Why Uniqueness Is Not So Important for the Meaning of Life

Some people mistakenly believe that non-unique lives must be meaningless.

Posted Dec 24, 2017

Many people think that in order to live meaningful lives they must live differently from others, and do what other people do not do. The view that meaningful lives must be unique appears in different forms also in the philosophical literature about the meaning of life. For example, in his influential paper, "Time and Life's Meaning," philosopher Richard Taylor claims that meaning of life must relate to what he names creative power, and that we do not have creative power unless we produce something that others never produced: "to the extent that it is shared, such that what it brings forth is also brought forth by others, then it is not … creative power." Those who accept this view about the meaning of life, but notice that their lives are not "special," that is, are not so different from other people's lives, therefore often conclude that their lives are not meaningful. But this is a mistake: doing things differently from others is not a necessary condition for having a meaningful life.

Like many previous authors on this topic, I too hold that meaningfulness in life is based on having a sufficiently high degree of value in it. (I explain and defend this view here.) But, in most spheres, the degree of value of an action or a situation does not depend on its uniqueness. Admittedly, there are some spheres of value in which uniqueness does affect the degree of value. For example, what poets, painters, composers, and other creative artists create has to be original in order to be considered valuable: writing a poem that someone else has already written does not have much value. This means that artworks creative artists produce should differ from what has existed earlier; to be valuable, artworks must be somehow unique, at least at the time they are created. Good scientific and scholarly research is like that, too; just repeating an invention or a finding that others have already presented is not considered valuable. A scholarly or scientific contribution should be innovative, that is, different from what has existed earlier. But in many other spheres, value is not dependent on uniqueness at all.

Pexels/image 542702
Source: Pexels/image 542702

Take, for example, a good family life. What makes this relationship valuable is not its uniqueness or originality but, rather, the value in emotional closeness, warmth and reliability. The fact that some other people also have good family lives with similar qualities does not detract any value from one's own. (One is reminded here of the first sentence in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.") Similarly, consider the value in philanthropic activity. The value in volunteering in a soup kitchen, for example, does not have to do with the unique, new details (if there are any) of one's actions. What one does may well be, in fact, quite similar to what others who feed hungry people in soup kitchens do. The value in this volunteering has nothing to do with any originality. This holds also of most other spheres of value. For example, the value of being a decent, honest person lies in being decent and honest, not in doing so in an innovative way. Likewise, most religious or mystical experiences are not that different from each other. When there are differences, the value in each experience does not stem from the fact that it is different from the experience of others. This is also the case with the value in learning and understanding, or the value of aesthetic experiences: in order to be valuable, my enjoyment of the beauty of a sunset need not differ from another person's enjoyment of this sunset.

But what are the sources of the view that, in order to have a meaningful life, we must engage with what is unique and try to live differently from others? One is probably that some people who think about value or meaning in life consider only examples from the creative arts or from science, and then wrongly extrapolate from these specific spheres of value to all spheres of value. A second source of the view that meaningfulness requires uniqueness may have to do with confusion between inauthenticity and non-uniqueness. Authenticity is, indeed, very important for meaningfulness: if we do whatever we do because we just imitate others, without really choosing, wanting, or meaning it, the value of what we do is undermined. What we do, then, is not genuine or authentic, in the sense that it does not really come from us and does not relate to us. Some people wrongly hold that when we opt for behaviors that other people have also opted for we must be merely imitating them automatically and mechanically rather than choosing authentically what we do. However, as the examples above show, this need not be the case. We can choose authentically what other people have also chosen. Similarity to others does not attest inauthenticity. (Likewise, dissimilarity to others does not attest authenticity: one can try to be all the time different from others in an automatic, inauthentic way.)  And similarity to others does not clash with authenticity or meaningfulness. To have a meaningful life, then, we should follow what is valuable and meaningful, not what is unique or non-unique. 

References

Richard Taylor, "Time and Life's Meaning," Review of Metaphysics 40 (1987), p. 682.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, translated by Constance Garnett, translation revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 3.