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Archive for March, 2009

Thinking beyond Religion: Values and Moral Conduct for Life

[Part II]

 

In Part I, I addressed the question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” I discussed the important role of values in answering that question, and also commented briefly on what “truth” is. In Part II following, I will address a related question to the first one, often asked by many people: How Does One Lead a Moral and Ethical Life?

 

 

Questions and Assumptions Regarding a Moral and Ethical Life

         

There have been thousands of volumes written over time that have can be boiled down to two basic questions regarding morals and leading an ethical life. These questions are: (1) “What is the good life for man?” and (2) “How should men act?”  My purpose in this section is to try to answer the second question, “How should men act?” Ultimately, determining how one ought to act (and by implication, other men as well) is based on a judgment call. And all judgment calls require an individual possess skill in “ethical reasoning.” But, before discussing the skill set needed to do ethical reasoning, one needs to understand a few assumptions.

 

The first assumption is that no human action or behavior is intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Behavior is simply behavior, nothing more and nothing less. That is, behavior is. It doesn’t take on social significance until a label or judgment is attached to the behavior in question.

 

There is nothing absolute in terms of value judgments toward any behavior in question. However, speaking relatively and sociologically, unless one never comes in contact with another human being during his life, most behavior is a “social act.” That is, most human behavior does not occur in a social vacuum. Behavior that is perceived to be social (involving other people) by its very nature takes on “social” significance.

 

The second assumption made is that, during the course of social interaction and perceived significance, behavior requires ethical reasoning (What does this behavior mean?) and value judgment (Is the behavior beneficial, neutral, or harmful to me or others?). What this means is that “the proper role of ethical reasoning is to highlight acts of two kinds: those which enhance the well-being of others—that warrant our praise—and those that harm or diminish the well-being of others—and thus warrant our criticism.”[1] Social evaluation and value judgment seems to be an inescapable fact of group life.

 

The third assumption is that all behavior is perceived as a matter of degree. Once behavior is evaluated for what it is (What it means and whether it might be beneficial, neutral, or harmful to people or creatures) a determination is made as to how much social interaction is impacted by the behavior in question.

 

A fourth assumption is that ethical reasoning is not only philosophical but highly pragmatic. It is not only an abstraction but has concrete ramifications and implications for how one socially interacts with his environment.

 

A fifth assumption is that values (individual and collective) play a key role in helping to determine how one “ought” to lead a moral and ethical life. What sometimes makes the ethical choices based on values complex, is when there is value conflict present, or when one finds oneself on the horns of a dilemma. But complexity of value conflicts and dilemmas are not the only impediments to successful ethical reasoning.

 

Impediments to Ethical Reasoning

 

The greatest impediment to successful ethical reasoning, unfortunately, happens to be YOU and ME. That is, according to Richard Paul and Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking,

 

In short, ethical persons, however strongly motivated to do what is ethically right, can do so only if they know what is ethically right. And this they cannot do if they systematically confuse their sense of what is ethically right with self-interest, personal desires, or social taboos. Ethically motivated persons must learn the art of self-and social-critique, of ethical self-examination. They must recognize the pervasive everyday pitfalls of ethical judgment: moral intolerance, self-deception, and uncritical conformity.[2]

 

According to these authors we cannot develop as ethical persons if we don’t recognize that each of us is prone to egotism, prejudice, self-justification, and self-deception. These flaws in human thinking have been responsible for much human suffering.[3]

 

Again they report that, “Only the systematic cultivation of fair-mindedness, honesty, integrity, self-knowledge, and deep concern for the welfare of others can provide foundations for sound ethical reasoning.”[4]

 

They go on to suggest that one needs to differentiate religious questions, social questions, legal questions from ethical questions. Their underlying assumption is that the standard for ethical reasoning is beyond culture and group, transcends theological issues, customs, traditions, and taboos of groups, and codified laws that may or may not have an ethical basis.[5]

 

According to the authors the individual must decide, from an individual perspective, what is ethical behavior?[6]

 

The individual should decide ethical conduct, since it is the individual, in most circumstances, who is held responsible for the consequences of his own conduct. “To be skilled at ethical reasoning means to develop a conscience not subservient to fluctuating social conventions, theological systems, or unethical laws.”[7] 

 

The Problem of Individualistic Ethical Reasoning

 

The problem of suggesting that one should employ an exclusively, highly individualistic way of engaging in ethical reasoning, is that it tends to disregard the question of shared social values that underlie what is ultimately decided as harmful or beneficial to oneself or others. In other words, one can’t formulate correct ethical behavior in a social vacuum.

