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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Meaning and Value: How Do They Relate?

A further question that came up in my summer existentialism class was that of what exactly the existentialists are so worried about. What is the ambiguity or dilemma De Beauvoir and others keep talking about?

It may be tempting to answer like this: We all have to die, and death is a scary thing. So, how do we deal with that fear?

However, that answer is far too simple. The dilemma in life turns on value. Most people live a life that is aimed at the future. For example, you go to college in order to increase your chances of getting a good job. Almost everything you do is aimed at something in the future. So, almost everything you do is valuable because it leads to something else. What you do appears to have instrumental value.

On non-existentialist accounts, if your life has meaning, then that meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions. But if there is no final destination, which there is not if death is inevitable, then your actions have no instrumental value and hence your life has no meaning.

In class I used an analogy to illustrate this. Suppose you hate driving but are willing to make the trip to Chicago, because being in Chicago has intrinsic value. As it turns out, however, there is no Chicago. It was burned down or was just a fantasy city people thought was real. We can then rightfully say that your trip was meaningless.

Things are different if Chicago exists and you just never make it there because you make a wrong turn and end up in Detroit or die in a car crash. Your trip then had a bad ending but it wasn’t meaningless.

If Chicago doesn’t exist but Detroit does, then your trip needn’t be meaningless, because it can still be aimed at not ending up in Detroit. So, your actions then have instrumental value and your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions.

Here is how the analogy carries over to the meaning of life. If there is no heaven or hell after death, but sheer nothingness, then your actions in life have no instrumental value. Hence, if meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions, your life is meaningless.

The existentialist puzzle does not arise for the theist who posits life after death. Heaven has intrinsic value, and your actions in life are aimed at ending up in heaven. So, your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions.

But few existentialists are theists. This is why they are in despair. De Beauvoir considers other possible ways of resolving the predicament. Hegel suggested that the Spirit (with a capital S) was greater than mankind and hence greater than you and your life. You might also think mankind, nature or society is greater than you and your life.

If this is true, then it seems that we can resolve the predicament in a way similar to the theists: You simply live your life serving the Spirit, mankind, nature, society, or what have you. If these greater entities have intrinsic value, and your actions are aimed at serving these entities, then your actions have instrumental value. So, if the meaning of life is derived from the instrumental value of your actions, then your life is meaningful. Or so it may seem.

The problem, though, is that if your life is aimed at something that is greater than you, or goes beyond you and your life, then even if your actions have instrumental value, your life can still be meaningless. This is because the Spirit, mankind, nature, society or whatever has nothing to do with your life per se, and we cannot derive the meaning of YOUR life from something that has nothing to do with your life.

The theists are in fact better off in this respect. They posit "life after death" or "eternal life". So, your life doesn’t end. On some theist views, your body ceases to exist but your soul continues. On other views, your body ceases to exist temporarily but will arise again when God introduces heaven on earth. Either way, if there is a heaven, we can say that your life has meaning derived from the instrumental value of your actions – actions aimed at getting you to heaven.

But this is not an option for atheists. De Beauvoir and most of the other existentialists are atheists, so they cannot resolve the puzzle the way the theists can. The solution they propose is to derive meaning from the intrinsic value of your choices rather than from the alleged instrumental value of your actions.

Your choices, however, can only have intrinsic value if you are the true agent in making the choice. If your choice is heavily influenced by upbringing, tradition, culture, authorities, a desire to do well or be famous, etc, then your choice doesn’t have any intrinsic value.

Existentialists don’t recommend that you go against any of these institutions but only that you question your choices and make your own choices. The choices must be choices you make for your own sake and not for the sake of others.

17 comments:

John Camacho said...

Existentialists are faced with a life dilemma. Brit characterizes the dilemma as follows:

(P1) Meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions.
(P2) There is only nothingness after death.
(C) Hence, actions in life have no instrumental value and life is meaningless.

P1) seems to be an empirical claim about how people act. For example, Sarah goes to college in order to increase her chances at getting a good job. Brit claims, “So, almost everything you do is valuable because it leads to something else. What you do appears to have instrumental value.” Theists reject (P2) and argue that heaven has intrinsic value. Since existentialists are not atheists, Beauvoir rejects (P1) and argues that meaning can be derived from the intrinsic value of one’s choices instead of the instrumental value of actions.

