Saturday, 25 March 2017

Richard Taylor on Time, Creativity, and Life's Meaning

Sometimes we change our view of things. Perhaps we had doubts all along, or something happened that made us reconsider, or we have simply thought some more about the issue, so that eventually we reach a different conclusion. Philosophers are no exception. They change their views, too, sometimes dramatically. One example is Richard Taylor, who, in his 1970 paper “The Meaning of Life”[1] argued that all that is required for a meaningful life (and “the nearest we may hope to get to heaven”) is that there is something in it that we pursue energetically, an “inner compulsion” to do whatever it is we do. If this inner compulsion is what makes life meaningful, then it is conceivable that even the endlessly repetitive life of a blind worm in a cave and the endlessly repetitive life of a Sisyphus who desires nothing more than rolling rocks up hills are meaningful. However, in a second paper on the topic, “Time and Life’s Meaning”, published 17 years later,[2] Taylor renounces the claims he made previously and now argues that even the life of a happy, passionately rock-rolling Sisyphus is far from meaningful because it lacks one crucial ingredient: creativity.

Taylor’s new argument starts with a reflection on the reality of time. Contrary to the countless philosophers, from Plato to McTaggart, who have claimed that time cannot possibly be real, Taylor very sensibly insists that it feels far too real to be an illusion. On the other hand, however, the reality of time is very much dependent on us. If there were no creatures like us, Taylor suggests, time would not be (fully) real. Imagine a world entirely devoid of life. Such a world would have no “history or meaning” (297). Time may exist in some abstract way, but it is completely irrelevant because it “makes no difference” what happens when. In that sense, time, in such a world, is not real yet. Now add living beings to this world (but still holding back on rational beings). According to Taylor, time has now been introduced to the world, but still only in a very rudimentary sense. Importantly, a world containing living but not rational beings would still be a world without history because nothing genuinely new ever happens in it. “The sun that rises one day illuminates nothing that was not there the day before, or a thousand or million days before. It is simply the same world, age after age. (…) Every sparrow is just like every other, does exactly the same things in the same way without innovation, then to be imitated by every sparrow to follow. The robin or squirrel you see today does nothing different from those you saw as a child, and could be interchanged with them without discernible difference.” (298)[3] Animals live their lives in “unchanging cycles”, “to be repeated over and over, forever.”

Clearly, Taylor is still concerned with repetition and futility, the not-getting-anywhere that in his previous paper he ended up defending as posing no obstacle to a meaningful life. Not so anymore. According to the new Taylor, the repetitive world, the world that goes nowhere, is not only a world without history, but also, precisely for this reason, a world without meaning. This is because in a world without history “nothing is ever created.” (299) As a perfect illustration of such a meaningless world, Taylor once again invokes the myth of Sisyphus. Existence is here “reduced to utter meaninglessness”. And in stark contrast to his earlier position, Taylor now claims that what Sisyphus is doing would still be meaningless “even if we imagined Sisyphus to rejoice in it – if we imagined, for example, that he had a compulsive and insatiable desire to roll stones, and considered himself blessed to be able to do this forever.” (299)

Only if we imagine Sisyphus actually creating something (out of all the rocks he rolls up that hill), and doing so consciously and purposefully, something “beautiful and lasting”, something “important” (for instance a “great temple”), only then could we see his life as meaningful because his labour would “no longer be wasted and pointless.” (299) Fully meaningful, however, it would only be if Sisyphus did not have to do what he is doing, but had freely chosen to do it. Whatever he is creating “must be something of his own, the product of his own creative mind, of his own conception, something which, but for his own creative thought and imagination, would never have existed at all.”[4] (300) This is a kind of creative activity that cannot be found in nature: it requires rational beings “who can think, imagine, plan, and execute things of worth”. Everything that may strike us as an example of immense creativity in the non-human world, like “the complex beauty of the spider’s web” or “the ingenious construction of the honeycomb”, is in fact just another example of “endless repetitions”, a “capacity of fabrication”, which discloses “not the least hint of creative power” (301). Genuine creativity brings forth things that are genuinely new. Only humans have that kind of creativity, though not everyone has it in the same degree. It can also be exercised in various different areas of life, not only in art, but also in, e.g., chess-playing, gardening, or woodworking, and even in the “raising of a beautiful family” (302). However, Taylor admits that “creative power is no common possession” (not to speak of creative genius, which is very rare). In fact, the “work of the vast majority of persons does not deviate much from what others have already done and from what can be found everywhere.” (302) Taylor blames this on a certain widespread unwillingness to actually use one’s creative powers. Most people simply don’t care enough about being the creators that they could be. Or they are afraid of standing out. It is in fact often religion that discourages us from using our creative powers, despite the fact that God is conceived as the creator (so that developing our creativity is actually tantamount to developing our divine potential). Creative power has an “indescribable worth”, which is why it gives human existence its significance and meaning: “That a world should exist is not finally important, nor does it mean much, by itself, that people should inhabit it. But that some of these should, in varying degrees, be capable of creating worlds of their own and history – thereby creating time in its historical sense – is what gives our lives whatever meaning they have.” (303)


