Utilitarianism and the Meaning of Life

Thaddeus Metza1

a1 University of Missouri-St Louis, thadmetz@umsl.edu


This article addresses the utilitarian theory of life's meaning according to which a person's existence is significant just in so far as she makes those in the world better off. One aim is to explore the extent to which the utilitarian theory has counter-intuitive implications about which lives count as meaningful. A second aim is to develop a new, broadly Kantian theory of what makes a life meaningful, a theory that retains much of what makes the utilitarian view attractive, while avoiding the most important objections facing it and providing a principled explanation of their force.

I have been very much puzzled as to the meaning of the question ‘What is the meaning or purpose of life?’ … But at last it occurred to me that perhaps the vague words of this question are often used to mean no more than ‘What is the use of a man's life?’ … A man's life is of some use, if and only if the intrinsic value of the Universe as a whole (including past, present, and future) is greater, owing to the existence of his actions and experiences, than it would have been if, other things being equal, those actions and experiences had never existed.

G. E. Moore