My point is to reject that (P1) is an empirical claim about people’s actions and choices; rather to how mental states can be normative. (P1) presupposes that norms and values are capable of determining what is meaning. This is the Normativism thesis that norms determine meaning. Here is an alternative view content-engendered normativity that can be useful.

Kathrin Gluer and Asa Wikforss claim, “According to content-engendered normativity, statements of the form ‘mental state M has content P’ have normative consequences. The norms are typically construed as norms of action, most commonly as prescriptions, but could also be construed axiologically. That is, the claim need not be that the relevant norms guide our use of concepts, but could just be that it is a property essential to their having content that certain mental states (true beliefs, for instance) are valuable.”

Adopting content-engendered normativity could be advantageous to show how meaning can be derived independent of a person’s choices or actions but their mental content as well. Life could be meaningful based on one’s mental content. I interpret the passage as suggesting that a person’s true beliefs are not meaningful, because they lead to certain consequences or ends, but are intrinsically valuable. However, further details are needed to completely flesh out this view.

Brit Brogaard said...

Excellent proposal, John. I think you are right that (P1) is an empirical claim (depending on how you spell out "empirical claim").

Someone might hold that "meaning" is an ordinary-language term. In ordinary language, we say things like "what you just did was completely futile" or "what you just did was completely meaningless".

When would those claims be appropriate? Well, suppose I spend my afternoons watching stupid sitcoms. You might then accuse me of wasting my life, and you might even say that what I am doing is meaningless. You get the idea.

Is that the sense of "empirical claim" that you have in mind?

If so, can you restate your rejection of the premise (P1), because I am not sure exactly how it manages to refute (P1).

But you are definitely onto something!

John Camacho said...

Thank you, Brit for needing to clarify. My aim is not to show that P1 is false. On the face of it, (P1) is true. Rather, if we replace (P1) about meaning and instrumental value with a different sense of meaning altogether, then perhaps we can attribute more things as meaningful such as one’s mental content. I agree with the use of “meaning” as an ordinary-language term. In ordinary language, the statement, “what you did was completely meaningless when you intend to visit a city that does not exist” speakers use the term ‘meaningless’ to refer to the fact that one did not accomplish any goals or ends. This is the empirical claim that I have in mind that only addresses meaning in relation to instrumental value. If existentialists only care about meaning in instrumental value, they have a narrow view about meaning. I agree that if existentialists only care about this way of talking about meaning, then they are correct.

However, there is so much more to meaning that only meaning about instrumental value, right? Meaning is attributed to propositions as cognitively meaningful (truth-aptness), to meaningless statements that cannot be proven or disproven (what A.J. means to refer to statements), and statements that people make when they express emotions, which are cognitively meaningless but contain meaning for people (Boo murder!). But what does this mean for whether life is meaningful or meaningless? Practically, if one tells me that my actions are meaningless and life is meaningless because there is no further end that I am aspiring toward, I would agree that life is meaningless as guiding toward instrumental value, but there remains things in life that have meaning, such as true beliefs of the world. Suppose that I am an expressivist about ethics, I would still maintain that even though my moral judgments are cognitively meaningless, expressing my emotions is intrinsically value to me. I may be wasting my life, because my ethical expressions derive from only me and not facts of the world. This does not mean that I cannot find meaning in my ethical expressions. If I yell “Boo murder” to an actual murderer, I can find this activity to be meaningful. I am rejecting Hilary Putnam and saying that meaning can be in the head. As a normative creature, I generate meaning onto things. Hence, life has intrinsic value, not by the value of my choices like Beauvoir, but by being a thing that finds intrinsic value in my statements and possibly mental content.

My main point is that it really seems odd to have to conclude that life is meaningless when we are only using one sense of meaning about instrumental value. This is a part of our ordinary language, but there are other ways in our ordinary language that we find meaning. Despite believing that it is cognitively meaningless, yelling "Boo murder" or even "Go Yankees" they both have meaning to ourselves, right? At least, I would reject that it is complete waste of time.

