The happy, meaningful, and moral life
Posted on September 20, 2011
Many people have a tendency to lump together three important concepts: happiness, meaningfulness, and moral goodness. There are several ways in which people link these concepts. Here are a couple basic examples:
To posit some view of happiness is also to posit some view of meaning (or life purpose) and morality (how to treat one another), either for a person or society.
To posit some view of meaning is also to posit some view of happiness and morality, either for a person or society.
To posit some view of morality is also to posit some view of happiness and meaning, either for a person or society.
However, Susan Wolf, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina, is skeptical of attempts to lump together these three concepts. She argues in her new book that “a meaningful life … is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one.”
While I don’t expect you to read an academically inclined book, you might take a couple minutes to read philosopher Todd May’s new essay on Wolf’s views in the New York Times.
Here’s a taste:
… meaningful lives don’t always coincide with good ones. Meaningful lives can be morally compromised, just as morally good lives can feel meaningless to those who live them.
We should not take this to imply that there is no relationship between meaningfulness and morality. They meet at certain moral limits. An evil life, no matter how intense or steadfast, is not one we would want to call meaningful. But within the parameters of those moral limits, the relationship between a meaningful life and a moral one is complicated. They do not map directly onto each other.