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Summary of John Kekes: The Meaning of Life

John Kekes is Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Albany. He begins his essay The


Meaning of Life as follows: Most of our lives are spent in routine activities
It is natural to ask then why we should continue on this treadmill.[i] One
answer is that nature, instinct, and training impel us to struggle. To seek
more is to misuse the respite we occasionally enjoy from the difficult
business of living.[ii] Many throughout the world struggle for the basics of
life, without much time to worry about the meaning of life. Those in first
world countries struggle instead for wealth, honor, and prestige, but when
there is time left over for reflection they often wonder whether such things
really do matter; they wonder about the meaning of it all.

What Gives Life Meaning? Maybe life has no meaning. We may have
evolved to ask questions, and have the time to ask them, but this doesnt
mean we can answer them. Life may just be a brute fact, to be explained only
by laws of nature. There may be no other meaning. We could respond to all
this with cynicism or despair, but these poison the enjoyment of life. Despair
and cynicism cleave us into a natural self and a preying, harping, jeering, or
self-pitying self. We are thus turned us against ourselves. Reflection
sabotages our own projects.[iii] This is why so many avoid deep questions
and go on living as best they can. However, such avoidance is possible only if
we are doing well. For as soon as the young look forward, the old look
backward, or the sick look at their present state, the question of meaning will
arise. But even if we are doing well, shouldnt we ask about meaning? Would
it not be foolish to engage in projects which may not be valuable? In short, no
matter what our situation, we are brought back to the question of the
meaning of life.

Kekes now turns to the famous crisis of meaning experienced by John Stuart
Mills. Mill had meaning in his life he wanted to improve the worldand
then lost it as he recounts in his autobiography. He thought that even if all his
desires for a better world were satisfied he would still not be happy because,
of any proposed meaning, one can always ask: and why does that have
meaning?[iv] What happened was that Mill became disengaged from his
projects, he became disillusioned. It was not that his life was worthless,
pointless, destructive, trivial or futilefrom an objective point of view his life
was meaningful. What happened was that he no longer cared about or
identified with his projects. Kekes responds that even if Mills life was
intrinsically meaningful and subjectively engaging, that would still not be

sufficient for meaning because one can always conclude that all projects are
ultimately absurd.

A similar notion is captured by Nagels sense of the absurdthe pretension


with which we take ourselves internally versus the apparent external
insignificance of our lives. Still, many have taken the eternal perspective and
remained concerned about human welfare; thus merely taking that
perspective does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that life is
meaningless. For Mill the issue was not that his life appeared absurd from a
universal perspective but rather that he stopped caring about it, and he
became desultory precisely because he stopped caring. Thus sometimes we
lose commitment to our projects, not because they lack something, but
because our will and emotions are not engaged in them. This leads Kekes to
ask: what is it that engages our will and emotions, and gives meaning to our
lives, given that our projects are not defective and we do not suffer from a
sense of absurdity?[v] Typically we respond to this question with religious
and moral answers.

The Religious Answer The religious approach says value must come from
the outside in terms of a cosmic order. Specific religions are interpretations of
the cosmic order through revelation, scripture, miracles, church authority,
religious experience, etc. While science tells us something of this order, it
does not tell us everything. But we want to know everything about the cosmic
order gives meaning to our lives. Furthermore, the better we know the order,
the better our lives will go. If we are like dogs tied to carts drawn by horses, if
that is the cosmic order, then the best we can do is to go along with the order
and not oppose it. The Stoics thought we must conform to the order, while
religious thinkers generally believe that the order is good. The key to
meaning then is to find this order and live in harmony with it.

But there are problems with religious answers. First of all we have no direct
access to the cosmic order since all evidence comes from the natural world.
Thus we cannot know if there is cosmic order or, if there is, what form it
takes. Moreover, even if the natural world did point to a cosmic order, this
would not be enough to give us meaning, since we still would not know
anything about the nature of that cosmic order. Furthermore, even if we could
infer something of the cosmic order from the natural world that still would not
be enough. Think again of Sisyphus. He knows his fate but temple building
was not his purpose, it was the gods. He was enslaved by them. How then
can their purposes give his life meaning? Sisyphus, pyramid builders, and

dogs tied to cartsnone of their lives have meaning.

So not only must there be a cosmic order but that order must be both
necessary and good. Do we have any reason to believe this? Kekes thinks
not. Can we derive inferences about the cosmic order from the natural world?
No. If we are hones we must accept that the cosmic order, if it really is
reflected by the natural world, is good, bad, and indifferent. So if the cosmic
order must be good for our lives to have meaning, then they do not have
meaning, since the cosmic order is at most partly good. In sum, the religious
answer fails because 1) we have no reason to believe there is a cosmic order;
2) if there is one we know nothing about it; and 3) if we did infer something
about the cosmic order from the natural world, reasonable persons would
conclude it was not exclusively good.

