Why are certain endeavors typically considered to be more meaningful than others? Volunteers like to say that their work adds meaning and a certain form of fulfillment to their lives. Why is volunteerism, in particular, seen to be "meaningful"? Why don't we hear the same claim as frequently from say, lawyers or tax accountants?

In thinking about your question, it may help to think about cases where we intuitively think lives lack meaning. Many philosophers have used Sisyphus -- who was doomed to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down again, for all of eternity -- as a paradigm case of a meaningless life.

To varying extents, our own lives often seem Sisyphean. My suspicion is that's probably more the case for lawyers and tax accountants than for volunteers. In fact, I have to confess, there are days when grading student papers seems awfully like rolling a stone up the hill!

But now let's ask: What makes Sisyphus's life meaningless? Some have attributed the meaningless of his life to the misery he must be in. So we might try to consider a slightly different case, one given to us by philosopher Richard Taylor. Taylor suggests that we imagine Sisyphus having been injected with a drug that provides him a passion for stone-rolling. He still spends eternity involved in stone-rolling, but now this an activity he loves. There's still no point to his stone-rolling, but now at least he's happy about the activity he's involved in. Does this change make his life meaningful?

Insofar as you think it doesn't, you probably think that meaning can only derive from tasks that have some kind of real worth -- which stone rolling doesn't. When we try to think about the projects we find worthy, we often seem to hit on the things that force us to look outside ourselves, and to do something to (and sorry to use a trite phrase here) make the world a better place. And, in many cases, it turns out as a matter of fact that getting involved in causes outside oneself has the added benefit of making us happier, too.

I wanted to add a few thoughts prompted by Amy's very interesting response.

First, if you're generally interested in the topic of the meaning of life, you might check out Albert Camus's retelling of the story of Sisyphus, which concludes: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." This might lead one to think that Camus has fallen into the kind of objection advanced by Taylor, but it's not clear to me that he has. In any event, Camus's essay is tricky and complicated, but it is also well-written, rich, and rewarding, I think it well worth the time and effort.

Second, if you are interested in the way that a living philosopher grapples with this sort of question, I heartily recommend Susan Wolf's book, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters, which engages in an extended way unparalleled by the work of other recent philosophers that I know with this general topic.

Wolf, if I remember correctly--and I may well be misremembering--suggests a similar response to the question of what gives life meaning to that which Amy advances. The deep question, though, is what constitutes 'real worth'? I don't remember Wolf's answer, and I don't have her book at hand; I'll make a beginning on engaging this question by considering what I take to be Amy's response to it.

Amy's implied answer to the question seems to be that real worth consists in bringing about something outside oneself that makes the world a better place. Suppose, however, that one devotes one's life to a cause--say, promoting the independence of a nation from its king--that is not achieved in one's lifetime, or, for that matter, ever, and which even culminates in a revolt that leads to the death of all those involved. It's not clear to me that in such a case, one's life is thereby rendered meaningless. Now one might respond that this is because in such a case, although the project in question is not brought to fruition, nevertheless, its value comes from the fact that in undertaking it one was (1) looking outside oneself and (2) trying to make the world a better place. But suppose that the revolution in question was intended to replace a king with a theocracy. This project could, of course, result in making the world a better place, but it need not: whether it did would, to my mind, depend on the nature of the theocracy instituted. But even if the theocracy were a repressive totalitarian regime, bent on reducing all nations to its sway, the project doesn't seem to me thereby to be meaningless, although it may be misguided or open to criticism on other grounds. So it seems that in order for a project to meaningful, it need not make the world a better place. As for looking outside oneself, it's not clear how important that is. Venerable philosophical tradition has it that the contemplative life is best; the best existence of all, it has been suggested, is one of pure contemplation, one spent thinking and not doing anything at all. This doesn't seem like a worthless or meaningless life, although it may be difficult for human being to achieve, and although, to my mind, it's dubious that this is indeed the best life. Now it might be responded that insofar as one is thinking about anything, one is looking outside oneself. Depending on one's views of the content of thoughts, one may be more or less inclined to accept this claim. But suppose it were possible to have contentful thoughts completely unconnected with, or, better, even disconnected from, the world. Would such a life be worthless? It's not clear to me, at least, that this is the case, or, at least, that this need be the case. If that's correct, though, then we return to the question with which we began: what constitutes the meaning or the meaningfulness or the value of a life, or even a project? This is a deep and important question, one to which I wish I had the answer, but, sadly, I don't.

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