Meaning In Morality

From what we have considered about about meaning with Frankl, let us return to Rand and apply meaning to some of the things we have noted.  I note that meaning is restricted in scope to human beings.  While biochemical issues can adequately describe microbes to mammals and we humans do have some biochemical factors in our existence, by far the most crucial factor is our conceptual consciousness and its parts.  Meaning is one of those aspects of our conceptual consciousness or mind.  Reason is the essence of our minds.

The first thing I say about the thinking of Frankl and Rand is that there is a sort of union between value and meaning.  Given that without meaning, no action would take place, we would then not have values.  Similarly, if a presumed value had no meaning whatsoever, it would certainly not be pursued and would lapse into a non-value. We find meaning in values and not apart from each other.

We may also note that meaning may vary in intensity with some meanings being more intense than others.  Since we may take only a certain number of actions in a given context and interval of time, we will have the more intense meaningful values chosen over the less meaningful, to maximize the meaning in our lives.  From this it is easy to see that we may prioritize values and, in some cases, one value may be instrumental to another.  Such considerations lead to the development of a hierarchical structure of values to maximize meaning in life and minimizing value loss, or costs within the range of possible actions,  This is of course, morality.

This structure cannot be an entirely rigid prescription for all actions because we have an indefinitely large set of interactions to consider as well as fluctuating powers and interests over time.  Human life is so complex that it helps to think of morality as a sort of floor-plan (or strategy) for action.  Some things will be very much set in place, like wall, floors, and stairs.  Other things are likely to vary or can be rearranged, like decorations, furniture, and appliances.

Now considering that meaning resides within values, this conclusion affects our definition of good and evil as perhaps implicitly intended in Rand’s definition.  Where Rand said “the good is that which promotes the life of a rational being” I would alter this to say “the good is that which promotes the meaningful life of a rational being.  This is certainly not a great departure from Rand and one could argue that it is not a departure at all, because in many ways Rand’s writings imply meaning is active in her considerations, although not in these terms.

Rand wrote that a standard of good allows us to judge how a morality or value is to be evaluated, but that our individual purpose is to experience happiness in life.  Rand wrote that “Happiness is non-contradictory joy” which “proceeds from our achieving our values.”  I say the non-contradictory joy is the reward from meaning.

Emotion is a reaction to meaningful values or a threat to those values.  Emotion is also an action of our brain and body to prepare or engage in action.  We can see that meaning, joy, emotion, and motivation are all related to each other but are distinct from each other.  I will try to clarify this.

We say that meaning is the quality of the relationship of a person to an existent or situation such that actual or potential action would take place in the appropriate context.  This means that the actor has motivation, very likely a detectable emotion, and that the gaining or keeping of an existent or situation defines a value and the result is a type of existential joy, pleasure, or satisfaction emanating from  that value.  The action in question may also be the avoidance of the loss of the existent or situation as well.  Such a loss, if encountered, would be characterized as a loss of a value, typically be accompanied by existential pain, an emotion of sadness, depression, or anger, and could be summarized as some loss of meaning.

I believe this context is more detailed, comprehensive and useful than just saying happiness is our purpose in life.  “Happiness” is a broad term, as used by most people casually, while we find meaning can be defined in values and be subject to analysis.  Meaning can also be applied to painful situations, unlike the idea of happiness.  I believe meaning is present even in the worst of circumstances and enables us to carry on, even while we might recognize pain.  This could hardly be called happiness, so we need something more in explanation.  I will address such issues at length later.

Meaning is a clear alternative to Hedonism, which claims pleasure and pain are the accurate summary human existence.  Hedonism not only tends to be a mindless and self-destructive self-indulgence which undercuts man’s life, as Rand observes, it is also, if anything, even vaguer than using happiness as a means to understand our values, and so almost totally useless in application. We find hedonism not only in the overt reference to this school, but, as Rand observed, also within the writings of Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill, and Comte, the only real differences being where the pleasure or pain is to be found.  Meaning, on the contrary, can be made into precise distinctions.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that one of the conundrums some students of Rand’s philosophy encounter is the thought “If we have free will, why would we choose life over death?”  If we properly allow for meaning, this question becomes nonsensical.

Choice or decision is an action in itself.  Any voluntary human action proceeds from motivation which is generated by meaning.  Setting aside excruciating pain or an extreme situation to achieve or preserve some supreme value, there is NO motivation for death and, indeed, ANY motivation, including that found in this act of choice, must logically flow from affirming life itself, the precondition of joy and meaning.  I conclude that any such “dispassionate” choice of death over life, is self-contradictory and a nullity.

Let us now delineate end values.  Rand wrote:

 It is by experiencing happiness that one lives one’s life, in any hour, year or the whole of it.  And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself — the kind that makes one think:  “This is worth living for”  — what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.  [Emphasis original]

An end value is one where its achievement yields some joy or pleasure, sufficient to motivation us, which is distinct from any consideration of achieving another value.  Such a value has meaning in itself.  Some values only serve in achieving some additional value.  Such values are instrumental values, rather than end values.  If all values were purely instrumental, our actions would never be meaningful, because we would never get to the meaning part.  In that case, we die.

Rand’s quotation above addresses the prevalence of meaningful value or values in a given experience yielding deep joy.  When such experiences are the prevailing mode of one’s life, one might say that it is a happy life.  Some values are a mixture of both instrumental value and end value.  A hearty meal would be one example, in that it might be very enjoyable and, at the same time, sustain our happy lives.

In my next post, I will continue examining the issues as perceived by me in this discussion of Meaning in Morality.

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One Response to Meaning In Morality

  1. Rog says:

    At first I wondered if meaning was just another way of saying value, but I see there is a distinction between the two. To me it seems you would not know what values to pursue until you did a lot of thinking to determine what was meaningful to you on a personal individual level. That is why the question what is the meaning of life on an abstract or universal level sounds so unanswerable and quite frankly dumb. In order to answer it, it has to be for yourself and can’t be just a vague abstraction.

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