Thursday, April 15, 2010

The meaning of life

Philosophers have nearly forgotten this oldest and perhaps most important question. Other than being the title of a somewhat philosophical movie, it is worth pursuing as a topic of contemplation and it seems to be making a comeback in the discipline.

Before any deep pondering can be done, I think it is important to parse this question as it is ambiguous. By "meaning" I take that the question can really be asking two (or more relevant that I'm not aware of) very different things. So what are the meanings of 'meaning' as it is used in that question?

I suspect that one can either mean, What is the purpose or aim of life? or one may mean, What is the thing that gives life its ultimate worth, value or significance.

These are different questions and confusing them may contribute to a crude analysis of the answer to that question.

I think that the answers to these two questions are different but I suspect for most people and many philosophies they are the same. It makes some sense to say that what gives life it ultimate worth, value or significance is also what people should seek (their purpose). So many people (such as utilitarians, e.g.) may say that the answer is happiness. They may then argue that if happiness is that which gives life it ultimate worth, etc, then that is also what people should ultimately aim for in life and to achieve the greatest amount of it possible. I don't think that should be the case even though I agree that happiness is what gives life its ultimate worth, etc.

Here is where I think the distinction I made comes in handy. I think that the aim or purpose of life is something different; it is to be the best person one can be (a goal approaching a limit). Sometimes, achieving happiness comes at the price of achieving goodness of character (but the relationship is extremely complex). It's hard to imagine how someone who is very virtuous can be happy in an unjust, evil world. Someone who is very good will likely experience lots of resentment, indignation, righteous anger, etc etc, emotions that are not conducive to a happy life. If they are truly good, it is hard to see how they can easily overcome such negative emotions in the face of evil and in fact it is precisely these very emotions which partly make up their good character which block their ability to achieve that happiness. The attainment of happiness sometimes comes at the cost of good character. Some people can live happy lives oblivious or ignorant by choice to the evil surrounding them (such as a Happy German during the Nazi regime). Others, better people, cannot do so.

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