Ben Ricker said...

Sounds like a great conversation. Intrigued by the seeming differences between Sartre and de Beauvoir. Oh to be a fly on the wall in Paris in the 30s.

I am struck by a notion that seems to be too quickly unnoticed and that is the difference between instrumental value and, let's say ultimate instrumental value. Doing something because it is instrumentally valuable does not in itself seem wrong, on the existentialist line. They reject an ultimate instrumental value like a Great Judge or heaven and hell (or Chicago and Detroit; which is hell in this scenario?). As long as I freely choose to instrumentally value something, say as a stepping-stone to other values, I do not see any issues with this.

What they do argue, it seems to me, is that there is intrinsic value in the act of choosing (not in choice qua choice; choosing is an action, never isolated from the action). As you note, they believe this follows from the rejection of a higher power, but I think that even IF there was some sort of solid evidence of one, the point would still stand, for living for an ultimate instrumental value of reward is not living for one's self and acting in Bad Faith, as Sartre would say.

Lots of good stuff there.

Mike Almeida said...

Here is how the analogy carries over to the meaning of life. If there is no heaven or hell after death, but sheer nothingness, then your actions in life have no instrumental value. Hence, if meaning is derived from the instrumental value of your actions, your life is meaningless.

Hey Brit, this is a strange argument. Even if one's life has nothing but instrumental value, it doesn't (seem to) follow that all of the value it might have comes after one's life. And even if it all comes after one's life, it needn't all come in an afterlife. Suppose some single person discovers in her life a silver-bullet cure for all forms of cancer. The consequences of her discovery might be everlastingly positive, but not necessarily in an afterlife. Seems like a meaningful life to me.

Brit Brogaard said...

@ John C: But "meaning" as it occurs in "your trip to Chicago was completely meaningless" and "meaning" as it occurs in "What does 'existentialism' mean?" or "What is the meaning/proposition expressed by that sentence" have different senses.

How do you propose to relate the two senses of "meaning"?

John Camacho said...

@ Brit: Your absolutely right, a story needs to be told about the relationship between the existentialist sense of meaning as in "your trip to Chicago was completely meaningless" and analytic sense of meaning (or another name) as in "What is the meaning expressed by that sentence."

This may be repeated, but here is the distinction. The existentialist sense of meaning is meaning that is attributed to a person's actions or choices. This explains why a person's life is meaningful, because their actions and choices are meaningful. The analytic sense of meaning can show meaning can be attributed to a person's mental content such as propositions/true beliefs. This explains why a person’s life is meaningful, because there is meaning in the person’s mental content.

The different senses of meaning are attributing different things as meaningful, either a person’s choices or mental states. Existentialists find meaning in the practical aspect of a person’s life, while the analytic view finds meaning in the theoretical features of a person. The analytic view seems more explanatorily advantageous than the existentialist view of meaning, because true beliefs are important, if not a prerequisite, for making choices. On the other hand, it is possible for one to never act in a certain way or make choices, but their life is meaningful, because of their true beliefs or other mental content. For example, if one makes the choice to visit Chicago, they need propositions or sometimes true beliefs about notions like “trip,” “visit,” and “Chicago.” However, a person could never actually choose to visit to Chicago but have true beliefs about Chicago. Even if people never make a decision, existentialists need to explain what would make a person’s life meaningful and an analytic sense of meaning can explain that rare possibility.

Brit Brogaard said...

@Ben You are exactly right. If you freely choose to go to college and going to college requires asking your high school teacher for a letter of reference, then you ought to intend to ask your high school teacher for a letter of reference. So, the standard principles of practical reason apply here too.

Your act of asking your high school teacher for a letter of reference then has instrumental value because it can lead you to where you want to be.

But the puzzle didn't turn on the goodness or badness of instrumental value. Rather, it turned on the problem that if all of our actions are supposed to be valuable insofar as they may lead to a goal that has intrinsic value, but the goal does not exist, then our actions have no value.

So, if meaning is derived from value of this kind, then our actions are meaningless. And if life consists of a series of actions (including mental acts), then our life has no meaning.

