stand-up philosophy 1: the meaning of life

Last night was, as far as I could tell, London’s first ever night of ‘Stand-up Philosophy’, and pretty smashing it was too.

What’s Stand-up Philosophy, you ask? Well, it basically seems to be somewhere between a stand-up comedy night and a public lecture.

My thought was this: I’ve been at literally hundreds of stand-up gigs where an act has actually said something philosophical and intelligent, and thought, I wish they could just make their argument without being tied up in trying to get laughs. Or philosophy lectures which have been really entertaining and accessible as well as insightful, and thought, I wish there was a bar and the possibility of heckling.

So now there is something which has it all. And last night we crammed it – and I mean crammed, there was standing room only for latecomers – into the lovely upstairs room of the appropriately named Jeremy Bentham pub near University College London.

For the first night, we started with the theme question of ‘The Meaning of Life’ – because it does seem to be the first question that people start with in Philosophy. And I tried to answer it, and so did Broderick Chow, Patrick Levy and Ahir Shah, all of whom were fantastic.

Before we started, I thought I’d better set some rules. For example, giving the philosopher onstage 10 minutes or so to make an argument before fielding ‘question-heckles’; not using loads of technical terms, because it was in a pub after all; and a general rule of ‘don’t be a dick’.

Which we all mostly stuck to.

And the audience were fantastic and lovely, and so were the acts. Brody argued that if life can be given meaning, we can do it though attempts to ‘organise’, ‘know yourself’, and ‘be a dog-person’; Patrick argued for a Levinasian other-grounded ethical life; and Ahir argued that life is basically chaotic and that looking for meaning is futile.

And just in case anyone missed it, here is what I argued…

 

 

The meaning of life is happiness

I think the meaning of life is happiness – to try and create as much happiness as possible. But ‘happiness’ is a pretty vague word, so I’m going to have to try and explain what I mean.

First of all I should say that I think happiness is something you can actually feel, you can experience it, and it’s something people do in fact want to feel. And I think that’s necessary to make any kind of decent judgment about any proposed candidate for something which might give life meaning; I don’t see how you can make any proper judgments about real things unless those things can be tangibly experienced. We need to try and decide our meaning, and what to do to make that meaning, based on things you can see or hear or feel (and I include emotions like happiness in that).

So metaphysical things like ‘God’s will’, for example, can’t be a contender for the meaning of life, because it can’t be experienced – it’s an abstract concept. Justice, too, is a concept that can’t itself be felt or experienced.

But happiness is something that can be experienced. It can actually be felt. And it’s something that, most of the time, we do actually want to feel. It’s what we look for as a result of the things we do.

So, it’s worth also saying that if believing in God’s will does in fact create happiness (and it very often does) then I have no problem with people doing it at all.

Additionally, the feeling of satisfaction which we feel when we see justice done also counts, I think, as happiness. So if people want to do things which create a feeling of satisfaction that justice is being done, that is great.

But metaphysical concepts like God or justice are a means to an end, and not themselves the meaning of life. The tangible feeling is the goal, because that is the part that we can honestly have some actual experience of.

So, I want to argue that what gives meaning to life is that feeling of happiness, and a meaningful life is one in which we try to do whatever will create happiness.

There are three problems with this:

– The first is, what do I really mean by happiness?

– The second is that if happiness is a consequence of other things, what if we don’t actually always know what will make us happy?

– The third is, whose happiness do I mean?

The first problem, of what happiness is, I’d like to put on hold for a moment – I’ll just say that a lot of people hearing this kind of theory assume it just means shallow hedonistic pleasure, and that’s not what I mean. I mean, I am a big fan of simple hedonistic pleasure (big gulp of beer, smile). But actually I think real happiness is a much deeper feeling, it’s a feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with life. I will come back to this, though.

So, let’s look at the second problem: that we don’t always know what will make us happy. Because it’s true that most of the time we don’t know what will bring happiness. Anything we might choose to do will bring about all kinds of problems and unintended consequences, and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Fortunately, we can look at a situation and use what we’ve experienced in the past to make pretty good bets. For example, I know that almost every time I see my friend Lawrence, it makes me happy – seeing his face makes me feel happy.

