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On Meaning and Tiddlywinks

One of the things that we most desperately crave as human beings is meaning. We want our own individual lives to be meaningful, and we want our lives to somehow fit into some larger narrative of drama and purpose. We want our brief moments on this cosmic rock to matter.

Yet the very thing that we most want is the thing that is said to be lost in our postmodern world. There is no god thought to be animating our world or leading it to any fixed destination. There are no objective values “out there” that could take hold of and command us. Whatever values we may imagine to exist, whatever might hold our attention or imagination and guide our behaviour for even a brief amount of time are thought to almost entirely be projections of our own needs, desires, and preferences. To quote Alan Soffin, “the postmodernist, skeptical, scientistic, and self-interested standpoints all insisted that meaning flowed from us into the world.” From us into the world. Not to us. It’s a huge difference, a huge loss.

But some aren’t prepared to give up on meaning just yet, even if it is thought to be self-evidently true that there is no meaning-making god out there. Yesterday’s New York Times, for example, contains an interesting piece by Clemson philosopher Todd May called “The Meaningfulness of Lives” that attempts to produce an account of objective meaning for humans to live by that requires no god(s) for its legitimation. The idea that a god would be necessary for objective meaning suffers the same fate as “the good” in Plato’s famous dialogue with Euthyphro. Does God command the good because it is good or is it good because God commands it? If the former, then goodness precedes and is separate from God, if the latter, then goodness is arbitrary. Substitute “meaning” for “the good” and May’s point becomes clear. Either meaning is out there regardless of what God may prefer, or it is arbitrary. So much for needing God for meaning.

So where to turn, in our quest for meaning that goes beyond our own preferences? May appeals to Susan Wolf, who says that “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A life must feel worthwhile and actually be worthwhile. It’s not enough for our lives to simply feel meaningful to ourselves. We can, after all, be quite inventive in convincing ourselves that we are engaged in meaningful tasks. As May humorously points out, “engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.”

Objective meaning, then, is the key. And where might we go for that? May acknowledges that this level of meaning is considerably more difficult to justify. It includes but is not synonymous with morality. It incorporates but is not constrained by feelings of subjective meaning. It’s a tricky thing, this objective meaning. In the end, May feels that an understanding of the narrative character of our lives is a useful place to start:

There are values we associate with a good narrative and its characters that are distinct from those we associate with good morals. A fictional character can be intense, adventurous, steadfast or subtle. Think here of the adventurousness of Ishmael in “Moby-Dick,” the quiet intensity of Kip in “The English Patient,” the steadfastness of Dilsey in “The Sound and the Fury” or the subtlety of Marco Polo in “Invisible Cities.” As with these fictional characters, so with our lives. When a life embodies one or more of these values (or others), and feels engaging to the one who lives it, it is to that extent meaningful. There are narrative values expressed by human lives that are not reducible to moral values. Nor are they reducible to happiness; they are not simply matters of subjective feeling. Narrative values are not felt, they are lived. And they constitute their own arena of value, one that has not been generally recognized by philosophers who reflect on life’s meaningfulness.

Now, I would certainly affirm the fact that good narratives can (and do) move and inspire us and embolden us. I think that we are creatures who cannot help but conceptualize our lives and our world in terms of narratives. Narratives are hugely important. But I’m not sure May has really accomplished anything like what he set out to do, namely, to articulate “an approach to thinking about meaning that can draw us together, one that exists alongside or instead of religious views.” I’m not sure, to borrow May’s clever metaphor, that he really has gotten us any closer to the question of how a life devoted to tiddlywinks cannot rise to the status of “meaningful.”

The obvious question the reader is left with at the end of May’s article is this: What happens when people find meaning in fundamentally different kinds of narratives? It’s all very well and good to be inspired by characters in the masterful literary tales highlighted by May, but what about those who prefer the more tawdry narratives of TMZ or Jersey Shore or any of the other apparently limitless options out there in a culture gorging itself on mindless, vulgar entertainment? What about those who prefer these “arenas of value?” What of these many characters (fictional or, tragically, not) that seem to inspire and animate so many lives in our culture?

