Source: What's It All About?. (2007 1 ed.) p. 176 Top - Middle

 Although I have drawn on Sartre in this book, I have not claimed that authenticity is the only or even the most important virtue which gives life meaning. (Nor am I convinced Sartre did, for that matter.) Nevertheless, following Cottingham, it might be argued that because my account depends upon our determining what makes life worth living for us, it has effectively cut morality adrift from genuine standards in a similar way. The reason for this is that I have defined (in shorthand, anyway) a meaningful life as one that is meaningful or has value for us, and it is always possible that someone may choose a life which is meaningful for her but which is thoroughly immoral.

 There are two possible responses to this. Consider the question of whether it is true that a meaningful life has to be a moral one. We could simply reject this. Why not just say that meaning and morality are separate? That does not and cannot mean that it is'OK' for someone to live a meaningful but immoral life, since, if morality is separate from meaning, there is nothing good or bad in itself about living a meaningful life. Because we are used to thinking of meaning and morality in life as being linked, it may sound odd to say that the Gestapo officer can have a meaningful but immoral life. However, there is nothing contradictory or ethically objectionable about doing so.

I don't understand the bolded clause. Does the author intend to communicate that the Nazi's life can be meaningful because his immorality doesn't forestall him from fulfilling his immoral goals that can still gladden him?

  • It is an example due to Sartre: "Sartre sometimes talks as if any choice could be authentic so long as it is lived with a clear awareness of its contingency and responsibility. But his considered opinion excludes choices that oppress or consciously exploit others. In other words, authenticity is not entirely style; there is a general content and that content is freedom. Thus the “authentic Nazi” is explicitly disqualified as being oxymoronic. " 1/2 Feb 25, 2018 at 8:38
  • "Sartre's thesis is that freedom is the implicit object of any choice, a claim he makes but does not adequately defend in his Humanism lecture. He seems to assume that “freedom” is the aspect under which any choice is made, its “formal object,” to revive an ancient term. But a stronger argument than that would be required to disqualify an “authentic” Nazi." 2/2 See also Authenticity. Feb 25, 2018 at 8:39

1 Answer 1


A meaningful life is one that has a purpose and direction to it, one to which oneself attaches value, one in which one can trace coherent patterns in its past or project plans for the future. All these possibilities apply. The basic idea of meaningfulness here is the Sartean one of injecting meaning into one's - living authentically by values oneself has chosen. His least confusing statement of this view is given in the easily available, 'Existentialism is a Humanism'.

There is plainly no requirement, if this is what a meaningful life is, for it to embody any particular values, least of all moral values and definitely not those of which ordinary moral thinking approves. From this viewpoint there is no paradox in a Gestapo officer's having a meaningful life but, judged from the standpoint of ordinary moral thinking, an immoral one.

There is only a paradox if one steps outside existentialist thinking and sees the meaning of life as, say, a Catholic does : life has an inbuilt purpose which is to love and serve God, and to love and serve others (Matt 22:36, Mark 12:29, Luke 10:25).

I offer no adjudication between these two very different views. (Not so different, however, but that some have not sought to formulate a Christian existentialism but I set that aside as involving too many issues.) On a Catholic approach there would be a contradiction in living as a Gestapo officer does and living in accordance with God's inbuilt purpose for humankind. But the perspective of existentialism removes the contradiction - of course relative to existentialist assumptions.

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