Sunday, 16 July 2017

Aaron Smuts on the Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life

According to Aaron Smuts[1], the “correct (!) view of the meaning of life” (537) is that life is meaningful to the extent that the one who lives it “promotes the good” (536). They don’t need to do it intentionally or even be aware of it. Nor does it matter whether their existence actually makes a difference (in the sense that, if they had not existed, some of the good occasioned by them would not have occurred). The only thing that matters for meaning in life is “that one is causally responsible for the good”. A life can be more or less meaningful. The more good one is responsible for, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or inadvertently, the more meaningful one’s life is. If you are responsible for bad things, then those bad things reduce the meaningfulness of your life. If you are responsible for more evil than good, then your life is less than meaningful: it has negative or anti-meaning. Smuts calls this the “good cause account of the meaning of life”.

The good cause account of the meaning of life, or “GCA”, stipulates that subjective fulfilment of any kind is simply irrelevant for the meaningfulness of one’s life. It is possible to be mistaken about whether or not one’s own life is meaningful. My life can be very meaningful even if I feel consistently miserable and believe that my life is in fact utterly meaningless. My life can also be completely devoid of meaning (and even have negative meaning, i.e. be worse than just meaningless) even if I am fulfilled and think and feel that my life is very meaningful indeed. In both cases I may just be wrong about the actual meaningfulness of my life. There is nothing subjective about the meaning of life. Meaninglessness and its absence are objective features of my life. Smuts thus flatly rejects both the subjectivist account of the meaning of life defended by the early Richard Taylor (who argues that the life of a happy Sisyphus would be meaningful), and the mixed account defended by Susan Wolf (who argues that subjective attraction and objective attractiveness must come together for a life to be meaningful).

According to Smuts, there are various ways in which a life can be good. Subjective fulfilment is one, meaningfulness is another. A “happy life devoted to trivial amusements” (538) is not a meaningful life. Most people desire more than just to be happy. Smuts cites Achilles who decides to fight against the Trojans despite knowing that this would kill him because he did not want his name to be forgotten. “He chose a short meaningful life over a long life high in individual welfare.” (540) Nozick’s experience machine also demonstrates not only that a meaningful life is more important to most of us than subjective well-being, but also that meaningfulness goes beyond and is in fact independent of subjective well-being. A life in the experience machine, even if totally wonderful, would obviously be meaningless because whatever you did while connected to the machine would have no real-life consequences. If you cured cancer in the machine, you wouldn’t really have cured cancer. Nobody would be any better off because of your imagined actions and achievements: “no good would result from a machine cure.” (543) A subjectivist account of the meaning of life is also absurd because it would not allow us to normatively distinguish between subjectively equally fulfilling lives, such as the life of a cancer researcher and the life of someone who is “devoted to consuming vast quantities of excrement.” (544) Clearly, Smuts suggests, the life of the cancer researcher is more meaningful than that of a “grinning excrement eater”. If the excrement eater thinks otherwise, he is wrong, just as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life (which Smuts uses as the key witness for the correctness of his account) was wrong to think that his life was meaningless. It wasn’t, because he did a lot of good without realizing it. In the end George does of course realize exactly that and thereby discovers that his life has in fact been meaningful all along, but even if he had not made that discovery (and instead committed suicide as he had planned), his life would still have been meaningful. That is why a mixed account of meaning (such as Wolf’s fitting fulfilment view) is just as wrong as a pure subjectivist account. They are both refuted by the fact that George Bailey was mistaken about the value of his life, which shows that we can be mistaken about it, and therefore that subjective fulfilment is not a reliable indicator of meaningfulness.

A life’s meaningfulness, for Smuts, is the same as that life’s significance. When we are dissatisfied with our lives we are dissatisfied because of its (apparent) insignificance. Its insignificance does not consist in our dissatisfaction with it. To say that a life is insignificant means that it does not produce anything of value. It is, in other words, not good for anyone or anything. It does not matter whether what I do is intrinsically or only instrumentally valuable (i.e., whether it is good in itself or good for other things), the one is as good as the other. Smuts borrows an example from Viktor Frankl to illustrate his point: “imagine an ape that is punctured repeatedly in order to manufacture a life saving serum. The ape cannot hope to understand the significance of its life. There is nothing we can say to make it understand. But its life is indeed meaningful. Hundreds of people are saved as a result.” (551)

Curiously, Smuts wants to see the question whether life is meaningful distinguished from the question whether life is worth living. For him, a life can be meaningful, but at the same time not worth living (for instance because it lacks subjective fulfilment). “Meaning is important, but it is not all that matters.” (552) That unfortunate ape’s life is meaningful, but (most likely) not worth living.

