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The Search for Meaning

What Is Life Worth?

Michael Allen Fox wonders whether life really is ‘a precious gift’.

What is life worth? Questioning the value of our existence has the utmost significance, but no response seems likely to fully satisfy our need for an answer.

First a few preliminaries. Our question could be raised out of despair by people who are struggling just to survive, in war-torn, enslaved, or environmentally collapsing countries. Or, it could come from a position of privilege, being asked by those who have the luxury and leisure to ponder it. In addition, our question may not have arisen at all in early human history, or have ever been asked by those whose sociocultural experience is quite different from our own.

Some reflections concerning life on Earth also make our question problematic. For most (perhaps all?) life-forms, the overriding purpose of existence is to reproduce the species, to be evolutionary self-replicating machines, serving as links within sustainable ecosystems. Yet one might well ask, ‘But what’s the value of all that?’

There isn’t any clear, uncontestable answer. Perhaps life, with all its dramas and developments, just came to be, and so just is, with no higher-order significance. Moreover, when we examine the state of the globe, it may appear that the planet would be healthier minus certain species, our own among them, perhaps even at the top of the list. It might be better for the ecosphere, that is, for Homo sapiens – an apparently failing species bent on plundering the planet and its own self-destruction, consumed by animosity and fear directed at its own kind – not to exist at all. While humans have transformed the Earth, there are few reasons to believe that we’ve made it better overall, or that other organisms have benefitted from our presence other than parasites and (some would claim) domesticated animals and other creatures that wouldn’t exist but for human choices and need-satisfactions. Indeed, the conditions for the continuance on Earth of most life-forms (including our own) have become increasingly precarious precisely because of humanity. This is all unfortunately true, and it cannot be neutralized by citing the noble creative achievements of exemplary people or the love, friendship, and kindness with which many have treated their fellow humans and other creatures, laudatory though these all are. We might well consider, then, whether we humans even have the right to ask about the value of existence without clearing up our mess first. Still, the question ‘What is the value of existence?’ keeps coming back at us with an urgency that cannot be denied or diverted.

Questioning the Question

Many would answer that the value of existence is inestimable, and would perhaps regard questioning that as peculiar, or as too silly to take seriously. They might say, life is good pretty much by definition, because ‘good’ implies life-enhancing or conducive to human flourishing. Others probably never think about the question because (as noted earlier) they’re simply too busy managing to survive, or getting on with their lives as best they can, or actively enjoying life. But the question undeniably strikes others as intellectually intriguing and important. For some, it may even give immediate voice to an anguished consideration of life or death, for existence may be evaluated anywhere between the extremes of being a total burden and a highly desirable good. Whichever group one belongs to, querying the value of existence has weighty implications that ripple outwards to embrace a wide range of concerns, from the meaning of life, to suicide, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, even animal rights.

Sigmund Freud oddly claims, in a letter to author and fellow psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte (13 August 1937), that to query the meaning or value of life is a sure sign of pathological disturbance – in spite of the fact that the state of the world then, as now (let alone the state of our own lives) might be thought to actually force the question upon us. In any event, more modern, enlightened, less claustrophobic thinking yields a different assessment – for example: “Experiencing an existential crisis does not automatically mean that a person has a mental health issue. In fact, it can be a very positive thing. Questioning one’s life and purpose is healthy. It can help provide direction and lead to better fulfilment in oneself” (‘Facing an existential crisis: What to know’, MedicalNewsToday, 2022). Some individuals entertain the idea that the world would be better off specifically if they themselves did not exist. But even if there unfortunately are people of whom this arguably is true – for example, sociopathic killers, tin pot dictators, international arms traders, and serial abusers – generally, the wish for self-extinction is more likely an indicator of conditions such as serious, intractable illness, chronic pain, or psychological disturbances such as clinical depression or intense feelings of unworthiness.

But now let’s look at the issue head-on – whether existence has value, and if so, of what kind and degree.

