After a bit of a delay, we’re resuming the Article Spotlight series, in which the authors of recent journal articles are invited to write brief posts here about them.
As noted at the time of the first installment, the articles featured will tend to be ones judged to be of interest to a wide range of philosophers. An article’s inclusion in this series should not be construed as an endorsement of its argument or agreement with its conclusions, but rather as a way of saying, “this might be interesting to discuss.”
In this month’s post, Joshua Glasgow, professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University, discusses his recent article, “The Ordinary Meaningful Life,” which appeared earlier this year in The Journal of the American Philosophical Association—the official version should be publicly available; if you can’t access it, there is a link to a preprint here.[Originally posted on December 8, 2022]
The Ordinary Meaningful Life
by Joshua Glasgow
We celebrate being important. Why? In particular, why should you care about whether you are especially important, or great, or significant?
Some branches of normativity offer easy-ish answers to this question. In particular, we probably have strong moral reason to be important in certain ways. If you can cure Covid-19, then you should, morally speaking. If you can do something that would lift millions out of poverty, then you should, morally speaking. If you can be the hero who finally invents a pillowcase that stays cool all night, then… well, then what are you doing reading this?? Get cracking, please.
But many people also find themselves attracted to being important for non-moral reasons. They want to be the next Sonia Sotomayor, or Barack Obama, or Miles Davis, or Marie Curie—or Socrates—on the thought that being great would make for a better life, not just for morality nor the greater good, but also for them. That is, being extraordinarily important is supposed to be in our own interests.
(The ‘we’ here is rhetorical; the drive to be important may well be culturally mediated and shaped by gender and other social norms.)
Of course, as with moral demands, there are plausibly rational limits on what to give up to be one of the Greats. But that doesn’t change the basic value judgment: to be significant is, other things equal, good for you. It’s a powerful draw, this impulse to be significant. Which returns us to the question: Why think it is in one’s own self-interest to be a Very Important Person?
One vibrant discussion in philosophy has taken up this question: the conversation about how we can find meaning in our lives. Most of the parties to this debate (who otherwise disagree about the nature of meaningfulness) converge on the conclusion that being extraordinarily important would add meaning to one’s life. In a recent article in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association, “The Ordinary Meaningful Life,” I challenge that near-consensus. I argue that we get no extra meaning from being important that is not equally available in the unimportant, ordinary life.
I’m also presently at work to build out a more complete case for being merely ordinary, where I survey other parts of the prudential landscape (achievement, flourishing, etc.) for other potential (non-subjectivist) rationales for seeking importance. Short answer: there aren’t any such rationales, at least not for being important itself. That is, we have no reasons of self-interest to be important that don’t instrumentally reduce to reasons to reap the rewards society contingently attaches to positions and feats of importance.
Here I want to explore some consequences of abandoning the impulse to be significant. If being ordinary is just as good for us as being extraordinary, then how should we (re)orient our thinking?
Maybe the most urgent matter is to stop telling our children that they should try to do something world-changing. When parents have the child’s own interests at heart, the implication of importance’s prudential valuelessness is that the parent should stop encouraging the child to be important. More accurately, importance itself will have little to recommend it, though obviously it can return those lucrative social rewards. So maybe you should encourage your little one to be important if you want them to one day secure fame and fortune. But short of that, parents ought to give it a rest. Rather than tell your child, “You can be President one day!” we might just as well tell them, “You can be an electrician one day!” Or maybe simply, “You can have a good life in so many ways!” If there are plenty of equally valuable endeavors for our children to do, and if those endeavors do not become more prudentially valuable the more important they become, then we need not direct kids to pursue life plans with the worst odds of success.
And it’s not just the odds that are bad. Once parents factor in the external rewards of being important—the wealth, the adulation, the bountiful swag at Oscars parties—then we also must think about the prudential downsides. Fame can crowd out our most valuable relationships. Fawning fans are an inauthentic and capricious foundation for feelings of self-worth. Excessive amounts of money can disfigure one’s priorities. Presidents age rapidly.
We also no longer need to valorize all those significant individuals whose flaws function, we have been realizing in recent years, as a symbolic counterweight to their greatness. Well, we might want to celebrate the Greats because we want to incentivize people to do great things. We all win when someone cures cancer or improves the educational system, and so if stroking egos gets society those benefits, we might as well lean into celebrity culture a bit. But we should not valorize the Greats because they led lives that we should want for ourselves. From this angle, rather than another statue of some dead President, we should instead prioritize a monument that more abstractly represents what we valued about that President.
These are just a couple of ways that we’d shift our gaze away valuing importance if we stopped believing in the myth that being important is in the important person’s self-interest.