Did Hitler Have a Meaningful Life?

The complex relationship between meaningfulness and morality

Posted Jun 09, 2018

Could highly evil people such as Hitler or Stalin have meaningful lives, or does their radical immorality undermine their lives' meaningfulness? More generally, what is the relation between meaning of life and morality? Several conflicting views on this issue have appeared in modern philosophical discussions of the meaning of life.

Some theorists are subjectivists about the meaning of life. There are different types of them, but as a rule, subjectivists hold that the meaning of life has to do only with personal sensations or feelings. According to this view, people's inner mental states are the only thing that matters when it comes to the meaning of life; it is wrongheaded to ask about objective meaningfulness as we would ask about, say, the objective qualities of a table as distinct from our perceptions of it or our feelings about it. For subjectivists, then, Hitler's life would be meaningful if Hitler sensed it as meaningful, and it would be meaningless if Hitler sensed it as meaningless. Hence, for them Hitler and his like could have had meaningful lives. (A subjectivist about the meaning of life whose theory would imply such result is, for example, the early Richard Taylor.)

However, as several non-subjectivists have argued, accepting subjectivism about the meaning of life leads to some very implausible conclusions. If subjectivism were correct, we would have to accept that people who do some very odd things have meaningful lives if they just feel they do. Charles Taylor presents the example of the person who holds his life to be meaningful because he has precisely 3,732 hairs on his head, and Eric Wielenberg presents the example of a person who takes his life to be meaningful when he eats his own excrement. Non-subjectivists argue that it is odd to suggest that such people have meaningful lives; it much more plausible to take such people to be simply wrong about the meaning of their lives. Many theorists, hence, reject subjectivism about the meaning of life.

Some other theorists present both subjective and objective criteria as necessary for leading meaningful lives, but since the objective criteria they present have nothing to do with morality, their theories, too, allow that lives such as Hitler's could be considered meaningful. Some such theorists do not seem to be aware of these implications, but others are: Paul Edwards, for example, consents to claims such as "as long as I was a convinced Nazi … my life had meaning … yet most of my actions were extremely harmful.” Likewise, John Kekes writes: “that immoral lives may be meaningful is shown by the countless dedicated Nazi and Communist mass murderers … [who] may be successfully engaged in their projects, derive great satisfaction from them, and find their lives as scourges of their literal or metaphorical gods very meaningful.”

Here is an argument why highly immoral lives cannot be meaningful. As argued in an earlier post, meaning of life is based on value. A meaningful life is a life in which there is sufficiently high value, and a meaningless life is a life in which there is insufficiently high value. We can make life more meaningful by adding or enhancing aspects of value in them (e.g., wisdom, love, courage, creative ability, moral behavior). And a life could be made less meaningful, and eventually meaningless, when we lose or decrease aspects of value in it. But if we hold, as I am sure that all readers of this post do, that Hitler's life was not valuable, then his life was also not meaningful. In fact, as Stephen Campbell and Sven Nyholm have argued, it is plausible to see such evil lives not only as meaningless (in the sense of lacking value), but also what might be called anti-meaningful. According to this suggestion, there is also a place for "anti-matter," or negative value, in discussions about the meaningfulness of lives. Thus, the measures of meaningfulness of a life stretch not only from, say, +100 to 0; they stretch from +100 to -100. Some people have highly meaningful lives, others have moderately meaningful lives, yet others have lives that are not meaningful (that is, meaningless), but some have lives that are, in fact, worse than not meaningful: they are lower than non-meaningful, they "anti-meaningful."

Abstaining from highly immoral behavior is, thus, a necessary condition for having a meaningful life. People who knowingly and intentionally harmed many others would not be taken by us to have led lives that we would typify as valuable or meaningful even if they had many achievements in other spheres. We commonly take Beethoven, for example, to have led a meaningful life. But if we learned that in order to have the inspiration necessary to compose his symphonies he tortured little children we would not see his life as meaningful.

Note, however, that although abstaining from highly immoral behavior is a necessary condition for having a meaningful life, engaging in highly moral behavior is not a necessary condition for having a meaningful life. We take not only people such as Mother Teresa as having led a meaningful life. We take also people like Einstein, Rembrandt, and Chekhov to have led meaningful lives although they excelled not in the moral sphere but in other spheres. As Thaddeus Metz has argued, making scientific advances or creating artwork is meaningful even if the artwork or scientific advancement has no moral import. Thus, engaging in highly moral behavior is not a necessary condition for meaningfulness. But refraining from highly immoral behavior is.

References

Richard Taylor, “The Meaning of Life,” in Richard Taylor, Good and Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1970), p. 265.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 36.

Eric Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 22.

Paul Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” in E. D. Klemke (ed.), The Meaning of Life, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 143-44.

John Kekes, “The Meaning of Life,” in Peter A. French and Howard K. Wettstein (eds.), Midwest Studies in Philosophy 24: Life and Death (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), p. 32.

Stephen M. Campbell and Sven Nyholm, "Anti-Meaning and Why It Matters," Journal of the American Philosophical Association Vol. 1 (2015), pp. 694-711.

Thaddeus Metz, “Utilitarianism and the Meaning of Life,” Utilitas, Vol. 15 (2003), pp. 60-61.