Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Can a Never-Ending Defeat Be Meaningful?

Thaddeus Metz, in a paper on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness (Metz, Happiness and Meaningfulness), argues that “performing an action that is likely to help others has meaning, but the action would have even more meaning if it actually ended up benefiting them”. It is easy to see that being engaged in trying to help other people doesn’t necessarily make us happier (because it often requires personal sacrifices), but it is quite possible that it makes our lives more meaningful. But is it correct to say that meaning increases if we are successful in our attempts to help others? Admittedly this sounds plausible enough.

However, consider the following dialogue in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague: when his friend Tarrou asks Dr. Rieux, who has been working tirelessly, though largely unsuccessfully, trying to help those who have come down with the plague, why he is showing such devotion to his task, he replies that he wants to defend people as best he can. When Tarrou asks him against whom or what he wants to defend them, he replies that he doesn’t really know. It is just that he “never managed to get used to seeing people die”. What he objects to, instinctively, and what he struggles against, is the order of the world, which “is shaped by death”. But of course, if that is what he is up against, he simply cannot accomplish his goal. The plague seems incurable. People die despite his best efforts to help them. Yet even if he managed to find a cure against the plague and to actually save people, then all he would have achieved is a postponement of death, which will catch up with them eventually. When Tarrou points this out to him, saying that his “victories will never be lasting”, he agrees: his whole life as a physician is in fact a “never-ending defeat”, symbolized by the incurability of the plague. Yet despite being aware of this, Rieux insists that this “is no reason for giving up the struggle”.

So here’s the situation, which, for Camus, marks the absurdity of life: Rieux cannot help anyone, not permanently, and he knows it. What he does thus appears utterly futile. Yet the struggle, despite its futility, still seems important. Perhaps more important than what that struggle achieves or not achieves. But how can that be? How can it be important to put up a fight if we’ve got absolutely no chance of winning it? And is it conceivable that, paradoxically, the fight we fight in the full knowledge that we cannot win it actually gives more meaning to our life than a fight that we still have some hope of winning someday?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Is Meaningfulness Desirable?

I’m embarking on a new project on (the connection between) death and meaning, prompted by a controversy central to the human enhancement debate, namely whether death (or more precisely mortality) undercuts meaning (as Max More and others have proclaimed) or whether it is, on the contrary, a condition of meaning, so that without death (i.e. the necessity to die) it would be impossible to lead a meaningful life (as for instance Leon Kass has argued). Both sides in this debate quite naturally assume that meaningfulness is a desirable quality. What they disagree about is merely what is needed for there to be meaning in one’s life. But is the fundamental assumption that they have in common really convincing, namely that a life that “means” something is better (more worth living) than a life that means nothing?

David Bellos, in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Albert Camus’s The Plague (and other writings), chides Camus for his alleged belief that an absurd world, that is one that lacks a God and in which, consequently, nothing has any meaning (beyond itself), is somehow deficient. If everything we did had “meaning”, he argues, life would be pretty much unbearable: “Things would surely be far worse if the opposite were the case. If the world were not at all absurd, in Camus’s sense, then things in general and acts in particular would be endowed irrevocably with ‘meaning’. And that would make the world a very strange and inhuman place indeed. Every cup of tea, broken shoelace, premature death, and outbreak of slaughter would be ‘meaningful’, that is to say fully explicable in terms of a higher order, and thus necessary. Under such conditions, human life, which characteristically involves imponderable choices, rough guesses, effort, and surprise, would surely seem quite futile, since no matter what a person did, it would fit in with a higher scheme by the very fact of having been done. A necessary world thus seems to many readers (myself included) as rather more absurd than one in which meanings are not given.”

This sounds pretty convincing. However, the whole argument rests on a conception of meaningfulness that equates meaning with complete explicability and necessity, and I’m not sure that we have to understand (objective?) meaningfulness in those terms. Is a meaningful life necessarily one in which there is an explanation, a good reason, for everything that happens and everything we do? Is there no scope in a meaningful life for chance and choice? Can our lives only be meaningful if the universe is deterministic, if human freedom is an illusion? If that were the case, then it would indeed be strange if we lamented the lack of meaning. However, Bellos himself seems to acknowledge the possibility of understanding meaning in a different, non-deterministic way when he argues that human life would appear “rather more absurd” and would “surely seem quite futile” if everything we did “fit in with a higher scheme”. A life that is not absurd and not futile - that is more or less what we mean by a meaningful life. So the question is what makes a life not futile, not absurd. I guess that most people would agree that we at least have to be able to make our own choices, which also means that there must be the possibility of failure, of not doing the right thing. If things turned out to be fine no matter what we did, then there doesn’t seem to be much point in doing it in the first place. That doesn’t mean that the freedom to make one’s own choices is in itself sufficient to make our lives meaningful. Perhaps there is something else required, but that something doesn’t have to be a divine plan or any other kind of “higher scheme”. I also don’t see why it should be the case that a life can only be meaningful if everything matters in it, every cup of tea we drink, every shoelace that breaks. Why can there not be things in our lives that do not matter much or do not matter at all, pockets of indifference as it were, while others matter a great deal (“outbreaks of slaughter” for instance and how we react to them)?