“People who blame their parents or other people or society at large for their own mistakes, or who cite some form of genetic determinism to absolve themselves of any responsibility for how they have acted, lack dignity because dignity requires owning up to what one has done. ‘The buck stops here’ is an important piece of ethical wisdom. This also requires taking responsibility in a different, more material, way: dignity requires that I not expect others to subsidize my decisions by bearing their financial or other costs.
I do not take responsibility for my own life if I demand that others absorb the cost of my choices: living well means making choices, and that means choosing a life with an eye to the consequences of that life that I should bear myself. Of course there is abundant room in self-respect for accepting, with gratitude, the help of others…
Living a good human life, a life one can look back on with pride, is rarely valuable because that life, abstracted from the process of creating it, has any great value in itself. It is valuable because the process of creating it is valuable. The analogy between art and life has often been drawn and often ridiculed. We should live our lives, the Romantics insisted, as a work of art. We distrust the analogy now because it sounds too Wilde: as if the qualities we value in a painting — fine sensibility or a complex formal organization or a subtle interpretation of art’s own history — were the values we should seek in life: the values of the aesthete. These may be poor values to seek in the way we live, but to condemn the analogy for that reason misses its point, which lies in the relation between the value of what is created and the value of the act of creating it.
We value great art most fundamentally not because the art as product enhances our lives but because it embodies a performance, a rising to artistic challenge. We value human lives as they are lived not for the completed narrative, as if fiction would do as well, but because they too embody a performance: rising to the challenge of having a life to lead…
If we want to make sense of a life having meaning, we must take up the Romantic’s analogy. We find it natural to say that an artist gives meaning to his raw materials and that a pianist fives fresh meaning to what he plays. We can think of living well as giving meaning – ethical meaning, if we want a name – to a life. That is the only kind of meaning in life that can stand up to the fact and fear of death. Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well – play a tune or a part or a hand, throw a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love – your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays?”
From the chapter “Dignity” in Ronald Dworkin’s philosophical tome Justice for Hedgehogs.
Dworkin’s distinction between the ‘product value’ and ‘performance value’ of a life is one that is overlooked but crucial. It is just too daunting to try to orient and understand your existence in terms of the whole story of the world; attempts to locate oneself in history are as futile as attempts to locate oneself in astronomy. The scale overshadows the unit of measure.
Instead, to consciously evaluate your life by its ‘performance value’ actually puts you, I would think, in a freeing and productive state of mind. Two of the favorite observations I’ve recently read — posted on my quotes page — affirm this idea.
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.” – Bertrand Russell
“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell
In the concluding chapter of his book Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, physicist Michio Kaku echoes in less sophisticated terms this point from Justice for Hedgehogs. However, Dwokin would contend that Kaku’s second commandment — to leave the world a better place than you found it — is a cliché that does not stand up to substantive analysis, given that most lives do not have much ‘product value’ by this standard. Although you’ve definitely heard it before from other mouths, it’s worth being refreshed on Kaku’s take,
“Beyond work and love, I would add two other ingredients that give meaning to life. First, to fulfill whatever talents we are born with. However blessed we are by fate with different abilities and strengths, we should try to develop them to the fullest, rather than allow them to atrophy and decay. We all know individuals who did not fulfill the promise they showed in childhood. Many of them became haunted by the image of what they might have become. Instead of blaming fate, I think we should accept ourselves as we are and try to fulfill whatever dreams are within our capability.
Second, we should try to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. As individuals, we can make a difference, whether it is to probe the secrets of Nature, to clean up the environment and work for peace and social justice, or to nurture the inquisitive, vibrant spirit of the young by being a mentor and a guide.”
In an almost irreverent but deceivingly profound scene from Cat’s Cradle: A Novel, Kurt Vonnegut channels his inner Beckett and infuses the Genesis creation story with a dose of existentialism:
“In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness.
And God said, ‘Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.’ And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close to mud as man sat, looked around, and spoke. ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely.
‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.
‘Certainly,’ said man.
‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God.
And He went away.”
At the close of the novel, there is a similarly farcical scene depicting the end of creation, when man tries unsuccessfully to coax answers from God after an apocalypse. I’ve posted it, and written some about it, here.