The Ethics Of… The Meaning of Life
There is a wonderful line from the Disney film Ratatouille about the role of a critic;
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment… But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”
This week, rather than my usual critical breakdown and analysis of a sociological trend, I’m going to do something far more risky, far more personal and potentially, far more interesting – I’m going to propose a new idea.
I’m going to tackle The Question that has plagued humanity ever since we hauled ourselves upright an started thinking beyond our next meal. What is the meaning of life? And in case, like me you’ve had far too many people tantalise you with their solution to this riddle, building up your hopes and playing on your desperate need for answers – only to dump you into the all-too-familiar pit of cynical disillusionment when it turns out all they have is high school existentialism and more questions, then rest assured – yes, I do have a definitive, clear-cut, definable answer.
But before we get to that answer, we need to look at the question we’re asking, because on it’s own, it doesn’t actually make any sense. The ‘meaning of life’? The phrasing makes life sound like an abstract painting we’re trying to decipher, rather than an intricately complex phenomenon at the core of the human condition. Life is not a simple action or concept we can easily define, so asking what it’s meaning is doesn’t really make sense.
A better way of putting it would be ‘why are we here?’, or more accurately, ‘why am I here’ since that’s what we really mean when we say it. That may sounds a bit cynical, but when we’re talking about how we perceive the world and our place within it, being self-centered is pretty much unavoidable. Yeah my life may be dominated by my interactions with others, but my perception and understanding of those interactions is totally, completely about me. When we ask the question ‘why are we here?’, we’re not so much expression concern for the existential origins of all mankind so much as we’re trying to crowd-source an answer.
But even this phrasing isn’t really the core of the question. We might scream ‘Why’ at the stars every now and then, but I don’t think that actually what we want to know at all. No, deep down the ‘why’ of it all is only of passing interest, only made relevant because it might supply answers to the far more pressing question:
What the hell am I meant to do?
What am I meant to be doing here? Each and every one of us finds ourselves dumped into a universe with a lot of stuff going on, a lot of competing needs, desires and fears, and a completely lack of an instruction manual. Everyone has an opinion on how life works, what we’re here for, how to live a good life (with a thousand different definitions of ‘good’) but it doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to realise that most people are as equally clueless as we are.
Some of humanity’s grandest institutions have been built purely to provide an answer to this question. From the legal system to the many and varied religions, to social norms, fashions, political systems and scientific research, every single one of them have one thing in common; they’re doing a really crap job of it. Religions plagued by hypocrisy, corrupted political systems, the impressive accuracy of science that absolutely falls apart at the sociological level, and the pointless subjectivity of fashion are unsatisfying.
If there is a god, then it really needs lessons on design because this life is unintuitive as hell. Am I choosing the right course for my life? How the hell do I find out? What if I waste my entire life doing pointless things, or even bad things, and only find out when it’s over? Holy crap, what if you never find out?
‘What the hell am I meant to be doing?’ is the question that sits down deep in our subconscious every day of our lives, occasionally pushing it’s way to the surface at random intervals to torment us at convenient times, like lazy Sunday afternoons and moments of crushing personal loss. It’s not why we’re here that bothers us, it’s the complete uncertainty over what the hell we’re mean to do with this life that plagues our minds, deepens our losses and overshadows our successes. The why of it is really only a way getting context – surely if we could figure out what the idiot god responsible for this mess was thinking, then perhaps we might also find our own purpose in the process.
With the question clarified we can now get to grips with the answer. What is our purpose in life? What is the point of our being here and thinking these things? Believe it or not it’s actually quite simple. But as with all simple answers it has it’s roots in a considerably less simple strong of observations.
Have you ever noticed the themes that run through human progress? The way that things have not only improved over time (and they have, whatever the media might make out) but improve faster and faster over time? It’s not always obvious to us, caught up in the 24 hour media cycle and our day-to-day issues, that nearly the entirity of the civil rights movement, whether that be for racial equality, gender equality or sexual equality has happened only in the last 50 years. Concern for the environment might have been around in a pragmatic kind of way for thousands of years, but attention for serious environmental issues at the expense of our private interests? That’s only gone mainstream since the 70s, and in the case of Climate Change, only since 2005. Animal rights are something that most people would say they care about, even if they’re not yet ready to do much about it, but if you had proposed making human life difficult for the sake of animals even 20 years ago you have been laughed out of the building.
Why is it that all these advances, not just in the technical and scientific realms, but also in how we value and treat each other, increase exponentially over time? Given the fickle nature of human beings, so willing to turn on each other in moments of stress, you’d expect us to vary from periods of improvement to periods of regression and back again over time, but the facts do not support this. Despite some significant setbacks in the short-term, human history has been one long, slow climb of improvement. The reasons for this are revolutionary.
Just as science and technology improves by identifying and acting upon the underlying nature of reality, so too does humanity on a ethical level. The social justice movement is not something humanity has just dreamed up with and decided to try, just as the abolition of slavery was not based on an arbitrary idea, or our efforts to prevent war just a fad of the times. These efforts, as with all ethical advances, are based on evidence. Just as scientific and technical improvements are built on humanity better understanding the nature of reality, so too are our ethical advancements. To put it simply, that which is ‘good’ is that which works better.
This is a huge (and extremely controversial) idea and I promise to spend more time on it in the future, but in the meantime what does any of this have to do with the meaning of life?
If the theme of human ethical progress is basically adjusting our behaviours, systems and values, not to some mutually agreed but otherwise arbitrary set of values, but to the fundamental underlying principals of reality, then the purpose of humanity becomes suddenly clear.
The purpose of life, your life, my life, the lives of all of us, is Perfection. To find those precise rules that underlay the universe, that make it what it is and determine all things within it. To perfect our understanding of them and apply them in our works, that we may live in harmony with reality.
I know, right? Woah.
But what does that actually mean for individuals? It’s all very well to say that humanity’s purpose is to seek Perfection (with a capital P) but as individuals we are just regular shmoes with bills to pay and reality TV to watch. I, personally, am riddled with flaws, about as far from perfection as it’s possible to be. So how does this grand design help me answer the question that wracks my soul; ‘What am I meant to do?’.
That, unfortunately, is not a question I can answer for you, but I can help make it clearer. Expecting any individual to be Perfect is folly when we are imperfect by our very nature – we depend on our simple senses for information of the world, our messy chemical brains to understand it, and our extremely tiny bodies to put our thoughts into action. But just because an ultimate aim is beyond our reach does not mean we cannot work towards it!
Each of us can contribute to this grand goal simply by working to improve the world a little. Regardless how badly each of us are flawed, we all have our talents – use yours, not simply to carve out your own little kingdom for your mortal body while it lasts, but to bring something beautiful, something new, something clever into the world that will outlast you. Seek out what is true, what is right, what works; art that makes us reconsider our perspectives, writing that proposes something new, construction that pleases the eye or challenges the norm, business that builds something great and interesting, or most powerful of all, children that use the advantages you give them to go out into the world and make it better than it was – these things, and anything else that improves the world, are the purpose of our lives.
What this means for your life? Well that depends on how you choose to spend it.