An excellent summary of Susan Wolf’s well-known account of meaningfulness can be found in her book Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press 2010). The book also includes insightful commentaries by John Koethe, Robert M. Adams, Nomy Arpaly, and Jonathan Haidt.
For Wolf the concept of meaningfulness is important because it allows her to define a class of actions that is neither configured by our own (selfish) interests and well-being, nor by the (impartial) demands of morality. Not everything we don’t do for others we do for ourselves; not everything we don’t do because it is good for others we do because it is good for us. Some things we do neither for our own happiness nor out of duty, but out of love. Those are the things that give meaning to our life. “Writing philosophy, practicing the cello, keeping one’s garden free of weeds, may demand more of one’s time and attention than would be optimal from the point of view of one’s own well-being. Yet in these cases, even more than in the cases involving beloved human beings, it is obvious that no impersonal perspective requires us to act.” (4) Instead, what drives one to do those things is “a perceived or imagined value that lies outside of oneself.” (5) (N.B.: I am assuming that this value can also be the well-being of others. If we understand moral actions as actions that aim at the preservation or improvement of other people’s well-being rather than our own, then presumably this can be as important for me as doing philosophy or practicing the cello, in which case it would be the pursuit of other people’s well-being which gives meaning to my life. Think of the life of Mother Teresa, for instance, or that of Albert Schweitzer. We probably would not want to say that although they lived moral lives, they did not live meaningful ones. Rather, their lives were meaningful precisely because they were moral, i.e., dedicated to the well-being of others. Only if we understand morality as impartiality and moral actions as being motivated by duty and not by love (not even by one’s love for duty) is there a potential conflict between morality and meaningfulness.)
Without love (for something that lies outside of ourselves), or more precisely the active engagement with something that we love, or that we love engaging with, our lives lack meaning. However, Wolf points out, not everything we do for love makes our life meaningful. There are some things we do for love that we shouldn’t really be doing at all. In those cases our love is misplaced. We love something that we shouldn’t love, see value in something that in fact doesn’t have any value, or at any rate not as much value as we think it has. Meaningful is our loving engagement only if what we engage with deserves the love and attention that we bestow on it. Meaning “arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way.” (8) (N.B.: It is not quite clear to me what Wolf means by “object” here. If I love doing philosophy, is the object that I love and that is supposed to be worthy of my love ‘philosophy’ or my doing philosophy? And if I love playing the cello, is the object of my love then the cello or my playing the cello? It would seem odd to think of ‘philosophy’ or ‘the cello’ as the object of my love. Surely it is my doing those things and perhaps what hopefully results from doing them – clarity of thought, beautiful music – that I value and that is the object of my love. But is that really something that can adequately be described as lying “outside of ourselves”?)
Meaning in life is thus neither purely subjective, nor purely objective. In order for there to be meaning in our lives, the subjective (love, appreciation, and the peculiar fulfilment that results from our active engagement with what we love) and the objective (that what we love is actually worthy of being loved) need to come together. Meaning, Wolf says, “arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” (9) Fulfilment, in Wolf’s terminology, is, although subjective, more than just pleasure. It is the specific kind of pleasure (or positive feeling) that arises from an engagement with what is taken to be objectively good. Wolf insists, however, that subjective fulfilment is not enough. If Sisyphus were not frustrated, but on the contrary completely fulfilled by his never-ending task of rolling a rock up a hill, if he thought that rolling a rock up a hill is a really good thing to do, a worthy end, then this would not suddenly make his life meaningful. What he is doing would still be pointless, simply because perpetually rolling a rock up a hill for no good reason is not an objectively worthy end. (N.B.: Wolf references Camus to support her claim that Sisyphus “has been commonly treated as a paradigm of a meaningless existence” (17). However, Camus wants us to regard Sisyphus as happy, suggesting that our human existence, which resembles that of Sisyphus in its apparent pointlessness, is meaningful after all. In Camus’ interpretation of the myth, Sisyphus is someone who does not give up and does not give in, someone who carries on despite the apparent hopelessness of his endeavour. He thus becomes, paradoxically, a paradigm of a meaningful existence.)
Fulfilment, according to Wolf, only makes our lives meaningful if it is a fitting fulfilment. The problem is, of course, that it is far from easy to say exactly which activities or ‘objects’ merit our love and our being fulfilled by them, and which do not. Wolf suggests that the things that we are fittingly fulfilled by are things that offer us an opportunity to develop our powers, realize our potential, or achieve excellence (36-37), but does not want to rule out that there may be others that do not meet those criteria and with which to engage is still fittingly fulfilling. What is clear, though, is that it is not sufficient for an object to give us pleasure. An activity can be very pleasurable to me, even very interesting, but may still be meaningless if what pleases or interests me is not of the kind that merits my attention. It would only merit my attention if its value exceeded the value that it has as an object of my pleasure or interest, or if its value had a different source than my pleasure or interest. We need to connect with and be concerned about a value that exists “outside of ourselves”, so that it can, in principle, also be accessed and appreciated by others. “A meaningful life is one that would not be considered pointless or gratuitous, even from an impartial perspective.” (42) (N.B.: The trouble is, however, that there is not really an impartial perspective. It may seem to me that your life is pointless, but the fact that my perspective on your life is not your perspective, i.e., not the perspective of the one who lives it, does not make my perspective impartial. And even if everybody else thought your life was meaningless, then this assessment would still not be impartial. It would simply be not your assessment, but somebody else’s.)
