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Consequentialism about Meaning in Life

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 June 2015

BEN BRAMBLE*
Affiliation:
University of Vienna, b.e.bramble@gmail.com

Abstract

What is it for a life to be meaningful? In this article, I defend what I call Consequentialism about Meaning in Life (or CML for short), the view that (1) one's life is meaningful at time t just in case one's surviving at t would be good in some way, and (2) one's life was meaningful considered as a whole just in case the world was (or will be) made better in some way for one's having existed.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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References

1 Wolf, Susan, ‘Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life’, Social Philosophy & Policy 14 (1997), pp. 207–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 208.

2 Wolf, ‘Happiness and Meaning’, p. 209.

3 This is the name Wolf gives her view in her book-length treatment of the topic, Meaning in Life and Why it Matters (Princeton, 2010).

4 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 14.

5 Wolf, ‘Happiness and Meaning’, p. 211.

6 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 14.

7 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 19.

8 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 26.

9 When I refer to an ability to contribute to good things, I mean just that one's surviving would have good consequences. What matters for the meaningfulness of my life now, according to CML, is how the world would go were I to survive, not how it might go. If, were I to survive, I would give none of my spare millions to Oxfam, my ‘ability’ to do so contributes nothing to my life's being meaningful now.

10 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 21.

11 For a similar example, see Hooker's professor who is an inspirational teacher, but has no passion for teaching, in Hooker, Brad, ‘The Meaningful Life: Subjectivism, Objectivism, and Divine Support’, Morality and the Good Life: Essays in Honour of John Cottingham, ed. Athanassoulis, Nafsika and Vice, Samantha (2008), pp. 184200Google Scholar, at 193.

12 For more on this distinction, see Hooker, ‘The Meaningful Life’, p. 192.

13 Hepburn, R. W., ‘Questions about the Meaning of Life’, The Meaning of Life, ed. Klemke, E. D. (Oxford, 1981), pp. 209–26Google Scholar, at 212.

14 Tolstoy, Leo, A Confession, trans. Wierner, Leo (London, 1905), p. 17Google Scholar.

15 Tolstoy, A Confession, p. 21.

16 Stuart Mill, John, Autobiography (Auckland, 2009 [1873]), p. 134Google Scholar.

17 Metz, Thaddeus, Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study (Oxford, 2013), p. 194CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Metz, Meaning in Life, p. 194.

19 Metz, Meaning in Life, p. 195.

20 Wolf draws a similar distinction between what she calls the Ordinary Sense and the Robust Sense of ‘good for’ in her piece ‘Good-for-Nothings’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 85 (2012), pp. 47–64.

21 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 21.

22 A similar point is made by Antti Kauppinen in his excellent ‘Meaningfulness and Time’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84 (2012), pp. 345–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 364.

23 What if Einstein's ideas ended up doing more harm than good (say, by making possible nuclear weapons)? Would we still want to say that his life was paradigmatically meaningful, or even meaningful at all? For some interesting recent work on this topic, see Stephen Campbell and Sven Nyholm, ‘Anti-Meaning and Why It Matters’ (unpublished manuscript).

24 This example has been suggested independently by Aaron Smuts in his article ‘It's a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life’, Film and Philosophy 16 (2012), pp. 15–33.

25 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 16.

26 For a defence of this claim, see Bramble, Ben, ‘Whole-Life Welfarism’, American Philosophical Quarterly 51 (2014), pp. 6374Google Scholar.

27 Feinberg, Joel, Freedom and Fulfillment (Princeton, 1992), p. 308Google Scholar.

28 Taylor, Richard, ‘The Meaning of Life’, Life, Death, and Meaning, ed. Benatar, David (Lanham, MD, 2010), pp. 2130Google Scholar, at 26.

29 Wiggins, David. ‘Truth, Invention, and the Meaning of Life’, Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976), pp. 332–78Google Scholar.

30 These cases are from Wolf, Susan, ‘The Meanings of Lives’, Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, ed. Perry, John, Bratman, Michael and Fischer, John Martin (New York, 2007), pp. 6273Google Scholar.

31 Taylor, ‘The Meaning of Life’, p. 25.

32 Quoted in Singer, Peter, How Are We To Live? (Amherst, NY, 1995), p. 211Google Scholar (my emphasis).

33 Singer, How Are We To Live?, p. 211.

34 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 37.

35 Wolf, Meaning in Life, p. 106.

36 It is beyond the scope of this essay to give a full defence of welfarism. For more on welfarism, see Bramble, Whole-life Welfarism’, and Crisp, Roger and Moore, Andrew, ‘Welfarism in Moral Theory’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 74 (1996), pp. 598613Google Scholar. Note that, while welfarism provides support for CML, CML neither entails nor relies on welfarism.

37 Something like this argument has been suggested by many philosophers. See, for example, Broome, John, Ethics out of Economics (Cambridge, 1999), p. 168CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Note that an advocate of CML needn't accept this argument, and is not committed to (4).

38 This article was funded by the ERC-Advanced Research Grant ‘Distortions of Normativity’.

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