Comments on “Purpose”


Utilitarianism as Eternalistic Purpose

One perspective I don’t see mentioned in your notes: the way purpose changes over time and situation. Your section on purpose seems, from the notes, to focus on the many things a person wants, from spiritual to crass, and seeing the ambiguity in those categories. But what about one’s changing purpose over time? In a chess game, one’s purpose is to win the game, but you didn’t live your life until that point so as to win that game, nor is your life complete once the game ends. Even if your purpose in playing might have been to show off how smart you are, that too is not your true life’s calling—perhaps you did it to show that you should be in charge, and of course status is not your true life’s calling either.

I sometimes here people talk as, to live life, you must identify your “goal in life” and aim as best you can for it. Aim for the life of an artist, and hold on tight; aim to be a doctor, and bear all the years that go into that. Too often I see children pushed to sharp goals at a young age—say, pushed to get into a certain college. Not recognizing that the goal is, in your words, nebulous, that boy might get in and float listlessly, or be rejected and crumble. So this fiction of an ultimate goal, the one underlying every partial goal you set—it’s a rejection of nebulosity that can harm you by taking totalitarian control of your life, and because the ultimate goal is not ultimately satisfying once achieved, nor ultimately ruinous when failed.

And there is a corresponding rejection of pattern as well, a list-less-ness I sometimes see in adults, where the lack of a “true purpose” in life means they cannot pursue anything at all.

In other words, it looks like you are planning to write a lot about the nebulosity of varieties of purpose. But what are your thoughts about the stability of purpose?

Stability of purpose

Thank you, Nadia, these are good points. I agree that both excessive and insufficient stability of purpose cause major problems. Probably I’ll have somewhat more to say about that when I get to write this chapter!


Sasha's picture

Thank you for all this thought-provoking material.

‘This complete stance replaces the misleading question “what am I supposed to do” with “what can I do now to be useful and enjoy myself?”’

One way or the other we have to confront the question of morality/values (as suggested in the “supposed”, i.e. “should”, of the first approach).
How are the values underlying the latter questions justified? Those sound like value systems in and of themselves, namely, utilitarianism and hedonism. How to justify that choice of values?

Justification and eternalisms

Good question! Utilitarianism and hedonism can be attempts to provide systematic justifications for mission and materialism, respectively. These systems are eternalistic in forcing absolute value onto inherently nebulous phenomena. That actually can’t work. One way its not-working manifests is in the failure to provide any ultimate justification.

Ultimate justification only seems necessary because these systems deny the obvious: that we do have both “transcendent” and “mundane” purposes; we do both want to be useful and to enjoy ourselves. When materialism and mission collide with that reality, they have to grasp for justification. And the justification will necessarily be counter-intuitive and unconvincing, because the claims of mission and materialism are plainly both false.

If one just accepts the obvious, then justification is unnecessary.

This should be disappointing; any twelve-year-old knows the whole story. The only value in it is pointing out that otherwise-intelligent adults do keep falling into the traps of mission and materialism, even though we know better. So figuring out why we do that, and how not to, can be useful. (And perhaps enjoyable, too!)

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