Look at his face! It’s the exact way I don’t feel when I listen to the music of Justin Bieber.

So I can make some pretty well-informed bets – I can choose to spend time with Lawrence’s face, and not listening to Justin Bieber.

Obviously I can’t know for sure whether what I choose to do will make me happy until after I’ve chosen, which I will accept is quite annoying. Especially because it means that, until time stops, one choice will almost create more happiness than another, so there almost always definitely is a right or wrong answer to any decision – I just can’t possibly know what it is until long after the decision has been made.

This kind of consequentialist theory is often quite unpopular because it pleases nobody – it doesn’t please people who want there to be a right answer, and it also doesn’t please people who want there to be no answers.

It’s like saying it doesn’t matter whether you like pizza or not, there definitely is pizza – but it’s not coming out the oven until you’re not hungry, and maybe not even then. It pleases nobody.

But this is not a reason to reject the theory: it just means we have to be cautious, because we can make informed gambles but we can’t be certain. And if we are to ground meaning in what can be actually experienced, then we don’t really have much else to go on. (Pizza is all we’re really getting). So we have to make these gambles in the most informed way possible.

The third problem was, happiness for who?

Well, I think the only realistic answer is, happiness for me. Because I only experience my own happiness, and I don’t really feel other people’s happiness. But this is not necessarily as selfish as it looks, because I can see signs of whether they are happy or not; and if I feel empathy for someone else, as most humans tend to do, then their happiness makes me happy. If I look at Lawrence’s wonderful face and he looks miserable, then I won’t be happy either. But seeing him happy makes me feel happy, especially if I’ve helped make him happy.

And, to go back to the first question, I have found – empirically – that this kind of happiness, a shared happiness with other people, is a much deeper and more rewarding kind of happiness than if I decided to just sit on my own eating chocolate.

Now this doesn’t have to be true for everyone. I mean, not everyone knows Lawrence. Other people might find the deepest happiness by excluding other people, and I have to accept that if that is what makes them satisfied and happy with their lives that is ok, too. But for me, what gives me that deep kind of happiness is to share that happiness with other people, to feel I am a cause of their happiness and for their happiness to cause mine. Another word for the way I feel happiness might be the word ‘love’.

But there’s another aspect to this, too, and I think it will get us closer to the answer overall.

Last September, I was at a party, and I was talking to a girl, and I was a bit drunk and probably, I think, hoping I might get off with her. And then she asked me a question.

She asked, if there was a news flash that a meteor was going to hit earth in six hours, and everybody was definitely going to die, what would you do?

Well…what would you do?

And I know a lot of people would think, let’s get drunk, right? Maybe that’s what she was hoping for. But straight away I knew what I would do. I wouldn’t be talking to some random person at a party.

I would find the person whose happiness I know has the most significance for my own. Who it really makes me feel happiest to share my happiness with.

And if they weren’t nearby, I would start running, and I would run and run until I got a stitch so it felt like I was tearing apart and I would just keep running, until I found them.

And I would try to spend the last few hours trying to share with them whatever happiness was still possible. Even if they didn’t want me to! I would still try – I would have to – because it would be my best hope for happiness.

(That person might not be Lawrence. I suspect his wife might get first call on that.)

But the point is this: that even if there is no meteor, time is still limited: it might be in six hours, or six days, or six years, or sixty years – but however much physicists may say time is infinite, my experience of time is that it isn’t infinite. It is very very finite.

Not long after that party conversation, there was an electrical explosion in the badly-wired warehouse I was living in that somehow managed to not kill me.

And that sharpened up the question to which the meaning of one’s own life is the answer. The question is: given that time is limited, how should I spend my time – and who with? – in order to create the deepest feeling of happiness in whatever time remains?

So. Happiness, I think, is a deep feeling of satisfaction or fulfilment with your life and what you do. You can’t ever be sure whether what you’re doing is going to make you feel satisfied or fulfilled or not, but for me, and I think for a lot of people, happiness comes from a shared happiness with other people.

And that – for me – is the meaning of life.

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2 Comments

  1. Heckle: But isn’t that proposing what life’s purpose should be, rather than what its meaning is?

    • Not if you think purpose can be constitutive of meaning, which I do.

      Congratulations! You’ve uncovered my secret teleology 😉


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