 

Given the assumption that ethical behavior and moral conduct is a social act, how one ought to lead a moral or ethical life takes practice. There are apt to be people who do not see the connection between a universal standard for ethical reasoning, and the values or value judgments that underlie such reasoning. You cannot divorce values from ethical reasoning, plain and simple. Other people are apt to think that behaving morally and ethically is simply too complex and people are without any guidance as to how to behave in any consistent way.

 

The fifth assumption, as previously reported on, was that values (individual and collective) play a key role in helping to determine how one “ought” to behave in social situations and how one ought to lead a moral and ethical life. There is a kind of freedom of values, otherwise why would one point out that “all values were up for grabs during the 20th Century.” But, if values help to determine behavior in a social context, how is one to know “whose values,” or “what values” to adopt? 

 

Two Sets of Values

 

I would like to suggest that for any individual there are two sets of values one should consider: universal values, and one’s own personal values determined in social interactions with others. There is always the chance value conflict will arise, but as adults people must weigh and balance the harm or social benefits of any particular course of action when choosing one value over another.

 

By the time one grows up in a particular culture he or she has already adopted most of the values he will ever have in life. Some people will be better adapted to ethical reasoning than others, but early childhood experiences and social interaction are clearly of paramount importance in the types of values one adopts.

 

Where values are concerned, the individual is always at the crossroads between “abstract” notions of values and the social context provided by the family, the community and the society in which one lives. At every level, be warned, value conflicts will make the path to an ethical life quite difficult.

 

 

Universal Values

 

Again, according to Richard Paul and Linda Elder, “Most people do not recognize that ethical concepts and principles are universally defined, through such documents as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and that these concepts and principles are transcultural and trans-religious.”[8]

 

One need not appeal to a religious belief or cultural convention to recognize that slavery, genocide, torture, sexism, racism, murder, assault, fraud, deceit, and intimidation are all ethically wrong. Whenever we base ethical conclusions on religious or cultural standards, we separate ourselves from those who hold contrary religious or cultural beliefs. It is critical, therefore that we share ethical concepts and principles as guides in reasoning through common ethical issues.[9]

 

The Personal Nature of Values, Needs, and Value Conflict

 

 

Underlying values often masquerade in the form of beliefs and vice-versa. And, beliefs and values often share the concept of truth in common. That is, just as there are no truths that are absolute, so too there are no beliefs that are absolute, be they religious or scientific. Values too aren’t absolute. And it doesn’t matter whether the values belong to an ultra liberal or an ultra conservative. No values are absolute; if this were not the case one wouldn’t find so much widespread “value conflict(s)” between individuals, countries or cultures of the world.

 

When one is talking about making value judgments, what is one really implying about the value or values they cherish? What is implied in a value judgment is that the value(s) possess something that is more rewarding rather than less rewarding, something someone finds very good rather than less good. It is what is deemed more beneficial rather than less beneficial. What is seen as rewarding, good, or beneficial is, of course, what an individual assesses its worth to be.

 

The entire process of ethical reasoning may tie back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, i.e., values bare a relationship to satisfying human needs. However, the relative value of needs is also a learned behavior in small social groups. Said another way, interpretation of what is valued, or what has worth, is ultimately a social perception reinforced by other people. Just think back to your own childhood and this will become very clear. 

 

If knowing human needs, intellectual and social conditioning, and personal interaction all influence what one perceives or interprets as having value, where does this leave the individual? Value conflicts do seem to dominate the social stage of modern life. For example the conflict between the religious right and secular society is one of society’s ongoing, troubling conflicts where values clash all the time.

