Meaning in Life and the Point of Getting and Education

Imagine a world devoid of conscious experience. Not even at the level of mollusks or moths. This is a world where nothing matters. Nothing has meaning or value. Now let’s admit some mollusks and moths. And let’s suppose that getting meal and avoiding toxins matters to mollusks and moths. Doing so presumes some degree of conscious experience. Unconscious mollusks might seek food or avoid toxins, but for this to matter to the mollusk, there must be some being that is having some experience. So, this will be my starting point, that things mattering, having value, or meaning something depends on things mattering, having value, or meaning something to some conscious being. This a central idea in Irving Singer’s work on meaning in life.

Note, we are not talking about the meaning of life. Talk of the meaning of life suggests that meaning is something that life has, as opposed to being something that is realized in living. Religiously inspired views of the meaning of life often take life to have some meaning or purpose attached to it. But even here, the meaning or purpose of a person’s life comes from things mattering to another conscious being, a personal God. We’d be hard pressed to fathom what sort of meaning or significance we might glean from a God that was not personal, not a conscious, self-aware being like us.

So, we’ll start from the idea that the seat of value is conscious experience. Meaning, value and purpose flow from conscious experience. These needn’t be sought outside. I won’t offer a detailed defense of this idea, though I think we’ve already motivated it. We can now entertain a more contentious elaboration on this thesis that takes the degree to which something matters to be a function of the degree or kind of conscious experience associated with it. We should worry that this idea is speciesist or elitist in some way. Who am I to say that my career matters more to me than a mollusk’s next meal matters to the mollusk? In both cases, the scale of mattering is topped out. The stakes are existential. Well, only existential regarding a certain professional identity in the case of my career.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that the fate of my career matters no more than the starvation of a mollusk. But if pressed to explain why the fate of my career matters more, there are a few things I can say. My conscious experience is more sophisticated than the mollusk’s in a number of ways. I have self-awareness, a capacity for practical reason, a memory. The mollusk has sensory experience, but none of these other things (we’ll suppose). And even in the realm of sensory experience, mine is richer and more varied. So, we can account for the intuitive idea that how and how much things matter varies with the kind of conscious experience associated with them. We seem to take this much for granted whenever we obliterate the conscious experience of a mollusk for an oyster appetizer.

To whatever degree I can enrich someone’s conscious experience, my own or another’s, I’m adding value to the world. As Singer puts it, the key feature of caring, of loving a conscious being, is the bestowal of value on that being. It’s a good thing that we care about each other. We make those we love matter more when we enrich their conscious experience. This is just what we should expect when we take conscious experience to be the seat of value. There is value in my experience and there is value in the ways I can enhance the experience of others.

The point of this little meditation on what matters and why is to provide a corrective to a pervasive tendency to evaluate our lives in practical terms. So much of our sense of self-worth is tied to what we are good for, what we achieve, how we impact or impress others. As highly social beings, this is to be expected. It matters to me how I impact others, how I’m seen by others, what I am good for in the lives of others and what matters for them. Our social nature embeds us in a pervasive economy of usefulness. And this is largely to the good. We show that we care about others and our communities by making ourselves, in one way or another, useful to them, often and appropriately with the hope that this will be reciprocated in ways that enrich our own conscious experience. Usefulness is not to be scoffed at.

But then we should be wary of the tendency to instrumentalize everything. We are at risk of focusing on the practical, the useful, to the point where we reflexively ask how something is useful to the exclusion of contemplating what things are ultimately useful for. When we lose sight of value worth pursuing for its own sake, not merely as a means to some further value, all of our valuing become unmoored. Down this path, nihilism threatens. Educators often encounter this kind of listlessness in the student who asks, “Why should I care about this? What is it good for?” in a demanding rather than inquisitive tone. We’d better have good answers.

A blunt answer to the “Why should I care?” demand is simply, “Because then you’ll care about something!” This is just a direct way of saying what we’ve already said a little more diplomatically, that caring about things makes them matter. Our lives become meaningful when we care about things.

Educators will have a tough row to hoe if we set out directly to make our students care about things. Our path has traditionally been a little less direct, but more effective because of it. We help students get acquainted with things worthy of caring about. Things don’t matter in a vacuum. History and philosophy aren’t magically endowed with value by the universe at large. But these are things that have sustained the interest of many people for a long time. They are apt for being valued beyond their usefulness because they speak to our condition as conscious beings that matter.

