Is the desire for a meaningful life a selfless desire?

Thomas, Joshua Lewis (2019). Is the desire for a meaningful life a selfless desire? Human Affairs: Postdisciplinary Humanities and Social Sciences Quarterly, 29(4) pp. 445–452.



Susan Wolf defines a meaningful life as one that is somewhat successfully engaged in promoting positive value. I grant this claim; however, I disagree with Wolf’s theory about why we desire meaningfulness, so understood. She suggests that the human desire for meaningfulness is derived from an awareness of ourselves as equally insignificant in the universe and a resulting anti-solipsistic concern for promoting goodness outside the boundaries of our own lives. I accept that this may succeed in explaining why people want to engage in projects that happen to be meaningful. Nevertheless, I argue that Wolf fails to explain why people have a desire for meaningfulness itself. In other words, she has told us one reason we may be motivated to promote positive value, but not why we personally want to be the people who promote it—why we think it is a good thing that meaningful acts be done, but not why we want them to be our meaningful acts. In detailing my response, I follow Wolf in relating our desire for meaningfulness to a kind of love-based motivation. However, I argue that it has more in common with a selfish form of love than the altruistic kind of love proposed by Wolf. Finally, I suggest an alternative explanation which I believe can more fully account for our desire for meaningfulness: the prospect of disappearing from the universe without a trace makes us anxious, so we pursue meaningful achievements in an attempt to make our own physical deaths less final.

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