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Is wealth intrinsically meaningful? Do wealthy people, even misers I guess, necessarily have some sort of meaning to their life? If not, then what relation does wealth have to the meaning of life?

The meaning of life is, I feel, what life is for, what a life well lived means, rather than a happy or good one necessarily. When I reflect on wealth and the relation to the meaning of life, I feel that it must help in some way, how we spend it, cf how misers squander theirs, but that the pursuit of wealth above all else only gives the appearance of meaning (though I cannot say why), perhaps due to how consumption of capital is usually automatic and unreflective, more animal than human.

I am reminded of how capital is a relation between people, so it could be strongly linked to communal meaning, but I'm not sure.

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  • Wealth is linked to social and cultural facts; it is not an intrinsic quality". But see The Meaning of Life for a useful overview. Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 13:14
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    You raise some interesting issues. But you are asking several questions (admittedly related questions), so it isn't really clear what your problem is. It would also help if you were to include your own reflections that led you to ask the question and mention any reading that you have done to find an answer.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 13:17
  • i mmean @MauroALLEGRANZA intrinsically meaningful as if having money made your life meaningful indepednent of what else it brings about for you or anyone else
    – user70645
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 21:16

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"When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money."

-Alanis Obomsawin, of the Abenaki tribe from the Odanak reserve, near Montreal.

Anthropologist David Graeber in his great book Debt: The First 5,000 Years draws attention to how the value of currency depends crucially on trust, and the success of currencies depends crucially on deepening trust. And that recognising debts have become unpayable, and bank runs, have been perennial intermittent expressions of a lack of trust and commitment to mutual benefit which enables it.

People find all kinds of things meaningful, that seems a topic mostly for personal taste. Capitalist cultures celebrate wealth, and give the wealthiest cultural and political power in various ways that imply their views are more meaningful. Research pretty consistently shows that wealth, especially extreme wealth, doesn't generally correlate with greater happiness, and can often create isolation, loneliness, and paranoia. Research on lottery winners showed people benefit most from being moderately wealthy compared to their peer group, and beyond that the stress on social connections tends to undermine other positives.

In a well-regulated market with constraints against corruption and monopoly and non-creative capital use dominating like rent-seeking and inheritance, pursuit of wealth can help enable large scale collaboration and networked intelligence, where wealth going into the hands of people with good businesses run well allows them to do more of that. Silicon Valley is an interesting case, where Google and Facebook have been repeatedly prosecuted around the world for anti competativeness, while the reason the tech sector thrives is much more to do with the fact people who have failed but learned on the way are unusually likely to be able to get financed to try again - there's a huge monolingual market to spread across if an idea works. But the cost is a lot of people working crazy hours hoping to get in on a startup who don't. Having a sicual safety-net allows more people to try and fail, and places like Norway have far more tech jobs per citizen.

Pursuing wealth can allow a person's selfishness to be harnessed towards the greater good, while still allowing them to achieve personal betterment. That's the core positive of wealth.

You mention misers, and it's interesting how rarely used a term that us now. Before the introduction of social safety nets running out of money could mean death. The miser impulse likely followed growing up through wars and famines and economic collapses, and a rebound back from them that overcompensated. That kind of overcompensation, that ignores non-financial objectives like social connections and the natural world to obsess over hoarding wealth as a primary goal, is probably the core negative of wealth.

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I'm not sure if "intrinsically meaningful" is ... intrinsically meaningful.

Some amount of wealth enables people to not stress on a daily basis about whether they'd be able to e.g. afford this month's rent, or afford to eat today. It also enables people to buy things that do give them meaning. It can also alleviate worry about the future (retirement, losing one's job, having a disabling injury, having your loved ones cared for after you're gone, etc.).

In that sense, wealth is more something that enables you to find meaning, rather than having meaning in itself.

But beyond a certain point, the pursuit of wealth is seemingly about greed, ego, and the pursuit of power, more than anything else. Those things are commonly considered to be harmful to oneself and others. The pursuit of wealth may indeed also just be some automatic behaviour in response to our environment, which I would not consider to be particularly good.