Brit Brogaard said...

@ Mike. I completely agree. In fact, the little paper I once co-wrote on the meaning of life makes a similar point.

However, De Beauvoir (and most of the other contemporary existentialists) didn't see it that way. Discovering a cure of cancer that has ever-lasting consequences is definitely a valuable action.

However, according to them, the meaning of YOUR life cannot be derived from instrumental value of this kind, because the aim of the action has nothing to do with your life.

They would say the same here as they say explicitly in response to Hegel's suggestion that your actions are valuable when they serve the Spirit -- something that is greater than you and even greater than mankind. In response to Hegel, De Beauvoir says that if your actions serve something that has nothing to do with you, then they cannot have meaning FOR you.

Why is the heaven and hell scenario different? Because the idea here is that you continue to exist. Your physical body may cease to exist but you go on forever (hopefully in heaven). So, what you do now as a means of getting there can be meaningful.

The problem for them, of course, is that they strongly believe that there is no heaven or hell. It is even questionable that Kierkegaard -- one of few theist existentialists -- believed in any form of afterlife.

Brit Brogaard said...

@John C. Sure. When we say that an action is meaningless, we are saying that it has no aim that has value. When we say that a sentence is meaningless, we are saying that it has no semantic value (either because it is ungrammatical or because the terms in it don't refer).

Mental states have meaning in ways similar to sentences. For example, on a Russellian account of content, my belief that Santa Claus is cool is meaningless because /-GAP- is cool/ has no truth-value.

So, the similarity may be this: Meaninglessness of the first kind is attributed to actions that have no purpose. Meaninglessness of the second kind is attributed to mental states or sentences that do not have truth-evaluable contents.

How are you going to use this distinction in addressing the existentialist predicament?

John Camacho said...

@ Brit, Yes, this gets to the heart of it. First, I revise the existentialist predicament. Then I show how the view can be used.

I think that the existentialist predicament assumes a mistaken view that life needs to have some greater purpose in order for it to be meaningful.

On my view, the universe or nature does not care about whether people live or die. It is people who invest into the universe and attribute a sense of meaning upon it. We call our choices meaningful, because they are important to us. If they were not important to us, they would not be meaningful. People express their desires onto the world and make it meaningful.

I argue that there is no greater sense of meaning in the universe. I take the issue of whether life is meaningful, in the J.L. Mackie sense, as metaphysically and epistemically queer. Existentialists ask what is the meaning of life that is mind-independent? Is it to do good and get into heaven? My answer is that the question is wrong. There is only mind-dependent meaning. The universe itself is meaningless in a mind-independent sense, because there is only mind-dependent sense of meaning. For Beauvoir, life can be meaningful, because one's own choices are meaningful. However, Beauvoir is wrong to think that the view suggests that life itself is meaningful. Her only says that we think that life is meaningful, because we find our choices as intrinsically important.

My talk about mental states is helpful to clarify Beauvoir's view, because it does not suggest that life is itself meaningful, but that the concept of meaning is a mind-dependent concept. Once we accept this, existentialists will not ask "Is life in itself meaningful?" Rather, they ask, "What do I find in the world as meaningful?" Here is my move. Remember, Beauvoir claims that one's choices are meaningful. And what is fundamental to making a choice is that one has a particular mental state, such as a belief or desire. Having a certain mental state is the groundwork for all actions and choices. When one says that their choice is meaningful, they actually suggest that their mental state is meaningful.

Krista Hyde said...

…if all of our actions are supposed to be valuable insofar as they may lead to a goal that has intrinsic value, but the goal does not exist, then our actions have no value.
So, if meaning is derived from value of this kind, then our actions are meaningless. And if life consists of a series of actions (including mental acts), then our life has no meaning.


Can we simply ascribe intrinsic value to whatever goal we’ve chosen for ourselves? It meets the existentialist requirement of choice/freedom, and has the benefit of being how we practically live our lives. Few people have children to use them as cutesy accessories. Not many philosophy students pursue academic life for the short work hours and hefty paychecks.