 

Or, consider the intense debate between the supporters of restricting the definition of marriage based on gender and the gay/lesbian community in California over Proposition 8. Supporters of Proposition 8 were primarily religious, republican, and older in age. Those who didn’t support Proposition 8’s ban were primarily secular, democratic and younger voters. Nevertheless, one cannot dictate what people ought to believe, however anti-social and absurd those values and beliefs might be among supporters of Proposition 8.

 

The biggest social conflict out there is the long-standing one between the values of science and the enlightenment on the one hand, and the values of religious thinking on the other.

 

There is no perfect answer to the social conflict between competing value systems. Logically, we’ve come full circle now back to the original question: How does one lead a moral and ethical life?

 

The Answer

 

I would like to suggest at least one way to answer the question. It affirms religious reverence of nature and the universe and, at the same time, it embraces the values of the Enlightenment and the values implicit in scientific inquiry. It may be a philosophy, a science and a religion all wrapped up into one way of valuing and seeing the world and the universe.

 

Remember—values can be very personal, an abstraction, or they can also be very pragmatic in one’s life. What follows is not necessarily the only way to view the world. But, in this author’s opinion, these values will serve you well and much closer to home. They are tied to basic human needs and they will definitely assist you in assessments of morality and assist you in leading a moral and ethical life. After all, many of our most intimate human needs and cherished values can be oriented toward being beneficial to the individual, as well as directed toward the social world we live in an abstract sense.

 

What I propose is not very well known, but it has been with us for thousands of years. This remarkable way of looking at the world is known as Pantheism.

 

What is Pantheism?

 

Paul Harrison, founder and former president of the World Pantheist Movement, describes pantheism this way:

 

ARE YOU A PANTHEIST? Do you feel a deep sense of peace and belonging and wonder in the midst of nature, in a forest, by the ocean, or on a mountain top? Are you speechless with awe when you look up at the sky on a clear moonless night and see the Milky Way strewn with stars as thick as sand on a beach? When you see breakers crashing on a rocky shore, or hear wind rustling in a poplar’s leaves, are you uplifted by the energy and creativity of existence? Finally, do you find it difficult to imagine anything more worthy of your deepest reverence than the beauty of nature or the power of the universe? If you answered yes to these questions, then you are almost certainly a Pantheist.[10]

 

The Irish writer John Toland was the first to use the word Pantheist in 1705, and defined it as a person who believes, “in no other eternal being than the universe.”[11]

There have been many noted Pantheists including Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Henry David Thoreau, Carl Sagan, and many others.

 

Pantheism is one of the oldest spiritual ways of looking at the world and the universe. “The word Pantheism derives from the Greek words pan (=”all”) and theos (=”God”). Thus Pantheism means: All is God. Pantheism holds that the Universe as a whole is worthy of the deepest reverence, and that only the Universe and Nature are worthy of that degree of reverence.”[12]

       

Pantheism is ancient in origin dating back to the 6th or 7th century B.C.E.[13]  Many spiritual orientations today apply to what is called Pantheism. Pantheists will say that they have a set of core beliefs. My assumption is that like any other set of beliefs pantheist beliefs are really a set of core values. These values are both ancient and modern and seem to be promoted as good things under a number of names that collectively form the basis of pantheism.

 

Varieties of pantheism are to be found with many different names such as scientific pantheism, religious humanism, religious naturalism, religious atheism, deep ecology, and nature-worship. They also include philosophical Taoism, modern Stoicism, Gaian religion, as well as those forms of wicca and paganism that see magic and the gods as symbols rather than realities, also Western forms of Buddhism that celebrate nature and everyday life, and to those in Unitarian Universalism who do not believe in supernatural beings.[14]

 

All of these forms of pantheism are working toward a naturalistic spirituality. The values underlying spirituality can be seen as meeting a very real human need to extend beyond the individual to reach a kind of unity with something greater than the self.

