Sunday, 16 July 2017

Aaron Smuts on the Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life

According to Aaron Smuts[1], the “correct (!) view of the meaning of life” (537) is that life is meaningful to the extent that the one who lives it “promotes the good” (536). They don’t need to do it intentionally or even be aware of it. Nor does it matter whether their existence actually makes a difference (in the sense that, if they had not existed, some of the good occasioned by them would not have occurred). The only thing that matters for meaning in life is “that one is causally responsible for the good”. A life can be more or less meaningful. The more good one is responsible for, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or inadvertently, the more meaningful one’s life is. If you are responsible for bad things, then those bad things reduce the meaningfulness of your life. If you are responsible for more evil than good, then your life is less than meaningful: it has negative or anti-meaning. Smuts calls this the “good cause account of the meaning of life”.

The good cause account of the meaning of life, or “GCA”, stipulates that subjective fulfilment of any kind is simply irrelevant for the meaningfulness of one’s life. It is possible to be mistaken about whether or not one’s own life is meaningful. My life can be very meaningful even if I feel consistently miserable and believe that my life is in fact utterly meaningless. My life can also be completely devoid of meaning (and even have negative meaning, i.e. be worse than just meaningless) even if I am fulfilled and think and feel that my life is very meaningful indeed. In both cases I may just be wrong about the actual meaningfulness of my life. There is nothing subjective about the meaning of life. Meaninglessness and its absence are objective features of my life. Smuts thus flatly rejects both the subjectivist account of the meaning of life defended by the early Richard Taylor (who argues that the life of a happy Sisyphus would be meaningful), and the mixed account defended by Susan Wolf (who argues that subjective attraction and objective attractiveness must come together for a life to be meaningful).

According to Smuts, there are various ways in which a life can be good. Subjective fulfilment is one, meaningfulness is another. A “happy life devoted to trivial amusements” (538) is not a meaningful life. Most people desire more than just to be happy. Smuts cites Achilles who decides to fight against the Trojans despite knowing that this would kill him because he did not want his name to be forgotten. “He chose a short meaningful life over a long life high in individual welfare.” (540) Nozick’s experience machine also demonstrates not only that a meaningful life is more important to most of us than subjective well-being, but also that meaningfulness goes beyond and is in fact independent of subjective well-being. A life in the experience machine, even if totally wonderful, would obviously be meaningless because whatever you did while connected to the machine would have no real-life consequences. If you cured cancer in the machine, you wouldn’t really have cured cancer. Nobody would be any better off because of your imagined actions and achievements: “no good would result from a machine cure.” (543) A subjectivist account of the meaning of life is also absurd because it would not allow us to normatively distinguish between subjectively equally fulfilling lives, such as the life of a cancer researcher and the life of someone who is “devoted to consuming vast quantities of excrement.” (544) Clearly, Smuts suggests, the life of the cancer researcher is more meaningful than that of a “grinning excrement eater”. If the excrement eater thinks otherwise, he is wrong, just as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life (which Smuts uses as the key witness for the correctness of his account) was wrong to think that his life was meaningless. It wasn’t, because he did a lot of good without realizing it. In the end George does of course realize exactly that and thereby discovers that his life has in fact been meaningful all along, but even if he had not made that discovery (and instead committed suicide as he had planned), his life would still have been meaningful. That is why a mixed account of meaning (such as Wolf’s fitting fulfilment view) is just as wrong as a pure subjectivist account. They are both refuted by the fact that George Bailey was mistaken about the value of his life, which shows that we can be mistaken about it, and therefore that subjective fulfilment is not a reliable indicator of meaningfulness.

A life’s meaningfulness, for Smuts, is the same as that life’s significance. When we are dissatisfied with our lives we are dissatisfied because of its (apparent) insignificance. Its insignificance does not consist in our dissatisfaction with it. To say that a life is insignificant means that it does not produce anything of value. It is, in other words, not good for anyone or anything. It does not matter whether what I do is intrinsically or only instrumentally valuable (i.e., whether it is good in itself or good for other things), the one is as good as the other. Smuts borrows an example from Viktor Frankl to illustrate his point: “imagine an ape that is punctured repeatedly in order to manufacture a life saving serum. The ape cannot hope to understand the significance of its life. There is nothing we can say to make it understand. But its life is indeed meaningful. Hundreds of people are saved as a result.” (551)

Curiously, Smuts wants to see the question whether life is meaningful distinguished from the question whether life is worth living. For him, a life can be meaningful, but at the same time not worth living (for instance because it lacks subjective fulfilment). “Meaning is important, but it is not all that matters.” (552) That unfortunate ape’s life is meaningful, but (most likely) not worth living.