Taylor argues that without us, or without rational beings, time would not be (fully) real because there would not be any history. I can go along with this, but only because I associate “history” with memory. Things (people, countries, technologies) have a history to the extent that we remember the changes that those things have undergone, thus connecting the past to the present. Memory makes history. Taylor, however, does not even mention memory. Instead, he focuses on the notion of the “new”. A world without history is a world in which nothing new happens. Such a world is declared to be meaningless not because the past is not remembered, but because the past is supposed to be pretty much (that is, in all relevant respects) identical to the present, as the future will be identical to the present. The sun illuminates always the same spectacle. It’s the same world over and over again. But is it really? I guess the answer depends on what we choose to mean by “new”. It seems obvious to me that in many ways there is undeniably newness even in a world without life. Continents form and fall apart, seas dry out, flat surfaces fold into mountains. And there are even more changes, more new things happening, in a world populated by living, though not rational beings. If the sun had eyes to see what is going on here on Earth, what it would see today would be very different from what it would have seen 70 million years ago when the dinosaurs still roamed about. Species come and go; old ones disappear, new ones enter the stage. And those new species could not have been predicted. None of those changes could have. So in what sense exactly is all that has happened in the world since its creation before the arrival of human beings devoid of newness? Perhaps in the sense that even though this particular kind of animal never existed before, animals have, and this one is just more of the same? But couldn’t we say the same about human productions, even highly artistic and original ones? Sure, a new nocturne of Chopin’s (one of Taylor’s examples of true newness) is different from the previous ones, but it would still be a nocturne, and still be a musical composition. And even though Chopin might be different from other composers, he is still a composer who basically does what other composers also do, namely compose stuff. How do we distinguish the genuinely or relevantly new from the ordinary and not really new? I for one am struggling to clearly understand the difference.

Neither am I convinced by the claim that every sparrow is the same as every other, doing exactly what all other sparrows do and have done since the beginning of time (or the beginning of sparrows). To a casual observer this may indeed appear to be the case, but I’m pretty sure that if you looked more closely you would find that even sparrows are individuals and do not generally behave exactly like any other sparrow. (And for each one of them, what they do is very new to them. As if it were in fact the first time that it’s being done. That’s actually the advantage of having no history: an abundance of newness.) Of course, they all do what sparrows do. They live a sparrow’s life, and the general features of that life are fixed. But the same is true for us. We are alike in many ways, and behave alike in many ways. Everything we do is confined by the human life form. We do what humans do and never go beyond that.

In “The Meaning of Life”, Taylor radically democratized the meaning of life. He was willing to grant meaning to every sentient being that took a lively interest in something, and be it only eating and reproducing. Perhaps that took things a bit too far. In “Time and Life’s Meaning”, however, Taylor goes too far again by claiming more or less the exact opposite of what he claimed before. He now basically declares that a truly or fully meaningful life can only be had by the creative geniuses of this world, so in other words by very few. In order to live a meaningful life we need to find something that only we can do. We need to be truly special. Do we really, though, I wonder. Do we have to do something that nobody else has done before and nobody could do the way we do it? Why? Why must a meaningful existence manifest itself as the exceptional rather than the ordinary? Why do I have to be different from others for my life to have meaning? I suspect the answer has something to do with a notion of irreplaceability. If we are not different, if we do not bring something into the world that nobody else could bring into it, then nothing really depends on us being here. With or without us, the world continues unchanged. But what is wrong with that?