Things mattering to people presupposes some conscious awareness and understanding of them. I’m not in a position to care about the suffering of marginalized people unless I’ve had some introduction to their circumstances and experience. My understanding may never be complete, but that’s not necessary for taking an interest and being motivated to seek justice out of concern.

Similarly, I can’t care about art and culture from a position of complete ignorance about these things. Getting acquainted with art and culture is a first step towards appreciating it. And let’s understand “appreciating” literally. We make art matter, we bestow value on it, through taking an interest and valuing it. At the same time, our appreciation of art and culture constitutes value and meaning in our own lives. There is nothing zero-sum about meaning, caring, and appreciating.

Introducing students to things worth caring about is how we as educators build meaning and purpose in our student’s lives. The value of education here is not instrumental. Though we seldom talk this way anymore, when we speak of education as worth pursuing for its own sake, I think this is what we are getting at. Education can make our lives more interesting, more meaningful, ultimately more purposeful. When we introduce students to things that are interesting, beautiful, speak to our own humanity or the humanity of others, we grant them an opportunity to take an interest, join the broader human community that makes these things matter, and, if things go well, care about something.

Why do many people prefer moral absolutes? Why do many others prefer moral relativism? Same answer: Self-Righteousness

People tend to have a very big stake in their own goodness. So it figures that they’d really want moral truths to be simple and clear cut, and the less they’ve thought critically about hard moral issues, the simpler and more clear cut the better. But if we step outside our tendency towards self righteousness for a minute, there is really no reason to expect ethics to be somehow more simple and straightforward than, say, physics or chemistry. Most of us don’t have a hard time admitting to ourselves that we don’t know all that much about physics or chemistry. But to admit that we don’t know so much about what’s good or right is much harder. That would cast some doubt on our own goodness and many people find this intolerable.

This tendency towards self-righteousness also explains much of the appeal of moral relativism. Moral relativism rejects moral absolutes and fans of moral relativism see this as promoting more open minded and tolerance of those with other views. There are good reasons to doubt that moral relativism delivers the goods on the virtues of open mindedness and tolerance. Moral relativism is the view that what is right relative to a group (culture or individual) is whatever is deemed right relative to that group (culture or individual). But there is nothing in this view that speaks against a group (culture or individual) deeming narrow-minded intolerance a good thing. Moral Relativism deems bigotry good relative to the bigot.

But let’s focus on the role of self-righteousness here. Moral relativism deems everyone (or every group) right relative to themselves. On this view I can maintain that I am right (no matter how narrow-minded and uncritical my view is) so long as I’m only asserting that right just means right relative to me (or my group). So moral relativism invites everyone to be perfectly self-righteous relative to themselves. And it thereby prevents reasoning about ethics from playing any useful role in adjudicating conflicts. What tools does this leave us for dealing with conflicts? Well, there is always power politics, or if that doesn’t work, brute force.

An alternative to both moral absolutism and moral relativism would be to take inquiry into morality seriously. That is, to take morality to be the sort of thing we can learn about through critically examining evidence and argument. But here’s the catch: taking inquiry into morality seriously requires acknowledging that maybe we don’t already know what is good and right. That is, it requires abandoning our self-righteousness.

Individualism vs. Love

There is a kind of rugged individualism that is quite in vogue in our culture. It’s not surprising that people prize feeling powerful, self sufficient and independent in a culture where everyone has their own job, car and the world at their fingertips through their phones, laptops etc. We live like gods, all knowing, all powerful and, of course, perfectly good. This seems often to be the picture we paint for ourselves and the sort of existence we aspire to.

I fear that the sort of life this aspiration leads to will ultimately be rather barren, lonely and nihilistic. But aside from that, the independence aspiration involves a good deal of self-deception. We are in fact vulnerable, needful things that can hardly survive, never mind flourish and be happy, without caring relationships. I wonder if part of what makes the rugged individualist self-deception so appealing is the very fact that deprived of our technological conveniences, nearly all of us would be far less prepared to fend for ourselves than just about all of our ancestors. Having it so easy makes it easy to forget just how much we depend on others to meet our needs. In every past culture and time, people’s need for each other would have been a central and well recognized social reality. This is the first moment in history that very many people can afford to question whether it makes sense to care for others deeply. The temptation will be there since to love another person brings with it tremendous vulnerability. It requires a good deal of trust. It will change you in ways not completely in your control. It will compromise your autonomy in all manner of ways (any parent can confirm that). Love is a fearsome thing. It does not always go well. For most of us, failed love will be the biggest trauma we ever endure. And yet we pursue love. For most of us, its a need that simply will not be ignored.

