My title is my thesis. This post has a prerequisite, The Question of the Meaning of Life: Distinctions and Assumptions. Read it first.
We should distinguish between an extreme and a moderate version of the thesis that the meaning of life is subjective. They can be referred to as extreme and moderate subjectivism about existential meaning. ‘Subjective’ in my thesis covers both. The thesis, agaiin, is that if life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.Note that the subjectivist theory in either version is intended to be identitarian as opposed to eliminativist. The subjectivist claim is not that there is no meaning, which would amount to nihilism. The claim is that there is meaning but it is subjective by its very nature. Nevertheless, despite its identitarian intentions, both extreme and moderate subjectivism collapse into nihilism as will be argued below. As here used, ‘nihilism’ is just eliminativism about objective meaning. So if human life has a meaning, in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the philosophical question about the meaning of life, then it cannot be subjective.
On extreme subjectivism any meaning or purpose your life has is one you give it. Meaning is conferred or bestowed on a life by the agent of the life. In themselves, lives lack meaning, and they acquire meaning only when and if the agents of the lives impart meaning to them. That a life has meaning and what that meaning is are both up to the agent. This goes well beyond the notion that the agent’s appropriation of existential meaning is up to the agent. For on any theory it is up to the agent whether he realize or live out the meaning that he takes to be the meaning of his life. Extreme subjectivism involves the further notion that the meaning the agent takes to be the meaning of his life is a meaning he takes from himself: it is a meaning he invents for himself. On extreme subjectivism, then, the agent freely decides (i) whether or not his life will have meaning, (ii) what meaning it will have, and (iii) whether and to what extent he will live out this meaning day by day.
Since a meaningful life cannot be merely purpose-driven but must also have positive value at least for the agent, one route to subjectivism is via the subjectivity of value: the value of the goals one pursues —— the goals in terms of which one's life assumes point and purpose —— is due to the individual's valuations, and these valuations are irremediably subjective and thus potentially different for different individuals. Accordingly, no goal is objectively worth pursuing or objectively more worth pursuing than any other goal. By freely selecting which goals will constitute the point and purpose of his life, the individual freely creates and maintains his own meaning and he freely creates it out of nothing or out of himself. This endogenous theory of meaning implies that there are no exogenous or objective constraints on existential meaning. A life has meaning if and only if the agent of the life is sincerely convinced that it does: your conviction that your life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for its having meaning.
The extreme subjectivist view of existential meaning is deeply incoherent. To be blunt, anyone who answers the meaning question by saying ‘The meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it’ simply has not understood the question. The question arises concretely when one begins to doubt the value of the dominant projects and purposes one has been pursuing. A novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player, even if successful, can come to doubt the point of being a novelist, a stockbroker, a philosopher, a professional chess player. ‘Have I wasted my life helping the rich get richer?’ ‘Have I dribbled my life away among bloodless abstractions in an illusory quest for an unattainable knowledge?’ ‘Am I squandering my life’s energies on a mere game?’ These are possible questions. Even if one has been entirely successful in achieving one’s life-goals, these questions can and do arise. They are not questions about success or failure within a life-plan but questions about the success or failure of a life-plan as a whole. Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life. To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning. One who wonders whether he is wasting his life perhaps does not thereby presuppose that there is exactly one recipe for a meaningful life applicable to all, but he does presuppose that there are one or more objectively meaningful uses of a human life. He presupposes that one can throw away one’s life, waste one’s time, fail to live a meaningful life. But if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. To tell such a person that it suffices for his life to have meaning that he invest it with meaning shows a failure to understand the question. The person can respond with an analog of G. E. Moore’s Open Question Argument: “You tell me that the meaning of my life is identical to the style of life I choose as meaningful. But is this style of life truly meaningful?” The fact that the question remains open even after the subjectivist answer has been proffered shows that the subjectivist answer is no answer at all.
So my first argument against extreme subjectivism may be summed up as follows. The extreme subjectivist answers the question, What is the meaning of human life? by identifying existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning. This answer, however, negates the presupposition of the question, namely, that one can waste one’s life and fail to live meaningfully. Since the question obviously makes sense, but the answer negates the presupposition of the question, a presupposition essential to the very sense of the question, the answer is mistaken.
