Recently I have been involved in, or on the fringes of quite a few discussions regarding either the meaning, or the value, or the purpose of life. Certainly one of he biggest questions we ask ourselves. Since I have just completed my 42nd year of life, and 42 is alleged by Douglas Adams to be the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything; I thought I might have a go.
But first lets pair this down a bit. All three of these words, when applied in this question mean relatively the same thing. Kind of like how asking how much would you pay for X, has the same sentiment as the asking what would you do for X. They are all words used to query value.
So in this type of existential question, no matter how phrased, we are simply trying to determine a value. When we question the meaning of life, we are trying to asses it’s specified importance, a value. When we question the purpose of life, we are trying to asses its reason for being, again a value. Finally, of course when we ask the value of life – well it is plain to see.
Now, if we hypothesize some outside authority which determines values, we should find no confusion or disagreement as to what those values then are. After all we do not quarrel with each other about the price of the bakers bread – the price is clearly labeled by the baker. But since life is valued differently throughout history and by different race or species, it seems plain to see that there is no evidence for pre existing value in this regard. Therefore we must allow Occam’s razor to slice and operate under the assumption that there is no objective or intrinsic meaning, purpose or value to life.
We are then forced to look for subjective meaning in life. But as a philosophy that also is fraught with problems which I will go into in a moment. But first, lets discuss how value is derived.
Value is a basket term to note the usefulness, worth or advantage of a thing in relation to another thing or things. It is a verbal = sign. The value of 1 US Dollar = (roughly) 7.8 HK Dollars. Or the value of a meal = the labor I will expend to secure food and prepare it, either through direct acts or through barter, trade or theft. So value is always a relation between at least two subjects. This is where subjectivity becomes muddied.
Even if I was lost on a dessert isle the value of catching a fish may be subjectively quite high for me, but to the fish the value of my catching it is quite low indeed. So what is the true value of the life of the fish? Clearly it can not be a subjective value, in and of itself.
If we add a third human, an uninterested observer and ask them to determine the value, they may value a human life over a fishes (this is of course by no means certain) but even if they do, the actual value is not made any clearer by this new perspective. It is actually made more complex. And it remains as far from an objective state as it ever was.
In the same light we can assume the meaning or purpose of all life is equally confounding. Perhaps to our selves our purpose is to have children, but to our children our purpose is to care for them, to the tax man our purpose is to pay taxes, to the community our purpose may be to work for community goals, and to the worms our sole purpose is to become worm food. What value can we say is the correct one? The most consistently applied to life is the worms who themselves become worm food. But most would find this a disagreeable subjective value.
As I said this is an interminable problem, and one that I think has no obtainable answer. The best we can hope is to take a sort of free market approach and come up with a philosophical answer that does not determine value but provides an abstract, notional formula for making a value judgement.
In free market economics the value of a thing is not determined solely by the value set by the seller, except in setting the lowest price they are wiling to sell for. Similarly the price is not determined by the buyer except in determining the highest price they are willing to pay. So in a pure 2 subject free market, at best we can determine high and low brackets for the value of a thing. Even once the trade takes place the actual selling price is only the value for an instant, if that.
I contend a similar, but ridiculously more complex formula is the best we can do in trying to asses value, meaning, or purpose to life. That the actual value is an abstract amalgamation of all the different interested parties. I am of distinct and varying value to my staff, my spouse, my community, my friends, my extended family, my suppliers, the environment, all life on this world, and so on. And, the difficulty of determining this is further confounded by the fact that many of these amalgamated, subjective values will change frequently depending on the specific relationships. When I am feeding the cow my value in relation to it goes up, but when I am preparing the butchers knife my value to the cow plummets.
The inclination then is to return to a subjective stance. To assert that the only value is the value as I see it. But of course our own subjective values are all contingent on relationships as well, and change with great frequency as those relationships change. Even so, regardless of our momentary whim, our value to the butcher, the brewer or the baker is only what benefit we can be to them, and nothing more. So to assert that subjective value is the only practical or best measure is to fool ourselves, and to take into account only a fraction of reality.