What gives meaning to your life? What, if removed, would leave you feeling empty, lost or no longer who you think yourself to be? These are the kinds of questions ministers and therapists ask when we seek them out in an existential crisis, and theologians and non-analytic philosophers suggest we should be preoccupied with. But most of us rarely pay them much mind. We go about our days unreflectively moving from place to place, activity to activity, hardly cognizant of what fundamentally drives us. Some might argue that this is because modern liberal democracies are cultures of distraction and dilettantism, that we’re too busy worrying about the superficial in lieu of what really matters. But this misses something crucial: we don’t need to reflect on what gives our lives meaning in order for them to be meaningful. Meaning is like air—we tend not to notice it until it’s no longer there.
But what is meaning exactly? This is a notoriously slippery question. For some, it conjures up the question of God, for others the spectre of nihilism. Talk of meaning often leads down intellectual rabbit holes to never-ending debates about the human condition. But there is a less heady way of discussing meaning. In Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, philosopher Susan Wolf argues that meaning refers to a specific sphere of human motivation, which is not reducible to egoism or morality. Wolf thinks that, while we may sometimes act out of self-interest (egoism) or for reasons relating to what we take to be right or just (morality) there are a whole range of reasons that fall outside these categories. She calls these reasons of love: according to her, they are what make our lives meaningful. For Wolf, we derive meaning in life from the things we love—whether these are people, activities or ways of life. By love, Wolf is thinking of an attitude towards those things that we are committed to, engaged with and inspired by.
Consider the following examples: a painter who risks poverty for her art probably does so not because it is in her self-interest—or at least not only because of that—but because she loves art. A father who drives a hundred miles through the night to spend Christmas morning with his family does so, in all likelihood, because he loves them, not necessarily because he thinks it the moral thing to do. And what of the athlete who puts her body through a painful physical regimen to train for the Olympics? It is hard to see how self-interest or morality can fully explain this. Most likely, she simply loves what she does.
Reasons of love also make up our identities. Indeed, it is difficult to think about who we are, shorn of the things we love, for it is these things that give colour to our lives. They prompt us to get up in the morning. A crisis of meaning involves questioning the value of what one once loved. This bears a striking resemblance to an identity crisis, whereby one comes to question who one truly is.
Meaning and Culture
Though Wolf doesn’t address this in any depth in her essay, meaning is intimately related to culture. Human beings grow up in specific social circumstances, which delimit the activities and projects that they can come to love. Of course, cultures are not homogeneous: a single culture can give rise to myriad objects of love. But what gives our lives meaning must have some connection to a particular culture.
What we love will, to a significant degree, be shaped by the culture we inherit and identify with. And, insofar as we love certain objects, activities and persons, it is likely that we will also love (at least in part) the culture or way of life to which these belong.
Reasons of Love and Political Polarization
The positions individuals hold on social and political issues often stem from the things that they love. Moreover, these things often have their roots in the culture(s) to which they belong. This has important implications for moralizing and its limitations.
In our polarized times, it is becoming commonplace to view those across the political aisle from us as selfish, stupid or evil. In my own case, I have variously thought that those who remain unwilling to support robust action to mitigate climate change are fools, that people who continue to eat factory-farmed meat are depraved and that people who oppose gun control care little about the well-being of others. Much political discourse from both sides consists of this kind of moralizing.
Yet, such judgments are unfair because they assume, without evidence, a malicious or sinister intent on the part of those to whom they refer. They disregard the possibility that one’s political opponents hold the views that they do not because they are ignorant or immoral, but because what gives their lives meaning and makes them who they are—in other words, what they love—directly or indirectly encourages them to do so.
This possibility is uncomfortable because it means that political opponents can no longer be characterized as facing a choice between morality and immorality, but between morality and meaning. Imagine if a stranger demanded that you renounce the thing that gives you a reason to get up in the morning. Even if the demand were made for the sake of what is moral or just, no one would agree to this without difficulty.
Meaning in Life and the Limits of Moralizing
That an activity gives a person’s life meaning does not make it moral. The serial killer who finds fulfilment in murder should be prohibited from indulging his passion, and the white supremacist, for whom the project of reclaiming America for white people provides a sense of cosmic significance, should be similarly prevented from fulfilling his dream. Meaning may give us reason to live, but it does not justify making the lives of others worse. But we ought to acknowledge that, when forced to decide between what gives their lives meaning and what is right, we should not assume people will choose the latter. If you love something, if your sense of self depends on loving that thing, you are going to be reluctant to give it up, even in the face of relentless moral protest.
We cannot reasonably expect individuals to drastically alter their lives simply because we show them that what they love is morally corrupt in some way. This is why moralizing so often fails. When individuals are forced to decide between what gives their lives meaning and what is right or just, we should not be surprised if they choose the former. But, if done in the right way, moralizing can provoke change. When forced to face facts or challenged appropriately, people are sometimes capable of real transformation.
Toward More Respectful (and Meaningful) Engagement
These principles might help us engage our political opponents in more fruitful, civil and generous ways. If we want to persuade others, we should consider the possibility that their convictions may not derive from selfishness, but may be the result of what they love. And while we may not agree that that activity, person or thing is worthy of love, holding a view out of love is radically different from holding one out of selfishness or spite.
Moreover, while we should always be allowed—perhaps even required—to engage our fellow citizens in public debate, we should always do so with the awareness that giving up something that provides meaning to one’s life involves pain and sacrifice of the highest order. Acknowledging this shows a degree of respect for those with whom we disagree.
Finally, we ought to avoid denouncing the culture which gives meaning to our political opponents’ lives, because once an individual thinks that what they love is being comprehensively condemned they are very unlikely to remain open and receptive. That kind of moralizing is more likely to embolden people in their convictions than to convince them to change them. Nobody likes to be told that what gives their lives meaning is fundamentally shallow, silly or sick. Instead, we should appeal to other things our opponents love—other dimensions of the culture to which they belong—if we wish to reach them. We need to help them see that they need not give up everything that matters to them in order to change their minds on particular issues.
We need to reflect on what gives meaning to our own lives then, not just for the reasons that theologians and therapists offer, but also to complicate the simplistic picture we often hold of those with whom we disagree. Meaning should not trump morality, of course, but when the two collide it’s not always easy to choose the latter over the former. We should always remember this.