My second argument is that extreme subjectivism collapses into nihilism or eliminativism about existential meaning. For if the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it, then my life has no meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ that gave rise both to the question and the extreme subjectivist answer. There is no real or nonverbal difference between ‘Human life is meaningless’ and ‘Human life has the meanings that agents give it.’ A conferred meaning is no meaning. Intellectual honesty demands that the subjectivist speak plainly and say ’Life has no meaning’ rather than obfuscate the issue by saying ‘Life has the meaning one gives it.’
My third argument is that extreme subjectivism entails a vicious infinite regress. If the activities of my life have only the meaning that I give them, then this would have to hold also for the acts of meaning-bestowal whereby certain goals and activities become meaningful for me. These acts, which are integral to my life, must be meaningful if my life is to be meaningful. But the acts of meaning-bestowal cannot be intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory: nothing is intrinsically meaningful on the subjectivist theory, but meaningful only in relation to one who confers meaning. So I must be the source of the meaning of my acts of meaning-bestowal if these acts are to have meaning. And this seems to lead to an infinite vicious regress. Suppose we spell this out.
Let A be an act of meaning-bestowal. A is either meaningful, meaningless, or neither. Those are the only three possibilities worth considering. If A is meaningful, and no meaning is intrinsic as per the extreme subjectivist theory, then A can acquire meaning only if the agent freely bestows meaning on A by means of a distinct act of meaning-bestowal A*. Now if A* is meaningful, then its meaning must derive from a third act of meaning-bestowal A**. And so on into an infinite regress. The regress is vicious because every A is in need of a meaning that it cannot itself provide.
If, on the other hand, A is meaningless, then the life of which A is a part is meaningless. For if a life is meaningful due to acts of meaning-bestowal, and these latter are meaningless, then the life as a whole is meaningless. Consider a person who organizes his life around the central goal of the alleviation of animal suffering. On subjectivism, this goal is worthwhile, not intrinsically, but only in relation to a free decision on the part of the agent to give it meaning and value. But if this free donation of meaning and value is itself meaningless, then it is difficult to see how the person's life can be said to be meaningful. As soon as the agent reflects that the bestowal of meaning on his chosen purpose is not a response to any objective value such as the elimination of unnecessary suffering, he should see that his meaning-bestowal is a gratuitous and arbitrary and meaningless act. A meaningful life, one wants to protest, is one in response to objective values, where one's responding is itself an objective value. But the objectivity of value is precisely what the subjectivist will not countenance.
Could it be said that the acts of meaning-bestowal are themselves neither meaningful nor meaningless inasmuch as they are at the foundation of all existential meaning? It is difficult to attach any sense to this. These acts of meaning-projection are integral to a life as meaningful. It is difficult to see how they could fail to be meaningful if the life of which they are parts is meaningful. So in the end the subjectivist appears to be astride the horns of a dilemma. Either the acts of meaning-bestowal are meaningful or they are meaningless. If the former, then a vicious infinite regress ensues. If the latter, then the life of which they are essential parts is meaningless.
On moderate subjectivism about existential meaning there is due recognition of the fact that the satisfaction of certain objective conditions is necessary for a life to be meaningful, but this is held in tandem with the thesis that there is no general answer to the meaning-of-life question applicable to every life. So moderate subjectivism is midway between extreme subjectivism and objectivism. On extreme subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is both necessary and sufficient for it to have meaning. On moderate subjectivism, the sincere conviction that one’s life has meaning is necessary but not sufficient for the life’s having meaning: consideration of objective factors, factors not in the control of the agent, are also relevant for assessing the meaningfulness of a life. A moderate subjectivist will point out, for example, that not having one’s wants manipulated from the outside by other people, the media or the gods is a necessary condition of a meaningful life, and that this absence of manipulation is an objective factor. Other objective considerations are whether one’s chosen goal is achievable and not self-destructive. If one’s central goal is to get drunk and stay drunk, then this goal is achievable but self-destructive, and meaningless because self-destructive. The goal’s being achievable is an objective matter as is also its being self-destructive. Despite these objective factors, there is on the moderate subjectivist approach no such thing as the meaning of life. But on objectivism there is. For the objectivist, human life has meaning only if it has an objective purpose, the same for all, which is nevertheless subjectively appropriable by each, albeit in different ways.
