In a very long and rich paper on “Meaningfulness and Time”, published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84/2 (2012): 345-377, Antti Kauppinen defends what he calls the “Teleological View of meaningfulness”. Meaningfulness is here understood as one of the two properties that makes a life good for the one who leads it, the other one being happiness (or pleasure). Both together constitute human well-being. Since happiness (pleasure) and meaningfulness are distinct properties, a life can be happy, but meaningless, and also unhappy, but meaningful. (N.B.: Although Kauppinen is far from alone in distinguishing meaningfulness from happiness, there is something odd about treating them as separate. People are, after all, not likely to be happy and at the same time regard their life as meaningless. If they do regard their life as meaningless, feeling that there is no real point to what they are doing, this usually means that they are not happy. The apparent pointlessness of their lives is what makes them unhappy, or a feeling of meaninglessness is the specific form their unhappiness assumes. It seems that in order to allow for the possibility of someone living a happy, but meaningless life, and a meaningful, but unhappy life, we need to assume that meaningfulness is an objective property of one’s life in the sense that you don’t have to feel your life to be meaningless or meaningful for it to be meaningless or meaningful, respectively, which is also strange, because it privileges the third-person perspective over the first-person perspective: I judge your life to be meaningless, even though you are not aware of it.)
While happiness, for Kauppinen, is the final good for passive subjects of experience, meaningfulness is the final good for active agents (372). Since we are both, experiencers and agents, the best life for us is one that contains (a maximum of) both, happiness and meaning. (N.B.: I think this is an important point: that the passive or experiential side of our being makes for one sort of good, while the active or agential side makes for another. However, I am wondering how non-human animals would fit in here. Are animals not also agents? And if they are, do their lives have to be meaningful, too, to be truly good? And if an animal’s life cannot be meaningful, nor meaningless, then perhaps it is not agency as such that generates the orientation towards meaning as a final good, but rather the ability to look back and plan ahead, to perceive one’s life as being stretched out in time, surpassing the needs and rewards of the present moment. Meaningfulness would then not be the final good for agents, but the final good for recollectors.)
Kauppinen’s aim is twofold. He wants to a) convince the reader that meaningfulness is an important dimension of (human) well-being and b) determine what meaningfulness actually consists in. His method is to present the reader with contrasting cases of lives lived (some real, some fictional) and then appeal to our intuitions regarding which of those lives we think is better, all things considered. The Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara’s life for instance may have been happier (and longer) if he had not fought so passionately against poverty and social injustice in South America, but it almost certainly would have been (or struck us as) less meaningful, and maybe for that very reason less good overall (and hence less worth choosing).
In order to be meaningful, Kauppinen suggests, a life must have a certain narrative shape. Whether a moment or period in my life is meaningful or not depends not only on what is happening during that period, but also on what happened before and what will happen later. Meaningfulness unfolds gradually over time and is thus, if I understand Kauppinen correctly, ultimately a property of a life considered as a whole. In other words, my life now is, properly speaking, neither meaningful nor meaningless. My life now may well contribute to the overall meaning of my life (which can be more or less meaningful), but not because it is in itself meaningful, but because it helps create the narrative shape that makes (or perhaps better: will have made) my life as a whole meaningful. Meaning is not additive, which means that a life’s (degree of) meaningfulness cannot be determined by adding up all the meaningful bits or periods in it (and possibly subtracting all meaningless or “anti-meaningful” bits, as Campbell and Nyholm have suggested).
So what exactly makes a life meaningful? Kauppinen lists a series of key features, which, when present in somebody’s life, makes it appropriate for them to feel a certain pride and joy, and appropriate for us to admire and feel inspired by them. (N.B.: Kauppinen suggests that we understand meaningfulness primarily in terms of the appropriateness of these feelings: the prouder the agent should feel about their life and the more admiration we should feel for them, the more meaningful their life has been. Yet since their appropriateness depends entirely on the presence of those alleged key features of a meaningful life, I don’t quite see why we should not focus directly on them. The suggested “fitting attitude analysis” seems an unnecessary detour.) Key features of a meaningful life are: that the goals pursued are objectively valuable, that pursuing those goals challenges the agent’s abilities, that nobody else can replace the agent in their pursuit, that the goals are pursued with some degree of success, that success is lasting rather than fleeting, and, perhaps most importantly, that the agent’s life “forms a coherent whole”, meaning that “past efforts increase the success of future goal-setting, goal-seeking, and goal-reaching” (346). Because it is so much goal-focussed, Kauppinen calls this particular conception of meaningfulness teleological. The view is summed up in the formula “life is ideally meaningful when challenging efforts lead to lasting successes.” (346) If good things happen to us, this is good, but it is even better (namely in terms of meaningfulness) if we had to work hard to make them happen, and the harder we had to work to get them, the better (more meaningful) our lives are. Furthermore, to get what we want is good, but it is even better if what we want is good (i.e. worthy of being wanted), and the better what we want is, the better our lives are. It is even better still if what we get will last, and the longer it lasts the better our lives are.
