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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Delicate BalanceA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst Moral ResponsibilityAgency and AnswerabilityAgency and ResponsibilityAgency, Freedom, and Moral ResponsibilityAging, 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In what sort of situations do questions of meaning arise? What types of lives would be generally accepted as paradigms of meaning? What is meaningfulness? Susan Wolf addressed these questions in two lectures delivered in Princeton in November 2007. These lectures are here reprinted with some comments from distinguished commentators and her replies to them.
In her lectures Susan Wolf aims to bring out the distinctive character of the reasons and motives that give meaning to our lives, claiming that meaningfulness is an attribute that cannot be reduced to or subsumed under either happiness or morality. According to traditional philosophical accounts of meaning of life, personal happiness or impersonal sense of duty are the motivations why people do or should act. Wolf criticizes these accounts in favor of a wider understanding of what contributes to the quality of our lives. When meaning is recognized as a third sort of value, our comprehension of happiness and morality also changes.
Susan Wolf maintains that meaning arises from loving objects worthy of love and engaging with them in a positive way. It involves subjective and objective elements, suitably and inextricably linked as it arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness. Moreover, a mere passive recognition and a positive attitude toward an object's or activity's value is not sufficient for a meaningful life. One has to actively engage with the worthy object of love.
She suggests that her conception can be seen as a refinement of the combination of two popular views: the first one tells us that it doesn't matter what people do with their life as long as it is something they love. 'Find your passion and go for it!' The second view instead says that in order to live a truly satisfying life one needs to get involved in something 'larger than oneself'. While accepting these two conceptions, she also explains why they leave out something crucial. The first conception, which she calls the Fulfillment View, is for Wolf a form of hedonism but she questions that if the point of finding one's passion and pursuing it is simply to get and keep the feelings of fulfillment, would it matter what activities or objects one has possession for? One can think of many examples of trivial activities that might keep people busy but that we would not consider the source of meaning of their lives. They are subjectively fulfilling but something desirable seems missing. What is lacking might be found in the second conception, if we interpret it in the sense that in a meaningful life somebody has to be involved in something the value of which is independent of and has its source outside of oneself. This objective condition should be matched with the subjective one just mentioned and they will form what Wolf calls the Bipartite View: in a meaningful life people find fulfillment and they connect positively with something beyond themselves. But then Wolf adds that it is not enough that one is occupied with doing things that one loves but these things must be good in some independent way. (Fitting Fulfillment View)
The second part of her lectures is dedicated to a discussion on what is objective value. She doesn't provide a theory but rather a phenomenology of objective standard of value, claiming that we can distinguish two kinds of subject-independent values: those that are not just value for the subject but also for other people and those for which the standard of judgment lies outside the subject. The truth of the judgment that a life is meaningful is independent of whether a subject thinks that it is the case. While the author refuses at the same time a radically subjective and a radically objective account of value, she confesses that she has no positive alternative to propose and this is probably the main defect of this book. She is cautious in attributing meaning or the lack of meaning to specific concrete lives but she has no problem in recognizing that the abstract category of meaningfulness matters. Why so? Because even if a discussion on meaning might immediately have purely intellectual benefits in people's lives, it will eventually help them to understand themselves, their values, and change their lives.
The second part of this volume contains commentaries from five professors of philosophy and psychology, most of them sympathetic to the features of her views. Robert Adams and John Koethe ask Susan Wolf to consider more closely what kind of objective values and subjective experiences are necessary for meaningful life. Moreover, Koethe questions the relevance of success to meaningfulness, to which Wolf answers that something of value is achieved in the very commitment to a good project and in the striving to pursue it, even when it fails. She stresses again that her reflections are not meant to assess other people's lives or compare them.
Robert Adams notices that fulfillment is a misleading term as it may encourage too close an association with feelings of pleasure. Wolf replies that, while agreeing with him, she uses the term in a broad sense to designate the qualitative character essential to a meaningful life, conscious of the fact that there is no single subjective quality of experience that all lives possess. Some of the feelings associated with them are not necessarily of pleasure but they have to be somehow desirable in themselves.
Nomy Arpaly observes that people do not act for the sake of a meaningful life but, rather, it is their action that gives their lives a meaning. Wolf accepts this correction and specifies that what she calls 'reasons for love' are good in themselves and not only because they contribute to meaningful lives. She then objects to the Aristotelian conception, here represented in the comments of Nomy Arpaly and Jonathan Haidt, that identifies fulfillment with meeting the demands of one's nature, claiming that it is not obvious why this would make the person's life meaningful. Wolf concludes specifying that meaning is not the only good in life and not every activity needs to contribute to it.
© 2010 Angelo Bottone
Dr Angelo Bottone teaches philosophy at the School of Arts of Dublin Business School and at the Adult Education Centre in University College Dublin. He runs a blog on philosophy of translation (http://philosophyoftranslation.blogspot.com )
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