So in these cases the end-in-itself does exist. The trip to Chicago doesn’t become meaningful upon arrival in Chicago…perhaps its value increases as the Chicago-experience meets our expectations of meaningfulness. I think the key here is experience. Why not place experience (whatever type we choose) as valuable?
There has been some work done, I believe (by whom, I do not know) on how what humans really value is experience rather than happiness, which is a typical answer to the question, “What has intrinsic value?”

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying or simply missing the point?

John Camacho said...

@Krista,

I agree with the main point that "we ascribe intrinsic value to whatever goal we've chosen." I do think that experience is intrinsically valuable. But, would this mean that people who commit suicide, a classic topic in existentialism (Camus), are wrong in thinking that experience is not important? It seems like it would and I am sympathetic to your answer.


What I take as ambiguous is the relationship between meaning and value. I take the concept of meaning as fundamental to what is valuable, because of cases such as meaningful propositions or expressions that are not necessarily valuable. I think that existentialists use the terms meaning and value interchangeably and creates confusion. In ordinary language, we use them interchangeably, but I think that is a mistake.

Krista Hyde said...

@John:
You're right that it seems people who commit suicide are rejecting experience. I think the argument deBeauvoir would make is that most who choose to end their lives are not truly free. She indicates that freedom cannot be used to restrict freedom (the argument could be made, even for oneself), and mental illness certainly restricts one's freedom, especially that freedom which is so bound up in understanding! So the suicidal person is not really free.

And freedom appears to be the only external value, according to the existentialist. However, it is not truly an authority being imposed upon a person, but a structure within which freedom becomes a reality and choice is possible.

Ryan said...

@John: You make some great points here in your discussion of mental states and their priority. You are articulating this well, but I find you in direct agreement with De Beauvoir.

You wrote “I think that the existentialist predicament assumes a mistaken view that life needs to have some greater purpose in order for it to be meaningful.”

I don’t think this is the existentialist view. Rather, they challenge such notions of greater purpose (Hegelism, Theism, Marxism, etc.). Their conclusion, arrived at by questioning the “greater purpose” assumption, is that life doesn’t have a greater, mind-independent purpose and so it is up to the individual (mind) to find and ultimately create meaning via the individual (choices and pursuits/projects). Existentialists, like De Beauvoir, support the mind-dependent view you assume.

It appears you are approaching the issue with different language than typical existentialists, but that is not problematic because the language used by existentialists is not standardized. Depending on what you mean by mind then there may be some divergence here, which may ultimately pivot on the trivial. For instance, if you were speaking of mind as purely cognition and not including things such as emotion and passion, you would find objection from many existentialists because they would feel their existence is not limited to the cognitive. Could you could elaborate on your use of mind?

Ultimately I feel you have given a wonderful summary of existentialism in the statement: “On my view, the universe or nature does not care about whether people live or die. It is people who invest into the universe and attribute a sense of meaning upon it. We call our choices meaningful, because they are important to us. If they were not important to us, they would not be meaningful. People express their desires onto the world and make it meaningful.” This is the heart of existentialism.

Shea said...


What if it is the other way 'round? What if inherent value is the horse and meaning in life (or meaning of life) is the cart?
Do we have value because we live meaningful lives? Or are our lives meaningful because we have worth and value?
And if it does start at value - who is the evaluator? Do I get to decide my own value? What qualifies me for the role? Do you get to decide my value? (I'm going to say no...) How are we going to decide the value of anything?

reasonablyradical said...

I was thinking about this today, and I suppose I agree with Shea, or would ask the same questions...

I'm not a philosopher. To my mind, it seems that meaning is to action what value is to objects. I value a gold bar, because I'd rather have it than not - the universe in which I have a gold bar is preferable to me than one in which I don't, all else being equal. Similarly, my wedding was meaningful because, ceteris paribus, I the universe in which it happened as it did is preferable to a theoretical one in which it didn't.

So, we "create our own meaning" subjectively, in that if you decide something was worthwhile, then it was. But we cannot derive objective meaning from this, and require an external constant (i.e. God, IMHO) to value us and value our actions, i.e. imbue them with objective meaning. As Shea said, we are valued (as objects, by God), therefore our lives (as actions) have meaning.