Sunday, 13 November 2016


It is widely thought (though hardly uncontested) that a life (and certain activities in life) can not only be happy or unhappy (as well as more or less happy or unhappy), but also meaningful or meaningless (or perhaps more or less meaningful). People do not always agree what exactly it is that makes some lives more ‘meaningful’ than others, but it is certainly not unusual at all for us to express how well or badly we think a life is going in terms of its supposed meaningfulness or lack thereof. We seem to understand what people are saying when they complain about a lack of meaning in their lives, and we readily accept that living a ‘meaningless’ life is anything but desirable. Meaninglessness is supposed to be bad, something that we have good reason to avoid if we can.

But perhaps lives can be even worse than just meaningless. In a recent paper (“Anti-Meaning and Why It Matters”, Journal of the American Philosophical Association 1/4 (2015): 694-711), Stephen M. Campbell and Sven Nyholm have argued that lives can not only be meaningful or meaningless, but also “anti-meaningful”. If a meaningless life is bad, then an anti-meaningful life is even worse. According to Campbell and Nyholm we need to recognize the existence of anti-meaning to make sense of the fact that some lives appear to be less meaningful than others although they contain the same number of meaningful activities, as well as the fact that some lives appear to be not meaningful at all despite clearly containing some meaningful activities. If we think for instance that to what extent our lives are meaningful depends on the extent to which we contribute to what is (objectively) good (which is one popular theory of meaning in life), then we would probably want to say that somebody who does good and no evil leads a more meaningful life than somebody who does the same amount of good, but also some evil. However, in order to accommodate this intuition we need to assume that the bad things we do, do not only not contribute to the meaningfulness of our life, but actually detract from it. In other words, what we gain in meaning by doing what is good, we lose in meaning by doing what is bad, so that the more good and the less bad we do, the more meaningful our lives are, and if we actually do more bad than good, then our lives are not merely meaningless (or not meaningful): they are anti-meaningful.

The same argument can be made within the context of other theories of meaning. If you, for instance, think that meaning is determined not by our contribution to the good, but by subjective life-satisfaction, then a life that contains a lot of satisfying experiences and no dissatisfying (i.e., positively unpleasant or painful) ones would still appear more meaningful than one that contains the same amount of satisfaction, but also, in addition, a lot of dissatisfaction. And if you think that meaning is determined by the extent to which you achieve your central goals in life, then a life in which you achieve all your goals would still appear more meaningful than a life in which you achieve the same number of goals, but also fail to achieve some others. No matter which theory of meaning you favour, anti-meaning is needed to explain how the overall meaning in a life can be diminished (rather than simply not enhanced) by some activities or experiences.

Campbell and Nyholm maintain that because it helps us account for the above intuitions, the concept of anti-meaning is of quite some theoretical significance. But the main reason they would like to see the existence of anti-meaning acknowledged is practical in nature. They argue that anti-meaning would give us a good, additional reason to stop engaging in certain practices that are actually harmful to others (for instance consumptive practices that contribute to the gradual destruction of the environment, or our meat consumption, which contributes to widespread animal suffering). It helps us to be more concerned about “the harms and burdens that we collectively impose on present and future individuals through our economic and individual lifestyle choices”, namely when we realize that by making those choices we “are actually harming ourselves by generating anti-meaning in our own lives”.

Should we, therefore, accept the authors’ suggestion that lives can be anti-meaningful and that certain actions and practices in life can generate anti-meaning? Although this is certainly an interesting idea, I am not convinced that it is, all things considered, all that useful, neither for theoretical nor for practical purposes. For one thing, it is hard to believe that anyone would abstain from, say, eating meat or driving around in their car, or generally from causing harm to others in some way, not because they think it is bad to inflict harm on other people or animals, but because “doing so generates anti-meaning” in their lives. Apologies to the authors, but this expectation or hope strikes me as preposterous. If people cannot get motivated to change their ways by considering the harm they cause, they will most certainly not be motivated to do so in order to avoid something as obscure and intangible as “anti-meaning”. (Imagine a savvy democrat trying to convince a Trump supporter before the presidential election that he had better not vote for Trump: “I know you couldn’t care less about Trump’s racism, sexism, egocentrism, and all too obvious lack of self-control and moral integrity, despite the fact that all of this clearly has the potential of unleashing a lot of evils on the world. I know you will vote for him anyway. But have you considered that doing so will actually increase anti-meaning in your life?”)

Neither am I convinced that there is a theoretical need to acknowledge the existence of anti-meaning. It is difficult enough to defend a concept of meaningfulness, but at least we have a widely used word for it, which indicates that there is something there, some aspect of our life, some aspect of our experience, that we try to get conceptual hold of by calling it ‘meaning’. We may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what we mean when we call a life or an action meaningful or meaningless, but we can be pretty sure that there is some quality that the one has and the other lacks and that, for some reason, we think is important to take into account. But, as Campbell and Nyholm point out, the word “anti-meaningful” is a new word, which previously did not exist, nor was or is there any other word that would convey what the word “anti-meaning” is meant to convey. We feel the need to describe certain states of affairs as meaningful and others as meaningless, but it appears that before Campbell and Nyholm nobody has ever felt the need to express anti-meaning. Yet if there is something like anti-meaning, why do we not have a word for it?