The only response that seems open to May is that these people are listening to/living according to the wrong kinds of narratives. And while I think this is absolutely (even desperately!) true, it is not very helpful in the context of what is, ostensibly, an account of objective meaning apart from God. It only takes us right back to our initial question of how, exactly, we distinguish between right/wrong, good/bad, meaningful/meaningless, and what it is that constitutes, validates, and compels us to align ourselves with meaning that is “out there” as opposed to a mere reflection of personal preference.

I’m all for the importance of a good narrative in learning how to live meaningfully. I’m all for the centrality of “lived values” that feel engaging and that move and animate us at a subjective level. I just don’t think this tells enough of the story, in and of itself. I think that good narratives like the ones May identifies, rather than producing or legitimating objective meaning in our reliving of them, reflect, at their best, meaning that already exists by virtue of the God who created us to be meaning-seekers and meaning-makers.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. “engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.” …hmm, perhaps Mr. May is playing the blue chips.

    Like most sanitized academic assessments, Mr. May clearly undervalues the importance of the relational. There are times when playing any game with my children is the most valued and cherished activity of my life.

    September 12, 2011
  2. Tyler #

    “It only takes us right back to our initial question of how, exactly, we distinguish between right/wrong, good/bad, meaningful/meaningless, and what it is that constitutes, validates, and compels us to align ourselves with meaning that is “out there” as opposed to a mere reflection of personal preference”

    What about rewinding a bit to Nietzsche. It is not that their is no truth, it is that whether that it exists is unknowable. Therefore, all we are left for is human made truths, more specifically, individually made truths. Even one who believes in God falls victim to such an idea and their belief is a ‘truth’ but whether is as Truth is truly unknowable.

    Chapter one in Singer’s practical ethics provides the beginnings of a framework for how to navigate plurality and create objectivity out of it. I’d recommend it to you Ryan, it takes maybe 15 to 20 to read the chapter.

    September 12, 2011
    • How would Nietzsche help Mr. May out of his predicament? May is trying to go get away from the idea that value and meaning are merely subjective preferences. It seems like Nietzsche would have him embrace this.

      I don’t have Singer’s book on my shelf. Can you give me the Coles notes version? From what I’ve read of Singer, it’s hard for me to imagine how he could “create” objective meaning, but I’m certainly open to being corrected.

      September 12, 2011
      • Tyler #

        Well, help would come in the terms that since Truth is unknowable then we should de-emphasize the search for rigid meaning. Accepting our own limits can really liberate us and we can develop more fluid accounts of meaning. May, seems to want to reduce meaning into the narrative, but I find this odd since what we usually gives us the framework to create a narrative is meaning. Maybe I am not understanding him fully.

        As for Singer, I’ll do my best here. He argues that ethical relativism is indeed a difficult dilemma and places massive limits on deontological systems. Especially since ethics change in both place and time, never mind the mere disagreements we have within the same ethical framework. However, he proposes that if ethical positions are made in the terms of interests (goals) rather than rules and we honour other’s interests then there is a framework in which plurality can exist. He does acknowledge it is not a perfect system but it helps navigate the increasingly complexity of modernity. Now, I know that a quick retort is why should we honour other’s interests? Reason, is the most obvious answer. That if we approach a morale dilemma with an attempt of ethical universality we will reason that our interests are not inherently more important than others an are only considered so because they are our own.

        As for Paul’s comments, if you took the time to read how he reasoned those positions then you’d be less likely to copy and paste someone else’s work as response of condemnation. He lays out much more than your simplification and if you look at his work as a whole, suspending quick judgement, you’d have a better understanding of that position. You don’t have to agree with it but at least attempt to honestly engage it before dismissing in its entirety.