[1] Cf. my summary of, and commentary on, Taylor’s “The Meaning of Life”:
[2] Richard Taylor, “Time and Life’s Meaning”, The Review of Metaphysics 40/4 (1987): 675-686. Reprinted in: Exploring the Meaning of Life. An Anthology and Guide, ed. Joshua W. Seachris, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2013, 296-303. I am using and citing the reprinted version.
[3] I’m pretty sure Taylor has this idea from Schopenhauer, whom he, as the editor of The Will to Live: Selected Writings of Arthur Schopenhauer (1967), knew well enough. Schopenhauer claims that the cat I now see sitting on the fence is literally the same cat that was basking in the sun a hundred years ago. But that is of course because Schopenhauer did not believe in the reality of time. As an objective manifestation of the Will, the species cat exists, but the individual cat does not because it is just the way the species appears through the lens of time.
[4] Such a thoroughly re-imagined Sisyphus would of course no longer be a Sisyphus, except in name.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Guy Kahane on why and when it matters to believe that nothing matters

Guy Kahane recently (2016) published a paper called “If Nothing Matters”,[1] which attempts to settle the question whether it matters whether or not anything matters. Kahane’s answer: it doesn’t matter if there is anything that matters, but what does matter is whether or not we believe that something matters.

The paper starts with a brief description of Richard Hare’s argument in “’Nothing Matters’”, which I have discussed in a previous post. To recall, Hare argued that things only matter if they matter to someone, so that as long as something matters to you, you cannot truthfully say that nothing matters. To do so would be a contradiction. Since for most of us most of the time something matters, it is generally not true that nothing matters. Though I’m not usually a fan of Hare’s, I find this argument rather elegant and quite persuasive in its simplicity. Kahane, however, rejects it offhand - curiously without making any serious attempt to actually refute it. Apparently he thinks that Hare’s argument is so obviously misguided that it doesn’t really need a rebuttal. Hare got it wrong, he simply declares, because “there really are things, like suffering, that objectively matter”. (p. 2) This is, then, what people mean when they say that nothing matters: that nothing matters objectively. Things may still matter subjectively (i.e., we find something worth doing) but if they don’t matter objectively (i.e., it really is worth doing), then they don’t really matter at all. That nothing matters objectively Kahane takes to mean that the universe is “devoid of value” and that, accordingly, even the grandest achievements are actually worthless (p. 1). The view that nothing matters can therefore be understood as a form of evaluative nihilism (i.e., the view that nothing is worth anything).

Kahane contends that this nihilist view is quite common among today’s metaethicists (which supposedly was not the case in the 1950s when Hare wrote his paper). Unlike Hare’s Swiss student who clearly believed that whether or not things matter is a matter of great consequence, today’s nihilist metaethicists do not seem to care very much one way or another. They conclude that nothing matters, but are quite happy to carry on as before and to expect everyone else to do the same. They appear to think that it doesn’t matter whether or not things matter. The lack of objective value in the universe does not seem to bother them, let alone plunge them into despair (as it seems to have happened with Hare’s student). That is because they do not see any reason for it. Now, given their commitment to evaluative nihilism, this actually seems quite consistent. After all, if nothing matters, then this – the fact that nothing matters - doesn’t matter either. Or in other words: it cannot possibly be bad that nothing is really good or bad. Kahane agrees with this: if we “take evaluative nihilism seriously enough, then anxiety about it makes little sense.” (p. 5). Generally speaking, then, nothing follows from evaluative nihilism. What matters to us will continue to matter to us, whether or not it objectively matters. Perhaps, if nihilism is true, we have no good reason to pursue whatever it is that we are pursuing in life, but the point is that we have no good reason not to pursue it either. Things are just the same as ever. Nihilism has, as Kahane says, “no normative implications. It cannot make the world bad or worse, or give anyone reasons to do or feel anything – or, for that matter, not to do or feel something. (…) The truth of nihilism, the total absence of all value, makes no normative difference.” (8)