The Moral Answer The moral approach concerns the good independent of
the gods, even if a gods will might reflect that good. We need to know what
is good if we are to know how pursuing it gives meaning to life, and ethics
looks for this in the natural world. Here we are concerned not with ethics in
the narrow sense of what is right, but in the wide sense of what is good. To
better understand this let us go back to Taylor. He thought meaning for
Sisyphus could be subjective if he wanted to push rocks; that would make his
life meaningful independent of the fact that the project seemed meaningless
from an objective point of view. So it is wanting to do our projects that makes
them meaningful, meaning comes from us. In other words meaning is
subjective; it does not come from the projects themselves. Therefore the
subjective view of meaning is that a life has meaning if the agent sincerely
thinks so, and it lacks meaning if the agent sincerely denies it.35 By contrast
the objective view states that lives may lack meaning even if their agents
think otherwise, for they may be mistaken.[vi]

There are three reasons to reject the subjective view and accept the
objective. First, if meaning is subjective, then there is no difference whether
we want to pursue a project because we are being indoctrinated or
manipulated, or because we truly think it meaningful after reflection. On this
view discovering that we were simply wired to want something, say to push
boulders up hills forever, would not change our minds about an activitys
meaningfulness. But this seems wrong; discovering any of this should change
our minds about meaning! Subjective desire or active engagement may be
part of the meaning of life, but it does not seem to be all of it.

Second, even if we truly want to roll rocks, and have not been manipulated
into wanting this, such a desire alone does not make the act meaningful
unless it matters to us that rocks are rolled. We could still ask of this nonmanipulated desire, why do it? So even if we are not manipulated, and want
to do something that matters to us, we still do not have enough for meaning
because questions about the value of our desires remain. Are we being
manipulated by gods, media, or indoctrination? Do things matter to us
because of upbringing, education, or society? We simply cannot answer
questions like these without considering how reality is independent of us. This
leads us back to the objective view.

Third, we pursue projects because we think they would make our lives better
but they may not do so. We may change our minds about a project when it
does not make our lives better, concluding that the project was not
meaningful after all. But if believing a project meaningful were sufficient to
making it meaningful, the subjective view of meaning, then we would not
change our minds like this. All of this counts against the subjective view of
meaning.

Now it might be said in defense of the subjective view that these three
objections show that the truth of our beliefs does not affect whether our lives
are meaningful. This is partly right and partly wrong. It is true we may find
our projects meaningful even if we are manipulated or our projects are not
good, but it is false that meaning is subjective. Objective considerations
about wants being manipulated and beliefs being false still matter, since
knowledge of these may destroy our belief in meaning. Thus in addition to
subjective considerations, objective ones matter as well, for example that we
have non-manipulated desires and true beliefs. Subjective willing, whether of
a god or human, is not enough for meaning; for a meaningful life we must
subjectively want some objective things that really make our lives better.
However, none of this presupposes a cosmic order; there can be things that
are really good without positing a cosmic order. In summary the moral
approach says that our lives are meaningful if: 1) they are not worthless
pointless, futile, etc; 2) we reject the view that all projects are absurd; 3)
there are projects we want to pursue; 4) our desired projects will actually
make our lives go better.

Conclusion But when we ask about making our lives go better, do we have

in mind morally or non-morally better? We could follow Socrates and say the
morally good life is both the satisfying and the meaningful life, but this will
not do and the moral answer fails. Why? First, morally good projects may not
be satisfying; and second, even if morally good projects are satisfying it does
not follow that only morally good lives are satisfying. It could be that either
immoral or non-moral projects give meaning. That people can get meaning
from immoral projects shows that the moral answer is mistaken.

Both moral and religious answers fail because they seek a general answer to
the question, thereby failing to sufficiently emphasize individual differences.
This seems to lead us back to the subjective view but, as we saw earlier, we
had multiple reasons for rejecting that view. Since neither the subjective nor
objective approach works we might be led to again consider the religious or
moral approaches but, as we saw previously, they both failed. The former
because there is no reason to think there is a cosmic order that confers
meaning, and the latter because immoral lives can be meaningful.

This all leads Kekes to advancing a pluralistic approach to meaning in life


meaningful lives take a plurality of forms. A central claim of the pluralistic
approach is that all approaches giving general answers are mistaken. The
other basic claim is that morally bad lives may be meaningful and morally
good lives may not be. Thus, contrary the orthodox view, what makes a life
meaningful and what makes it good are distinct.

Summary Meaningful lives are not pointless, futile, trivial, or absurd and
involve pursuing activities agents find engaging and life-bettering. These
activities are found in the natural world, thus excluding a religious answer;
and these activities may be immoral, thus excluding the moral answer. There
are no general answers as to what activities or projects a subject will find
rewarding and engaging.

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[i] John Kekes, The Meaning of Life, in The Meaning of Life, ed. E. D. Klemke
and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press, 2008), 239.
[ii] Kekes, The Meaning of Life, 239.

[iii] Kekes, The Meaning of Life, 241.


[iv] Kekes, The Meaning of Life, 244.
[v] Kekes, The Meaning of Life, 250.
[vi] Kekes, The Meaning of Life, 250.