Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rough Jottings on Meaning of Life and Intrinsic Value

John Danaher recently had an interesting two-part discussion on the relation between theism and the meaning of life (understood as worthwhileness of life):

Theism and the Meaning of Life (Part One)
Theism and the Meaning of Life (Part Two)

At the end of the second part he discusses what he calls the goods-based account of meaning, which is based on the Access to Value Principle:

AVP: If a person has access to intrinsically valuable activities in their lives, then their lives are meaningful

I think this principle ends up being extraordinarily problematic. 'Access' is a tricky word, but the principle is supposed to give a sufficient condition for a worthwhile life -- if the standard in the principle is met in a given life, that life is worthwhile. It is clear, though, that access to intrinsic value is not sufficient if we mean anything like what people usually mean by access, because having access to something does not mean accessing it, and a fortiori doesn't mean accessing it in the right way. One can have access to intrinsically valuable activities without having any intrinsically valuable activities. So we have to be meaning something very, very specific by it. In particular, I think it's pretty clear that the activities in question would have to be integrated into the life, so that, for instance, they weren't done simply by accident. We also get worries about whether one can really say one's life is meaningful if, in all one's life, one had access to one intrinsically valuable activity. Is there a lower threshold? There are other possible conditions that would have to be considered, of various degrees of controversiality; for instance, many people clearly assume that not only must one's life have intrinsic value, one must be able to recognize this oneself, and so forth. And we have worrying time biases, too; people generally think it's better and more important to have intrinsically valuable activities the last half of your life than the first half -- ending well is almost universally regarded as better than beginning well. And AVP doesn't really tell us much about what to make of this in the context of the meaning of life; it doesn't take such things into account, which might be fine, but we'd need to see why. It wouldn't be very important to mention this except that I think it's important to recognize that this principle doesn't give us a definitely viable account of the meaning of life; it merely gestures in the direction of one. This ends up being quite relevant to the question Danaher is considering, namely, the question of whether God is needed for meaningfulness of life -- actually to rule this out requires that we have a full account of the latter and nowhere in it is God needed. But we can't do that with an account of meaningfulness that leaves so much background unsketched.

And that actually is why I thought AVP is interesting. There's a philosophical heavy-hitter who (at least arguably) is very much against AVP -- namely, Immanuel Kant. Kant holds, of course, that moral law is intrinsically valuable, and that doing one's duty is an intrinsically valuable activity, or, at least, that's what you get if you translate Kant into talk about intrinsic value. Because of this, Kant thinks that morality does not depend on God -- he is vehement on that point -- and, I think one can argue that he regards doing one's duty, considered simply and solely as such, does not, either. However, it's also well-known that God keeps popping back up in Kant's moral philosophy, and in a multitude of different ways. This often puzzles people, but I think it's actually not really surprising. It's one thing to say that the moral law is intrinsically valuable, or to say that doing one's duty is intrinsically valuable; it's another thing to say that they make your life valuable or worthwhile, because that requires that they be integrated into one's life as one's own. And famously Kant argues that we have to posit at least three things in order to make the latter possible:

(1) That doing one's duty is not futile: namely, that we are genuinely free to do it.
(2) That we are capable of a task that can properly do justice to the moral law. No finite task is adequate to the sublimity of the moral law, so we must posit an infinite task: namely, that our souls are immortal.
(3) That there be some principle to coordinate doing one's duty with human happiness: namely, that there is a God to link desert and happiness.

Kant doesn't think that these are provable, but he does think that they are morally certain and in some sense implied by moral life. I am, of course, being a little loose in these descriptions. And Kant often talks in a way that shows that, if something could be proved to have a function equivalent to (2) or (3) that this would be just as good. But it's really not a long shot to see Kant's entire moral argument as an argument that principles like AVP are not sufficient conditions: other conditions are needed for it even to be possible for life to have meaning.

It seems likely that any account based on anything like AVP would have to deal with broadly Kantian concerns -- I don't think it matters whether the concerns are strictly Kant's own, but it seems likely that Kant-inspired concerns could arise for almost any variation of AVP one could propose. In general, the worry is that meaningfulness requires not just intrinsic activities but intrinsic activities integrated into a life so as to make that life generally appropriate to them. It's actually here that the question gets raised as to whether God is really necessary for a meaningful life, at least for Kant; and I suspect that Kant is being quite observant here, and that this is indeed where many people get the feeling that the question has some force. When someone like Kant worries about whether we really need God to have meaningful lives, it is precisely problems (at least perceived problems) in a goods-based account, or something very like it, that he is worrying about.

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