However, what might make a difference, according to Kahane, is whether or not we believe in nihilism. This is not because believing in nihilism would logically commit us to stop valuing things. As we have seen, it does no such thing. It may, however, still have some causal impact on our attitudes. “What matters is how a person’s psychology would respond to a belief in nihilism.” (p. 9-10) So how would it respond? Kahane thinks it is very likely that belief in the truth of nihilism will result in the loss of our substantive evaluative beliefs. In other words, if I truly believe that nothing really matters, then I will also believe that this (whatever ‘this’ is) does not really matter. To hold that even though nothing matters such and such does in fact matter is as inconsistent as not believing in witches and at the same time insisting that so-and-so is a witch. Consequently, if we believe that nothing matters, we will most likely also believe that, for instance, suffering does not matter, i.e. that it is not really bad (even though it may continue to appear bad to me). But usually our subjective concerns are not independent of our evaluative beliefs. If I think that such and such is really bad, then I am likely to be concerned about it. Conversely, if I don’t think that such and such is really bad, then I am much less likely to be concerned about it. Accordingly, if I don’t think that suffering is really bad (that it matters whether or not people suffer), then I am less likely to be concerned about people’s suffering. We will stop caring, or not care that much anymore. (Note that this effect would ensue even if nihilism was false. This is very important for Kahane’s argument: it is the belief in nihilism that causes our subjective concerns to change and diminish.) Admittedly, some basic animal drives and motivations (like our aversion to pain, hunger, or cold) might survive the nihilist onslaught, but everything else including our “moral principles and ideals, and even (…) our long-term prudential goals” (17) would most likely not.

Assuming that we have followed Kahane so far and are willing to accept his claim that belief in the truth of nihilism is likely to undermine our subjective concerns, we might be inclined to think that such an outcome is not exactly desirable. People should care, and if believing in nihilism makes people care less about things (including justice and fairness, and our interests in general), then surely we have every reason to dissuade people from such a belief. It would be bad for them, and most likely bad for us, too. Kahane, however, disagrees, on the grounds that if nihilism is in fact true, then nothing matters, and if nothing matters, it doesn’t matter whether or not nihilism affects subjective concerns and what those concerns are. If evaluative nihilism is true, then whatever the actual effects of a belief in nihilism may be, it is all the same because none of it matters.

And now Kahane’s argument is getting really interesting. It takes the form of a variation of Pascal’s famous wager. After denying that the likely psychological effects of correctly believing in nihilism would give us any reason to avoid and discourage such a belief, Kahane goes on to argue that those effects would, however, matter if nihilism were false, i.e, if things actually did matter. Because then we would “no longer recognize the values and reasons out there” (p. 19), and this would be very bad indeed. Such an outcome would be “very harmful”, “disastrous” in fact, because it would lead to “many bad consequences, both prudential and moral, and might be bad in itself”. That is why, while we have no reason to fear nihilism, we have plenty of reason to fear “mistaken belief in nihilism” (p. 19).

To sum up: if nihilism is true, then we have nothing to worry about whether or not we believe that it is true, and if nihilism is not true, then we still have nothing to worry about as long as we don’t believe it’s true. But if we believe nihilism is true while in fact it is not true, then we are in big trouble. Since not believing in nihilism will not harm us either way, it follows that we have good “pragmatic reasons to believe (or to try to make ourselves believe) that nihilism is false” (p. 19) and indeed to avoid and suppress “anything that might lead us to believe in nihilism” (p. 21) Let us call this Kahane’s Wager.


