“Fulfilling and meaningful” is not the same as “good”

An intelligent philosopher recently commented that he had known some people who adopted lifestyle X and that they seemed to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.  As a consequence, the philosopher had decided that lifestyle X was not a bad or immoral lifestyle after all.  That phrase about a “fulfilling and meaningful life” caught my attention:  when did we begin to speak that way?  I do it myself.  And yet, on reflection, I think that a person living a bad lifestyle can have a fulfilling and meaningful life.

It often happens that a person living a bad life feels empty, like something is wrong.  It often happens that a bad life is a trivial one, disconnected from society and the world at large, focused on the selfish self.  So the lack of a fulfilling and meaningful life could well mean that the life in question needs moral reform.  What I am saying is that you can’t turn it around:  You can’t say that the possession of a fulfilling and meaningful life means for sure that the life in question needs no moral reform.

Let’s look at the meaning of the terms.  I take “fulfilling” to mean that a person feels no void or lack in his life, but is, so to speak, filled up.  He’s tanked, supplied, not missing anything.  And I take “meaningful” to be an expansion on the same idea, indicating that his life makes him feel connected to something bigger than himself.  This could be a mental connection, situating him in some larger vision of the scheme of things, or it could be a practical connection, meaning that he has a positive impact on lots of other people.

To figure out whether a morally bad life can be fulfilling and meaningful, I need an example of something that everyone will admit is morally bad—a tough thing to find these days, but not impossible.  Let’s take up the example of slavery.  I hope that everyone who comes across this blog believes that treating human beings as slaves is a morally bad thing to do, and not just bad but very bad.  So let’s look at slave owners in the American south.

Did slave owners in the American south generally sit up at night wrestling with a void in their lives?  Did they suffer continually from a sense of something missing?  Subjectively speaking, were they unfulfilled?  One does not get that impression.  In fact, they lived somewhat as aristocrats, enjoying culture, education, and a high social life.  They took part in charitable endeavors, played a key role in the governance of a nation, and had an abundance of material goods.  Their lives were full of good things.

To put a sharp point on that:  Their lives were full of good things because they owned slaves.  Slave labor financed their exalted lifestyle, paid for their education, and provided leisure to enjoy it all.

When we look at the term “meaningful,” we find the same thing.  If we take the term as referring to a sense of connectedness to a broader vision of reality, slave owners truly saw their slaves as lesser, as lower, and so they seem to have experienced slave owning as a way of fitting into their proper place in the universe.  They were below God, equal to their fellow plantation owners, and superior to their slaves; there was—according to their perception—a natural order to things, and they were in the correct slot.  If we take “meaningful” in a practical sense, as having a positive impact on others, we find that the wealth they derived from owning the plantations made it possible to do good for others, to help friends in need, to build colleges and churches.  They seem to have lived meaningful lives.

And again, notice that they did so because they owned slaves.  They didn’t lead fulfilling and meaningful lives despite their morally bad actions but because of them.

And yet, owning slaves is a morally bad thing to do.  If we met a slave owner and realized that he seemed to feel fulfilled and to have found meaning in life, our conviction would not be shaken.  He does not seem like a monster when you get to know him; what of it?  We know that what he does is exceedingly bad.  If we became convinced that he was invincibly ignorant of his own moral failing, we would pity him because his ignorance was causing him to be something inherently shameful.  Intuitively, we know that his feeling of fulfilment and of being situated in the cosmos does not make his bad deeds good.

One basic problem with the terms “fulfilling” and “meaningful” as commonly used is that they have to do with feeling rather than reality.  A small cup can be just as full as a big one and yet hold far less water; a small soul can be just as fulfilled as a great soul and yet remain a cramped instance of humanity.  If moral good and evil are not just feelings, then they cannot be fully captured by terms that describe feelings.

The more practical sense of “meaningful,” having a positive impact on others, seems more objective and measurable, and yet even this has its problems.  A slave owner might have a positive impact on far more people than he enslaves, and yet his chosen lifestyle is a morally bad one.  A business man who runs an important pharmaceutical company could abuse his wife and kids while making it possible for millions of people to have essential medicines.  He could be a morally bad man and yet lead a truly meaningful life.