        September 13, 2011
      • Indeed, the political liberalism that Singer celebrates is a useful system for keeping us from killing one another over our disagreements. However, it’s difficult to imagine how, if our interests are so different and diverse, reason can provide a stable foundation. “Whose rationality?” is a question that can only be bypassed by presupposing an a priori account of reason that all human beings share – something very suspect according to many narratives today.

        September 13, 2011
      • @ Tyler:

        Accepting our own limits can really liberate us and we can develop more fluid accounts of meaning.

        Possibly…. Or, it could just be a restatement of the impossibility of something like objective meaning without God. “More fluid accounts” of meaning could just be another way of saying, you prefer love and truth, I prefer tiddlywinks…

        My understanding of Nietzsche would go something like this: Yes, of course, there is no such thing as objective value/meaning, and the only thing we have is will/desire/preference and whatever meaning we can create for ourselves. Life is comprised of competing interests. Get used to it, and may the strongest one win.

        May, seems to want to reduce meaning into the narrative, but I find this odd since what we usually gives us the framework to create a narrative is meaning.

        Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. It seems to me to be a fairly elaborate form of question-begging. Coherent and compelling narratives presuppose meaning, they don’t create it.

        Re: Singer, I think I would have similar comments to Michael’s above (acknowledging, again, that I have not read the passage from Singer you suggested). An a priori account of reason (whether its nature or its proper goal) is pretty elusive in postmodernity. It certainly isn’t clear to me why I ought to have anything like a universal ethic in mind, on what I understand Singer’s naturalistic presuppositions to be. It’s pretty tough to squeeze a concern for equality amongst competing interests out of nature.

        September 13, 2011
  3. 1.In a 2001 review of Midas Dekkers’ Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, Singer argues that sexual activities between humans and animals that result in harm to the animal should remain illegal, but that “sex with animals does not always involve cruelty” and that “mutually satisfying activities” of a sexual nature may sometimes occur between humans and animals,

    2.Singer’s article “Heavy Petting,”[30] in which he argues that zoosexual activity need not be abusive, and that relationships could form which were mutually enjoyed,

    3.Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus. In his view a preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience the sensations of suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus, at least up to around eighteen weeks, says Singer, has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for such a fetus to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a woman’s preferences to have an abortion; therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

    Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood—”rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”[18]—and therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”

    So “utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences” becomes the rational foundation for my ethic? Hmm, seems to me then that I’m going to be able to make a constructive case for charming social engineering projects like eugenics or genocide.

    Yeah I’m convinced, Nietzsche would have loved this guy.

    September 13, 2011
  4. Considering why mutually satisfying sexual intercourse with animals should be permissable? No thanks, Tyler I have less than zero interest in taking the time to understand how Mr. Singer arrived at that position. I leave it to others to determine it’s nuance.

    As for Singer’s notion of “utilitarian calculation” and his sexual observations regarding animals these are his words not mine. If you wish to chastise me for cut and paste quotes, so be it. But by that argument, what entitles you to direct our attentions to Mr. Singers work in the first place?

    September 14, 2011
  5. Hi Tyler, I apologise if I have offended you regarding my easy dismissal of Mr. Singer. Perhaps I would have done better to say that as I understand his premise, the foundation on which the details of his ethics rest, he does not affirm that it is always wrong to take an innocent life. Point of fact, please correct me if I’m wrong, he rejects the premise. This is an anathema to Catholic moral teaching that clearly states it is always a grave sin. Utilitarianism can never be a consideration as to who lives or who dies. In fact as I understand the Catholic position, “who lives?” can only be answered, “everyone we can keep alive”. “Who dies? can only be answered ” those we tried to save but couldn’t”.

    If the premise on which a value is asserted proves false I think it prudent to ignore pursuing the details of the valuation. I don’t mean to be anti-intellectual or dismissive.

    This would have been better place to start than what I still consider to be a bizarre ethic involving human and animal sexual relationships.

    September 15, 2011

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