A meaningful life is a life that causes more good than evil. On this view, even somebody who wants to do evil, but is not very good at it, so that due to their incompetence they actually do a lot of good, lives a meaningful life (although perhaps not as meaningful as that of someone who does the same amount of good intentionally, because the moral value of his actions adds to the total amount of goodness produced). Conversely, if somebody has the best intentions, but fails and causes harm, their life is meaningless.

Smuts is aware that his good cause account of meaning in life requires a strong meta-ethical commitment to value realism, but he does not see that as a problem because the alternative would be nihilism (which Smuts understands as the claim that there is nothing that is objectively valuable), and nihilism is simply too absurd to merit a refutation. In his view, it can safely be ignored because there is “no compelling reason to take nihilism seriously.” (559)


It seems to me that we have very good reason to take nihilism seriously and very little reason to take Smuts’s objectivist account of meaning seriously. For one thing, I find it difficult to understand what it means to say that an outcome is “objectively valuable”, or “objectively good”, unless it means a) that it really is good for something or b) that it benefits others in the sense that, somewhere along the line, it is subjectively good for them. The first option is unlikely to be intended here because it lacks a moral dimension. Hitler’s promotion of gas chambers in Nazi Germany was certainly good for something, in that it made it easier to exterminate a great number of people. The gas chambers were good for this, objectively. I am pretty confident that Smuts would not want us to think that Hitler promoted the good, so that we can probably safely exclude a purely instrumental understanding of objective goodness from consideration. The only other option, however, leads us back to subjective fulfilment. It is difficult to see how an action can be objectively good (in a moral sense) that makes nobody’s life (subjectively) any better, ever. Objective good, then, if it means anything, needs to be anchored in subjective good. Curing cancer would then be ‘objectively’ good because doing so increases (other) people’s subjective well-being. It is good because it is good for someone. But here is the problem: if I can do something objectively good by making you happy, then it is hard to see why my being happy is not objectively good too. And if my life becomes meaningful by my doing something that makes you happy, why then should it not become meaningful by my doing something that makes me happy?

For Smuts, who wants meaning to be understood as significance and nothing else, ‘good’ translates to ‘useful’. The good cause account of the meaning of life is a utilitarian account. My life is meaningful if it is useful. Obviously it can be useful in many different ways. The question is why we should identify a life’s meaningfulness with its utility. It seems to me that Smuts is clearly begging the question here. He does not show that meaningful means useful; he simply decrees it. However, this is not how we usually understand the term meaningfulness when we raise the question whether or not a life is meaningful. I can live a very ‘useful’ life and be fully aware of it, and still be plagued by the worry that none of it ‘means’ anything, that ultimately it does not matter, that there is no point. This suggests that we don’t think of meaning purely in terms of usefulness. When I ask whether my life has any meaning, then I am not, or at least not necessarily, asking whether it is useful. It is, however, very unlikely that I will ever ask that question when I am happy with my life, when I am fulfilled. You may ask that question about my happy life, but I will not ask it. If I am really happy with my life, I don’t question its meaning, which strongly suggests that there is, despite what Smuts claims, a connection between subjective well-being and meaningfulness.