A meaningful life is a life that causes more good than evil. On this view, even somebody who wants to do evil, but is not very good at it, so that due to their incompetence they actually do a lot of good, lives a meaningful life (although perhaps not as meaningful as that of someone who does the same amount of good intentionally, because the moral value of his actions adds to the total amount of goodness produced). Conversely, if somebody has the best intentions, but fails and causes harm, their life is meaningless.

Smuts is aware that his good cause account of meaning in life requires a strong meta-ethical commitment to value realism, but he does not see that as a problem because the alternative would be nihilism (which Smuts understands as the claim that there is nothing that is objectively valuable), and nihilism is simply too absurd to merit a refutation. In his view, it can safely be ignored because there is “no compelling reason to take nihilism seriously.” (559)


It seems to me that we have very good reason to take nihilism seriously and very little reason to take Smuts’s objectivist account of meaning seriously. For one thing, I find it difficult to understand what it means to say that an outcome is “objectively valuable”, or “objectively good”, unless it means a) that it really is good for something or b) that it benefits others in the sense that, somewhere along the line, it is subjectively good for them. The first option is unlikely to be intended here because it lacks a moral dimension. Hitler’s promotion of gas chambers in Nazi Germany was certainly good for something, in that it made it easier to exterminate a great number of people. The gas chambers were good for this, objectively. I am pretty confident that Smuts would not want us to think that Hitler promoted the good, so that we can probably safely exclude a purely instrumental understanding of objective goodness from consideration. The only other option, however, leads us back to subjective fulfilment. It is difficult to see how an action can be objectively good (in a moral sense) that makes nobody’s life (subjectively) any better, ever. Objective good, then, if it means anything, needs to be anchored in subjective good. Curing cancer would then be ‘objectively’ good because doing so increases (other) people’s subjective well-being. It is good because it is good for someone. But here is the problem: if I can do something objectively good by making you happy, then it is hard to see why my being happy is not objectively good too. And if my life becomes meaningful by my doing something that makes you happy, why then should it not become meaningful by my doing something that makes me happy?

For Smuts, who wants meaning to be understood as significance and nothing else, ‘good’ translates to ‘useful’. The good cause account of the meaning of life is a utilitarian account. My life is meaningful if it is useful. Obviously it can be useful in many different ways. The question is why we should identify a life’s meaningfulness with its utility. It seems to me that Smuts is clearly begging the question here. He does not show that meaningful means useful; he simply decrees it. However, this is not how we usually understand the term meaningfulness when we raise the question whether or not a life is meaningful. I can live a very ‘useful’ life and be fully aware of it, and still be plagued by the worry that none of it ‘means’ anything, that ultimately it does not matter, that there is no point. This suggests that we don’t think of meaning purely in terms of usefulness. When I ask whether my life has any meaning, then I am not, or at least not necessarily, asking whether it is useful. It is, however, very unlikely that I will ever ask that question when I am happy with my life, when I am fulfilled. You may ask that question about my happy life, but I will not ask it. If I am really happy with my life, I don’t question its meaning, which strongly suggests that there is, despite what Smuts claims, a connection between subjective well-being and meaningfulness.

Also, even though we can conceptually distinguish between happiness and meaningfulness, in practice we would be hard pressed to find a realistic example of the distinction. There is a reason why we have to resort to extreme examples like the grinning excrement eater to make it appear convincing that there is a difference between someone who is happy or otherwise “subjectively fulfilled” and someone whose life is meaningful. The “grinning excrement eater” is of course repulsive and creepy, especially if we imagine him happy and fulfilled. It is easy to reject such a life as meaningless despite its stipulated happiness. But in real life we are very unlikely to encounter someone who is actually fulfilled by that. Eating shit is not the kind of thing that is apt to fulfil creatures such as us. (It is also rather unhealthy.) That may well be the reason (that and the repulsive nature of the activity described) why we are so reluctant to see such a life as meaningful. A dung beetle on the other hand whose life is indeed “devoted to consuming vast quantities of excrement” may very well have a meaningful (dung beetle) life. Human beings, however, are different from dung beetles. They are unlikely to be fulfilled by the same things. It would also be very unusual for a human to be fulfilled by binge-watching daytime television, which is another stock example often used in support of the anti-fulfilment view of meaning. Yes, such a life strikes us as meaningless, but do we really think, as the example assumes, that somebody who wastes his life away watching some crap on TV all day long can be truly happy and have a sense of deep fulfilment? The happy binge watcher is just as unrealistic as the happy excrement eater. But what about somebody who finds fulfilment in watching the leaves change their colour in autumn and the snow fall in winter? What about somebody who collects smells or sounds (or stamps)? They do not seem to be doing anything useful, but can we confidently say that their life is meaningless? Smuts assures us that we can for the simple reason that meaningfulness is usefulness, but is it?