Schopenhauer’s Value

Arthur Schopenhauer argues that life is dominated by suffering and negative outcomes, and is thus ‘a business whose returns are far from covering the cost’ (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, Ch.28, 1818-19). The point he’s trying to make seems to be that on the whole, and for most people, life fails to produce sufficient rewards to offset the sorrows and suffering it brings. Pleasure and happiness are hard to come by; they lead to still more yearnings; and in any case are overshadowed by their opposites, displeasure and unhappiness. Humans spend much of their time and resources despising and tormenting one another, and disease and death are everyone’s ultimate lot. Certainly adversity builds character; but this truth is insufficient to offset all the evils that beset us. So life fails the cost-benefit test of advantage to us.

Beyond these kinds of observations, Schopenhauer advances what he considers to be a proof that existence is worthless: If existence had any value in itself, he reasons, there would be no such thing as boredom: just being alive, doing nothing in particular – savouring the buzz of is-ness, as it were – would be experienced as a self-sufficient state to be in. As he writes, “If life – the craving for which is the very essence of our being – were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing” (‘The Vanity of Existence’, Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851). Because people don’t perceive prolonged idleness in such a positive way, however, this demonstrates, he thinks, that merely existing is not in itself worthwhile.

However, let’s say that an individual is totally immersed in contemplation of an artwork or in a mystical contemplation of nature. After a while, she inevitably becomes restless, time conscious, and… bored. I think no one could rationally conclude from this that either aesthetic or mystical contemplation is a worthless state to be in. Hence boredom (however we may choose to analyze it) doesn’t look like a good candidate for undermining the value of existence. In any case, intrinsic value might admit of degrees, such that existence could have some value in itself without attaining the extreme degree some would wish to attribute to it.

That’s one possibility. But could existence be thought of instead as possessing instrumental or use value which redeems it, even if it lacks intrinsic value?

Before we consider this possibility, we need to examine what is problematic about attributing intrinsic value to existence.

Painting © Venantius J Pinto 2024. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

The Value of Being Itself

G.W.F. Hegel argues (Science of Logic, Book I, 1812) that ‘being’ is the emptiest of concepts. When we examine the thought of being, he observes, we find its content to be as hollow as the thought of nothing. It follows, he continues, that being (or existence) is lacking in qualities that could express value, or, for that matter, any other concrete attribute.

Looking beyond this abstract point, the main problem with ascribing value to existence in itself – intrinsic value – is that we have literally nothing to contrast it with, from an experiential point of view. It’s manifest that we never have been and never can be cognizant of total nonexistence, and could not in principle experience it, if indeed there is anything at all to be experienced about nothing. If one believes that both before and after this mortal existence, nonexistence takes over, and all entities become nonentities, then there’s nothing to be experienced, since there will be no experiencing subject to have any type or degree of consciousness. As the eminent contemporary philosopher Ricky Gervais observed: “When people say, ‘What do you think it feels like after you die?’, I say ‘Well, what did it feel like for the fourteen billion years before you were born? It feels like that!’ No one was going, ‘Oh, I wish I existed. I can’t believe I don’t exist yet!’” (‘The Unbelievers Interview’). This humourous but pointed comment underlines the idea that nonexistence possesses no intrinsic quality. No one can describe any properties of nonexistence because it has none. As noted, it follows that we can’t contrast existence with nonexistence in order to affirm that the former is better. Nor can we meaningfully say things like ‘It would be better never to have been born’, because there’s no sense in which nothingness can be either better or worse by comparison with anything else, since it does not admit of any qualities of which there can be degrees of better or worse.

Nevertheless, people have seriously advanced that it would be better never to have been born, not just as a lament over an unhappy life but as a universal truth. For example, Sophocles asserted that “Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.” Sophocles’ declaration has a touch of the ridiculous about it, inasmuch as no one can truly testify about what it’s like ‘not to be born’. There may be lives of such low quality that people wish they had never had to live them; but this is a comment about a concrete state of affairs, and moreover, one articulated from within and not outside of existence.