It is undeniable that moderate subjectivism is superior to extreme subjectivism. It cannot be that the meaning of a life depends entirely on the agent of the life. Objective factors, factors outside of the control of the agent, come into consideration. But it doesn’t follow straightaway that there is one objective meaning-conferring requirement that applies equally to all lives. It may be that the blank in ‘The meaning of life is _____’ cannot be filled. This is John Kekes’ pluralistic view: “. . . there is no such thing as the meaning of life.” The philosophical problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form, but it does not have a general solution.” (John Kekes, Pluralism in Philosophy: Changing the Subject (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000, p. 83 et passim.)
Although there is no general solution, individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” (Ibid.) So although there is no general answer to the meaning question, it is possible to list conditions individually necessary and jointly sufficient for a life’s being meaningful. I won’t reproduce Kekes’ entire list but it includes such constraints as that the life not be pointless, misdirected, trivial, futile or vitiated by the belief that all human projects are absurd. Crucial to his list are that the objective conditions of a meaningful life be located in the natural world, and that the projects one pursues be either morally good, immoral, or nonmoral. Kekes thereby rules out a general solution applicable to all in terms of religion or morality. Irreligious and immoral lives can be just as meaningful as any life. The life of a mass murder such as Stalin fulfills all of Kekes’ conditions for a meaningful life. Kekes allows that religious and moral lives may be meaningful; what he disallows is that only religious and moral lives are meaningful.
The main problem with Kekes’ moderate subjectivism is that he changes the subject. Since “Changing the Subject” is the subtitle of his book, Kekes is unlikely to see this as a problem. But it seems to me that it is since he substitutes the psychological problem of the meaning of life for the philosophical problem while at the same time seeming to be grappling with the philosophical problem. He tells us that the problem of the meaning of life “. . . has a general form but it does not have a general solution.” He also tells us that individuals can “resolve the problem for themselves.” But is there one problem that both lacks a general solution and can yet be resolved in many different particular ways (though not all particular ways given that certain objective constraints must be satisfied)? What would that one problem be? It cannot be the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The philosophical problem is a completely general problem, and is not to be conflated with any psychological problem about the meaning of a life. The distinction was esplained above near the end of section II. If the philosophical problem has a solution, then it has a general solution. For it is a general problem.
If an individual “resolves the problem of life for himself” in a sense that allows the resolutions to be different for different people, the problem he has resolved is not the impersonal philosophical problem but a personal psychological problem. Suppose a twenty year old doesn’t know what to do with himself. His life lacks direction. But gradually he comes to ‘find himself.’ He manages to choose an attainable nontrivial nondestructive goal, one right for him, that satisfies all of Kekes’ constraints. Our young man has surmounted his identity crisis and has installed himself in a subjectively meaningful mode of existence. He has solved a psychological problem, a problem of adjustment and motivation, but it cannot be said that he has “resolved for himself” the philosophical problem of the meaning of life. The latter might not be a problem for him at all. He may be firmly convinced that the purpose of human life is to serve God in this world and be happy with him in the next. But he cannot decide which line of work to choose, or he doubts his abilities, or he cannot muster the motivation to persevere in anything, or ‘life throws him a curve ball’ in the form of ill-health or unrequited love or financial trouble.
My conclusion, then, is that moderate subjectivism as exemplified by Kekes’ position changes the subject: it does not address the philosophical problem of the meaning of life but diverts attention to a related but distinct psychological problem. Once the two questions are cleanly distinguished one sees that Kekes’ view is just as eliminativist about objective meaning as is the view of an extreme subjectivist like Richard Taylor. What I am opposing in both is the identification of existential meaning with agent-conferred meaning, without the concomitant admission that such an identification collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. This concludes my defense of the thesis that If life has a meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ relevant to the impersonal philosophical question about the meaning of life, then this meaning cannot be subjective, whether Taylor-subjective or Kekes-subjective. It must be objective in the sense of being the same for all and applicable to all.