“[Man] has not yet seen the importance of understanding life’s ‘purpose’ and therefore, his purpose individually and collectively, and of understanding where he fits into the evolutionary scheme of things.” – Jonas Salk, The Survival of the Wisest.

We return now to purpose and the meaningful life. Last time we saw how purpose has three nuances: intrinsic or function, subjective or personal, and external or designed. As we collate these dimensions with the five levels of reality, we will need criteria for authentic purpose and vigilance to avoid misconceptions due to muddled thinking.

Beginning with pitfalls, a careless approach to purpose in life diverts one into the other areas of a meaningful life ultimately distinct from purpose, particularly virtue, duty, and contentment. Purpose should not be conflated with other parts of a meaningful life. It is trivial or cynical to say that one’s purpose in life is to be content or experience pleasure. Purpose can  result in coincident pleasure, but has a separate primary mode implied by the word. Thus the primary purpose in creating great art is for the benefit of others or the sublime communication of feelings and ideas, the resulting pleasure for the serious artist is incidental or subordinate. Art done for one’s own satisfaction is not purposeful, but a means to contentment which is the subject of our next chapter.

The same applies to virtue and duty. I have a duty to drive safely on a highway, but it is confused to say my purpose in driving is others’ safety – in theory purpose in this setting revolves around where and for what reason I am driving. Likewise I have a ‘duty’ to make a good life for myself, but purpose is focused on the reasons for the direction my life takes in making it good for me. The crux of purpose in life then is not about what one should do, but why one plans to do it.

This brings us to criteria for authentic purpose. The first is a reformulation of the above points – purpose references action done primarily for a reason or goal, and not merely as duty or virtue, or for pleasure or contentment. The second criteria references magnitude of importance, duration, and desirability. In other words an action contributes to one’s existential purpose if it is not trivial, fleeting, or abhorrent. Last purpose in general should be intended not accidental and recognized by the actor not unrealized. Purpose cannot be claimed by mere hope for a significant impact in random actions.

In closing, purpose is not identical to duty, virtue, or the pursuit of contentment, but is instead primarily goal-driven. It must have magnitudes of importance, duration, and desirability appropriate to the situation. And it must be intended and understood. Using these criteria next time we will begin looking at purpose at the different levels of reality


1Note the overlap with criteria of meaning as discussed in posts on this site The Meaning of Life – Criteria dated 9/16/21 and 9/18/21.

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