Kahane’s argument is intriguing, but it seems to me that it suffers from a fatal flaw. Right from the start, it is simply assumed that it makes good sense to say that something matters objectively. But what exactly are we saying here? I find this far from clear. Kahane mentions suffering as an example of something that (quite obviously) matters objectively. Let us see whether we can figure out what that means. Clearly, my suffering matters to me. Whether or not I suffer and how much I suffer makes a huge difference to me. I cannot be (or at any rate, I am not) indifferent to my own suffering. Other people presumably feel the same about their suffering. In addition, most people are also concerned about other people’s suffering, though in varying degrees and generally not in the same degree that they are concerned about their own. But it often does matter to them. People, as a rule, are not entirely indifferent to the suffering of other people (or, for that matter, animals). So (my and possibly your) suffering matters to me, and (your and possibly my) suffering matters to you. But that would still only be subjective mattering, wouldn’t it? There is, after all, someone to whom it matters. If it matters to someone, it matters subjectively. Admittedly, it might also matter objectively, but in that case it cannot simply matter objectively because and insofar as it matters to someone, because then what matters objectively would be indistinguishable from what matters subjectively. If there is a difference between subjective and objective mattering, then there must be some way to distinguish the two. It must be, in other words, (at least theoretically) possible for there to be objective mattering without subjective mattering. So what we seem to be saying when we insist that suffering matters objectively is something like this: that my suffering would still matter even if it did not matter to me or to you, or to anyone at all. Suffering would still matter even if there were nobody to whom it mattered. But once again, what does that mean? Perhaps we are tempted to say that it means that even if it does not matter to anyone, it should matter to us. But that does not really get us anywhere. If someone asks us why suffering should matter to us if it does not already do so, all we could say is that it should matter to us because it does matter, namely objectively. We should attach importance to it because it is important (though for and to no one in particular). A prescriptive interpretation of supposedly objective values thus merely begs the question. We have just deflected from the problem instead of solving it. So, one more time, what does it mean that suffering matters objectively? Frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea, and what is more, I doubt that anyone really understands this claim, not even Kahane himself.

Let us now turn to the argument itself or that crucial portion of it that I have called Kahane’s Wager, which relies heavily on the notion of objective mattering (that is, things being objectively valuable). More precisely, the argument relies on a distinction between two levels of reality: the subjective and the objective. These two levels of reality are thought to be ontologically independent of each other. It is possible that things matter to me subjectively even though they do not matter objectively. It is also possible that things do not matter to me subjectively while they do matter objectively. It is even possible that they matter both subjectively and objectively, but that I am completely mistaken about how they matter. I may for instance think that suffering is bad, while in fact (objectively) suffering is good. (Kahane explicitly allows for this possibility, but thinks – for, as far as I can see, no compelling reason - that such a value reversal is rather unlikely.) This separation explains why, as Kahane puts it, “the truth of nihilism makes no normative difference.” Whatever matters or does not matter objectively, it has no effect whatsoever on what matters subjectively.

Now, Kahane’s Wager is modeled on Pascal’s wager. Pascal’s wager works because it is assumed that it may make a huge difference whether or not we believe in God. There is a lot at stake here, a lot to be gained and lost. Eternal rewards and eternal punishments are both possible. If I believe in God and there is no God, I don’t lose much, but if there is, then the rewards are immense. If I don’t believe in God and there is no God, then I don’t really gain anything, but if there is, I may have to face eternal damnation. So I’d better play it safe, do the rational thing, and believe. For Kahane’s Wager to work, we likewise need to assume that the consequences of believing in nihilism are potentially disastrous, while we don’t really stand to lose anything if we do not believe in it: if it is not true, then our subjective concerns are justified, and there is nothing bad about that, and if it is, then nothing matters anyway, so that wouldn’t be bad either. But if we do believe in nihilism even though it is not true (which would be the equivalent of not believing in God even though God exists), then this would result in great harm.

The problem with this argument is that it is hard to see in what way exactly mistaken belief in nihilism would be harmful. Remember that nihilism itself is supposed to be not only not harmful: it does not make the slightest difference for how we experience the world. If things did matter objectively and suddenly stopped mattering objectively, or did not matter and then suddenly started to matter, in neither case would we be able to tell the difference. The world as we know it would remain unchanged. (This alone should be sufficient to reject the notion of objective value: following William James’s excellent pragmatist principle that there can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere,[2] the claim that certain things matter objectively is simply meaningless.)

