I really liked this post by Will Wilkinson on the question of meaning (even if I don’t necessarily agree with all of it). It’s in response to the argument that having kids is deeply meaningful even if it can’t be quantified, which itself is a response to the current fad of pointing out that having kids allegedly doesn’t make people happier. Quoting from an earlier piece of his, Will writes:
Appeals to meaning are nice, but they just push the lump in the rug. What’s so great about meaning, anyway? For that matter, what is it? How does one validate that x is in fact meaningful, or more meaningful than y? If meaning is going to carry a justificatory load in weighty personal and political deliberation, we can’t just wave our hands about it. Intellectual virtue requires care. We need to get started on measuring meaning. There are many questions. How much is meaning worth to us in terms of happiness? How much is happiness worth in terms of meaning? There are no doubt many and varied sources of meaning. With science on our side, we are sure to discover that some of them are corrosive to other of our cherished values while some enhance them. Then we’ll be well-situated to say goodbye to toxic meaningfulness. Goodbye national identity? Goodbye God? Who knows what we might find? Science is a source of excitement as well as wonder.
I don’t anticipate the new field of “meaning research” will be warmly received by those with a refined taste for meaning. Many of these fine folks say that the very attempt to measure happiness scientifically — not to mention the effort to put meaning itself under the microscope — saps life of… meaning. But how do you know? Anybody can say this. You can say it while waving a copy of The Closing of the American Mind. You can say it smoking a pipe. But it doesn’t help.
Having spent a lot of time on “the politics of meaning,” I think this raises a fascinating realm of inquiry. I think meaning is real. But one reason it is hard to quantify, I think, is that it is so diversely defined. We all have our own innate, but usually unarticulated, conception of meaning (or, as Rod Tidwell might say, “Quan“). I have friends who consider their jobs to be Who They Are and I have friends who see their jobs as chores that merely provide the wherewithal to be Who They Are. Some people give their lives to the military or the church or “the movement.” But for most people, meaning isn’t found in giving yourself over to one thing, but finding the right balance between many things.
The founding fathers understood better than most that it is impossible and, more importantly, wrong to try to impose on another a self-conception of meaning. You can try to persuade, educate, and inform people about what constitutes the, or a, good life. But the pursuit of happiness is an individual and God-given right. Charles Murray in his recent AEI lecture “The Happiness of the People,” quoted from Federalist 62, in which Madison says:
“A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”
To which Charles adds:
Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.
I think this happiness is essentially interchangeable with Wilkison’s elusive meaning. The danger is when government tries to get in the business of providing — or even imposing — meaning or happiness on the people. It can’t do that, because meaning and happiness cannot be given, they must be accomplished (the ultimate point of Charles’ lecture). And to try is to transform citizens into subjects.
Even organizations that provide meaning to large numbers of people — the military, the Catholic Church, the Communist Party in years past — rely on the voluntary enlistment of their members. Once someone becomes disillusioned with the cause they’ve signed up for, it’s axiomatic that the cause no longer provides happiness or meaning. That’s my chief problem with Barack Obama’s “we’re all in it together” philosophy. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention he tried to redefine the invidualistic pursuit of the “American dream” into a more collective, Crolyite, endeavor to achieve “America’s promise.” But for many of us, America’s promise is not what we all do together via the government, but what we’re all capable of achieving on our own when government gets out of the way.
But the best the government can do is provide the means to pursue happiness. That’s why the constitution doesn’t promise to give people anything beyond basic security and common defense while guaranteeing that it won’t get in the way of people trying to pursue their own understanding of happiness (The old Soviet constitution, by contrast, promised to provide everything people needed to be happy, and failed across the board).
Again, the problem is when governments, or political movements seeking to take control of the government, seek to provide meaning to people. Hillary Clinton, recall, wanted to use her politics of meaning to redefine what it means to be a human being. Such an effort, by definition, becomes oppressive because one person’s or one government’s definition of happiness will inevitably be someone else’s idea of Hell.
Most Deweyan liberals don’t really disagree with this, by the way, they simply think that the government should give people more junk (positive liberty and all that) and that will “empower” them to find happiness on their own. I think that’s a serious and legitimate point of view, with some truth to it at the margins. But for the reasons Murray detailed in its his lecture, I think it’s ultimately wrong.