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I consider your main subject to be the “meaning of life”, assuming that your title question asks: To which degree does wealth contribute to establish the meaning of life?

  1. In his book “The Nicomachean Ethics” Aristotle speaks about different goals one can pursue in life, see the translations indicated in Nicomachean Ethics.

    According to Aristotle, most goals only serve as the means to obtain a higher goal. Hence he eventually searches for the final goal, which no longer serves as the means, but is the ultimate goal. He names the final goal eudemonia, i.e. “the good life”. Possibly the term ultimate covers what you name intrinsic. But I agree with @MauroALLEGRANZA that the term intrinsic is less suitable in the present context.

    In the course of his book Aristotle makes two proposals how the good life looks like. One alternative is to realize those virtues which he investigates in his book. Here the focus is on action on the base of certain character traits. The other alternative is a more contemplative life, aiming at knowledge and insight.

    If one names the ultimate goal the meaning of life, then it is apparent: Aristotle does not think that one has to find an existing meaning of life, but that one has to realize a meaning of life.

  2. IMO one does not need to follow strictly one of Aristotle’s two alternatives. Possibly it is better to find out, which way of life allows one to live in accordance with oneself. This kind of eudemonia requires to find out the personal strenghts, limits and failings.
    Wealth is very helpful as a means to realizes one’s goals. But it can be only a means, not the ultimate goal in life.

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  • thank you for the reply, and it is appreciated. though i wanted to shy away from 'eudemonia'
    – user70645
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 15:34
  • @user66697 Why shying away from eudemonia?
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 19:00
  • well, whether or not it was deliberate on your part, so that i didn't get fixed on the obvious.
    – user70645
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 19:25
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Your question is vague. Wealth, as in the ownership of money, isn't a real thing. It's just made up. It has meaning in the sense that statements about it, such as 'I have $10' mean something, but not meaning in some abstract or innate sense.

It's also hard to know what you mean by meaning in the sense of people's lives. If the wealth isn't all inherited, they will probably have meaning in the sense of goals they are working towards, but the concept of a 'meaningful life' is ill-defined and not really existent.

Wealth's relation to the meaning of life is that some people try to make their 'purpose' in life to be the accumulation of it.

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  • the first paragraph is unhelpful and vague. the second is unnecessary. the third answers the question, but is that all there is to it?
    – user70645
    Commented Dec 20, 2023 at 13:01
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Money is not intrinsic to nature. However we , that is , we as humanity have chosen the path of technological progress. It turns out that money is an indispensable tool, along with morality, to achieve our goal of technological revolution. In that sense money is important for humanity. But it is not necessary for individuals, who can have different goals in life. Mostly mostly gives meaning to those who wish to participate as a consumer or producers of technological advancement.

Meaning of life goes deeper than money. You may earn a lot but it may not give you happiness or satisfaction. Sometimes even poor people are much more satisfied than rich people because their goals are much more fundamental.

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In Western societies, money has the function to easily and smoothly facilitate the exchange of goods. Instead of immediately bartering one item or service against another item or service, we receive an "I owe you" from the trade partner for our item or service. Others agree to honor those papers as well. They can be stored easier than most goods, perhaps with the exception of Tide.

These papers indicate that we have produced something others found useful, beneficial for their lives. Especially in Western societies which have less intense direct personal connections (and correspondingly less social validation), personal self-esteem is often drawn from payed work. That people pay us means they appreciate what we do, and by inference who we are.

Wealth indicates that we have done a lot of things which are useful for other people. One could interpret that as "We have been good for society." Society owes us.

It is perhaps from this societal indicator function of money that it is often associated with a meaningful and fulfilled life. That money comes with power and comfort does not hurt this positive image.

I'll only say that it is, for a variety of reasons, not generally true that money is an indicator for a good person or a fulfilled life: In the end, money is an abstract relation to other people. This makes it easy to obtain through deception (those people would not be good). It cannot replace immediate relations to other people, common values, trust, friendship and love (people who neglect personal relationships for money will often not be happy).

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