Now, believing that nihilism is true may certainly have consequences: people may get depressed and commit suicide, they may start hurting other people, and do all kinds of other things that we may feel are bad. Obviously, however, if belief in nihilism really does have such consequences, it has them whether or not nihilism is true. Yet Kahane argues that those consequences would only matter (i.e., be bad) if nihilism were not true. Exactly the same consequences would not matter at all if nihilism were true. Therefore, belief in nihilism cannot be thought to be harmful because it has those consequences. It must be harmful for other reasons. But the only difference between correctly believing in nihilism and falsely believing in nihilism seems to be that in the first case our subjective concerns would correspond to objective values (“the value around us”), while in the second case they would not. Everything else would be exactly the same. But then again, a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value cannot be what makes things bad either, because if nihilism were true and we believed it wasn’t, there would also be a lack of correspondence between subjective concerns and objective value, but that, according to Kahane, would not be bad. So then the only possible reason for thinking that it would be bad if we falsely believed in nihilism, but not bad if we correctly believed in it, is that in the first case the consequences of believing in nihilism would be really (i.e., objectively) bad whereas in the second case they would not be really bad, but only appear to be so. That is, they would only be subjectively bad. But if I mistakenly believe in nihilism, then of course those consequences would not be subjectively bad at all. Since I now believe that nothing matters, whatever results from my belief does not matter to me either, and if we all believed in it, then it would matter to no one. It follows that the consequences of our mistakenly believing in nihilism would be only objectively bad, which leads us right back to our original problem: to understand what we can possibly mean when we say that something matters objectively or does not matter objectively.

[1] Published in Nous (2016), online first:
[2] William James, Pragmatism. A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, New York/ Bombay/ Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co 1907, p. 50.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Richard M. Hare on what it means to say that something matters

What exactly do we mean when we say that “nothing matters”? Richard Hare attempts to answer this question in an early (1957) essay.[1] The way he answers it is intended to convince us that the view that “nothing matters” (or in other words existential nihilism) is an untenable, for most of us even nonsensical position, and quite obviously so.

Hare starts his essay by relating the story of a young Swiss student staying with the Hares, who after reading Camus’ L’Etranger suddenly became convinced that “nothing matters”. Hare then proceeded to talk him out of it in Socratic fashion. Here is how: when we say that something matters what we do is express concern about that something. Concern, however, is always somebody’s concern. Therefore, when I say that something matters I express my concern for it. I am saying that it matters to me. Accordingly, when you say the same, then you express your concern for that thing. You are saying that it matters to you. Neither of us is then really saying anything about the thing in question. We are only saying something about ourselves.

Now most of us are in fact concerned about many things. And so, apparently, was Hare’s Swiss student, which means that things did matter to him, which means that they did matter, period. For the statement “nothing matters” to be true it would have to be true that the one who makes the statement is not concerned about anything at all. So if I am the one who says that nothing matters, then this is true if and only if nothing matters to me, and if you are the one who says it, then it is true if and only if nothing matters to you. Yet if it were true that nothing mattered to me, why would I then bother to make that statement in the first place? It seems I would at least have to care enough about something to find it worth pointing out to the world that nothing matters, in which case I would have immediately contradicted myself.

The reason we may not be immediately aware of this contradiction is that we tend to misunderstand the function of the word “matters”. Its function is to express (somebody’s) concern. It does not tell us anything about the nature of things. Contrary to what we seem to think when we declare that nothing matters (or seriously wonder whether it might be true that nothing matters), mattering is not something that things do. My wife may both chatter and matter, but while the chattering is something that my wife actually does,[2] the mattering is not. In that sense it is quite true that (strictly speaking) no thing matters, from which we can easily, but mistakenly, derive the conclusion that nothing matters: we take a deep and hard look at things, fail to observe any mattering activity in them, and then conclude that nothing matters. However, we have looked in the wrong place. We should have looked at ourselves. If we had done that we would most likely have found that some things do matter, namely to us and therefore in the only way something can matter.

This is not to say that there are no people out there who are not very much concerned about anything. But they are an exception, and even if nothing or nothing much matters to them, this has absolutely no bearing on the question what matters, or should matter, to us. Instead of wondering whether things matter, Hare suggests in conclusion, we’d better ask ourselves what matters to us, what matters most to us, and what should matter to us and how much it should matter. These are all important life questions. Whether things matter is not.