The Value of Becoming

Do you have to be a pessimist like Sophocles or Schopenhauer to seriously question whether existence (or life) has value? Surely not – no more than you have to be psychologically disturbed. But whatever answer one gives to the question, one might say that pondering the value of existence comes with the territory (of life), at least if the history of ideas provides any reliable evidence.

Existence may be said to be merely ‘what happens to be the case for a group of possible beings’. The Online Etymological Dictionary characterizes ‘exist’ as meaning ‘to stand forth, come out, emerge, appear, be visible, come to light, arise, be produced, turn into’ – a set of descriptions of becoming that the existentialists have gleefully seized upon in their writings. Yet in reference to living things specifically, existence certainly signifies dynamic potentiality, which is the capacity for something to develop itself or to become something else.Once obtained, existence or life can be found to be full of opportunity, or not. Potential can be actualized or left dormant. But if that’s the case, then the value of existence resides not in the state of existence itself but rather in one’s good or bad fortune, as well as in how one conducts one’s life.

The existence of any given entity is a sheer, remote, one might even say stunning cosmic coincidence, a pure fluke in the universal scheme of things. We can’t even meaningfully say what the odds are for any individual organism to be alive. But it doesn’t follow, without a lot of other considerations, that life is a gift, let alone a ‘most precious gift’. First, for something to be a gift, there must of course be a giver; and except for the banal sense in which parents fulfill such a role in giving life, any other attribution is vexed and controversial. Religious positions remain disputed, including any religion’s reason why you or I or anyone else (or anything else) exists. In this sense our existence is a fact we cannot fathom, whether we appeal to an extra-worldly creator or not.

Yet perhaps existence is precious whether or not it’s a gift from an unknown source? It all depends, as we’ll see in a moment.

Maybe there just isn’t a clear answer to the ‘value of existence’ question. Yet many would insist, ‘There must be a reason/purpose why I’m alive, and my task is to find out what it is and to fulfill it.’ This again assumes a task-master who, like the gift-giver, is an agency lurking behind what’s given to our senses. The validity of belief or disbelief in such a being or power is an issue that’s not likely to be resolved. Therefore, a better place to put our mental energy is into reframing the question we’re presently trying to answer. Let us say, then, that existence is a means or a set of means, not an end in itself. If so, what is existence a means for ?

The short answer for humans is that existence is an opportunity or a potentiality (or set of potentialities); an open-ended task – an occasion for self-building and self-making. Much has been written about what makes for a good life [some in this very Issue, Ed], but at the moment we’re just trying to identify what value existence could be said to have attributed to it in terms that might attract agreement. In this spirit, I could say that existence is a vehicle for crafting a life that one may deem worthwhile and satisfying. This can be done in a myriad of ways. Some – perhaps most – of this project is the individual’s responsibility to carry through to completion or resolution, but there are limits to what we can fashion, and good or bad fortune play an important role. This is not to say that existence is only valuable for the fortunate, especially given that there are both subjective and objective viewpoints concerning the preciousness of a life. Nor is it to say that projects only possess value if and when completed. One’s life project, whatever it is, most likely will fall short of completion. However, we all know there is value in the doing of something as well as in the final outcome.

We may now have arrived at a good point to conclude: with the perception that existence is a fortuitous event that presents a set of possibilities for making and defining a life. It’s not something we are capable of missing if we don’t have it, or which is necessary to celebrate just because we do have it. The celebration is in the doing and in the rewards of the doing, such as they may be.

© Prof. Michael Allen Fox 2024

Michael Allen Fox is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Canada, and Adjunct Professor, School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England, Australia. He specializes in environmental ethics, nineteenth-century European philosophy, and the history of ideas. His most recent book, just published, is Fate and Life: Who’s Really in Charge?.

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