Why the Paradox of the End Does Not Make Life Meaningless
Although achieving ends is sometimes losing them, life is still meaningful
Posted Jul 24, 2018
Consider the paradox of the end: we set ourselves a goal and make great efforts to achieve it. Doing so is often strenuous, but gives life direction, purpose and meaning. We see the goal as valuable, and this gives us a purpose and endows meaning on the means used to achieve this goal. But then, a short while after we achieve the goal, we frequently sense, paradoxically, that meaning in our life is diminished rather than enhanced. A sense of emptiness sets in. We are surprised to find that in achieving the end we lost the meaning we had while striving. Oddly, we are kind of sorry that we accomplished the end. To sense meaning again we quickly set to ourselves another end. But once achieved it, too, loses its meaning, and we pick yet another. It appears that the ends or goals are not really valuable; they are just excuses to strive for something.
However, if the goals are not really meaningful, then our efforts to achieve them are, in fact, also not meaningful. And this suggests that much of what we do is actually pointless. Since most of the value in our lives has to do with ends and efforts to achieve them, the paradox of the end makes life meaningless. When we treat our endeavors in life as meaningful we are just pretending to ourselves that our ends and the efforts to achieve them are of value. If we consider it sincerely, this argument for the meaninglessness of life claims, we have to accept the worthlessness of our ends, and therefore also the worthlessness of the means to attain them, and hence also the meaninglessness of life.
The paradox of the end has been often acknowledged (even if usually not by this name). For example, Oscar Wilde claimed "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. … The last is a real tragedy." Likewise, The important pessimist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer elaborated on the paradox and claimed that it is part of what makes life bad and meaningless.
But do we really have here a good argument against the meaning of life? I do not think so. Here are four reasons why.
First, as already argued by Oswald Hanfling, it is simply wrong that the meaning of all attained ends completely vanishes. Most people continue to see many achieved ends as highly valuable even years after attaining them. True, elation is often most intense in the first hours or days. However, most people recognize the value in having found love, won a prize, finished college, succeeded at work, or solvrd a personal problem even decades after accomplishing these ends. Thus, for most people, the empirical claim at the basis of the argument is incorrect.
Second, some achieved ends have no terminus. For example, being and remaining a loving and supportive husband, a good teacher, or a decent person are goals people attain every day and never cease accomplishing. The paradox does not apply at all to such unfinished ends. This also holds for regulative ends, that is, ends people know they will never achieve fully but towards which they aim and direct themselves. Such are, for example, attempts to develop a deeper understanding of music, enhance a capability, be more moral, or come nearer to God. Since such aims are never achieved, the paradox of the end does not apply to them.
Third, many meaningful aspects of life do not at all have to do with efforts to achieve ends; some meaningful aspects of life are not even intended, but just happen. For example, we may just find ourselves having a deep insight or realization, a strong aesthetic experience, a significant human encounter, or an intense religious involvement.
Fourth, this argument for the meaninglessness of life ignores people's ability to change the degree to which they experience achieved ends as meaningless. Sensing the paradox of the end is often related to specific psychological tendencies that, when radicalized, become problematic, but with the right effort and counseling can often be moderated. For example, the paradox frequently coincides with Workaholism. Those inwardly compelled to work incessantly find it hard to just sit and enjoy their achievements, since their urge to continue working makes them restless. Likewise, overcompetitive people find it hard to feel satisfied for a long time after attaining a goal since they quickly sense an urge to embark on another competitive endeavor, and cannot but compare their achievement to some better one someone else has attained. Further, some people cannot just enjoy what they have achieved, feeling an urge to "go on and do something," simply because they are nervous. But these and similar dynamics do not show that our achievements lack real value or that life is meaningless. They only show that some people's temperamental habits diminish their ability to appreciate attained value. Practice and treatment can moderate many of these temperamental habits.
The paradox of the end does capture something about certain human experiences, but does not show or make life meaningless. In moderate form, it may actuality be beneficial, leading us to seek further valuable goals to pursue.
Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan III, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 1966, 417.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, vols. 1–2 (New York: Dover, 1969), 1:312-314
Oswald Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning (New York: Blackwell, 1988), 7.