Friday, 10 March 2017

Richard Taylor on the Meaning of Life



Richard Taylor’s “The Meaning of Life”, published in 1970,[1] starts off with an analysis of the myth of Sisyphus, which Taylor introduces as a “perfect image of meaninglessness” (20). Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a hill, for all eternity. For whenever he gets to the top, the rock rolls down again, so that he has to start all over again. There is no hope that he will ever accomplish his task, and giving up is not an option. The “idiotic cycle” that is his life will never end.

There are two features that, for Taylor, makes the Sisyphus case such a perfect example of a meaningless life. The first is the repetitious nature of his labour, and the second is the fact that “nothing ever comes of what he is doing”. Taylor clearly gives more weight to the second feature, the pointlessness of his labour, suggesting that what someone is doing might be meaningful despite being repetitive, as long as it eventually leads to something, which in Sisyphus’s case it doesn’t. Equally, if one’s life were less repetitive, it would still be meaningless if nothing ever came of it. “Meaninglessness is essentially endless pointlessness, and meaningfulness is therefore the opposite.” (23)

Unfortunately, our own lives seem to be equally pointless. Like all living beings we tend to do the same things over and over again. Our days strongly resemble each other. We get up, use the bathroom, have breakfast, go to work, come home, eat, sleep, and then we do it again tomorrow. Our life as a whole is equally predictable in its overall trajectory. We get born, grow up, find a job, a hobby, fall in love, marry, have children, get old, retire, and die. And our children will do the same, as will their children after them, ad infinitum. There is some variation in the detail, of course, but in terms of their general features most human lives are pretty much alike. For one thing, they are characterized by endless repetitions, and for another, they do not seem to lead anywhere. Our lives are therefore just as pointless as the life of the famous rock-pusher. “The picture of Sisyphus is the picture of existence of the individual man, great or unknown, of nations, of the human race, and of the very life of the world.” (25)

Except it isn’t. As it turns out, this was only the first step in Taylor’s argument, which he subsequently turns completely around by flatly contradicting the equation between pointlessness (the not-going-anywhere of our lives) and meaninglessness that he initially seemed to accept. Pointless our lives may be, he now argues, but that does not necessarily mean that they are meaningless. Contrary to what was suggested before with the Sisyphus example, what makes them meaningful is not what comes of them (or that something comes of them), but the fact that we deeply care about what we do, that we are really emotionally involved in our lives. The things we do are important to us, and that is enough to make our lives meaningful, even if nothing that we do actually leads anywhere (at least to nothing permanent, nothing that will stay).

Why should we think that their ‘leading somewhere’ would make our lives meaningful anyway? Let us suppose that Sisyphus actually managed to fulfil his task. He rolls the rock up the hill, and it stays up. Sisyphus has accomplished his goal, and since there aren’t any other goals to replace this one (for instance to roll a different rock up the hill, which wouldn’t really change much), he now has got nothing left to do. His life has led to something, and that’s it. Would his life now be meaningful? Taylor insists (and quite plausibly so) that it would not. It would, instead, from the moment of his accomplishment onwards, be “the picture of infinite boredom” (26).

This has, according to Taylor, nothing to do with the fact that what he has achieved is unlikely to be regarded as something that is actually worth achieving. Having put a rock on top of a hill is perhaps not something one can be particularly proud of. Perhaps one should have better things to do. Yet even if we supposed that Sisyphus used his rocks to build a beautiful temple on top of that hill, then this would still not make his life any more meaningful. In both cases, the “nightmare of eternal and pointless activity” has now merely been replaced with “the hell of its eternal absence.” (26) And that particular form of meaninglessness, which according to Taylor would be a genuine hell (27), is precisely what our lives normally do not have because we, together with all other living beings, tend to feel an “inner compulsion to be doing just what we were put here to do, and to go on doing it forever.” This, Taylor, suggests, “is the nearest we may hope to get to heaven”. (27) It is also what makes our lives meaningful. The meaning is in the (passionate) doing of things, not in what that doing leads to. “The point of living is simply to be living, in the manner that it is your nature to be living.” (28) We need to look at lives not from an external point of view, but from within, and then we will see that the endless activity that leads nowhere, which characterizes life, is, simply because it is energetically pursued, perfectly sufficient to give meaning to life. Consequently, even Sisyphus would, according to Taylor, have a meaningful life (and one that would not be in any way less meaningful than any other life) if he actually loved rolling rocks up hills. So if we could implant in him “a strange and irrational impulse; namely a compulsive impulse to roll stones” (22), then his life would be just as good as ours and just as good as any life can ever be.

