A Life Well Lived

Yesterday I wrote about the difference between Work and Work Feeling.  Part of my motivation for thinking about that topic was my current work experience at IFTF.  But mostly, I wanted to lay the foundation for today’s post.  I define:

  • Meaning: the reasoning underlying one’s goals.
  • Meaning Feeling: the emotion, akin to “satisfaction”, one experiences when accomplishing a series of goals with an underlying reasoning.





Again, intuitively one would expect to experience Meaning Feeling if one lives by adhering to a good Meaning.  But, as with the relationship between Work and Work Feeling, we can expect there to be a dissociation.  Here are some examples of the dissociation.

Imagine that you are an Arab terrorist trainer.  You dedicate your entire life to the destruction of Western values, which you understand as interfering with the will of Allah. You do this by training teenagers to become suicide bombers to take down American planes and blow up Israeli cafes.  By living this way, I would expect you to have a large amount of Meaning Feeling – perhaps this Meaning Feeling is the primary reason that you conduct your terrorism.  But it is evident that training suicide bombers is a decidedly bad thing for Islam as a religion.  Hence the actions are without Meaning, as the underlying reasoning is faulty.

For a more controversial example, imagine that you are a bad medical student.  You are well below average in medical knowledge, but good enough to get into a residency program and ultimately a position at a good hospital.  Throughout your career you are incompetent, but not enough to get you fired.  For decades you provide your patients with below average care and are generally unhelpful to your colleagues.  You are aware of this, but you tell yourself that even though you don’t go a good job, you are providing much-needed medical services and saving lives.  This provides you the comfort to feel good about your life, and it gives you a lot of Meaning Feeling.  What you fail to understand, though, is that if you had not practiced medicine at all, your spot would have been filled with someone who is likely a better doctor than you (regression towards the mean).  Hence the Meaning of your life, that your services are helping people, is based on faulty reasoning.

[I note that this is controversial, and worthy of its own analysis, because in the counterfactual world in which you don’t practice medicine, the person who replaced you won’t accomplish what they do in this world.  These issues are difficult to sort out!]

In each of these cases, our protagonist has Meaning Feeling without real Meaning.  So by repeating yesterday’s analysis, it’s clear that one ought not rely on Meaning Feeling to verify Meaning.  In fact, I am more confident that Meaning Feeling can be simulated, for example by a drug, than Work Feeling, which makes the distinction even more critical.  We must use sound reason, and sound reason alone, to arrive a good Meaning for which we can motivate our life’s work.  Meaning Feeling must serve only as an indicator that something might be based in a good Meaning, and as a random, pleasant aspect of human life.

I’ll return now to Nozick’s thought experiment that I outlined yesterday.  I left with the questions: “What would you do with this opportunity?  Would it be sufficient for you to experience accomplishing all of the things you want to accomplish, or do you want to actually accomplish them?”

Nozick actually introduced this thought experiment in order to disprove psychological hedonism.  In brief, he argued that since few of us would choose to spend the rest of our lives hooked up to the machine, we must care about more than our experiences.  The reasons most of us would not plug into the machine are:

  1. There are some things we do for reasons other than experiencing doing them.
  2. We want to be a person who does, not just a person who experiences.
  3. We would be limited by the machine, in that we could not make or think things outside the constraints of the machine.

If you agree with these reasons, then you also understand why we should not live our lives in order to experience Meaning Feeling.  If all you seek is Meaning Feeling, then you would happily plug into the machine, which most of us would consider a form of suicide.  I think only a radical existentialist, a solipsist, or a nihilist would choose the machine over real life.

This analysis leads to some strong practical conclusions.  Since, as I claimed above, we must use sound reason alone to decide on a good Meaning to guide our lives, we appear to have several choices.  We may spend a significant amount of time studying metaethics, as I have done and currently do.  Alternatively, we may put our faith in those wiser than ourselves.  One might, for example, choose to blindly follow the teachings of Emmanuel Kant, and live life as he preaches, under the belief that Kant is the optimal source of metaethical reasoning.  Or we may place our faith in a reputable body of knowledge, such as the theory behind the United States.  Someone can reasonably argue that the wisdom of the founding fathers, and the politicians that have guided the country since then, far exceeds the wisdom that he or she can attain, and so a life of service to the USA is an ideal life of Meaning.  One could also possibly argue that since metaethical questions are exceedingly difficult, it is not productive to study them extensively.  Rather we might choose to follow the wisdom of the crowd, and simply do what other people are doing, under the calculation that most people are living lives of Meaning with high probability.

All of these options are reasonable.  The only type of option that I really cannot endorse is “I am a public defender, because making sure the innocent don’t go to jail makes me feel like I’m a good person.”  Or “I take every drug I can find, because many drugs make me feel like the universe is meaningful, which I do not feel in my natural state.”  Or “I try to produce as many children and grandchildren as possible, so that when I’m on my deathbed I’ll feel like I did the world a service.”

I am welcome to hear methods, other than the ones I provided, by which people can reasonably argue that a certain life path is based on a good Meaning.

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