 

The ethics, according to the World Pantheism Movement (and underlying values) “are humanistic and green, our metaphysics naturalist and scientific, but to these we add the emotional and aesthetic dimensions which humans need to joyfully embrace their place in the universe and to motivate their concern for nature and human welfare.”[15]

 

Some people see pantheism as a religion while others do not. They tend to see it as more of a philosophy than anything else. There are strands of pantheism that run through Hinduism, Indian Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and philosophy found among the ancient Greeks and Romans.[16]

 

It is interesting that,

 

The three major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all believe in a similar kind of God. He is a God that existed from all eternity, who created and now rules the universe. A God who has planned a vast cosmic drama that will end in the final judgment of all human souls and the winding up of history of the earth as we know it. A God who extends far beyond space and time and is far greater than the universe. Yet none of these religions believe in a totally distant and separate God. Even their central doctrines tend to be panentheistic.[17]

           

I do not know if there is, within each human being, a need for spirituality in the modern era. But many people, including some of our most eminent scientists suspect that our genes, in some way, may wire us for spirituality. This desire to connect to something larger than ourselves, to provide context as well as content, even purpose and meaning in life may be a product of evolution itself. Or, it may be something yet unknown waiting to be discovered. That is, the need for spirituality may still be a product of social learning. The need for spirituality appears to exist, but we simply don’t know why it exists. But, as a person who occasionally wagers a bet, I’d put my money on the explanation that spirituality has something to do with social values, not genes at all.

 

Remember that during the Axial Age there was a vast explosion of religious thought throughout the East and the West. It has been explained elsewhere that religion and concepts of God has undergone its own kind of evolutionary process, very much tied to changes that have occurred with various cultures around the world. More than anything else, the Axial Age may have demonstrated that there really is a social need for spirituality. Cultures that were quite distant from one another nevertheless demonstrated a need and desire for spirituality. But, like many observations at this point, it is only a hypothesis.

 

According to Karen Armstrong, “we cannot be religious in the same way people did 2000 years ago. We have traveled to the moon and have looked back at the earth from outer space.”[18] A modern technologically advanced society dominates the world today. The knowledge explosion is unbelievably profound.

 

Education has taught people to think independently and critically. It’s difficult for educated people today to believe in dogma or miracles merely because a parent, priest or an ancient book proclaims it. People seek for sounder foundations, and ask for harder evidence of what religions claim. If that evidence does not satisfy reason, more and more people choose to reject religions of every kind.[19]    

 

 

The Heart of Pantheism

 

 Like the World Pantheist Movement describes them, there are three core values that seem to apply to Pantheism. They include:

 

 

Reverence for the Universe

Caring for Nature

Celebrating Life

 

 

What follows is a description of the Pantheist Credo. Not everyone who is a pantheist will agree with all of the statements made, but it is fair to say that most pantheists will agree. According to Paul Harrison most pantheists will agree with clauses 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 and 9. Some might have alternative approaches to mind/body and death as covered in 5, 6, and 7.[20]

 

 

The Pantheist Credo

 

 

  1. We revere and celebrate the Universe as the totality of being, past, present and future. It is self-organizing, ever-evolving and inexhaustibly diverse. Its overwhelming power, beauty and fundamental mystery compel the deepest human reverence and wonder.
  2.  All matter, energy, and life are an interconnected unity of which we are an inseparable part. We rejoice in our existence and seek to participate ever more deeply in this unity through knowledge, celebration, meditation, empathy, love, ethical action and art.
  3.  We are an integral part of Nature, which we should cherish, revere and preserve in all its magnificent beauty and diversity. We should strive to live in harmony with Nature locally and globally.
  4. We acknowledge the inherent value of all life, human and non-human, and serve to treat all living beings with compassion and respect.
  5. All humans are equal centers of awareness of the Universe and nature, and all deserve a life of equal dignity and mutual respect. To this end we support and work toward freedom, democracy, justice, and non-discrimination, and a world community based on peace, sustainable ways of life, full respect for human rights and an end to poverty.
  6.  There is a single kind of substance, energy/matter, which is vibrant and infinitely creative in all its forms. Body and mind are indivisibly united.
  7.  We see death as a return to nature of our elements, and the end of our existence as individuals. The forms of “afterlife” available to humans are natural ones, in a natural world. Our actions, our ideas and memories of us live on, according to what we do in our lives. Our genes live on in our families, and our elements are endlessly recycled in nature.
  8.  We honor reality, and keep our minds open to the evidence of the senses and of science’s unending quest for deeper understanding. These are our best means of coming to know the Universe, and on them we base our esthetic and religious feelings about reality.
  9.  Every individual has direct access through perception, emotion and meditation to ultimate reality, which is the Universe and Nature. There is no need for mediation by priests, gurus or revealed scriptures.
  10.  We uphold the separation of religion and state, and the universal human right of freedom of religion. We recognize the freedom of all pantheists to express and celebrate their beliefs, as individuals or in groups, in any non-harmful ritual, symbol or vocabulary that is meaningful to them.[21]