What Smuts is really telling us is not what makes a life meaningful. Instead, he is trying to convince us to adopt utility as our guiding principle when we consider how to live our lives. He is telling us that what our lives should be and what we in fact want our lives to be is not happy, but useful. This is also why Smuts severs the traditional semantic link between a meaningful life and a life worth living. It is unconvincing to declare that subjective well-being has no bearing on the question whether a life is worth living. By distinguishing the meaningful life from a life worth living, Smuts tries to make his objectivist interpretation of meaning more palatable. I don’t think it works, though. One of the prime examples Smuts uses to illustrate his view of what constitutes an objectively meaningful life (which is not necessarily a life worth living) is Frankl’s ape, tortured in the name of science and progress.[2] Under the circumstances, this ape’s life may actually be the more meaningful the less worth living it is. After all, the less we are concerned with his well-being, the more we can learn from him that might eventually benefit humanity. His is a miserable, but very useful and hence meaningful life. Ironically, Smuts takes credit for providing an account of meaning in life that does not exclude animals from the possibility of living meaningful lives. His account is proudly anti-speciesist. Except it isn’t, not really, not where it counts. Another example he uses is the collie Lassie (of 1950s television fame), who, according to Smuts, had a very meaningful life even if, being an animal, she must have lacked the kind of subjective fulfilment that only persons are capable of (558). I suppose that is because she did a lot of good, always ready to come to the rescue of various hapless humans. At least Lassie did not have to suffer to be of use to us. Of course, this implies that animals that are of no use to us cannot possibly live a meaningful life. Their existence is meaningless. So it seems that by enlisting their services, we do them a huge favour (even if their lives become less worth living as a result). We make their lives count. Seriously? I don’t buy it.

Finally (for now), Smuts’s case studies do not really support his account. Achilles is said to have chosen a meaningful life by joining the battle against the Trojans, but it is difficult to see what good resulted from that decision. Slaughtering lots of innocent people and razing a thriving city to the ground does not strike me as a particularly valuable outcome. Achilles was concerned about his reputation as a great warrior, not as a good person. Perhaps in order for his life to be meaningful in his own eyes he needed to make sure that he would be remembered as a great warrior, but this is very different from what Smuts tells us meaning is all about. So either Achilles’s life was not meaningful after all, or Smuts got it wrong (or both).

Then there is George Bailey, the main protagonist in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Smuts’s key piece of evidence. According to Smuts, George’s life is meaningful, even if he is not aware of it, because he has done a lot of good (like for instance saving his little brother Harry’s life when they were both kids, or as a teenager saving his employer from a fatal error that would have ruined his life). George, however, sees his life as “a failure”. He had so many plans, seeing the world and going to College, which he couldn’t do because his father died, then joining the war and becoming a hero like Harry, which he couldn’t do because he was deaf on one ear (from when he saved Harry), and finally making his dead father’s building and loan association work, which he couldn’t do because of his uncle Billy’s negligence and the evil banker Potter’s malevolence. By showing him how things would be if he had not existed (namely much worse than they are now), the angel Clarence convinces him that George’s life has not been a failure at all. Yet although Smuts is right that George’s realization that he has actually done a lot of good contributes to his revised assessment of his life’s worth, I don’t think this is all there is to it. Rather, what George realizes is that his life has been good in many ways all along, despite his disappointments and the frustrations of some of his ambitions. He realizes that much of what he thought was important in life isn’t really important at all. What is important is community and friendship, being there for others, but also letting others be there for you, caring and being cared for. “No man is a failure who has friends”, the angel Clarence reminds George. It is the film’s central message. George has learned to appreciate life, and what is more, his life, as a shared gift. It is indeed a meaningful life, but it is not meaningful because of what he has done, or not merely because of what he has done. He used to be unhappy with his achievements and role in life. He had imagined it to be different, wanted it to be different. Now he knows that what he has got is in fact a wonderful life, and it is meaningful not because of this life’s positive utility, but for one thing because of all the good that surrounds him and that he partakes in, and for another because he is now, finally, fully aware of it.

[1] “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 51/4 (2013): 536-562.
[2] William James voiced a similar idea in “Is Life Worth Living?”: “Consider a poor dog whom they are vivisecting in a laboratory. He lies strapped on a board and shrieking at his executioners, and to his own dark consciousness is literally in a sort of hell. He cannot see a single redeeming ray in the whole business; and yet all these diabolical-seeming events are usually controlled by human intentions with which, if his poor benighted mind could only be made to catch a glimpse of them, all that is heroic in him would religiously acquiesce. Healing truth, relief to future sufferings of beast and man are to be bought by them. It is genuinely a process of redemption. Lying on his back on the board there he is performing a function incalculably higher than any prosperous canine life admits of; and yet, of the whole performance, this function is the one portion that must remain absolutely beyond his ken.”

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