Also, even though we can conceptually distinguish between happiness and meaningfulness, in practice we would be hard pressed to find a realistic example of the distinction. There is a reason why we have to resort to extreme examples like the grinning excrement eater to make it appear convincing that there is a difference between someone who is happy or otherwise “subjectively fulfilled” and someone whose life is meaningful. The “grinning excrement eater” is of course repulsive and creepy, especially if we imagine him happy and fulfilled. It is easy to reject such a life as meaningless despite its stipulated happiness. But in real life we are very unlikely to encounter someone who is actually fulfilled by that. Eating shit is not the kind of thing that is apt to fulfil creatures such as us. (It is also rather unhealthy.) That may well be the reason (that and the repulsive nature of the activity described) why we are so reluctant to see such a life as meaningful. A dung beetle on the other hand whose life is indeed “devoted to consuming vast quantities of excrement” may very well have a meaningful (dung beetle) life. Human beings, however, are different from dung beetles. They are unlikely to be fulfilled by the same things. It would also be very unusual for a human to be fulfilled by binge-watching daytime television, which is another stock example often used in support of the anti-fulfilment view of meaning. Yes, such a life strikes us as meaningless, but do we really think, as the example assumes, that somebody who wastes his life away watching some crap on TV all day long can be truly happy and have a sense of deep fulfilment? The happy binge watcher is just as unrealistic as the happy excrement eater. But what about somebody who finds fulfilment in watching the leaves change their colour in autumn and the snow fall in winter? What about somebody who collects smells or sounds (or stamps)? They do not seem to be doing anything useful, but can we confidently say that their life is meaningless? Smuts assures us that we can for the simple reason that meaningfulness is usefulness, but is it?

What Smuts is really telling us is not what makes a life meaningful. Instead, he is trying to convince us to adopt utility as our guiding principle when we consider how to live our lives. He is telling us that what our lives should be and what we in fact want our lives to be is not happy, but useful. This is also why Smuts severs the traditional semantic link between a meaningful life and a life worth living. It is unconvincing to declare that subjective well-being has no bearing on the question whether a life is worth living. By distinguishing the meaningful life from a life worth living, Smuts tries to make his objectivist interpretation of meaning more palatable. I don’t think it works, though. One of the prime examples Smuts uses to illustrate his view of what constitutes an objectively meaningful life (which is not necessarily a life worth living) is Frankl’s ape, tortured in the name of science and progress.[2] Under the circumstances, this ape’s life may actually be the more meaningful the less worth living it is. After all, the less we are concerned with his well-being, the more we can learn from him that might eventually benefit humanity. His is a miserable, but very useful and hence meaningful life. Ironically, Smuts takes credit for providing an account of meaning in life that does not exclude animals from the possibility of living meaningful lives. His account is proudly anti-speciesist. Except it isn’t, not really, not where it counts. Another example he uses is the collie Lassie (of 1950s television fame), who, according to Smuts, had a very meaningful life even if, being an animal, she must have lacked the kind of subjective fulfilment that only persons are capable of (558). I suppose that is because she did a lot of good, always ready to come to the rescue of various hapless humans. At least Lassie did not have to suffer to be of use to us. Of course, this implies that animals that are of no use to us cannot possibly live a meaningful life. Their existence is meaningless. So it seems that by enlisting their services, we do them a huge favour (even if their lives become less worth living as a result). We make their lives count. Seriously? I don’t buy it.

Finally (for now), Smuts’s case studies do not really support his account. Achilles is said to have chosen a meaningful life by joining the battle against the Trojans, but it is difficult to see what good resulted from that decision. Slaughtering lots of innocent people and razing a thriving city to the ground does not strike me as a particularly valuable outcome. Achilles was concerned about his reputation as a great warrior, not as a good person. Perhaps in order for his life to be meaningful in his own eyes he needed to make sure that he would be remembered as a great warrior, but this is very different from what Smuts tells us meaning is all about. So either Achilles’s life was not meaningful after all, or Smuts got it wrong (or both).