  

 


[1] Richard Paul and Linda Elder, A Minature Guide to Understanding the Foundations of ETHICAL REASONING (based on Critical Thinking Concepts and Principles, Third Edition), 2005 Foundation for Critical Thinking [online] www.criticalthinking.org.

[2] Ibid, 3

[3] Ibid, 4

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 13

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. Forward Material

[10] Paul Harrison, Elements of Pantheism—Religious Reverence of Nature and the Universe [Second Edition] (Ilumina Press: Coral Springs, Florida, 2004), 1

[11] Ibid, 3

[12] Ibid, 1

[13] Ibid, 2

[14] PANTHEISM: World Pantheism Movement [online]; accessed 2/20/07, http://www.pantheism.net/

[15] Ibid.

[16] Paul Harrison, Elements of Pantheism, pgs. 13-21

[17] Paul Harrison, 23

[18] Karen Armstrong, The History of God–DVD

[19] Paul Harrison, 5

[20] Ibid, 99

[21] Ibid, 100

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Thinking beyond Religion: Values and Moral Conduct for Life

[Part I]

 

Sin lies in hurting people unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense–Robert A. Heinlein (Influential mainstream Science Fiction author, 1907-1988)

 

In this and the following Blog, I will attempt to answer two important questions one is likely to confront during one’s life: What is the meaning of life? And, How Does One Lead a Moral and Ethical Life? In this Blog I will address the first question.

Background

 Many years ago when I was in college I always appreciated and liked courses in science, the physical and biological sciences, but also the twentieth century social sciences of psychology and sociology. The one course I did take in philosophy as an undergraduate was Ethics. While discussions in my philosophy class were always interesting, and the instructor top notch, philosophy always seemed to me to be on a kind of circuitous merry-go-round. That is, the discussions never seemed to arrive at a final destination. Philosophy was to me a kind of word game where the object was the process itself, not an end product.

 As students we were always trying to get at the truth, but somehow we never arrived at the truth. Definitions resulted in defining other terms or words which in turn led to still more definitions. If one did enough defining of terms in search for that one final statement of truth, one found himself quite disappointed and often back to where one started the process. The word game in philosophy was much like infinity—it just seemed to go on forever.

 However, years later I began to develop a more sophisticated and appreciative view of philosophy and that process of “getting” at the truth. Philosophy asked many critical and important questions about ethical human conduct, knowledge, religion, and the world around us.

 That process of getting at the truth was an important consideration for study. Philosophy was good at providing many theories in areas such as Ethics, Political Philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy of Religion, the Theory of Knowledge, Logic, and Contemporary Philosophy.

 The science I loved was really not so different from philosophy in many respects. And in fact logic, and the use of reason, was a major tool in science as well as philosophy.  

 Scientists too posit many theories, but they also do something one might not find in a philosophy class; that is, scientists test the theories they propose with actual data from the real world. Having testable theories with data extends the reach of science to include drawing conclusions, however tentative such conclusions might be. I liked this because it got me off the word-game merry-go-round. Nevertheless, asking critical questions is important whether one is a scientist or a philosopher. So, how does one “get at” answering the question: What is the meaning of life? Actually, one needs to begin asking other critical questions before jumping into the “big” question of enlightenment; One must prepare mentally first for the journey to Nirvana.  

