The Most Important Question in Philosophy — Part 2 of ?
Oh boy, let’s dive back in. We’ve taken the question from Camus, “Is life worth living?”, and answered it: “Maybe.” At this moment, in this place, it may be either a yes or a no. Either way, we’ve found a better question to ask, “What makes life worth living?”, and “What could make life worth living?” Now, we endeavor to pursue answers.
Since I think that life is worth living at this moment, and most living people do, I am going to work mostly with the question, “What makes life worth living?” Worth is the key word in that sentence. What does worth mean? Eight definitions come up on Google, and even when we look into the etymology we see that it goes back to earlier words that also have a direct translation to value, price, and/or merit. These are fundamental concepts. A value is something that you seek to attain. I just made that definition up, and it’s true. So, our question could also be phrased, “What makes life valuable?”, or “Why seek to attain the continuance of life?” All of these work, I prefer “What makes life worth living?”
Now we are delving into value. What makes something valuable? Everyone must answer this question, just like the other questions, for and by themselves. As beauty is in the beholder, so too is value. This is the basic sentiment of the Subjective Theory of Value. It has been proposed in various ways by many people. It is the foundation stone of the Austrian School of economics. Carl Menger founded that school, and in modern times is often credited with the theory as well.
Here is Carl Menger explaining the concept, “Value is thus the importance that individual goods or quantities of goods attain for us because we are conscious of being dependent on command of them for the satisfaction of our needs.”(1)
Luckily there are other important figures in the Austrian School and Ludwig von Mises can give us a better explanation, “Valuing is man’s emotional reaction to the various states of his environment, both that of the external world and that of the physiological conditions of his own body. Man distinguishes between more or less desirable states, as the optimists may express it, or between greater and lesser evils, as the pessimists are prepared to say. He acts when he believes that action can result in substituting a more desirable state for a less desirable.”(2)
Basically, the value of something is how much someone determines it to be for their own reasons. Value is subjective, and don’t forget, everything occurs in a context. The value will also change according to the time, place, and every other part of the context.
What does this mean for us? How does that help us answer, “What makes life worth living?” The answer is specific to a certain context and a certain perspective. This means that you may share values with people in similar contexts with similar perspectives, but no one ever has the exact same context or perspective as you. Something is then implied in this question and it could read, “What makes life worth living to you at this time?” or “What makes your life worth living right now?” We could of course cut this short and answer the question with an abstraction:
“What makes your life worth living?”
“The values I have that necessitate I remain alive to attain and/or maintain them.”
But, let’s dig a little further into it than that. One thing starts to appear obvious, if you only have negative values then suicide becomes logical. For instance, I have some deformities in my spine. One in my neck has a bone pressed up against my brainstem and causes a lot of pain throughout my nervous system, in addition to other issues. If my only value was to move away from pain, to escape the pain. If I valued the absence of pain alone, then suicide is not only logical, it is the only option. Since only people that are alive are reading this I know that you have values which you are moving towards, in addition to any values that you are moving away from. It is these values that we are moving toward that attach us to this life.
We need a way to think about what some of these values may be. Luckily, there is Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl survived two Nazi concentration camps and founded Logotherapy. Here is an example of why I like him, “…even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by the attitude which a man adopts toward his predicament.”(3)
Frankl helps us in developing a model of categories so that we may discern what types of values are possible. “For in the face of the transitoriness of his life, he is responsible for using the passing opportunities to actualize potentialities, to realize values, whether creative, experiential, or attitudinal.”(4) There are three states of being implied here: an active state where one is manipulating and effecting the environment, a passive state where one is observing the environment, and a helpless state where one is being acted upon by the environment.
To many people it’s obvious that if you are helping to build a great cathedral, you are doing something of value and have a reason to live. If you happen to not like cathedrals, substitute something else: a painting, a novel, a garden, a family, a house, a business, etc. Many people also recognize that there is value in seeing a great cathedral, or painting, or garden, or reading a great novel, or being in a great family, or living in a great house, or working for a great company. These too are wonderful values. But, sometimes it’s hard to discern exactly where the value lies in another type of situation. Let’s say you’re injured doing one of these things. An injury that prevents you from continuing. Maybe you were building a wonderful garden. One day you are driving to the store, get in a car accident, get glass in your eyes and are now blind. There is no way to fix it. You can’t garden, not the way you used to. You can’t even see the garden that you’ve built. The creative value is gone, the experiential value is gone, is there anything left? There is your attitude. Your attitude is extremely adaptable. That’s part of what being human is about. Relational Frame Theory posits that the human mind can relate Any two things. I’ve tried it and haven’t been able to disprove it for myself. Can you relate a pig and a chair? At first you may balk at the relation, right before you realize that you could probably write a book about the relations. A simple example is that they both have four legs. This flexibility of mind allows us to change perspective and adjust our attitude to find value within any situation. For the situation with the garden there are many views you could take, all with a corresponding value. For instance: I can still do some work in the garden, other people can enjoy the garden, maybe a garden for blind people that focuses on tactile stimulation, maybe give tours, I could focus on creating and experiencing smells in the garden, I enjoyed it at the time and now it is time to move on just as flowers bloom and fade, it’s time for nature to hold the reins of control now, etc. Some people will find value in one of these views and others will not, it is subjective, but there is always value to be had. Even in a complete loss there is value, and we will get to loss and grief a bit later. The past cannot be rewritten, but it can be reinterpreted. The future cannot be lost, but it can be unexpected.
I do believe that I am over halfway on this project now, maybe even close to the end. That means that part 3 will probably be the last of the series for this essay, but there are at least 3 more to come for the International Society For Philosophers. Here is the link to the post where I outlined my four general subjects: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/10/concerning-international-society-for.html
Here are my notes for the rest of this essay:
nihilism depression loss and grief imaginary future past written in stone
You are welcome to join me and see what happens next at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com
1 — Principles of Economics by Carl Menger, 1871, 1976 translation, page 115.
2 — The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science by Ludwig von Mises, 1962, page 33.
3 — The Will to Meaning by Viktor Frankl, 1969, page ix.
4 — Ibid, page 74.