I am inclined to agree with Taylor’s overall conclusion that the meaning of life is to be found in the living of it, and that the fact that our lives are in many ways repetitive and ultimately ‘do not lead anywhere’ (i.e. end in death), does not make our lives any less worth living. As long as we love doing what we do, as long as we are, as Taylor says, deeply involved, our lives are meaningful in that sense. In that sense even animals can have a meaningful life. As long as my dog still feels “the rapture of bones under hedges” (William James), her life is as meaningful as it can get. However, I still have a few qualms about the argument.

First, Taylor depicts the situation where something actually has come of what we do as the end of all possible pursuits. We achieved our life goal, and now we are done. Nothing left to live for. Pure hell. Okay, fine. However, that is not what we desire when we feel that our life is not going anywhere, or that nothing comes of it. Why should there be only one concern in our life, or a limited number of concerns? We want our life to go somewhere, but we don’t want to reach the point where it no longer goes anywhere. We want it to keep going somewhere. That seems to me entirely consistent. The question would then be, Is my life better (more meaningful) if what I am doing actually has a point (say, by changing the world, if only for a while, for the better) than if it does not?

Also, Taylor is suggesting it doesn’t matter at all what we do as long as we are really into it. In terms of what makes life meaningful, endless rock pushing is just as good as, say, curing cancer (which echoes Bentham’s claim that pushpin is just as good as poetry: whatever works for you). This has a certain democratic appeal, which I do appreciate, but I am wondering whether Taylor is not taking the democratization a bit too far. Does it really not matter at all what we take a keen interest in? Would Sisyphus’s life really suddenly become meaningful if we managed to manipulate him in such a way that he wants nothing more than pushing that damn rock up the hill? And if that completely satisfied him? Should we then also say that if we could create humans who are more than happy to be our slaves, then they too would have meaningful lives? What about conscious, self-aware sex robots whose only purpose in life is to satisfy our every desire? Or “pigs that want to be eaten” (Baggini)? From the internal perspective their lives might appear worth living, but looked at from the outside it is difficult not to find them somehow deficient, even lamentable. And the fact that those who live them don’t mind living that way, and even positively relish their situation, does not make it any better. If anything, it makes it worse. The happy Sisyphus is an abomination.

This may have something to do with the obvious unnaturalness of those lives. There is something obnoxious about making a living being enjoy a life that is forced upon it and that it would never choose for itself if it had a choice. Taylor finds the meaning of life in the “inner compulsion to be doing just what we were put here to do, and to go on doing it forever”. The way this is phrased, however, is puzzling, and certainly ambiguous. What exactly does it mean to say that we have been “put here to do” something? Who put us here? And does anything depend on our being put here to do something? And if so, does anything depend on who put us here to do whatever we are meant to do? What if we have not been put here at all, or not put here to do anything in particular?

It may well be, though, that Taylor was just a bit careless with his formulation and that all he meant to say is that a life is meaningful if the one who lives it can do what is in their nature to do, and pursue the goals that is in their nature to pursue. Would we then be prepared to say that it is in Sisyphus’s nature to push rocks up hills, in the sexbot’s or sexual slave’s nature to want to be sexually abused, and in the pig’s nature to be eaten, provided they have been designed to enjoy this? Would it be different if they hadn’t been designed that way, but had just turned out to be appreciative of those things through an accident of nature? If they just happened to be born that way?

And what about those blind, ugly worms living in dark caves that Taylor mentions earlier in the paper to illustrate the apparent pointlessness of existence, unmoving and doing nothing except occasionally eating an insect that gets stuck to them, reproducing once, and then dying? Is that really more or less what we do? Is that really all that we are? Are our lives not in any significant way different from that of those worms? Meaningful perhaps, if we go along with Taylor’s assessment, but only as meaningful as the life of such worms? It doesn’t feel right. More importantly, it does not feel like we are getting an awful lot of meaning out of this, and certainly not the kind of meaning that would justify and support the exaltation with which Taylor concludes his essay, declaring that the meaning of life (which we share with those worms) “far exceeds in both its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.” (28) I’m not sure that blind, ugly worms in a cave can carry the weight of such exaltation.


[1] Originally in Richard Taylor, Good and Evil, New York: Macmillan 1970, reprinted in Life, Death and Meaning. Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 19-28 (which is the version I have been using).

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