5/19/2013

The normativity of life's meaningfulness

The question about the meaningfulness of one’s life is a normative question, and an answer to it is a normative judgment. If I understand that a meaningful life is better than a life that is not meaningful, and judge that my life is meaningful, I will see that the judgment has normative implications for what I should think, what I should do, what I should be, and what I can reasonably expect of others as far as their evaluative attitudes toward my life are concerned. If others agree with my judgment that my life is meaningful, they will see the same implications.

As Christine Korsgaard points out, “[c]oncepts like knowledge, beauty, and meaning, as well as virtue and justice, all have a normative dimension, for they tell us what to think, what to like, what to say, what to do, and what to be” (The Sources of Normativity, p.9; italics added). When we apply these concepts to make judgments, we make normative judgments. This is the case when the concept of meaning (or meaningfulness) is applied to a human life. Suppose I ask the question about my life’s meaningfulness and answer it positively, that is, I make the judgment that my life is meaningful. Such a judgment has implications for me with respect to my thought and action: it is not just that the judgment implies some possible things that I can think or do; it is that it makes claims on me and I admit that it has authority over me. In other words, I feel the normative force of the judgment that my life is meaningful.

Why does the judgment that my life is meaningful have normative authority over me? First of all, such a judgment is not subjective --- it is not, as some may put it, just a matter of one’s opinion. The judgment that my life is meaningful is intersubjective or interpersonal. And second, the judgment has to be justified, rational, or supported by good reasons. I am rationally compelled by the judgment to think or act in certain ways rather than others. Putting these two aspects together, the judgment ‘My life is meaningful’ is, as Allan Gibbard puts it in his discussion of normative authority, “interpersonally valid” (Wise Choices, Apt Feelings, p.155).

When I judge that my life is meaningful, not only do I have a positive evaluation of my life, a positive answer to the question of who I am, and a good reason for my existence, I also have a clear answer to the question of how I should live my life --- what I should think, what I should like, what I should say, what I should do, and what I should be. It is difficult to see how the judgment can have normative implications for me and for others, and can significantly constrain or direct my life, if I understand the meaningfulness of my life to be something purely subjective, something depends solely on what I happen to believe, feel, desire, or value. In order to have normative authority over me, such a judgment has to be, like other normative judgments, at least in some respect intersubjective if not objective too. The normative force of such an evaluative judgment has to come, at least partly, from something beyond my subjective perspective in the sense that the correctness of the judgment is not simply up to me.

This is why there is a significant difference between ‘My life is meaningful’ and ‘My life is meaningful to me’. I would not be altogether satisfied if the latter was all I could truly say as an answer to the question about my life’s meaningfulness. There would be something wrong with my understanding of meaningfulness if I believed that my life is meaningful simply because it is meaning to me. In this respect judgments about meaningfulness are like judgments about beauty: if I want to know whether I am beautiful, the answer ‘I am beautiful to me’ is not going to be good enough to me. Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there has to be at least one beholder other than oneself.

5 comments:

  1. " First of all, such a judgment is not subjective --- it is not, as some may put it, just a matter of one’s opinion. The judgment that my life is meaningful is intersubjective or interpersonal."

    Why?

    More generally, most of what you say here is a series of assertions. For example, you say "such a judgment has to be, like other normative judgments, at least in some respect intersubjective if not objective too." but almost no-one denies that there are some subjectively valid normative judgments (I am allowed to take the fact that there will be free vodka at the party as a reason to go, where you may not see any value in free vodka whatsoever). Each of your assertions is open to these sorts of complaints, and I'm wondering why you think we should accept them. I'm also left wondering why a Sartrean or Nietzschean couldn't just laugh and say: "Ok pal, if you need others to validate your judgments of meaningfulness, that's fine, but don't impose that requirement on the rest of us."

    I don't know what to think about all of this, but I'd like to know if you've got more to say.

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    1. This short essay is an excerpt from my book manuscript and you are right that it is mostly a series of assertions. These assertions will make more sense in the context of my arguments in the book.

      I don't quite understand your example of a subjectively valid normative judgment. "There will be free vodka at the party" does not seem a normative judgment at all.

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  2. I don't see how it has to be normative. It could be normative. I won't say that it couldn't be. (It sounds very nice that way.) But is it necessarily to be so?
    Is it subjective when one sees it as normative? A second order subjectivity?
    To me, for whatever I think as meaningful or meaningless in life, I don't need any other person to agree to, like, or at least not hate or have objections to it. That's only my opinion and very subjective. I am not sure that how many people are like that, maybe not that many. One or two people would be enough to me, not because I care about what they think but because I am curious about it. --zpdrmn

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  3. One more thing, I don't always do things according to whether I think they are meaningful or meaningless in life. I did many things I considered as meaningless. (I just did a thing like that here, LoL.) Well, more seriously, sometimes a man has to do what he has to do.
    I am not sure about how many people out there sometimes do things they consider as meaningless or as not that meaningful. I would guess there are quite a few. Maybe they don't usually think about things in terms of meaningfulness.
    Some people even do things to harm themselves. Many more do things that harm or will harm themselves, though they know about the harmful effect. It's hard to imagine that they usually think about meaningfulness when they do those things, especially for the former case. (Maybe they think about meaninglessness. But I think we'd better leave these behaviors to behavioral science.) Where am I? Many things considered to be meaningless are not harmful. They aren't that bad, maybe just meaningless.
    What I do could have //normative implications for me and for others//. What I consider to be meaningful or meaningless doesn't necessarily have the same implication, for what I do don't have to be in lockstep with what I think.
    Many laws out there are to prevent people from doing certain things, even if they want to do or think they should do them (like meaningful things as they see it). Most people (I hope) refrain form doing them because of the laws. Some of these people, if not many, probably would do them if these things weren't illegal. What they think here don't really count.
    I've written too much and gone too far, much more than I thought I would. Even though I don't connect the dots well, I will stop after this: Wong's point of view is fine and it could be that way, but I just think that it doesn't have to be so. --zpdrmn

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  4. /*Even if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there has to be at least one beholder other than oneself.*/

    Is it enough the beholder be the possible one, or an actual one?

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