Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-p2v8j Total loading time: 0.001 Render date: 2024-05-29T03:32:01.019Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Susan Wolf
Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University


The topic of self-interest raises large and intractable philosophical questions–most obviously, the question “In what does self-interest consist?” The concept, as opposed to the content of self-interest, however, seems clear enough. Self-interest is interest in one's own good. To act self-interestedly is to act on the motive of advancing one's own good. Whether what one does actually is in one's self-interest depends on whether it actually does advance, or at least, minimize the decline of, one's own good. Though it may be difficult to tell whether a person is motivated by self-interest in a particular instance, and difficult also to determine whether a given act or decision really is in one's self-interest, the meaning of the claims in question seems unproblematic.

My main concern in this essay is to make a point about the content of self-interest. Specifically I shall put forward the view that meaningfulness, in a sense I shall elaborate, is an important element of a good life. It follows, then, that it is part of an enlightened self-interest that one wants to secure meaning in one's life, or, at any rate, to allow and promote meaningful activity within it. Accepting this substantial conception of self-interest, however, carries with it a curious consequence: the concept of self-interest which formerly seemed so clear begins to grow fuzzy. Fortunately, it comes to seem less important as well.

In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit distinguishes three sorts of theories about self-interest–hedonistic theories, preference theories, and what he calls “objective-list theories." Hedonistic theories hold that one's good is a matter of the felt quality of one's experiences.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1997

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 The view described and defended here shows the influence of and my sympathy with the views of Aristotle and John Stuart Mill throughout. I cannot individuate my debts to them; they are pervasive.

2 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).Google Scholar

3 This point is made by David Wiggins in his brilliant but difficult essay “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life,” Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. 62 (1976).

4 Woody Allen appears to have a different view. His list of the things that make life worth living at the end of Manhattan includes, for example “the crabs at Sam Woo's,” which would seem to be on the level of chocolates. On the other hand, the crabs' appearance on the list may be taken to show that he regards the dish as an accomplishment meriting aesthetic appreciation, where such appreciation is a worthy activity in itself; in this respect, the crabs might be akin to other items on his list such as the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of “Potatohead Blues,” and “those apples and pears of Cezanne.” Strictly speaking, the appreciation of great chocolate might also qualify as such an activity.

5 See Wiggins, “Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life,” p. 342.

6 This remark was made famous by John Stuart Mill, who quoted it in his essay on Bentham. See Robson, J. M., ed., Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, vol. 10 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), p. 113.Google Scholar

7 See Tolstoy, Leo, “My Confession,” in Klemke, E. D., ed., The Meaning of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).Google Scholar

8 Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).Google Scholar

9 Nagel, Thomas, “The Absurd,” in Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).Google Scholar

10 I discuss this in my “Meaningful Lives in a Meaningless World,” unpublished manuscript.

11 Taylor, Richard, Good and Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1970).Google Scholar

12 See Feinberg, Joel, Freedom and Fulfillment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), ch. 13.Google Scholar

13 Nozick, Robert makes a similar suggestion in The Examined Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).Google Scholar In addition to wanting happiness, Nozick writes, “[w]e also want this emotion of happiness to befitting” (p. 112).

14 I explore this in “Meaningful Lives in a Meaningless World.”

15 The relevant scale of worth, however, will itself be a matter of contention. As my examples have probably made clear, there is no reason to identify the relevant kind of worth here with moral worth.