Then there is George Bailey, the main protagonist in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Smuts’s key piece of evidence. According to Smuts, George’s life is meaningful, even if he is not aware of it, because he has done a lot of good (like for instance saving his little brother Harry’s life when they were both kids, or as a teenager saving his employer from a fatal error that would have ruined his life). George, however, sees his life as “a failure”. He had so many plans, seeing the world and going to College, which he couldn’t do because his father died, then joining the war and becoming a hero like Harry, which he couldn’t do because he was deaf on one ear (from when he saved Harry), and finally making his dead father’s building and loan association work, which he couldn’t do because of his uncle Billy’s negligence and the evil banker Potter’s malevolence. By showing him how things would be if he had not existed (namely much worse than they are now), the angel Clarence convinces him that George’s life has not been a failure at all. Yet although Smuts is right that George’s realization that he has actually done a lot of good contributes to his revised assessment of his life’s worth, I don’t think this is all there is to it. Rather, what George realizes is that his life has been good in many ways all along, despite his disappointments and the frustrations of some of his ambitions. He realizes that much of what he thought was important in life isn’t really important at all. What is important is community and friendship, being there for others, but also letting others be there for you, caring and being cared for. “No man is a failure who has friends”, the angel Clarence reminds George. It is the film’s central message. George has learned to appreciate life, and what is more, his life, as a shared gift. It is indeed a meaningful life, but it is not meaningful because of what he has done, or not merely because of what he has done. He used to be unhappy with his achievements and role in life. He had imagined it to be different, wanted it to be different. Now he knows that what he has got is in fact a wonderful life, and it is meaningful not because of this life’s positive utility, but for one thing because of all the good that surrounds him and that he partakes in, and for another because he is now, finally, fully aware of it.

[1] “The Good Cause Account of the Meaning of Life”, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 51/4 (2013): 536-562.
[2] William James voiced a similar idea in “Is Life Worth Living?”: “Consider a poor dog whom they are vivisecting in a laboratory. He lies strapped on a board and shrieking at his executioners, and to his own dark consciousness is literally in a sort of hell. He cannot see a single redeeming ray in the whole business; and yet all these diabolical-seeming events are usually controlled by human intentions with which, if his poor benighted mind could only be made to catch a glimpse of them, all that is heroic in him would religiously acquiesce. Healing truth, relief to future sufferings of beast and man are to be bought by them. It is genuinely a process of redemption. Lying on his back on the board there he is performing a function incalculably higher than any prosperous canine life admits of; and yet, of the whole performance, this function is the one portion that must remain absolutely beyond his ken.”

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

John Danaher on Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life

There are a lot of things that we no longer have to do ourselves. Machines now do them for us. Of course right now there is still plenty for us to do, but if the trend continues and the machines we build get more and more intelligent, sophisticated, and powerful, which is likely, then there is a real possibility that it will become less and less necessary for us to do any work ourselves. Automated labour, performed by machines, will then eventually replace all or most manual labour, performed by us. If and when that happens, then we will have reached an age of technological unemployment.
Would that be a good thing? Should we welcome the prospect, or should we dread it?
In an article soon to appear in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics (“Will life be worth living in a world without work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life”),  John Danaher raises the question whether widespread technological unemployment would “threaten or undermine human flourishing and meaning”. He comes to the conclusion that, although there is indeed reason to believe that technological unemployment may pose a threat to our ability to live a meaningful life, this threat can be contained “if we prioritise and develop the right kinds of technology and we relate to these technologies in the right way” (2). This “right” way of relating to technology is an increased integration (of humans) with technology.

On the face of it, technological unemployment is an enticing prospect. In practical terms it would mean that we would no longer have to work to earn a living. We would have everything we need and want without having to spend time on activities that we do not really want to do, because machines would take care of everything. As it stands, many people are unhappy with the kind of work they do. If they could only afford it, they would quit their jobs in a heartbeat. And even if we are lucky enough to do something for a living that we like to do and would do even if we didn’t get paid for it, to get rid of the need to work and sell our labour and skills in some way is surely a good thing. We would then be completely free to choose what to do and what not to do. We would, as Danaher puts it, “be free to pursue our own conception of the good life” (2). In short, technological unemployment would give us back “authorial control” (13) over our lives.

Of course we often derive other than merely economic rewards from the work we do. Typically it is through our work that we achieve “excellence, social contribution, community and social status” (15), and we would not want to do without all that. However, there are other tried and tested ways to reap those rewards, for instance through charitable activities or hobbies. In an age of technological unemployment we could just extend those. Still, technological unemployment is not without its risks. Danaher thinks that we need to take seriously the worry that technological advance may very well undermine human flourishing and our ability to live a meaningful life. Even if we think of meaningfulness in purely subjective terms – as subjective fulfilment and desire satisfaction –, technological unemployment is a reason for concern, for without the pressures and incentives of work we may well end up not doing anything much and living “a life of listless and unsatisfied boredom” (18). Yet according to Danaher this danger can be avoided if we employ “the right kinds of social/technological support for leisure activities” (19). Social networking and gamification apps, for instance, may provide all the pressure and rewards needed for subjective fulfilment.

