blip in the history of the universe, for the naturalist. In the end, humans will no longer exist, nor will the earth and nothing that humans have done will have ever had any effect on the cold, impersonal universe. Human beings are here for a short time in the Earth’s history and the Earth itself is just a minor speck in a vast universe. In the end, the universe itself will probably cease to exist, which is what many cosmologists predict based on the fact that the universe is expanding. And what will it all have been for? The naturalist’s answer is: nothing. Human beings and the universe itself are just a cosmic accident; there is no purpose of it all.

According to the philosopher Richard Taylor, a long, drawn-out process which achieves nothing lasting in the end is the essence of meaninglessness. He gives a picturesque example:

[T]here are caves in New Zealand, deep and dark, whose floors are quiet pools and whose walls and ceilings are covered with soft light. As you gaze in wonder in the stillness of these caves it seems that the Creator has reproduced there in microcosm the heavens themselves, until you scarcely remember the enclosing presence of the walls. As you look more closely, however, the scene is explained. Each dot of light identifies an ugly worm, whose luminous tail is meant to attract insects from the surrounding darkness. As from time to time one of these insects draws near it becomes entangled in a sticky thread lowered by the worm, and is eaten. This goes on month after month, the blind worm lying there in the barren stillness waiting to entrap an occasional bit of nourishment that will only sustain it to another hit of nourishment untilUntil what? What great thing awaits all this long and repetitious effort and makes it worthwhile? Really nothing. The larva just transforms itself finally to a tiny winged adult that lacks even mouth parts to feed and lives only a day or two. These adults, as soon as they have mated and laid eggs, are themselves caught in the threads and are devoured by the cannibalist worms, often without having ventured into the day, the only point their existence having now been fulfilled. This has been going on for millions of years, and to no end other than that the same meaningless cycle may continue for another millions of years.[4]

According to the naturalist, the human species is similar in that we continue to reproduce and spread across the face of the earth with nothing accomplished in the end:

Men do achieve things–they scale their towers and raise their stones to their hilltops–but every such accomplishment fades, providing only an occasion for renewed labors of the same kind.[5]

In claiming that human existence is meaningless, the naturalist is denying that human existence has transcendent meaning, not that it has subjective meaning. Thus even if human existence lacks transcendent meaning, that doesn’t mean that human beings can’t live well. In fact, some existentialists argue that

abandoning the idea of transcendent meaning is precisely what enables us to attain well-being through the subjective meanings we create.[6]

Study questions

  1. True or false: the question of well-being concerns human well-being.
  2. True or false: water is a good example of something that has instrumental value.
  3. True or false: one’s best friend is an example of something that has instrumental value.
  4. True or false: subjectivist theories of well-being see well-being as analogous to pain in the sense that we cannot be mistaken about it.
  5. True or false: objectivist and subjectivist theories of well-being agree that our most fundamental desires define what is good for us.
  6. True or false: subjectivists can admit that doing what we want is not always in our best interest.
  7. True or false: objectivists think that doing what we want is never in our best interest.
  8. True or false: hedonism is a version of the objectivist theory of well-being.
  9. True or false: one point in favor of objectivist theories of well-being is that they allows us to deny that the perpetually high drug addict has high well-being.
  10. True or false: Plato thought that immoral (unjust) people were really unhappy on the inside, no matter how happy they were on the outside.
  11. True or false: one reason for thinking that morality is not necessary for well-being is that this would explain why we resent immoral people whose lives seems to be going perfectly well for them.
  12. True or false: an Aristotelian account of well-being would agree that the wealthy, lazy drug addict is living as well a life as could be lived.
  13. True or false: the most common way of explaining transcendent meaning is in religious terms.

For deeper thought

  1. Consider Davecat, a man who prefers what he calls “synthetic love” (relationships with an inanimate doll) to “organic love” (relationships with another person). Assuming that Davecat most deeply desires synthetic love over organic and that he is happy and fulfilled, do you think that Davecat’s well-being is as high as possible? Why or why not?

  1. If you’ve thought about it and can’t come up with a case, here are two cases to consider. Case 1: the religious ascetic. Imagine a person who believes that their earthly existence should be characterized by pain and suffering and that only by living in such a way will they achieve redemption from their sins. There were a number of such individuals within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. It seems that such individuals believed that their earthly well-being consisted in their suffering, not in their happiness. Case 2: a person with guilty conscience. Consider a person who had done something really horrible, for example, they had accidentally run over their 3 year old daughter while backing out of the driveway while intoxicated. Or a soldier who had had to leave behind a wounded friend on the battlefield to die. Such individuals might feel that they do not deserve to be happy. They might sincerely believe that the way they ought to live is in a state of perpetual unhappiness. To the extent that such an individual began to experience any level of happiness, they might experience deep guilt and thus try to make themselves unhappy again.
  2. A good example of this is the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.
  3. “Naturalism” is a term that has many, many meanings in philosophy. As I am using the term here, it simply means the denial of supernaturalism and of transcendent meaning/purpose. As such, naturalism is a very broad term that would encompass existentialism.
  4. such, naturalism is a very broad term that would encompass existentialism. 4 Chapter 18 of Richard Taylor’s (1970), Good and Evil, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
  5. Ibid
  6. Albert Camus suggests exactly this in his 1948 novel, The Plague.


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Introduction to Philosophy by Matthew Van Cleave is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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