Commencement Address

“What is the Meaning of Life?”
Larry Sanger ’91

Reed College, May 17, 2010

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Since this is a commencement speech, I thought I’d begin with some clichés. But I should also warn you that I majored in philosophy, and so I may seem to wander a bit before reaching my point.

In 1989, when I was an undergraduate here at Reed, somehow I got it into my foolish head that it would be a good idea to wander around to different professors’ offices and ask them, with no preamble, “What is the most important thing in life, in a word?” I think this is one of those “only at Reed” things. The professors were all willing to answer me, and only one or two actually expressed much surprise that I was asking the question. Anyway, a few professors gave me the stock answer: happiness. I think that’s what Ellen Stauder said. David Reeve, the famous scholar of Greek philosophy, discussed what Aristotle would say and offered, “practical wisdom”—or at least that’s what I seem to remember him saying. The last person I asked was Marvin Levich, who later became my thesis adviser. I remember he gave me one of his are-you-crazy sort of looks—I think he mumbled a few things, with some annoyance, and concluded with “knowledge,” but without much conviction. Then I offered an answer of my own, which was “integrity,” and Professor Levich was kind enough to concede that that was plausible as well.

I still think integrity is important, and I’m going to talk about it now, if only because it seems so rare to talk about it anymore. I am going to back my way into the topic by first addressing a clichéd question: what is the meaning of life? And in fact I am going to begin with a clichéd answer to this question.

If I were to ask you what the meaning of life is, there’s a good chance you’d say happiness. This one-word answer is of course not very helpful, because different things make different people happy. So we are supposed to find our own happiness, which generally takes the form of our life’s project—our “bliss.” For many people, the meaning-of-life question then seems to devolve on the question of where to go to graduate school, and what profession to take up—as if the meaning of life were best answered with the help of a good career counselor—as if a person who had chosen a career that is a good match with his talents and proclivities would then necessarily have a meaningful life. Call it the career counseling approach to the meaning-of-life question.

There are many things to say about all this. Despite being banal, there does seem to be something to it. At least, it’s probably not totally wrong. But the problem I have with it is that it does not really scratch the itch that impels us to ask about the meaning of life in the first place. Suppose I decide that I would be happiest if I became a professor. Well, I could be convinced of that answer, but still wonder what the meaning of my life is. This clichéd answer, we find meaning in work that makes us happy, can fail to satisfy, I think.

Isn’t there something embarrassing about earnestly asking, “What is the meaning of life?” And not merely because the question is hackneyed. I think it’s embarrassing because the meaning of your life is supposed to be some overarching goal that makes it possible for you to bound out of bed in the morning and work with gusto all day. Your question is a confession—or can be a confession—that you have no such goal. You seem pathetically to lack such a motive, and you are adrift, rudderless in your life.

And why do people find themselves rudderless? Not merely because they are feeling philosophical. I think it is because they do not believe their own narrative about the purpose of their own life in particular, and they are angst-ridden about how to revise it. Perhaps they discover that they have been dishonest with themselves, or perhaps some major life change requires that they shift their priorities; whatever the reason, the people who earnestly ask this question about their own lives, and don’t know how to answer it, do not really seem to care so much about any life project.

This angst often seems embarrassing, and maybe a little shameful. But why is it—apart from being a cliché? After all, doesn’t a person without a purpose in life deserve our sympathy, rather than our contempt? Well, I have a theory about this. I think that whatever else might give our lives meaning, other people figure into the equation. We are essentially social beings. So if we confess to a sense of meaninglessness, others perceive that we don’t care about other people or ourselves.

To come to grips with this whole problem, think not just of what people live for, but what they die for.

We do not say that heroes who die fighting for a just cause, or to save other people, had meaningless lives because they did not have a career, or because their lives were short. In fact, it makes good sense to say that their sacrifice gave their lives profound meaning. We honor self-sacrifice for a just cause, and people whose professions put their lives on the line rightly hold up honor as a key component of what gives their lives meaning. A soldier who storms a hill knowing he’s about to die evidently believes that his life’s meaning is fulfilled by that act. We can take that as a clue.

I have discovered, as so many others have before me, that what I ultimately care about is other people—my wife, my little boy, my extended family, my friends, my colleagues, and society in general. I suspect that this is true of everyone, or nearly everyone. I am not making the claim now that this is what we should care about, I am making the claim that it is what we do care about, even people who are corrupt or criminal. In the fullness of time and wisdom, we generally discover that what we care about is not actually a what, but a who. It is surely strange that I should say this, because one of the classic problems of ethics is whether we are all ultimately motivated by our own self-interest; the claim that we are so motivated is called psychological egoism. I think that the opposite may be true. One might call it psychological altruism: whatever selfish motives we might have, what ultimately drives us—if we have any healthy drives at all, and are not pathetically stuck in neutral—is the notion that we are improving the lives of those we care about, which might be all of humanity.

You won’t be surprised to learn that getting married and having a child has clarified this for me. One day it occurred to me that if my career is my purpose in life, then I would seem to be saying that my wife and child are, somehow, merely means to furthering my career. This notion struck me as not merely silly; I found its absurdity suggestive. Of course, I never seriously thought that my work was my sole purpose in life; but I didn’t really have any clear idea of what my purpose in life was, if my life’s work was only part of it. For a long time I made a vague assumption that my purpose in life was something complex, and compartmentalized—there was the career purpose, and then there was the family purpose, and then surely there were many other purposes. I thought that my life would be flourishing if I was fulfilling all of those purposes very well, and achieved a proper balance. This is not really wrong, but I couldn’t see that there was a deeply important commonality that runs through these various purposes.