The obvious question to ask here is of course whether Hare is right to say that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that something matters is that it matters to us. Is the function of saying “it matters” really the expression of one’s own personal concern, and nothing else? Is there really no difference between “this is important” and “I find this important”? Personally, I am inclined to agree with Hare, mostly because I don’t see how things can matter if they don’t matter to someone, and how they can matter other than by mattering to someone. On the other hand, it seems to me that when we say something like “nothing matters” we do not really mean to say that nothing matters to us. That is why we would, when we say this, not feel contradicted if somebody pointed out to us that some things do in fact matter to us. We already knew that, and never meant to deny it. So it seems it is something else that we wished to express by saying that ‘nothing matters’. But the question is, what do we mean if we don’t mean that nothing matters to us? I find this question very difficult to answer. Consider the following fictional dialogue between A and B:

A: Nothing matters!
B: What do you mean, nothing matters?
A: What I said.
B: So what you mean is that nothing matters to you, right?
A: No, I don’t mean that at all. In fact, it matters very much to me that nothing matters. I’m extremely concerned about it!
B: But if you are concerned about it, if it matters to you that nothing matters, then there clearly is something that matters.
A: Yes, but only to me. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what matters to me or if there is anything that matters to me. It doesn’t matter whether or not things matter to people, me included.
B: Okay, but what do you mean when you say it doesn’t matter? If they matter to you, and they matter to me, if there is somebody to whom they matter, how can they still not matter?
A: They do not matter in the sense that it makes no difference whether or not they matter to me, or, for that matter, if they exist or not exist.
B: No difference to you, you mean?
A: No, not to me. To me it does make a difference.
B: To whom then?
A: To nobody in particular. It simply makes no difference.
B: But it does make a difference. After all, if those things didn’t exist or if they were different, other things would be different, too, wouldn’t they?
A: Yes, but not in the long run. A time will come when the world will be exactly as it would have been if things had been different. Say in 5 billion years when the sun will swell up and swallow Earth. None of the things that we do now will then have made any difference. So I guess what I mean when I say nothing matters is that nothing matters ultimately or in the long run.
B: Okay, fine, perhaps what happens now and what we do and whether we live or die makes no difference for the long-term future. But all of this certainly makes a difference now. Why should we want it to make a difference for all eternity?
A: Well, I guess you are right. Although when that future comes, there will also be nobody left to whom anything matters that matters to us now. So then nothing will matter anymore, right?
B: Yes, correct, but why should we worry about that? Perhaps it is true that there will come a time when nothing matters any more, but that time is not here yet. That nothing will matter does in no way show that nothing matters, namely now. So what is your problem?
A: I don’t know. You are confusing me. Let’s go and have a drink. It doesn’t really matter anyway.

Still, it remains difficult to consistently think about ‘importance’ or ‘mattering’ the way that Hare suggests we do. Hare himself seems to forget what he has just told us when, in the last paragraph of his essay, he advises us to “learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to reach it.” (46) This is clearly something that matters to Hare. However, in suggesting that this matters he is also clearly not merely expressing his own concerns. He is, rather, expressing the belief that we, too, should be concerned about it. So ‘this matters’, at least in this particular instance, means, in addition to “this matters to me (= Hare)”, “this should matter to you (= the reader)”. Why should it, though? The reason seems to have something to do with some things being truly valuable and others not, yet in light of Hare’s own analysis it makes little sense to assert that things have a “true value” that is not always apparent to us. In accordance with Hare’s analysis of the meaning of ‘X matters’, it seems that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that “something has true value” is that it has true value for us. But in that case it would make no sense to say that the “true value” may not be apparent to us. If having such a value means having such a value for us, then it needs to be apparent to us. Yet the very term “true value” is designed to suggest that we may be mistaken about a thing’s true value (just as, perhaps, we can be mistaken about what truly matters, or that things matter at all). “True value” implies the possibility of “false value”, but it would be very odd to say that certain things have a false value for me. They either have value or they don’t. That their value is false can only mean that even though they appear to be valuable to me, they are in fact not valuable at all. Accordingly, to say that something is truly valuable can only mean that it has value even if I am unable to see it (so that it has no value for me). If nothing matters unless, and to the extent that, it matters to someone, then nothing has value either, unless, and to the extent that, it has value for someone.

[1] “’Nothing Matters’” was written in 1957 when Hare was 38. It was originally published in French as “Rien n’a d’importance” in La Philosophie Analytique, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit 1959, and later reprinted in English in Hare’s Applications of Moral Philosophy, London: Macmillan 1972, 32–47. I am using another reprint, namely the one in Life, Death and Meaning, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 41-47.
[2] Note to my wife: this is Hare’s example, not mine.