So given all of this, it makes an awful lot of sense for us to love carefully. By that I don’t mean love cautiously. Once we are honest with ourselves about the stakes, it should be clear that there is no such thing as caution in loving another. To love another human being is an audacious and daring thing to do. What I do mean is that we should love with great care. We should cherish and take good care of our relationships and their participants, of each other and ourselves. The need for this caring on our part will be all the more clear if we are also honest with ourselves concerning our own very mortal vulnerability and needfulness. It’s tempting to think that the best way to take care of ourselves is to fortify defenses around any possible vulnerabilities. This is the lonely path of the individualist. But given our nature as needful social beings, the more sure and rewarding path to having our own needs met, to being taken care of, is to take care of others who reciprocate and care for us in turn. The way to be safe and secure, and not alone, is to be audacious and daring in generously caring for those we are close to. This is the sweet paradox of love.

Moral Relativism


The moral relativist believes that ethical truths are relative to groups smaller than humanity as a whole.  That this is true of fundamental ethical truths, not merely derived moral rules, is essential to relativism.  To allow just one fundamental universal ethical truth that is independent of the say so of individuals or groups is to abandon relativism in favor of a realist view of ethical truth.  There are as many versions of moral relativism as there are groups or individuals ethical truth can be relative to.

A simple version of moral relativism, societal moral relativism, holds that a type of action is morally right relative to a society if it is deemed right by the majority of members of that society. Moral relativism is a view about what makes ethical truths true. It is not a view about how we come to hold moral beliefs.  There is very good reason to think that in fact we often acquire our moral views from elements in our culture. What people come to believe depends on cultural influences, but this is not moral relativism.  Moral relativism is the view that what determines the truth or falsity of moral beliefs is just what is endorsed by the prevailing culture. According to moral relativism, moral truths are made by the dominant view in a society, not merely propagated by the dominant culture.

Many would endorse some version of moral relativism on the grounds that it supports tolerance and respect for societies with differing moral views.  Moral relativism seems to be a view that allows for different societies to embrace different moral standards that are right relative to the respective societies.  Moral relativism rejects the notion that the moral standards of one society could be objectively correct.  So if moral relativism is correct, no society could be justified in forcing its moral standards on other groups because its standards are objectively correct. This line of thought has lead many who value diversity and tolerance of diversity to embrace moral relativism. But this is a mistake. because moral relativism leaves open the possibility of intolerance justified by other means.  In fact, the result of a straightforward application of societal moral relativism is that being intolerant towards other groups is right relative to a society if the majority of members of that society deem intolerance right. So for instance, assuming the majority of Germans in Nazi Germay approved of the persecution of Jews, then according to societal moral relativism, intolerance towards Jews was right relative to Nazi Germany. Those who value tolerance and respect of individuals or groups with differing moral views would do much better to endorse tolerance as an objective realist ethical value than to endorse moral relativism.

A strong argument against moral relativism is the argument from change. Sometimes our view about the moral status of some practice changes.  A person might, for instance, think that eating meat is morally unproblematic at one time and then become convinced that animals deserve some kind of moral regard that speaks against eating meat.  When a person’s moral views change in this fashion, the do not merely drop one moral belief in favor of another.  Typically, they also hold that their previous moral view was mistaken.  They take themselves to have discovered something new about what is morally right.  Likewise, then the prevalent moral belief in a society undergoes a significant change, as in the civil rights movement, we are inclined to see this as a change for the better.  But the relativist cannot account for changes in our moral beliefs being changes for the better.  This is because the relativist recognizes no independent standard of goodness against which the new prevalent moral beliefs can be judged to be better than the old prevalent moral beliefs.

A closely related problem for moral relativism is the moral reformer’s dilemma.  We recognize a few remarkable individuals as moral reformers, people who, we think, improved the moral condition of their society in some way.  Common examples might include, Buddha, Jesus, Ghandi or Martin Luther King.  While the relativist can allow that these individuals changed the moral views of their societies,  none can be said to have changed their societies for the better according to the relativist.  Again, this is because the societal moral relativist recognizes no standard of moral goodness independent of what is accepted in a society according to which a society that has changed can be judged to have changed for the better.  A relativist that takes ethical truth to be relative to the dominant view in a society seems to be committed to taking institutionalized racism to be morally right relative to per-civil rights American society and wrong relative to post civil rights American society. But since standards of goodness are determined by the prevalent views in a society, there is no standard goodness to appeal to in judging that the change our society underwent in the civil rights movement is a change for the better. According to societal moral relativism, anyone who takes Martin Luther King to have improved American society by leading it to reject institutionalized racism is just mistaken about the nature of ethical truth.