However, Danaher does not think that a purely subjectivist understanding of meaning is very plausible. He shares the intuition that even if Sisyphus was happy, his life was hardly meaningful. For this reason, Danaher leans towards an objectivist theory of meaning, according to which life is meaningful “to the extent that the individual living it brings about certain objectively good or valuable states of affairs” (16) Technological unemployment would then be problematic because the advanced technology that would liberate us from the need to work would also make it pretty pointless for us to keep doing the things that bring about said valuable states of affairs because the machines we have built are likely to be so much better at it than we are. Think of science and human knowledge generation in general: “Science is increasingly a ‘big data’ enterprise, reliant on algorithmic and other forms of automated assistance, to process large datasets and make useful inferences from those datasets. Humans are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the process of discovery.” (22) Moral problems, too, may be solved more reliably by machines (who may, for instance, calculate the fairest distribution of certain resources, or efficiently organize organ donation).

So what would then be left for us to do? “In the end, the only domain in which humans might be able to meaningfully contribute to objective outcomes would be in the realm of private, ludic or aesthetic activities, e.g. in producing works of art, or pursuing games, hobbies and sports.” (25) The reason for this is that in these aesthetic domains “it is less clear that automating technologies help to produce better outcomes.” Yet even though we may create or connect to something objectively valuable and thus find meaning in the creation of beauty, we would have lost our role in the creation of truth and goodness, so that on the whole this kind of ludic life “certainly looks like a more impoverished form of existence” (25).

But once again, this outcome seems by no means inevitable. In Danaher’s analysis, what undermines meaning in life is in fact the severance of the link “between what we do and what happens in the world”. (26) In an age of technological unemployment machines will have taken over and replaced us as the producers of value. They create all the good stuff and make the world a better place, while we are reduced to mere observers and passive beneficiaries, and it “is this externalisation that looks like the major threat to continued meaning and fulfilment.” (26) Accordingly, if we want to prevent a loss of meaning, all we have to do is avoid increased externalisation and, instead, pursue increased integration. Integration means that, instead of merely using technology, we merge with technology and become cyborgs through “increased use of brain-computer interfaces, nanotechnology and various other neuroprosthetic devices” (26). The idea is to directly integrate technology into biological systems. This may not be easy and naturally should be pursued with caution, but be pursued it should.

Intriguingly, Danaher also considers the possibility that “actions in a purely virtual world might suffice for meaning” (28), in which case cutting ourselves off from the real world would not be a problem. If it turns out that “virtual reality is our best hope” to preserve our chance to live a meaningful life, then we should go for it.


Perhaps Danaher is right and we really are about to enter an age of increasing technological unemployment. But I don’t think that would necessarily be a problem, even if we do not become cyborgs. The reason why unemployment is often so devastating to those who experience it is that it usually comes with a loss of a decent income, a loss of social recognition, and an abundance of free time that they have never learned to (or, being now unemployed, have not got the means to) put to good use. If you have little to live on, people look down on you with pity or contempt, and you have no idea how to fill the long hours of the day, then you may be excused for losing an appetite for living. However, per hypothesis, technological unemployment is different: it is assumed that we will not suffer a loss of income or a loss of social recognition (we will, after all, all be in the same situation). We will simply not have to work. Admittedly, we may find that we have too much time on our hands, but surely that is mostly a matter of developing the right mind set. I don’t think there is any evidence that, in our own pre-technological unemployment age, those belonging to the so-called leisure class find their lives any less meaningful than those who actually have to work to make a living. If you are wealthy, you are unlikely to be desperately looking for a job, just to have something to do. If you never had to work, then you won’t miss it. You will know what to do with your time and will not feel what those who have lost their job often feel: the loss of a sense of purpose. You may not live a particularly meaningful life (if meaning be understood as requiring some sort of connection and active pursuit of what is really, “objectively” valuable in life), but then again, those who are in work may not do so either. The point is that the wealthy do not seem to be any more likely to live a meaningless life than anybody else.