 

Connections: Finding the Meaning of Life and Seeking “Truth.”

 

Plato’s Socrates was right on the money when he said, “the unexamined life is a life not worth living.” To ask critical questions is essential to living a valid and authentic life. Needless to say (and this is not tongue-in-cheek) when people deny the need to critically evaluate and ask questions, it is both unreasonable and illogical. And, it is not an authentic way to lead one’s life. Do I make my point? What then is the connection between seeking the Meaning of Life and seeking Truth through reason and logic? That connection is intimately wound up with what are called Values.

 

How Values Influence Every Aspect of Life

 

 So, if there is no absolute truth, then what is there? And how is a consensus built around truth? And how do values relate to any process of consensus building?

 It is true that consensus building and truth go hand-in-hand. For example, scientific truth is always provisional and subject to change. And “truth” is what we agree it is. There is no final absolute truth whether one is talking about sub-particles of the atom, how the elusive neutrino behaves, how black holes operate, or whether one is debating science or the philosophy of religion. There is no absolute truth; absolute truth(s) are a cultural myth.

 What lays a foundation around life in general, and supports a consensus around what people agree that truth is, are values and/or value judgments (scientific values, social values, moral values, humanistic values, values of the enlightenment, etc.). So, what are values?

 Briefly, values are anything that is perceived to have worth. And the perceived worth of something is intimately tied to one’s personal needs and societal notions of what has worth collectively. It is anything that is evaluated for its usefulness, excellence, and is usually placed in a scale of other values. For example, the majority of people in American culture place the value of honor above riches, life over death, beauty over ugliness, education over ignorance, freedom and democracy over tyranny. Values basically form and shape everything we do, everything we say, and everything we believe.

 This is a sociological way of looking at questions of the meaning of life, or how one goes about leading an ethical life. The answers to the questions relating to meaning in life, or how to lead an ethical life, are not based on some sort of absolute set of values. Rather, all values are relative to the individual and to the culture or society one lives in. Thus, for a variety of reasons, values underlie how most of us think about the world around us, and how we think other people ought to behave. This notion of how people ought to behave or act toward one another is what ethics is all about. Leading an ethical life is also relative to the individual, and the collective way society tries to define behavior as either good or bad in a cultural context. 

 Exactly what behavior is defined as either good or bad? When assessments of “good” and “bad” conduct are evaluated at the societal level, the process becomes very political in nature. Values become politicized. That is, defining human conduct as either good or bad is as much a product of the “rule makers” as it is the “rule breakers.” Any kind of deviance from some norm is always based on the interaction of rule-makers and rule-breakers.

 Technically, values that are formalized within a society as rules of conduct are codified as Laws. Less formal rules, but nevertheless influential ways which impact people, are called Mores (morals). And common accepted habitual ways of doing things, normative accepted ways of acting or behaving, are called Folkways. Because of laws, mores, and folkways we all live in a very complex society. One day, should we ever discover intelligent life on other planets, one can be rather certain that conduct approval or disapproval will vary from planet to planet.

 There may be across countries and cultures what are called “universal values” (e.g., the prohibition against incest) but even the most famous rules (The Ten Commandments) are not universal values or value judgments. They vary by culture and different societies.  Although one can certainly appreciate the prohibitions against murder and stealing, even these prohibitions vary by cultural context as do several of the other commandments.

 

Lets Get Down to the Nitty-Gritty

 

Most of us are a product of growing up in a particular family, a neighborhood, a community, and a country. At every level values play a major role in forming and shaping who we are. Value neutrality is pretty much a myth in any culture or society. [Parenthetically, ever notice that politicians spend much more time, when making speeches, articulating “value-judgments” than they do presenting data, facts, figures, or concrete solutions to problems? This is because politicians understand the power of values rather than facts or figures when trying to influence people].

 Value neutrality is a myth primarily because values themselves play such a major role in all belief systems. Values influence what people want to do in life, how they derive meaning in life, and how individuals or groups go about codifying values into a set of rules or procedures to live by.

