Meaning = Morality
How Suzan Wolf Doesn’t Take Her Theory of Meaning and Morality Far Enough
In her essay, Suzan Wolf offers a defense of “Bernard Williams’ critique of impartial morality” (Wolf 1997, 299). Williams’ argument is that when morality comes into conflict with something that someone identifies as an essential part of their life, it cannot be expected for morality to win. Wolf, addressing a neglected theme she identified in responses to Williams, argues that there is an important difference between happiness and meaning, and that Williams’ case relies on the latter. In this essay, I will reconstruct Wolf’s argument that “meaning arises in a person’s life when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (305), and that this conception of meaning shows how Williams is right about it being unreasonable to sacrifice meaning for the demands of morality. I will then present my own argument for how Wolf’s conception of meaning really shows the reliance of meaning on morality, thereby resolving any issues of one needing to be sacrificed for the other. Essentially, instead of defending Williams, I believe Wolf ought to have quelled his worries that there could be any conflict in the first place.
Wolf begins her argument by pointing out a number of “salient facts” (302) about meaning that don’t apply to happiness, thus demonstrating their distinctness from each other. The first fact is that “meaning gives one a reason to live, or, more generally, a reason to take an interest in the world” (303) that someone without meaning wouldn’t have. People with meaning may tend to be happier, and those without less happy, but they are not necessarily linked because it is possible for someone to find meaning in their life despite being unhappy, and indeed sometimes meaningful things may cause unhappiness. The second fact is that finding meaning isn’t, “at least not wholly, a matter of choice” (303), nor can meaning be assigned. To some degree, people are drawn or called to things that give them meaning, and different people are drawn or called to different sources of meaning. The third fact is that people must perceive what it is that gives them meaning as being objectively worthwhile, and that it genuinely must be objectively worthwhile.
These facts lead to the “slogan” that “meaning arises in a person’s life when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness” (305). Subjective attraction is necessary for individuals to feel that their life has meaning, and objective attractiveness is necessary not only for them to be correct, but also for other people to be able to agree. Because, as Wolf points out, it is impossible for one person, being limited in body and mind, to pursue everything of value, and because people are unique, each person, if they are “lucky,” will be “struck, inspired, drawn by some value or some object of value in a way that moves her to . . . attach or identify herself with that value” (305), which in turn makes her care about the world and see her life as worthwhile in relation to that value. An example Wolf gives of how this account of meaning resolves the worries of some about morality becoming arbitrary is that of a child molester who claims their life only gains meaning from their crimes. Objectively, they aren’t doing anything of value, so their life is meaningless, demonstrating how morality won’t simply be thrown out the window when someone appeals to their subjective attraction.
However, in cases where people don’t identify with any sources of genuine value and also subjectively believe that their life is meaningless, it does become unreasonable to then assert that they “should go out there and maximize utility” (307) as consequentialists believe. If someone doesn’t care about their life or the world, appealing to the moral goodness of some action shouldn’t be expected to convince them to care. And even those who do care about their life and the world care because of their source of meaning, not because of moral duty, which means it would still be unreasonable for morality to take priority because then those people would just become the apathetic cases described before.
Addressing Kantian morality, Wolf summarizes how Kant claims that reason is the “deepest and most valuable part of us” (312), and that morality comes from reasoning, thus nothing in conflict with morality can truly be worth it. But Wolf doesn’t accept this claim either because to do so, she says, would mean that meaning “at the most fundamental level, is the same for all of us, and that it is, moreover, something that is dictated not by subjective attraction but by some independent fact” (312). She gives “various intellectual and aesthetic enterprises” as examples of activities that different people are attracted to and give them meaning, but that may not have “moral worth” (313). Thus, overall, she agrees with Williams that in the rare cases where morality would come into conflict with meaning, meaning must come out on top.
