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.