The meaning of life, if there is one, cannot be subjective. This was argued in an earlier entry in this series on the meaning of life. But the meaning of life cannot be purely objective either. The meaning of life, if there is one, must somehow involve a mediation of the subjective and the objective: the meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable. I will now explain what I mean by ‘objective,’ ‘purely objective’ and ‘subjectively appropriable.’
An objective meaning or purpose of X is a purpose that is as it were assigned to X from without. An objective purpose is exogenous while a subjective purpose is endogenous. A purely objective purpose of X is one that is objective, but also such that X cannot subjectively appropriate or make its own the objective purpose. Thus if X has a purely objective purpose, then X plays no role in the realization or enactment or embodiment of its purpose.
A tool made for a specific purpose is an example of something that has a purely objective purpose. The Phillips head screwdriver has the specific purpose of driving crosshead screws. It was designed for just that job. Such a tool has an objective purpose which derives from the plans and intentions of human artificers. To invert the famous formula of Jean-Paul Sartre's manifesto, "Existentialism is a Humanism," its essence precedes its existence. Artifacts like screwdrivers are produced according to a plan or design that is logically and temporally antecedent to their production. But the purpose of a screwdriver is not only objective, it is also purely objective in that there is no possibility of a screwdriver's subjectively appropriating its objective purpose. And this for the simple reason that no screwdriver is a subject of experience. It is not just that screwdrivers are not biologically alive; they lack subjectivity. No inanimate artifact can discern its purpose, let alone freely and consciously accept or reject it. It makes no sense to speak of a screwdriver existentially realizing, or subjectively appropriating, or living, or enacting its purpose. The purpose a screwdriver has, it cannot be. No screwdriver is in a position to complain that the purpose it has been assigned is not its purpose.
With us it is different. We may or may not have an objective purpose, but if we have one, it cannot be a purely objective purpose; it must be a purpose that can be made our purpose. But it is best to speak in the first-person. A purpose that I cannot make my purpose is of no consequence to me. Such a purpose would be meaningless to me. An objective purpose that I could not come to know about, or could not realize, or an objective purpose that I knew about and could realize but whose realization would destroy me or cause a preponderance of misery over happiness or thwart my flourishing or destroy my autonomy would not be a purpose I could make my own. It is essential to realize that the question of the meaning (purpose) of human life arises within the subjectivity of the individual: it cannot be understood in a purely objective way. We are not asking about the purpose of a certain zoological species, or even of the purpose of a given specimen of this species viewed objectively, 'from outside.' The question, properly understood, is necessarily such that each must pose the question for himself using the first-person singular pronoun. The question is not: What is the purpose of the human species? Nor is it: What is the purpose of this specimen of the human species? The questions are: What is the purpose of my existence? Why am I here? and the like. The question must be posed from within one's life, and not directed at one's life from a third-person point of view. It is man as subject who asks the question, man as Dasein in Heidegger's lingo, not man as object.
We can sum this up by saying that an objective purpose, if there is one, must be subjectively appropriable if it is to be relevant to existential meaning. To appropriate a thing is to make it one's own, to take possession of it. This is not to be taken in a crass material sense. To subjectively appropriate an objective purpose is to existentially realize it, to realize or embody it in one's Existenz (to borrow a term from the German existentialist lexicon). It is to adopt it freely and consciously and live it as an organizing and unifying principle of one's life. This subjective appropriation is obviously consistent with the purpose's remaining objective. It is a bit like realizing an ideal. If a couple realizes the ideal marriage, the ideal does not cease being ideal in being realized. Or if you do what you ought to do, your doing it, which is a translation of a norm into a fact, does not obliterate the distinction between facts and norms. Similarly, the subjective appropriation of an objective purpose does not render the purpose subjective; what is subjective is the appropriation, not the purpose.
Subjective appropriability has a normative element. Suppose a slave knows the purpose assigned to him by his master and comes freely to accept that purpose as his purpose, a purpose he then carries out in his daily activities. On my use of terms, although the slave has freely accepted the master’s purpose as his purpose, he has not subjectively appropriated the purpose. And this for the reason that the slave’s acceptation is inconsistent with his autonomy and dignity. The subjectively appropriable is not merely that which is able to be appropriated, but that which is worthy of being appropriated. I take it as axiomatic that a meaningful life for a human being must be a life worthy of a human being.
What is meant by 'objective'? An objective purpose is (i) exogenous and (ii) available to all, the same for all, applicable to all. But to avoid triviality, a codicil must be appended: the objective purpose cannot be a vacuously general meta-purpose. It cannot be something like: the purpose of life is to do whatever you want to do and can do within the limits of your situation. That would apply to everyone but in a vacuous way that would allow the purpose of life for one person to consist in exterminating Jews, for another in collecting beer cans, for a third in medical research, etc. The question about the meaning of life is not a question about a vacuously general meta-purpose, but about a substantively general first-order purpose. An objective purpose must impose first-level constraints on our behavior. At the same time, an objective purpose is one whose realization contributes to human flourishing.
But why must an objective purpose be available to all persons? Why can't it be available only to some and still be objective? Why couldn't some be excluded from the meaning of life, 'predestined' as it were to be left in the cold? It is built into the very notion of an objective purpose for rational beings that it be available to every rational being. We have insisted that the philosophical problem of the meaning of life has an answer only if human life has an objective purpose, the same for all. If this purpose were not also available to all, then it could not be claimed to be ingredient in an answer to the completely general philosophical problem, one that must not be confused with the psychological problem of the meaning of a life. This might sound too sketchy to be satisfactory. A bit more can be said.
One source of a sense of life's absurdity is the observation that suffering is irrationally distributed. An observation as old as Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job is that often the wicked prosper and the just suffer. Happiness and virtue are not properly adjusted one to the other in this life as Kant observed. Reason is scandalized, not by the mere fact of suffering, but by its intensity and unfair distribution. Now if human life, rational life, has an objective meaning or purpose, then this meaning or purpose must be rational. This strikes me as a near-tautology: life cannot make objective sense unless it makes sense, i.e., is rational, understandable, intelligible. And if the objective meaning or purpose of life is rational, then no person can be arbitrarily excluded from partaking of it. For that would be a form of evil. If the world’s constitution were such that only some rational beings could partake of life’s meaning, then that would be a decidedly suboptimal arrangement, indeed an evil arrangement. Recall our earier point that the meaning-of-life question can be formulated as a human or ‘anthropic’ question but also as a ‘cosmic’ question. Anthopic question: What is the objective purpose of human existence? Cosmic question: Is the nature of the world-whole such as to enable and further the meaningfulness of human existence? My present point is that the world-whole must be such that no rational being is excluded from partaking in the objective meaning of life. The meaning of life, if there is one, must be the same for all and available to all. A rational world plays no favorites. If the objective meaning of life were not available to all, then that would be an evil arrangement, one that could not be objectively meaningful. An illustration follows.
On a theistic scheme, the objective purpose of life is to participate in the divine life. Now if God were arbitrarily to exclude some from participating in it, for no reason, but just as a display of power, that would make no sense. It would be irrational, and indeed evil. But then would it not be obvious that the meaning of life would not be guaranteed on such a theistic scheme? If God is an arbitrary despot, then God is a threat to life's having an objective meaning. A theism of divine despotism is a higher-order absurdity: both life here below and life beyond would be absurd on such a theism. So I cannot see how life could have an objective purpose if that purpose is not available to all. It is perhaps not unnecessary to point out that not all will avail themselves of the available.
Putting together the results of this post and one preceding it in this series, we can say that the meaning of life cannot be subjective, but it must be subjectively appropriable, not just be some, but by all.