I accept Wolf’s theory of meaning, but I think she contradicts it in her criticism of Kantian morality and doesn’t take it to its logical conclusion, which is that meaningful things are moral, therefore there is no conflict between the two. When Wolf says that, to Kant, meaning would have to be “dictated not by subjective attraction but by some independent fact” she implies that her account of meaning doesn’t allow for independent facts to dictate meaning. But in fact, it does, when she specifies that not only must people believe they are pursuing something objectively valuable, they must also be right. Objectivity implies independence from the subjective, and in order to be right one must believe a true fact.
When Wolf introduces the concept of objective value she delves into metaphysics and an objective moral law. If there are “things” or “realms” (305) that are intrinsically valuable, morally right things must be part of them, or else there is no reason for morality to exist at all. It would be paradoxical to say that something objectively valuable was also wrong, or that something objectively worthless was also right, but this is what would happen if one believes in objective value but only subjective morality. A rational universe must value right and devalue wrong, and if the universe isn’t rational then we’ve got bigger problems than figuring out where meaning comes from. (The process of figuring things out altogether would become impossible).
Take the child molester case Wolf uses: she says that their crimes, their subjective attraction, is objectively “lacking in value” (306) and thus not a valid source of meaning. But their actions aren’t just lacking in value, they also devalue the childrens’ autonomy and dignity, as well as their own dignity, rationality, etc., and their actions are wrong. They generate a wrong through these devaluations of objectively valuable things. Without objectively valuable things, it couldn’t be said that child molesting was wrong, demonstrating morality and value’s interconnectivity. Perhaps some would argue that we need not appeal to objective value to say that, because everyone is equal, the child’s wish not to be molested cancels out the molester’s wish. But even that argument appeals to the truth of human equality. Truth, which is objective by definition, must too be valuable for anything to make any sense, including morality.
So value, truth, and morality are all interconnected, and they all must be objective. (It is true that there is subjective value as well, but Wolf is only concerned with the objective sort). Meaning then, following from objective sources of value, must also be said to come from moral pursuits. Wolf claims that “it is hard to understand and evaluate, for example, the moral worth” (313) of an aesthetic enterprise such as, say, art. She believes art could be said to be objectively valuable, and thus a potential source of meaning, but not connected to rightness or wrongness. But even if art, perhaps as an expression of truth, is objectively valuable, it must be created in order to exist and it is the act of creating it, not simply its existence, that provides meaning. Wolf uses the example of being able to read endless mystery novels as something that is not “well-suited to be meaning-providers” (304), even though, based on her theory, writing those novels could be.
So the next question is whether creating art can ever be a morally neutral source of meaning, and I don’t see how it could be. If one creates art while not violating the moral law of the universe, then one has created, or at least preserved, a source of value, which must be a morally right action. If one creates art while doing wrong, then clearly one’s source of meaning is not morally neutral. An objection might be that this then is an example of the conflict Wolf and Williams describe, where either meaning or morality must be sacrificed. But creating art through immoral means can’t really be a source of meaning at all because it is a devaluation of the objectively valuable thing that provides meaning, like in the case of the child molester.
Williams and Wolf believe that when morality comes into conflict with something genuinely meaningful to one’s life, morality cannot be said to take precedence at meaning’s expense. To support this argument Wolf lays out a theory of meaning that appeals to objective value. My case is that once one accepts objective value, objective morality follows, since doing the right thing is valuable and doing the wrong thing devalues what is valuable, and preserving value is right and devaluing valuable things is wrong. Wolf claims that some things/actions may be valuable but morally neutral, which would be like saying water is wet but rain might not be. Since morality and value are interconnected, and meaning is derived from value, meaning and morality can’t ever be conflicting. Only morally right things can be genuine sources of meaning, therefore all genuine sources of meaning are morally right. Those who claim to derive meaning from morally wrong things are objectively incorrect.
- Wolf, Susan. “Meaning and Morality.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 97, [Aristotelian Society, Wiley], 1997, pp. 299–315, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4545267.