Design for Living


Intelligent design theory posits the existence of an intelligent creator as the best or only available explanation for the appearance of design we allegedly find in natural phenomenon like the cell. Intelligent design theory does not provide an argument for the existence of a God as conceived by any particular religion because it commits us to nothing specific about the nature of the creator except its capacity for intelligent design. And intelligent design is not grounded or justified on the basis of religious belief. The grounds offered for the existence of an intelligent designer are phenomenon we have discovered scientifically. Michael Behe (Design for Living, The New York Times, February 7, 2005) offers the following argument for intelligent design:

1. “We can often recognize the effects of design in nature.”

2. The appearance of design is present in biological phenomenon.

3. “We have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn’t involve intelligence.”

4. “In the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.”

5. So, we are justified in thinking intelligent design was involved in life.

Behe claims the first two premises of this argument are uncontroversial. We can look at the Rocky Mountains and at Mt. Rushmore and see that one is the product of human design whereas the other is not. The appearance of design in this case is explained by what we know to be the case, that Mt Rushmore was in fact designed by humans.

Behe thinks we also find the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, notably in the structure and functioning of the cell. In the functional aspects of its parts and organization, the cell seems much like a factory, complete with machinery for locomotion, chemical processing and waste removal. But do the specific aspects in which we find genuine similarities justify seeing the parts of cells as machines? Complex molecules in the cell perform the function of transporting proteins from one place to another. Trucks perform a very similar function. But is this similarity sufficient for seeing the molecules that perform this function in the cell as intelligently designed transportation devices? Transporting things is a relatively generic function. Stars transport their satellites around galaxies, but this hardly warrants seeing stars as trucks or any other sort of transporting machine. Any number of further similarities between designed artifacts and cells and their parts may be identified. But supporting the second premise of Behe’s argument requires that we show that natural things like the cell are similar to artificial designed things like trucks and factories in at least some of the respects that are relevant to our judgment that the artificial thing is the product of design. This may or may not be possible. My only point here is to identify an appropriate standard for the justification of (2). If accepted, the second premise provides prima facia evidence for life being the product of intelligent design. But this prima facia case for design holds up only in the absence of other ways to account for the appearance of design. In the absence of alternative accounts, the existence of an intelligent designer is the best explanation of the appearance of design and this would give us abductive grounds for believing in an intelligent designer.

(3) claims that evolutionary theory has failed to yield a complete and adequate account of the origins of life. This may be true for reasons that have nothing to do with any defect in the theory of evolution by natural selection. It may be true, for instance, because we simply lack access to the historical evidence that would be needed give a complete developmental history of the cell. So scientists might have pretty good excuses for not being able to tell a detailed story about the development of cells in terms of natural selection. But mere lack of evidence is not an argument against thinking that natural selection played the sort of role in the advent of cells that we have good grounds for thinking it played in later evolution.

Even if (3) is true, it is deceptive in its suggestion that we do have a good explanation in terms of intelligent design. Here is the salient question: in just what way does the hypothesis that cells were designed by an intelligent designer explain? That humans designed trucks has explanatory power because it makes reference to a causal process that we have some acquaintance with. It is a process that involves engineers sitting at computers, building models, and so forth. But an appeal to a supernatural designer posits non-causal means about which we have no grasp what-so-ever. A supernatural creator is in some way acting outside the causal order and thereby producing effects in the causal order. Intelligent design theorists owe us some account of just how the design hypothesis is supposed to explain at all.

Finally, the main defect I find in Behe’s argument is a formal difficulty. If (2) is accepted and we grant the appearance of design in biological phenomenon, then we require some explanation of the appearance of design. But the issue shifts in Behe’s third premise. (3) claims that no adequate explanation has been given of the origin of life. The result of this shift of issue in (3) is that the argument presupposes without warrant that nothing short of an account of the origins of life through natural processes would suffice as an explanation of the appearance of design. But why should we expect that explaining the appearance of design requires giving a complete developmental history of the origins of cellular life? It could be, and I think in fact it is the case, that we have perfectly good explanatory principles at hand in the theory of evolution by natural selection but we simply lack adequate access to the historical evidence to explain how all of the impressive features of cells came to exist through natural selection.