Todd May on the meaningfulness of lives

In his New York Times The Stone blog “On the Meaningfulness of Lives,” Todd May seeks to rescue the concept of meaning from Sartre’s pronouncement that in a godless universe the concept is unintelligible. A worthy endeavor.

Here’s how the argument goes.

1. Distinctions. Meaningfulness is not morality (good or bad, good or evil). Meaningfulness is not happiness (feeling good).

2. Valuations. Meaning is something that is valued (objective) and something that I value (subjective).

3. Narrative Condition. A meaningful life is one that follows a narrative trajectory. It is a life “intensely” lived.

The first two claims are unobjectionable; the third is where things start to get dicey–and fast.

The Problem of Subjectivism: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

It is at this point that theologians have traditionally appealed to God, the transcendent, an objective dimension because they worry that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” In other words, they see that they must provide an alternative is subjectivism.

Subjectivism means that I do not have access to anything outside the circle of consciousness (call it epistemic subjectivism), or it means that I have no access to value outside that to which I ascribe to objects (call it valuational subjectivism). The trouble with subjectivism, epistemic, valuational, or otherwise, is that it cannot avoid the charge of arbitrariness. I may lead this life because I value it, but should I value it? Do I have good reasons for valuing it? Just because it “feels good” or “seems attractive” or “suits me” will not remove the objection that I have no standard by which to determine whether or not I should be leading this life (as opposed to some other). Hence, I cannot be reasonably certain that I am making much of my life.

And how does Todd May respond to the problem of subjectivism? Well, not so good so far. Suppose, as May thinks, that my life actually does follow a narrative trajectory. How might this, on its own, solve the problem? Nick voices the objection quite well:

You need to say how “narrative values” map on to or allow us to access objective values. Switching to talk of “intensity” totally muddles the issue. If this is the best we can make of an objectively meaningful life, then I think we have no choice but to fall back on some kind of subjectivism. Hand-waving at “intense” “narrative” values does nothing to solve the problem of what objective limits we can reasonably place on a person’s subjectively meaningful pursuits (Comment 8 at The Stone).

May could appeal to some (objectively) shared understanding of literary genres but if so, which in particular? Is a tragic life objectively meaningful, or must it be epic? Comic? In the article, he is mum.