If people who do bad things were always unhappy, dislocated, and unproductive, then the world would be a much simpler place.  I remember some time ago a picture of Nazi soldiers went around the Internet and upset a lot of people.  It showed the soldiers on break, sitting around and talking, enjoying a beer—looking like normal people instead of like the monsters we see in World War II movies.  We all know life is more complicated than the movies.

Of course, I haven’t even touched on whether you can really know that someone else feels fulfilled and connected to something greater.  Every year it seems I read another story about someone who seemed happy to all his co-workers and then suddenly committed suicide.  I know I have had dark pits inside that no one could possibly have known about unless I told them.  One of the reasons we love biographies of famous people is the contrast between their glittering appearance and their hidden struggles.  However, my point in this post is not that bad people can hide how miserable they are, but that people who do very bad things are not always miserable.

The punchline:  If you meet people who do things you thought were morally wrong, don’t be unsettled if you find that they seem to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives.  “Fulfilling and meaningful” is not the same thing as “good”.

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The key question behind today’s moral debates

As I have thought about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling and about the other moral confusions of our day—is it OK to kill children? can I kill grandma so long as she is helpless? should I have surgery to change me from boy to girl?—I have become steadily more convinced that the root lies far away, where no one would suspect it. You could start somewhere at random, anywhere you please, and there find the key to unlocking all these debates.

Consider my cat as an example. If I glance up and see him, without reflection I think: “A cat!” He seems to be one animal with various parts, including legs, tail, and teeth, that serve his purposes.

But if I look at him more analytically, and especially if I recall my high school biology courses, I recall that he is composed of many systems: muscular system, skeletal system, nervous system, digestive system, and so on and so forth. These systems themselves are composed of a multitude of cells, and the cells in turn are composed of some unimaginable number of atoms, which in turn are composed of something smaller whose name I forget, which in turn is composed of something even smaller whose name maybe nobody knows—but let’s just stop at the level of atoms. My cat is composed of some unimaginable and incomprehensible number of atoms.

The key question is: Which comes first, the atoms or the cat?

In high school, we were taught to think that the atoms come first. On this model, a cat is like a car, a complex system of parts that work so well together as to achieve an appearance of unity. What really exists are nuts and bolts and belts and so on; “car” names the cumulative effect of these parts in relation to each other. Similarly, what really exists are atoms; “cat” names the cumulative effect of the atoms. The atoms are first, and cause the cat. On this theory, my cat is not a cat, but the appearance of a cat; or to put it more precisely, “cat” is the name of an appearance. This is the first and original atom bomb: the one that blew up my cat.

But suppose we turn it around, and say that the cat comes first and the atoms second. On this model, what really exists is one thing, namely a cat, and the atoms are effects arising from that one thing. In this case, the atoms are the sensible radiation or working out of one thing, like the visible glow that testifies to an electric charge in the air. However comprehensible as mechanisms, the various systems in the cat are nothing other than the cat itself working itself out in the mechanical arena. On this theory, my cat is a cat, not a “cat.”

How can we decide which is true? A change in theory would make no difference in the arrangement of atoms, so we can’t leave it to scientific studies or super-duper microscopes or any other version of seeing, touching, feeling, hearing, or smelling. The world around us relentlessly (and unknowingly) advocates that the atoms are first. But how can we decide?

Of all the animals in the world, we have an “insider perspective” on one only: ourselves. Hold up your hands; clap them together. Look with your eyes, and realize that you are looking with two eyes rather than one. You experience yourself as one thing, no matter how many parts you may have; if anyone pokes your hand or your eye, you will say, “You poked me!”

It may seem unscientific or even mystical, but it’s an immediate experience that trumps any later argument: I am first, and my atoms are second.

Does this seem arcane? This one question—which is first, the atoms or the cat?—decides whether moral evil exists, whether we live in our houses, whether we know anything at all. People have no idea.

To say that life is nothing but a property of certain peculiar combinations of atoms is like saying that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nothing but a property of a peculiar combination of letters. The truth is that the peculiar combination of letters is nothing but a property of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The French or German versions of the play “own” different combinations of letters.

 – E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed

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