Can Only Human Lives Be Meaningful?

Thomas, Joshua Lewis (2018). Can Only Human Lives Be Meaningful? Philosophical Papers, 47(2) pp. 265–297.



Duncan Purves and Nicolas Delon have argued that one’s life will be meaningful to the extent that one contributes to valuable states of affairs and this contribution is a result of one’s intentional actions. They then argue, contrary to some theorists’ intuitions, that non-human animals are capable of fulfilling these requirements, and that this finding might entail important things for the animal ethics movement. In this paper, I also argue that things besides human beings can have meaningful existences, but I disagree with Purves and Delon’s theory of meaning, and some of the practical implications they suggest arise from their conclusion. Specifically, I argue that Purves and Delon are wrong to suggest that intentional agency is necessary for one’s life to be meaningful; contributing to valuable states of affairs can be sufficient by itself. Purves and Delon’s objection to such a claim is that it would allow even inanimate objects’ existences to count as meaningful. However, while I accept this consequence, I argue that it only seems counterintuitive because of two false beliefs they appear to hold: that some X cannot have a meaningful existence without that meaning (a) making X better off or (b) giving X reasons for pride.

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