Should Philosophers Teach the Meaning of Life (and other Possibly Depressing Subjects)?

If there’s a question that comes to mind when people see the word “philosophy” it’s this: “what’s the meaning of life?”

Many philosophers roll their eyes at this question. Some think it is poorly formed, in that it asks for a single answer. Others think “meaning,” if it’s even the kind of thing lives have, is too ambiguous. Some think it’s the kind of question philosophy doesn’t answer, and are annoyed that it’s taken to be the archetypal philosophical question.

Still, the subject shows up in introductory anthologies and there are no shortage of philosophy classes with “meaning of life” in the title.

Recently, Guy Crain, a professor of philosophy at Rose State College, wrote with new concerns about teaching about the meaning of life:

Might the topic be psychologically damaging to some students? I’ve heard an anecdote or two about depressive or suicidal students being triggered by the topic. I also have some experience with loved ones struggling with suicidal thoughts, and I can at least see how discussing that topic would definitely not have helped them. The reason I bring it up is that it seems like a standard topic in so many of the Intro textbooks I have on my shelf, which I take as some mark in favor of covering the topic.  Is this a topic philosophy professors should be teaching? Do you know if anyone has any information about this?

Similar thoughts have crossed my mind when teaching Schopenhauer, or Benatar’s anti-natalism. Some of the stuff we teach in philosophy can be pretty depressing. Of course, that is true of psychology, history, literature, political science, sociology, law, and other disciplines. So let’s be clear that the topic here applies to a broad swathe of academia.

Let’s put the question this way:

If we have reason to think that some subject we teach will cause some of our students to question whether life is worth living, and perhaps even, as a result of that questioning, kill themselves, should we teach it? 

It might help to have some guidelines for the discussion:

  • Let’s take on this question realistically. That is, leave aside thought experiments such as “suppose that if, in the course of a lesson, you said a particular true and relevant philosophical proposition, T, where T is known to cause suicide in 50% of the students who hear it; should you say T?” Hell no, you shouldn’t say T. But that isn’t the situation we’re in.
  • Let’s also leave aside the idea that our sole aim in teaching is the unfettered pursuit of all the relevant truths. As university employees we have various responsibilities towards our students of which teaching them some true things is just one.
  • Let’s not assume the depressing take on any subject is the mistaken one. There might be good reasons to think that, for some reasonable specification of “What’s the meaning of life?” the answer is, “there ain’t.”

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the question in general is “it depends,” but for now is “yes.”

We have, at the moment, the following speculation: an activity may to some uncertain extent contribute to the set of causes of an unknown increase in the chance of an unknown but small (if not zero) number of students engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves.

If the activity in question had no benefit whatsoever, then the foregoing speculation may be sufficient to give us pause. But the activity in question is teaching what we’re presuming are subjects we otherwise consider quite valuable or important. Again, we’re not just talking about the meaning of life here, but subjects in any discipline that can plausibly be taken to be seriously depressing. To justify stopping teaching those things we’d need much more than the speculations of small increases of risks to small numbers of people.

Some may not like this type of cost-benefit analysis answer. It’s certainly not the only way to address the question. I’d be curious to hear alternative approaches.

To say that the answer is yes, keep on teaching, is not to say there’s nothing we should do about the possible risks, for there’s the question of how we teach these subjects. Since there is practically zero cost to giving students notice that some of them might find an upcoming subject hard to deal with, or even pointing them to resources that might help them cope with possible psychological challenges posed by the subject, it seems we should do those things.

Your thoughts welcome.

UPDATE: See this helpful and thoughtful comment from Dan Weiskopf.

Kay Rosen, “Slice of Life”

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