Meaningfulness, for Kauppinen comes in degrees. Our lives are always more or less meaningful. When we call a life simply meaningful (or meaningless), then what we actually mean is that it is more meaningful (or less meaningful) than the average life, just as when we call someone “tall” what we actually mean is that they are taller than a contextually determined standard of comparison, e.g., tall for a five-year old boy, but not tall for a five-year old elephant. (N.B.: It seems to me, though, that the predicate “tall” adheres to a different logic than the predicate “meaningful”: while it is impossible that everyone is tall, it does not seem impossible for every life to be meaningful, not even maximally meaningful.)
Now, as others have noticed before, the sequence of events matters for how good we think a life is. A life that starts out badly, but then gets better (happier), is considered better (more worth having) than a life which starts out very well, but then eventually goes downhill. All other things being equal, we would rather have a happy ending than a happy beginning. The hedonic shape of life matters. However, Kauppinen notes, there is more to the narrative shape of life than just the sequence of events. Thus an upward trajectory in life seems more valuable when it is the result of hard work than if it results from sheer luck. Even a life eventually ending in failure can be better than a life that ends in bliss, if what precedes the failure is a sustained effort to achieve something really good and important, and the bliss, in contrast, comes unearned and unconnected to the achievement of objectively valuable goals. Noble failure makes for a more meaningful life than sheer luck. (N.B.: But does it really? How reliable are our intuitions here? Is it really better for me to fail in my pursuit of the truly good than to succeed in my pursuit of minor or false goods such as wealth or fame? Good how exactly? Good in the sense of making my life more meaningful, but what exactly does that mean? When we call a life “more meaningful”, are we then really saying more than Mill did when he called certain pleasures “higher”?)
Kauppinen holds that meaningfulness is an objective quality of lives: “Just as a food can be unhealthy for a person even if she thinks it is healthy, a life can be meaningless for someone even if she thinks it is meaningful.” (356) However, as far as I can see he does not attempt to provide an argument for this claim. What is important for him is that we understand meaning in terms of narrative shape. “A meaningless life is one that is not going anywhere or moving forward.” (357) Every life has a narrative structure, a plot, he argues (drawing on Aristotle’s Poetics as a major inspiration), thereby suggesting that the better the plot is, the better our lives are. (N.B.: The analogy is initially attractive, but ultimately misleading. A good plot does not always make for a good life. The story of Oedipus as related by Sophocles has a very convincing narrative structure, a good plot, and but we would hardly want to say that Oedipus’s life must therefore have been a good one. In judging the quality of a life by its narrative qualities we adopt an aesthetic perspective, which may not be appropriate at all. It is once again a third-person perspective, a look at a life from the outside, which ignores what it is actually like to live that life. That a life “is not going anywhere or moving forward” sounds suspiciously like the complaint of a bored spectator who needs some juicy action, a rape or a murder perhaps, to sustain their interest. Of course that is not what Kauppinen has in mind. What he wants a life to have is not really, as he suggests, a good plot, but in fact an edifying one, which is not the same thing at all.)
A good (i.e. meaningful) life plot, for Kauppinen, requires, above anything else, coherence. Coherence is meant to integrate all the other key features of a meaningful life mentioned above: “A life is the more Coherent the more that later activities are positively informed by earlier activities with respect to goal-setting (the agent’s goals are more valuable than they would otherwise be), goal-seeking (the agent exercises her capacities more effectively and/or is more irreplaceable), and/or goal-reaching (the agent is more successful).” (368) A good, meaningful life is not so much one in which every single ‘chapter’ is better than the last, but one whose coherence increases over time. In order for a life to be meaningful, its chapters need to “build on each other” (which seems to mean that they sustain and reinforce an upward trajectory). Apparently, however, our life story can have chapters added to it even after our death, which may then affect the extent to which our lives have been meaningful. “Since narrative significance of an event can change even after one’s death, the meaningfulness of a life may be influenced posthumously. What if Martin Luther King’s campaigns eventually turn out to have led to catastrophic consequences for African-Americans? Shall we think of his life as having been as meaningful, or to have been as good for him as we now do?” (374, footnote) Perhaps not. It is a bit odd, though, to think that we can never be sure how good or meaningful a life has really been, not even when it is over and we know everything there is to know about it. Nobody can foresee the long-term consequences of their actions. And there is no temporal limit to the effects of our actions. Also, how can something that happens in, say, a thousand years, long after I died, even if it results in part from my actions now, make my life any better or worse than it is now? Doesn’t that require some kind of backward causation?