 We tend to call this latter activity, ethics. And ethics is defined broadly as “a code or set of principles by which men live.”[i] Complicating the situation of influential values (values of the enlightenment for liberals and moderates versus Christian values for conservatives and religious extremists) is Value Conflict.

 For example, there is a value conflict in the right to life versus a women’s right to choose, or the soldier’s conflict between not wanting to take life, versus one doing his duty by protecting his fellow soldiers and countrymen from harm. It is value conflict that makes ethical reasoning very difficult. When values collide with one another they provide the impetus to bring to bear all of the skills necessary to engage in ethical reasoning.

 What follows is an attempt to answer, despite persistent value conflicts: “What is the Meaning of Life?”  

 

What is the Meaning of Life?

 

 This sort of question is really ass-backwards. For it implies something external to the individual that will magically, or otherwise, convey meaning (and perhaps purpose) on an individual. A much better question is—what gives life meaning? Or, what makes life meaningfull?

 So, what does meaning mean? It is that which is meant, intended or aimed at. It is that which one intends to convey, especially by language. It is also the sense in which something is understood. It is accepted by a large number of writers and speakers as significant in how it’s conveyed or accepted and understood.

 Framing the question what gives meaning or makes life meaningful, is what humans bring to the table in the first place. Meaning implies something important to the individual (having value and worth) be it an act, something said or something written such as words or symbols. What is meaningful and what is perceived to be valuable often go hand in hand. But we must remember that one person’s bias is another person’s values and vice-versa. What has meaning for one person may or may not have meaning for another person.

 Humans first and foremost derive “meaning” because we are “social beings.” We are social because we yearn for close personal relationships; I care about you and you care for me. The greatest values we cherish and respect in this life are those having to do with people, those in our immediate environment but also those at a distance, i.e., humanity in general.

 

Social Meaning in Life

 

 It isn’t some anthropomorphic invisible entity (like a sky God who judges you) that gives meaning to one’s life. Meaning in life is derived primarily from the people around you, the people you love, and the people you care about. And, if you are fortunate in this life—you will find meaning from those who love you. People may derive meaning in art, science, beauty, careers, prosperity and good health, but the ultimate way individuals derive meaning in their lives is through the people one is close to.

 How does one prioritize those things that give meaning in life? In this author’s opinion finding meaning in life is very closely aligned to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Needs do not dictate specific values or meaning, but needs are intimately tied up with our perceptions of what is “meaningful.” Survival may be our greatest need but individuals often sacrifice their physical well-being in order to do what? That’s right, save other people. There are exceptions to this that do occur, but generally most individuals would rather “take a bullet” than let a loved one be injured or killed.

 Up till this point I have discussed the most important aspect of finding what makes life meaningful; namely, those we love, and those who return our love. Anyone who has ever had the privilege of falling in love, being in love in all its varieties throughout life has known perhaps the ultimate “experience” of finding out “what makes life meaningful.” Loving is more than an abstraction; it gets to the very core of our innermost feelings.    

 Probably the worst existence on earth are among those (for example, those suffering from a Bi-polar personality coupled with a Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD]) individuals who can’t relate to people at all. These individuals are simply not wired for sociability, and the relationships they do have are marginalized throughout life. These are the absolute worst forms of mental illness as far as finding meaning through other people and experiencing what makes life meaningful.

 There is a related connection for all of us between finding what makes life meaningful, and how one goes about leading a moral and ethical life.  Finding out what makes life meaningful is a “social act,” Leading a moral and ethical life is also a “social act.”

 Both involve consideration (or lack there of) of other people in one’s environment. Consideration of other people is significant  because it tells a lot about whether one will find what makes life meaningful on the one hand, and whether one will be (or not be) successful in leading a moral and ethical life on the other.

 In Part II of the next Blog I will discuss, How Does One Lead a Moral and Ethical Life? The answers forthcoming may not turn the world upside down, but I suspect it will make your life more meaningful.  

 

 

[i] Richard H. Popkin and Avrum Stroll, Philosophy Made Simple, Made Simple Books (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956), 17.


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