Running through them all, I’m suggesting, is the notion that I am trying to improve the lives of others, at least by my own lights. This, I want to claim, is true of all of us. It is true even if you are focused exclusively on something that involves few people, such as designing a bridge or writing software code. Whether you think about it or not, what drives your whole endeavor is the usefulness that your bridge or code will have to other people. If your bridge, or your code, is sturdy and reliable, you will feel proud of yourself precisely because other people can use it, rely on it, and admire it. If it looks beautiful but gets no use, you will rightly feel that you’ve wasted your time.

But, you might ask, what about the cynical and unscrupulous power-seekers of the world? For whom do they ultimately want to wield this power? Themselves, certainly, but without the ability to benefit others, their desire for supremacy becomes utterly pointless. Hollywood villains aside, nobody seeks to gain the levers of power merely to benefit themselves. They may want to benefit just their own loved ones, or just their friends and associates, but there is, certainly, someone else that they want to benefit. There is someone whose happiness is crucial to their own. This is also true of knowledge-seekers and artists. Without a society, or at least some audience, to enlighten or entertain, the search for knowledge and the creation of art seem pointless.

So what is the meaning of life? My answer is: to do what we can to improve, at least by our own lights, the lives of those we care about—which could be extended to all of humanity. In a way, I am admitting that happiness is the purpose of life after all, but I am saying that we find meaning by supporting the happiness of everyone that we can.

“Can” is the key word; what we can do depends on our personal circumstances, and that’s what changes over time. For instance, you bear a special obligation to your family, because you can make them happy as no one else in the world can. Or suppose you are in a position of great responsibility—say, you are the CEO of a company—and your job affects, let’s say, thousands of people. Then your responsibility is to think about those people and how best you can benefit them. The modern world with its division of labor needs a great many people doing a great many things, and you are likely to find meaning doing whatever you sincerely feel maximizes your positive impact on the world, by your own lights.

So now I can explain a little better why I think the problem of the meaning of life is not solved by just getting some good career counseling. We enter adulthood with grand plans, and then reality intrudes and sends us off in unexpected directions. That has certainly been the case in my life, in which I have gone from training to be a philosophy professor, to running encyclopedia websites, and now to various online educational projects. My career changes have all been pretty much unplanned. For better or worse, the opportunities I took have borne little relation to what I thought I would be doing with my life when I graduated from Reed at age 22.

When we’re young—no offense—we do not know ourselves or our future circumstances well enough to know what will make us and our loved ones happy in the long run—most of us do not know who our loved ones will be. You might think, as I did, that you can learn about yourself adequately through deep, navel-gazing introspection. Certainly you can learn something that way, but the conclusions you come to will be unreliable. You best learn about yourself—what you truly want and what you truly believe—through constant, humble reflection on a lengthening lifetime of experiences.

If we commit blindly and doggedly to some notion of our life’s purpose, even after we have grown beyond it, then we will inevitably become alienated from ourselves. This is all too common, I think. We can pursue a career with ambition and idealism, only to find that we hate what it requires of us. If we persist in our old notions of our life’s purpose, then we are forced to live out someone else’s notion of a role, not one that we embrace for ourselves. A person’s values, interests, and desires change, subtly, over time, and if you do not notice and come to grips with those changes, that’s when the alienation and the angst set in. That’s when you can discover that you no longer believe that you are benefitting yourself, or others, as much as you could be.

Contemporary life seems notoriously alienating and devoid of meaning. I think the reason for it lies ultimately in our ability to communicate and organize ourselves as never before. Our lives become scripted parts of efficient business and social processes. We follow the scripts willingly, which dictate how we advance in our careers and home life. In fact, right now a script is coming to a conclusion for you. Commencement punctuates the end of one script, and marks the beginning of many others. We follow life’s scripts—even nonconformist Reedies do so—simply because we’re ambitious, we are naturally proud of our accomplishments, and we do not want to place our potential at risk. This is often not merely understandable, it is usually commendable.

Following the scripts of post-industrial society can in time earn you a great education, an impressive position, a large salary, the respect of your peers, and a satisfying home and family life. Those are not bad things, of course, and all are worth working hard for. The trouble comes when you follow a script long after you have discovered that it requires you to act contrary to your principles, or that it would have you ignore more meaningful opportunities. The courage to act according to your best judgment, even when it goes contrary to the script, requires the virtue of integrity.

If there is one guarantee of a sense of meaning in your life, it is living with integrity. But integrity is a sadly waning virtue in our post-industrial society. I think of it as the cornerstone of a group of related virtues, which are also neglected: humility, independence of mind, and the courage to do the unusual or unpopular thing. These virtues I strongly associate with someone I first read about in Hum 110: Socrates—the Socrates of the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo.

I would sum it up in this way. Throughout life we must constantly think and re-think about what we can do to improve the lives of those we care about. This requires the humility to see that we may not already have the answers; it requires the independence of mind to critically examine the scripts and dogmas of society; and it requires the courage to act on our judgment of what is for the best, regardless of the consequences to ourselves. This is living with integrity—and it is difficult—but it is ultimately the only way we can live truly meaningful lives. And I wish that for all of you.

That’s all I have. Congratulations!

Read more about 2010 Commencement Speaker Larry Sanger ’91.