The meaning of life has been a huge question in philosophy. The answers range from gaining knowledge, gaining pleasure, coming to know God and follow his commandments, getting off the cycle of samsara, and self-creation by finding your own meaning. Yet, we must make a distinction between a meaningful life, and a life worth living. Aaron Smuts makes this important distinction and in this post, I’ll be looking at his article, “Five Tests for What Makes Life Worth Living.”
Smuts’ goal, however, is not to give a sustained account of what makes life have worth, or devise a test to evaluate one’s life. Rather, as he puts it, “I offering a handbook for evaluating lives. Instead, I undertake a preliminary task—to find a way to track the general extension of the concept” (p. 3). In other words, this article—and hence, this post—will not investigate the worth of meaning of life and what that worth is. Rather, Smuts is going to test out the different theories of a worthy life to see if they are sound. If not, then the theory is flawed. Along with that, the test will help us determine what would be a better theory for a worthy life.
With that in mind, Smuts develops four tests that philosophers have used for determining what makes a life worth living. He argues that all four of them fail and offers a better fifth test that can track the general extension of the concept of what makes a life worth living.
First of all, what are these four tests?
- The Suicide Test (from Camus)
- The Recurrence Test (from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche)
- The Extra Life Test (from Cicero and Hume)
- The Preferring Not to Have Been Test (from Williams and the Book of Job)
What would be Smuts’ fifth test?
5. The Pre-Existence Test.
This test argues that “a life worth living is one that a benevolent caretaker with foreknowledge would allow. A life worth avoiding is one that a benevolent caretaker would disallow” (p. 3).
To repeat, Smuts is not giving an account on what makes life worth living. For that to work, we need an account of worth. Rather, Smuts is testing out what makes life worth living through these tests in which this could further develop a theory of worth. Smuts notes: “a useful test provides an epistemic indicator of when worth obtains. A test does not provide a metaphysical account of why some lives are worth living. Again, for that we need a theory of worth” (p. 3).
With that, let us go straight to these tests and see why they fail.
The Suicide Test (Camus)
Coming from Camus, he argues that there is a connection between suicide and whether life is worth living.
Camus doesn’t make this connection clear, but Smuts’ project is not to “fill in the gaps” with Camus’ philosophy. Rather, Smuts wants to see whether the test holds. The first test, then, is a subjective one:
Subjective Suicide Test: Life is worth living for the person iff the person does not desire to end one’s life.
There are two problems with this:
Problem 1: We can be mistaken about whether our lives are worth living or not. Suppose Sally breaks up with her boyfriend of two weeks and she decides that life is therefore not worth living. So, she considers suicide. However, she’s mistaken. Her subjective desire does not entail that her life is therefore not worth living. Therefore, the desire to commit suicide is not sufficient for a life not worth living.
While I see what Smuts is doing (and I happen to agree with him on this problem), I think it would be instructive to show why Sally is wrong. In other words, someone could be wrong with one’s self-assessment. I understand that this would require a theory of worth and what makes a life have worth, which is not Smuts’ project. However, an inkling of why Sally is wrong would be beneficial in order to push the problem forward.
Problem 2: Stemming from Hume, if life was really so bad, why don’t we see more people committing suicide? Philo responds: the reason is because people fear death. Death could bring something worse than life. This is instructive. Even if one’s life is not worth living, one may nevertheless not desire to commit suicide because of this fear. Thus, the desire to commit suicide is not a necessary condition for a life not worth living.
From problem one and two, the desire to commit suicide is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a life not worth living. Thus, the worth of one’s life is not determined by one’s attitude that one takes towards one’s life. Therefore, the subjective suicide test is false. Let’s go to the next test:
Objective Suicide Test: Life is worth living for a person iff the person should not end one’s life.
This test argues that the worth of one’s life is not determined by any attitude towards one’s life; rather, it must be determined by an appropriate attitude. Notice that with an objective test, a life worth living is where the person should not commit suicide, whereas the subjective test was when one desired to commit suicide. Moreover, with the objective test, it also implies that a life worth avoiding is one where the person should commit suicide.
To make things simple, suppose a person is well-informed about her life and she knows whether it’s going to be a life of misery or a life of happiness, whether it’s going to have negative or positive consequences in the world, etc. However, Smuts argues that even though the objective test may be better than the subjective test, it still fails. Smuts uses Philo (from Hume) again to show why.
Problem: Suppose there was an afterlife. Suppose that one’s life is bad. Thus, according to the objective test, one ought to commit suicide. However, what if one’s afterlife was worse. It’s just a miserable afterlife. It may be better to suffer through a tortuous life than to endure a hellish afterlife. On the other side, suppose one’s life is pleasant and good, but the afterlife is enriched with joy and greater pleasures. Thus, one ought to commit suicide because it’s the rational thing to do. Again, whether one should commit suicide or not is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for whether a life is worth living. Thus, the objective test fails. Of course, this brings in a lot of assumptions about what the afterlife is like and whether it’s better or worse for someone. How do we handle this? We’ll need another test.
Exempted Objective Suicide Test: Life is worth living for a person iff a person should not end one’s life, assuming that the afterlife for that person wouldn’t be worse than living one’s life.
This still has problems.
Problem: It may be better to commit suicide if others benefit from it. Suppose that self-immolation would result in the downfall of an oppressive regime. Assuming that humans don’t have infinite value, then suicide could bring about greater value for the world. However, this suggests that one’s life may be worth living even though one ought to commit suicide. Thus, we need to modify the Exempted Objective Suicide Test to fix this.
Double Exempted Objective Suicide Test: Life is worth living for a person iff that person should not end one’s life, assuming that the afterlife for that person wouldn’t be worse than living one’s life and the benefit to others from ending one’s life does not outweigh the value of one’s life.
Problem: A life that is not worth living might nevertheless be wrong to end, say, if one’s children would suffer greatly as a result. We need another modification.
Triple Exempted Objective Suicide Test: Life is worth living for a person iff that person should not end one’s life, assuming the afterlife for that person wouldn’t be worse than living one’s life, the benefit to others from ending one’s life does not outweigh the value of one’s life, and it wouldn’t be wrong for that person to end one’s life.
Problem: By adding “…and it wouldn’t be wrong for that person to end one’s life” doesn’t give us any information for what makes life worth living. Smuts argues that this makes the definition circular (“It merely amounts to a statement that one should commit suicide if one’s life is not worth living” (p.7).) However, one can escape the circularity if we had a theory of worth and whether it’s wrong for that person to end one’s life. Of course, if we say that it’s wrong for a person to commit suicide, we would have to ask why which means we need a theory of worth.
At this point, we cannot say when the person should end one’s life. Suppose that the rest of your life that you live out would be miserable. This does not therefore mean that your life was not worth living. On the other side, suppose that your entire past included so much pain and suffering that your life on the whole was not worth living. However, the rest of your life might be good and so your life may be worth continuing, but on the whole, it wasn’t a life worth living.
I think what Smuts is doing here is instructive. Even though he’s not giving us a theory of meaning, these tests pick apart our intuitions in order to find what worth means, and what makes life have worth. By going through these tests, one would sift through ideas of a worthy life and how a life has worth.
In the next post, I’ll go through Smuts’ second test: the Recurrence Test from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.