Or think of retirement. People retire from work. Some look forward to it, others dread it, but most find a way to deal with it. It may, of course, take a while to get used to the change, especially if you have never known a life without work. Since our whole life is usually organized around work, we tend to define ourselves through it. When we retire, we need to learn to define ourselves differently, change our priorities, develop a different mind-set. Not easy perhaps, but far from impossible. If or when the age of technological unemployment hits us, it will be as if humanity as a whole went into retirement. But that won’t happen overnight. Most likely, we will slowly and gradually slide into it and thus learn to live with the changing circumstances as we go along. 

However, the reason why Danaher expects a crisis of meaning from technological unemployment is not really the fact that we will no longer have to work and that we may then not know what do with ourselves. For Danaher, this is not about having or not having the right mind-set. It is about the alleged absence or destruction of real opportunities to do something meaningful with our lives. The problem is not merely that we may then no longer know what to do with so much time on our hands: the problem is that there might really be nothing left for us to do. Machines will be taking care of the true and the good, so even if we still had an interest in things that may conceivably make the world a better place in some way, we would have no way to pursue this interest since it’s all been taken care of already. But is that really so? Machines may certainly one day be more efficient at solving certain problems, such as how to cure cancer, or how to organize the distribution of donated organs (which, by the way, is not a moral problem, as Danaher suggests, but a purely organizational one). And maybe it makes us feel good about ourselves and our lives if we manage to do stuff like curing cancer or developing a brand new and more efficient system of distributing organs. But surely meaning in life does not depend on our success in finding solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems. If it did, few of us would live a meaningful life. Surely it is possible for us to live a meaningful life without making substantial contributions to the continued production of “objectively good or valuable states of affairs”, whatever that means. And even if we do want to insist that in order to have a meaningful life we need to contribute in some way to the ‘true’, the ‘good’, and the ‘beautiful’, or at least partake in it, there is surely more to the true and the good than whatever a machine can provide or achieve (just as there is more to the beautiful). The acquisition of knowledge and understanding that we value, the kind that may make our life meaningful, does not consist in mere calculation and the correct and efficient processing of information. And if I merge with a machine that does that kind of thing so much better than I would ever be able to (namely in my unenhanced, pre-cyborgian state), so that I become myself a super-duper calculating and information-processing machine, then the truth that my operations will generate is unlikely to be the kind of truth that (or the orientation towards which) makes our lives meaningful. I agree with Danaher that if we could “get computers to create music and visual art” (25), this is unlikely to add to the aesthetic value in the world. But it seems to me that, equally, if we could get computers to identify morally good outcomes, this would not add to the moral value in the world, nor would computers that are able to reveal some hitherto unknown facts to us be adding to (if that’s the right word to use) epistemic value of the world.

Furthermore, Danaher’s argument in favour of an integrationist approach to technology rests on the assumption that what most threatens to undermine meaning in life is the disruption of the link “between what we do and what can be achieved” (26). In other words, in order to get meaning out of a supposedly objectively good outcome, I need to be the one whose actions have effected that outcome. If you find a way to cure cancer, then I may congratulate you on your success and enjoy the benefits of it, but it is only you whose life becomes more meaningful as a consequence. Meanwhile, my own life remains unchanged. And if you write a wonderful book or compose a marvellous symphony, then this may make your life more meaningful, but it certainly does not make mine more meaningful. We are, after all, separate entities. In an age of technological unemployment the machines would do all the interesting things, all that is potentially meaning-generating for the agent, i.e. the one who does them, while we humans would be reduced to mere onlookers – like children at a funfair who cannot afford any of the rides and who can only watch in frustration how others do all the fun stuff. Yet I don’t think that this is how it works, or at least not how it should work, and certainly not how it has to work. If you write that wonderful book, this can make not only your life, but also my life more meaningful, simply because I am now, thanks to your achievement, able to read it. Meaning is not the prerogative of agents. Merely observing and experiencing the world and what is going on in it can be immensely rewarding too. I can find meaning in reading your book, studying your painting, and listening to your music. I can find meaning wandering through a landscape that I have not designed, and swimming in a sea that I have not created. If that is correct, then I don’t see any good reason why we should not be able to find meaning in the achievements of the machines we have built.

With the right mind-set, human-machine integration is not needed. Continued separation will do just fine.