Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baumeister's Meanings of Life

I'm reading Meanings of Life, by Roy F. Baumeister - one of the most meta- minds I'm aware of in the social sciences (see his mind-blowing papers like "Bad Is Stronger Than Good" and "Conscious Thought Is for Facilitating Social and Cultural Interactions: How Mental Simulations Serve the Animal–Culture Interface").

I don't recommend a lot of books, but this one provides the most coherent, insight-rich, mind-reorganizing explanations of the human notion of meaning that I've ever seen. The book came out in 1991, when I was entering high school - I wish someone had turned me on to this book back then!

The only other social science book I recommend as strongly is Daly & Wilson's Homicide, an early (1988) attempt at a rigorous evolutionary biological account of killing among humans.

From Chapter Three, "The Four Needs for Meaning: An Existential Shopping List":
There is thus a need for some firm grounding for moral values. Something has to be capable of justifying other things without needing further justification itself. These "somethings" can be called value bases. A value base serves as a source of value without needing in turn to derive its value from another, external source. A value base is accepted without further justification.

A value base is a sake, in the sense of doing something "for the sake of" it. The hierarchies of justification can be expressed in terms of sakes, which are justified for the sake of yet other things. A value base is a sake in itself. People may speak of doing things for the children's sake, for the sake of honor or love, or for God's sake. These "sakes" are accepted as value bases, for they do not need t import their value from somewhere else. In most religions, for example, God's will is accepted as a value base. The believer may do things for the sake of God's will, and the believer does not ask why anyone should do what God wants. God's will can thus justify and legitimize many other actions (or prohibitions), but it does not need to be justified or legitimized on some other basis.

A value base is thus a very important cultural resource. It can justify a set of rules and prohibitions, and it can endow other actions with positive value. Without value bases, people may not see any reason to act in socially desirable ways. This can create problems, for example, for governments that want to regulate the behavior of citizens but lack the value bases to present these demands as justified. In particular, corrupt governments that have seized power by force and seek to alter the social order have chronic difficulties in providing their citizens with justification. As a result, many such governments have to resort to oppression, police action, and institutionalized terror to force the people to accept their policies. People then support the rulers' policies, not because they regard them as good and right, but because they fear the knock on the door during the night the arrest without warrant, the torture and disappearance. In the long run, governments are more secure and successful if the citizens comply because they believe the policies are just and good and right, rather than out of intimidation. But governments need effective value bases to achieve that security and success.

In an important work on value, J├╝rgen Habermas argued that modernization tends to destroy many traditional value bases, leaving modern society unable to provide sufficient justifications to to get by. Governments may thus often have problems like the preceding example, which lead to conflict with uncooperative citizens. Individuals experience a decay of values and confusion about the proper behavior. As Habermas argues, value bases are rare and difficult to create so their loss can throw a state into crisis. This problem of modern society is important for understanding how people today struggle to find value in their lives....

A value base provides a guideline for making moral judgments.... Ideologies thus tend to need value bases. Without a strong value base, an ideology loses much of its power and effectiveness, and people will not follow it or use it.

[Meanings of Life, p. 40-41. Emphasis in original; citations omitted.]


  1. So, to ask the weenie question: isn't your core principle itself a value base?

    1. That's exactly the question! I used to joke that the main trick I learned from philosophy was "apply principle to itself."

      Re: my core principle, I think one way of interpreting it is that I'm setting up suffering as a value base in itself, albeit a negative one.

      I don't think that's dispositive - that this conception of value/meaning eats itself and makes suffering just another value base among many. I suspect that suffering is a special thing - the suffering of oneself or others is always what is being justified (successfully or not) by the various common human value bases. Suffering is simply the real-world "badness" that can't be divided or explained in more fundamental terms.

      But I agree I have not made the formal case for this yet. Thoughts?

    2. I think that's the correct way of looking at it. The kind of moral arguments I've been involved in lately have tended to operate on these premises:

      1. Nihilism is technically true.
      2. As such, we are free to choose our own moral axioms. (I like this term better than Baumeister's "sakes")
      3. We can then try to convince others that our moral axioms are superior by whatever means necessary, as long as the means doesn't conflict with our axioms.

      The best means of convincing other rational people that your axioms are the best is to show that their axioms are, in some way, based on yours. I think that's in line with the way Benatar argues and that by doing it you should be able to convince other rational people that prevention of suffering is actually at the base of what they consider to be right.

  2. This problem of modern society is important for understanding how people today struggle to find value in their lives...
    That's actually easy. It's compensating for the worst kinds of suffering that's the hard part.

    I suspect that suffering is a special thing - the suffering of oneself or others is always what is being justified (successfully or not) by the various common human value bases.
    That's not technically true. It's just one thing being justified - e.g. taking potential pleasure from non-consenting people is also often justified, ironically with preventing suffering sometimes. I think suffering is special by definition, because it includes all mental states that feel bad or very bad. It's an umbrella category for all things experientially negative.

  3. I had a debate tonight with a friend of mine who worships Nozick's 'Anarchy, State and Utopia'. I asked him what was the ontological basis of Nozick's first sentence in ASU, which states 'Individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).' He replied that it was due to the fact that individuals had a capacity to suffer. I asked him if Nozick stated this explicitly, and he said no, it was his own reconstruction of Nozick's principles. Hence the debate goes on and on...

  4. I'm liking this Baumeister fellow more and more. "Is There Anything Good About Men?" was a truly eye-opening read for me.

  5. Hey Todd, this was something I read LONG ago, and it's completely agreeable -- EXCEPT that it seems to agree with the dumb notion of 'success' of humanity as its biological thriving.

    1. I read it as just laying out a theory for why things are the way they are, not saying whether that's a good or bad thing. In fact, one of the things I really like about the piece is that it explains how individual people get completely fucked over by the very same cultural strategies that allow the societies they live in to survive and "thrive" (in terms of more-or-less objectively measurable things like population, wealth, territory). It's nearly a perfect analogue to the AN complaint about evolution; namely, that we suffer because it helped our ancestors survive, not because it's actually good for us.

      Sorry if I misunderstood your point.


Tweets by @TheViewFromHell