This blog post rests on utilitarianism:
Meaning comes from everything that gives people a sense of fulfillment and belonging. For example:
- Having a deep purpose (doing one’s True Will) gives people meaning in life.
- Being on a path (the dedicated devotion to a mission) gives people meaning in life.
- Being part of a group (the merging of one’s will into a greater will) gives people meaning in life.
Meaning increases happiness, but it may also increase suffering and thereby decrease happiness. For example:
- Tribal loyalty makes people’s lives meaningful, but it also incites out-group hate and violence.
- Provocateurs and demagogues gain a vitalizing sense of purpose from polarizing society, but that source of meaning reduces national cohesion.
- Hitler provided Germans with a powerful sense of identity and social belonging, but World War II was far from being a peak in human happiness.
- Communism gives leftists a grand sense of political mission, but historically it invariably failed to do good for any large community.
Some sources of meaning are better than others.1 For example:
- The meaning humanists get from striving for world peace is objectively better than the meaning nationalists get from martially glorifying their nation-tribe.
- The meaning philanthropists get from being active in secular service communities is objectively better than the meaning theists get from religious communities held together by irrational dogmas.
- The meaning some physicians get from treating illnesses and saving lives is objectively better than the meaning other physicians get from achieving success by pushing pills that further illnesses and endanger lives.
- The meaning progressivists get from rethinking gender relations is objectively better than the meaning traditionalists get from defending gender stereotypes that undermine personal liberty.
Every source of meaning has positive aspects, but if they are outweighed by negative aspects, we must substitute them with better sources—with sources of meaning that cause less overall suffering.
Is suffering-based meaning not deeper and stronger than pleasure-based meaning?
Such thinking results from of our negativity bias (our tendency to overvalue negative events) and our self-help conditioning to reframe failures and miseries as “things that make us stronger.” Even though suffering can be instrumentally valuable, it is not an intrinsic good. Saying that suffering is good in itself (or that it is cool, edgy, or masculine) is but a sad rationalization of one’s inability to be happy.
Do people who gain meaning from causing suffering (e.g., in tribal honor cultures) not also produce meaning for those who seek to alleviate suffering so that it all balances out in the grand scheme of things? Do good and evil people not complement each other in cosmic harmony? How could there even be good if evil did not exist?
This yin-yang argument is misguided because for goodness to be possible we do not need people to create badness in the world. Goodness can exist without human evil. We can simply contrast good with bad, whereby bad need not be human-made (evil). Due to the second law of thermodynamics, life and happiness are inherently unstable. Hence, even if 100% of people would collaborate to maximize well-being, there would still be plenty of badness in the world to battle against. We do not have to worry about people becoming “too good for their own good” because the law of entropy ensures that there will always be enough suffering to provide us with existential sources of meaning.
- How to Maximize Happiness in Society
- Metaphysical Toughness: The Antidote to Bigotry
- When to Endure Meaninglessness (Metaphysical Toughness, Part 2)
- From an objective point of view, this might seem trivial. Subjectively, though, people tend to cling to whatever source of meaning they’ve happened to discover in their lives, incapable of entertaining the idea that there could be better sources out there. This is responsible for a host of radical political disagreements.