Ethics and the Meaning of Life

When asked for the “meaning” of some event, process, thing, etc., one is typically asked, “what is going on?” and “what is its significance?” If you and I hear a loud noise and I ask what it means, you may respond that a thunderstorm is coming, but it is not a danger, or that a conference has begun and we need to hurry to hear the first speaker. When one asks for the meaning of life, one appears to be asking, “what exists?” and “what is its value?” One is not, therefore, asking primarily or only about the purpose or function of life. The significance of our lives may be of great objective value (it is better that humans exist rather than not) or of only subjective significance (your life is valuable if it is valued by you and others). Here are some possible accounts of the meaning of life:

  • If secular naturalism is true, the cosmos was not created and sustained in existence for the good by a divine reality; at base, the laws and structures of the cosmos are impersonal and not purposive (goal directed).
  • If Christianity is true, the cosmos and all its constituents are created and sustained by an all-good, omnipresent, omniscient, loving God who wills its good.
  • If classical Buddhism is true, there is no God, and those of us who live lives of greed and self-promotion are living a life of illusion.

Arguably, a question about the meaning of life is like a question about the meaning of an action or statement. The question requires attention to both internal, individual matters (What did the agent intend?) and public matters (How is the act or statement construed in the culture?). Imagine Pat, who has just acquired some proficiency in English, comes across a group of athletic young people who are leading a donkey to a child’s birthday party and shouts out, “Nice ass!” What is the meaning of Pat’s statement? If Pat was only aware that “ass” refers to a donkey, wouldn’t we say that Pat said something that would ordinarily be used as a crude or salacious term, but was only (innocently) expressing pleasure in seeing such a fine donkey?