Last time we saw how Susan Wolf considers a meaningful life as one that includes enthusiastic involvement in objectively worthwhile projects though she drops the word ‘project’ in her slogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” Her examples include creating, promoting or protecting things of value, helping others, achieving a skill, even “communing with or actively appreciating what is there to be appreciated.”2

She proposes and responds to likely objections to her thesis. First is the question of philosophical justification of the designation ‘worthwhile.’ Her response is that no proof is possible, but clearly most of us believe in varying worth of projects or activities – for example counting blades of grass versus seeking a cure for cancer. Second she responds to the existential objections of human mortality, lack of divine origin of morality, and cosmic indifference. She thinks these positions represents an irrational obsession with permanence and grand significance. She admits assumption as her basis for worthwhile, but notes most skeptics concede there are better and worse ways to live, and the difference between their positions and hers may be primarily semantic. Third she responds to Richard Taylor’s description of subjectivity of self-interest raised in Good and Evil, where he suggests the subjective account of meaning is just that a meaningful life is one perceived by the individual as meaningful. Wolf does not like the circularity this entails so proposes an alternate account of subjectivity; the sense of ‘fulfillment’ as a particular kind of pleasure that confirms meaning via objectively worthwhile “cognitive content,’ even when not “best for me.”3

Wolf also concedes she is unable to prove that self-interest includes belief in the meaningfulness of one’s life through worthwhile activities, but contend most people intuitively agree once it is explained to them. In fact, Wolf claims the desire for meaningfulness is a defining feature of humanity vis-a-vis the brutes. It may even be considered self-evident.

Still meaningfulness, in her opinion, is not an instrumental good or merely the path to fulfillment, rather fulfillment is the confirmation of the meaningfulness of an activity. In her deconstruction of self-interest she crystalizes her position: much of what we do is neither out of duty nor fun, but instead meaningfulness. Nonetheless from a practical standpoint, meaning is inexact; we cannot and need not aspire to finding activities of the “greatest” meaning. At the end of the day meaningfulness often trumps self-interest.

I find Wolf’s thesis intriguing, first because I see few philosophers who challenge Aristotle’s belief that all human motivation distills down to the quest for happiness, and second because her method involves less logical proof and more intuition, consensus, reasonable argument, and human experience – the very building blocks of practical philosophy. But most importantly I detect in her theory of self-interest an affirmation that summum bonum for us is happiness and meaning.


1Bonjour, Laurence and Baker, Ann (Editors), Philosophical Problems. Pearson Education, Inc., New York, 2005. ISBN 0-321-23659-9, pages 834-848.

2It seems this is operative in the case of relationship to ultimate reality, whether cosmic or divine.

3I discussed a comparable thesis in the post The Meaning of Life- Non-Physical Pleasure, on 9/14/20.

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“Self-interest is but the survival of the animal in us. Humanity only begins for man with self-surrender.” – Henri Frederick Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.

In the continuing search for the definitive philosophical library, I have come across some remarkable books, but one of the most unusual was an unopened cellophane–wrapped textbook, with the intriguing title, Philosophical Problems. It is rare for me to purchase a book without at least looking through the table of contents, but I could not pass this one up because of its pristine condition and because on the front it says “instructor’s use only” and on the back it says “NOT FOR SALE.” That made me wonder what secrets it might contain, and I won’t deny I hesitated to open its packaging for several years. When I finally opened it, I found it really was simply an anthology, albeit of some truly great philosophical essays, with frequent teacher annotations. I suppose “NOT FOR SALE” meant not for sale to students, though this seems silly – what harm is done by giving students help in understanding complicated philosophical theses; and why should college professors require such help – seems oxymoronic to me.

Be that as it may, the 86 essays are superbly chosen. Examples include some of our old friends – Aquinas’ The Five Ways from Summa Theologica, William James’ The Will to Believe, selections from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and portions of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. But there are also many less familiar works such as Thomas Reid’s Direct Realism, Thomas Nagel’s What It Is Like to Be a Bat, and Robert Nozich’s The Experience Machine.

However, the most compelling one for me was Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life1 by Susan Wolf examining the relationship of happiness and meaning, what I identify as the summum bonum, to the good life.2 Wolf’s essay is complex, so I can only incompletely address her main insights. Her launching point for the discussion is the concept of self-interest, i.e. motivation by what is good for or minimizes bad for oneself. Her general thesis is that meaningfulness is an important element of a good life, hence ‘enlightened self-interest’ entails securing meaning in one’s life.

She starts with Derek Parfit’s theories of motivations of self-interest; (1) Hedonistic – felt quality of one’s experience, (2) Preference – good as our wants (e.g. posthumous fame), and (3) Objective List – items valued for neither positive experience nor mere preference, but as good in themselves. Her argument is that meaningfulness is of the last type. She then defines  a meaningful life as one with active engagement in worthwhile projects, where active means excited or gripped involvement (as opposed to boredom or alienation) and worthwhile implies at least partial independence of subjective preferences.

(continued next post)

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