Campbell and Nyholm try to make the idea palatable by claiming that the case is analogous to those of good and evil, benefit and harm, and well-being and (more controversially) ill-being. Evil, they point out, is not merely the absence of good, but something in its own right, something positive. Similarly, harming somebody is different from merely not benefiting them. Finally, we can be well, not well, and unwell (or ill). In all those cases we have three different states, not two, a positive one, a negative one, and a neutral one. So why do we suppose that there are only two states of meaning, namely meaningful and meaningless? If meaninglessness is the absence of meaning, then we should expect that there is also the opposite of meaning, a negative to the mere neutral state of meaninglessness and the positive one of meaningfulness.

However, not for all conditions we have three different states. Yes, perhaps unhappiness is not merely the absence of unhappiness. We know that suffering and pain are more than just the absence of pleasure. But evil can plausibly be understood as the absence of good, and a total absence of well-being may plausibly be seen as the worst state you can possibly be in. We normally don’t make any difference between being unwell and being not well. And even if in all those cases there really were a positive, a neutral, and a negative state, it would not follow that the case of meaning was analogous. A glass can be either full or empty, or even half-full or quarter-full, but it cannot be anti-full. A room can be light or dark, or more or less light or dark, but it cannot be anti-light. Perhaps meaningfulness is very much like fullness or lightness, and not at all like pleasure or happiness. Then the assumption that “where there is meaning, there is the possibility of anti-meaning” would simply be false.

It is also not clear to me that it makes sense to say of a life, as Campbell and Nyholm frequently do, that it is “somewhat meaningful” or “very meaningful”. It does not sound right to me, which would suggest that meaning is not really something of which a life (or an activity) can have more or less. My life would then be either meaningful or not, but not more or less meaningful. By introducing the notion of “anti-meaning”, Campbell and Nyholm make the question of meaning a matter of mathematical calculation. If you want to know whether your life is (overall) meaningful, you just have to add up all instances or bits of meaning that you have accumulated in your life, then subtract all the bits of anti-meaning that you have also accumulated, and if the balance is in the black, then your life is meaningful, and if it is in the red, then it is anti-meaningful. Should you find that it is anti-meaningful, then all you would have to do is perform a sufficient amount of meaningful activities (like spending a couple of hours every day for the next two weeks on saving the world or curing cancer) until you are in the black. Some lives might be so balanced that those who live them permanently switch from having a meaningful life (just about) to having an anti-meaningful life (just about) and back again, forever fluctuating between meaning and anti-meaning. We could then also expect lives to be very rarely meaningless, because in order to be meaningless there would have to be exactly the same amount of meaning and anti-meaning in it, so that meaning and anti-meaning cancel each other out, which is rather unlikely. It seems to me, then, that whatever we have in mind when we talk about meaning in our lives (and perhaps more importantly its absence), it is surely more complex than this rather mechanistic view of meaning and anti-meaning would suggest.

We may indeed want to say that somebody who does more good than bad in their life, or somebody who experiences mostly satisfaction and success, leads a better life than somebody who does more bad than good, or somebody who experiences mostly dissatisfaction and failure. But the reason for this may not be that their life is, on the whole, more meaningful. Perhaps it just lacks consistency or coherence, or perhaps dissatisfaction and frustrated life plans count as bad, even though they do not make your life any less meaningful. The whole scenario assumes that we can actually make our lives more meaningful by consistently seeking out meaningful activities and avoiding those that are anti-meaningful or meaningless. If you devote every hour of your day to making the world a better place, whereas I spend only 50% of your day on making the world a better place, using the rest of my time for meaningless activities such as walking the dog, doing the dishes, or watching a romantic comedy with my wife, then your life would apparently be much more meaningful than mine (twice as meaningful, to be exact), at least on the contributing-to-objective-good theory of meaning. Or if (in accordance with the aim-achievement theory of meaning) I only get to achieve half of my central goals in life and you achieve all of them, then your life is so much more meaningful than mine (again, twice as meaningful). What, then, do we make of people who, like the members of the German resistance group White Rose, fight bravely against an oppressive regime and pay for it with their lives? Clearly they did not achieve their goals, but were their lives therefore less meaningful than if they had succeeded? Are we really prepared to say that their lives were in fact even worse than just meaningless, namely “anti-meaningful”, as the discussion in this paper suggests? Sometimes it is better to try and to fail than not to try at all. Perhaps that is why (according to Camus) we need to imagine Sisyphus as happy (precisely because his life, despite the apparent pointlessness of how he spends it, achieves meaning by his refusal to accept that it is best for the rock to remain at the bottom of the hill).

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