Despite acknowledging that it “is far from clear what a reasonably complete and defensible nonsubjective account (of value) will look like” (47), Wolf insists that we need to assume that certain things we do are objectively valuable to account for the fact that some lives do not strike us as meaningful even though they are lived in active engagement with an object of love (for instance those of people who find subjective fulfilment in caring for a goldfish). If our intuitions are to be trusted, then it seems that it is not sufficient to find something we love and then just do it. We also need to find the right, objectively worthy thing. (N.B.: I suppose that Wolf’s insistence on the objectivity of values has something to do with her primary purpose, which is not so much to understand what constitutes a meaningful life, but to convince us that “there are things worth doing that do not contribute maximally to either happiness or morality” (49). I’m not quite sure whether that means that we should feel free to do those things even if that prevents us, or at least takes time away, from doing something more morally commendable – such as aiding the poor – or whether it is being suggested that we are in fact justified in violating moral norms if that is necessary to do what we love. Most likely it means that moral concerns do not automatically trump concerns relating to what is needed for us to live a meaningful life. Sometimes we are justified in choosing to do what we love rather than what morality demands from us.)
In contrast with, for instance, Kauppinen, Wolf does not commit to the view that meaningfulness is an aspect of well-being, or in other words that a meaningful life is better for the one who lives it than a meaningless life. She suggests that instead of asking whether life has been good for a certain person, we should be asking whether it has been admirable or something they could justly have been proud of. (But why is it important to live a life that we can be proud of and that others can admire if that does not make our lives any better?) Nor does she think, as Campbell and Nyholm seem to do, that the more meaningful a life is, the better it is. “Is the more meaningful life better for oneself than the one that is easier, safer, more pleasant? There may be no answer to this question. Nor is it obvious that meaning is something it makes sense to want to maximize in one’s life, even if it does not compete with other self-interested goods. (52)
Robert M. Adams casts doubt on Wolf’s claim that a meaningful life requires subjective fulfilment, citing the case of Claus von Stauffenberg who failed in his attempt to assassinate Hitler. His life, Adams, thinks was meaningful even though it is extremely unlikely that, when he faced the executioner, he felt good about it. Wolf responds with an attempt to clarify what she means by ‘fulfilment’, which is different from feeling good about something. It is, rather, the (not exactly joyful, but still positive) feeling that even though I may have failed, it was still the right thing to do. Something akin to pride.
Jonathan Haidt questions whether Wolf needs an account of objective value, on the grounds that the examples given of lives that are devoted to certain activities that are perceived as worth doing, but that are still meaningless, are unrealistic. In actual life, nobody would seriously find fulfilment in things like lawnmower racing or flagpole sitting, not because these things are not objectively valuable, but because they are not the kind of things that are likely to fulfil anyone. “Lawn mower racing and flagpole sitting do not lend themselves to vital engagement. People do such things for fun, and to get into record books. They might even find friendship along the way. But how many of them found flow in these activities as adolescents, devoured all the books they could find on the history of lawn mower and flagpoles, lovingly assembled collections of lawn mowers and flagpoles, and chose colleges and jobs so as to ensure that they would always be able to race mowers or sit on poles in the company of other mower racers and pole sitters?” (96-97) Wolf’s response: “There is always some chance that what one thinks is valuable will turn out not to be, that the objects of one’s subjective attraction will turn out not to be objectively attractive. One might be worshipping a false god, loving a scoundrel, writing terrible poetry.” (125)
Although I find it difficult to get my head around the notion of “objective value” and am struggling to understand what it means to say that something we do is “objectively valuable”, I must admit that Wolf has a point here. We may perhaps doubt that there are right gods or that there is anyone who deserves to be loved, but it is hard to doubt that there is such a thing as bad poetry. This does not seem to be just a matter of taste. Some art really is (objectively) bad. But those who produce it may well be unaware of this. They may think of themselves as great artists, while for us it is pretty obvious that they are mistaken. But does that also mean that their engagement, their love, is also worthless? Does it mean, as Wolf suggests, that the life of someone who loves writing poetry more than anything else, but does it badly, is meaningless? I’m not so sure.