Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Richard M. Hare on what it means to say that something matters

What exactly do we mean when we say that “nothing matters”? Richard Hare attempts to answer this question in an early (1957) essay.[1] The way he answers it is intended to convince us that the view that “nothing matters” (or in other words existential nihilism) is an untenable, for most of us even nonsensical position, and quite obviously so.

Hare starts his essay by relating the story of a young Swiss student staying with the Hares, who after reading Camus’ L’Etranger suddenly became convinced that “nothing matters”. Hare then proceeded to talk him out of it in Socratic fashion. Here is how: when we say that something matters what we do is express concern about that something. Concern, however, is always somebody’s concern. Therefore, when I say that something matters I express my concern for it. I am saying that it matters to me. Accordingly, when you say the same, then you express your concern for that thing. You are saying that it matters to you. Neither of us is then really saying anything about the thing in question. We are only saying something about ourselves.

Now most of us are in fact concerned about many things. And so, apparently, was Hare’s Swiss student, which means that things did matter to him, which means that they did matter, period. For the statement “nothing matters” to be true it would have to be true that the one who makes the statement is not concerned about anything at all. So if I am the one who says that nothing matters, then this is true if and only if nothing matters to me, and if you are the one who says it, then it is true if and only if nothing matters to you. Yet if it were true that nothing mattered to me, why would I then bother to make that statement in the first place? It seems I would at least have to care enough about something to find it worth pointing out to the world that nothing matters, in which case I would have immediately contradicted myself.

The reason we may not be immediately aware of this contradiction is that we tend to misunderstand the function of the word “matters”. Its function is to express (somebody’s) concern. It does not tell us anything about the nature of things. Contrary to what we seem to think when we declare that nothing matters (or seriously wonder whether it might be true that nothing matters), mattering is not something that things do. My wife may both chatter and matter, but while the chattering is something that my wife actually does,[2] the mattering is not. In that sense it is quite true that (strictly speaking) no thing matters, from which we can easily, but mistakenly, derive the conclusion that nothing matters: we take a deep and hard look at things, fail to observe any mattering activity in them, and then conclude that nothing matters. However, we have looked in the wrong place. We should have looked at ourselves. If we had done that we would most likely have found that some things do matter, namely to us and therefore in the only way something can matter.

This is not to say that there are no people out there who are not very much concerned about anything. But they are an exception, and even if nothing or nothing much matters to them, this has absolutely no bearing on the question what matters, or should matter, to us. Instead of wondering whether things matter, Hare suggests in conclusion, we’d better ask ourselves what matters to us, what matters most to us, and what should matter to us and how much it should matter. These are all important life questions. Whether things matter is not.

The obvious question to ask here is of course whether Hare is right to say that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that something matters is that it matters to us. Is the function of saying “it matters” really the expression of one’s own personal concern, and nothing else? Is there really no difference between “this is important” and “I find this important”? Personally, I am inclined to agree with Hare, mostly because I don’t see how things can matter if they don’t matter to someone, and how they can matter other than by mattering to someone. On the other hand, it seems to me that when we say something like “nothing matters” we do not really mean to say that nothing matters to us. That is why we would, when we say this, not feel contradicted if somebody pointed out to us that some things do in fact matter to us. We already knew that, and never meant to deny it. So it seems it is something else that we wished to express by saying that ‘nothing matters’. But the question is, what do we mean if we don’t mean that nothing matters to us? I find this question very difficult to answer. Consider the following fictional dialogue between A and B:

A: Nothing matters!
B: What do you mean, nothing matters?
A: What I said.
B: So what you mean is that nothing matters to you, right?
A: No, I don’t mean that at all. In fact, it matters very much to me that nothing matters. I’m extremely concerned about it!
B: But if you are concerned about it, if it matters to you that nothing matters, then there clearly is something that matters.
A: Yes, but only to me. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what matters to me or if there is anything that matters to me. It doesn’t matter whether or not things matter to people, me included.
B: Okay, but what do you mean when you say it doesn’t matter? If they matter to you, and they matter to me, if there is somebody to whom they matter, how can they still not matter?
A: They do not matter in the sense that it makes no difference whether or not they matter to me, or, for that matter, if they exist or not exist.
B: No difference to you, you mean?
A: No, not to me. To me it does make a difference.
B: To whom then?
A: To nobody in particular. It simply makes no difference.
B: But it does make a difference. After all, if those things didn’t exist or if they were different, other things would be different, too, wouldn’t they?
A: Yes, but not in the long run. A time will come when the world will be exactly as it would have been if things had been different. Say in 5 billion years when the sun will swell up and swallow Earth. None of the things that we do now will then have made any difference. So I guess what I mean when I say nothing matters is that nothing matters ultimately or in the long run.
B: Okay, fine, perhaps what happens now and what we do and whether we live or die makes no difference for the long-term future. But all of this certainly makes a difference now. Why should we want it to make a difference for all eternity?
A: Well, I guess you are right. Although when that future comes, there will also be nobody left to whom anything matters that matters to us now. So then nothing will matter anymore, right?
B: Yes, correct, but why should we worry about that? Perhaps it is true that there will come a time when nothing matters any more, but that time is not here yet. That nothing will matter does in no way show that nothing matters, namely now. So what is your problem?
A: I don’t know. You are confusing me. Let’s go and have a drink. It doesn’t really matter anyway.

Still, it remains difficult to consistently think about ‘importance’ or ‘mattering’ the way that Hare suggests we do. Hare himself seems to forget what he has just told us when, in the last paragraph of his essay, he advises us to “learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to reach it.” (46) This is clearly something that matters to Hare. However, in suggesting that this matters he is also clearly not merely expressing his own concerns. He is, rather, expressing the belief that we, too, should be concerned about it. So ‘this matters’, at least in this particular instance, means, in addition to “this matters to me (= Hare)”, “this should matter to you (= the reader)”. Why should it, though? The reason seems to have something to do with some things being truly valuable and others not, yet in light of Hare’s own analysis it makes little sense to assert that things have a “true value” that is not always apparent to us. In accordance with Hare’s analysis of the meaning of ‘X matters’, it seems that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that “something has true value” is that it has true value for us. But in that case it would make no sense to say that the “true value” may not be apparent to us. If having such a value means having such a value for us, then it needs to be apparent to us. Yet the very term “true value” is designed to suggest that we may be mistaken about a thing’s true value (just as, perhaps, we can be mistaken about what truly matters, or that things matter at all). “True value” implies the possibility of “false value”, but it would be very odd to say that certain things have a false value for me. They either have value or they don’t. That their value is false can only mean that even though they appear to be valuable to me, they are in fact not valuable at all. Accordingly, to say that something is truly valuable can only mean that it has value even if I am unable to see it (so that it has no value for me). If nothing matters unless, and to the extent that, it matters to someone, then nothing has value either, unless, and to the extent that, it has value for someone.

[1] “’Nothing Matters’” was written in 1957 when Hare was 38. It was originally published in French as “Rien n’a d’importance” in La Philosophie Analytique, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit 1959, and later reprinted in English in Hare’s Applications of Moral Philosophy, London: Macmillan 1972, 32–47. I am using another reprint, namely the one in Life, Death and Meaning, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 41-47.
[2] Note to my wife: this is Hare’s example, not mine.

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