We thirst for meaning in our lives. As an atheist, I’ve struggled to find meaning. I want to be part of something bigger than myself but never believed such a thing existed. I’ve learned better.
As the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl noted in his masterful Man’s Search for Meaning, people thrive when they have purpose. Cultural and technological changes over the past few centuries have eroded our sense of purpose and structure. Religion provided these in the past. Now our new, secular society needs a new, secular source.
Duty and purpose in older societies
Our distant ancestors didn’t face existential crises the way we do. In small tribes your role and purpose were clear. The meaning of life was to live the way your ancestors did.
More advanced societies were more complicated. Different demands were placed on the different classes. The peasant class had the least choice, so had the fewest responsibilities. More powerful classes had more expected of them. The warrior class, which held the power of life and death, had especially strong responsibilities.
These responsibilities became a rigorous code of conduct for warriors: the concept of honor. The West called it chivalry, Japan called it bushido. Honor originally meant doing what your liege commanded. They had spent tremendous resources training you and giving you the latest arms, armor, and transportation. You were honor-bound to follow their orders even if those orders felt wrong. To do otherwise was to bring dishonor to yourself and render your life worthless.
The concept of honor as duty to your lord changed over time. Honor became romanticized as a duty to higher principles. Instead of demanding obeisance, honor demanded that you disobey your lord if he ordered you to violate God’s law or a code of conduct.
Warriors were still expected to do their duty, but their duty was now more transcendent. It had become universal.
In a sense, this was the end of honor. It was no longer a separate system of ethics but an elevated form of normal practices. Knights were expected to show bravery, compassion, mercy, and humility — the same virtues as everyone else. Honor had been replaced by God.
The death of God
God died in turn. Society was upended by the one-two punch of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. People lost their sense of mankind’s place in the cosmos, and their personal place in society. Everything once concrete became murky.
The most profound observer of these changes was Friedrich Nietzsche. He’s been immortalized through his famous line, “God is dead.” In this one sentence he summarized the change overtaking Western society.
For centuries before Nietzsche, Christianity guided Europe. The Church was a source of values and purpose. Now the Church’s authority was waning, and a secular perspective was replacing it. Europeans could no longer count on shared beliefs, nor were they given a settled hierarchy where they could feel at peace.
The rise of existentialism
Existentialist philosophy arose to fill this vacuum. It was largely formed in Nazi-occupied France, so, as might be expected, it stressed freedom, individuality, and resistance to groups. This “do your own thing” ethos dominated Western culture throughout the latter 20th century until it became so ingrained that we Westerns are shocked by the group-centric philosophies of other cultures.
The Nuremberg trials and a few famous psychological experiments (the Milgram experiment and Stanford prison experiment) convinced the intelligentsia that existentialism was right: group consciousness was the problem and individual conscience was the solution. They reasoned that evildoers knew what they were doing was bad but did it anyway because of their groupthink and conformity.
They rejected the possibility that Nazis individually believed they were justified in retaliating against their Jewish (supposed) oppressors, or that the Milgram/Stanford experiment subjects believed they were advancing science as part of a well-regulated system. Instead, the intelligentsia said, if these people had simply looked inward, they would have known the moral truth and found the courage to disobey.
This philosophy puts us in a dilemma: either we embrace a hubristic view of our own judgment or we give up on moral judgments altogether. Our own conscience is absolute moral truth and if other people disagree then we must reject them. Much as the ancient Hebrews were commanded to put no god before their God, we must worship our own conscience, for ours is a jealous conscience.
If we reject this and see ourselves as just one human among many, as fallible as anyone, then we risk nihilism. Who are we to say that some choices are better than others? Why even bother having ambitions if they’re just a product of our flawed human heart? Who’s to say that we have responsibilities if we don’t feel like accepting them?
When we compare ourselves to past generations, the starkest moral differences aren’t in individual character, but in overall social differences. There were noble, decent people a thousand years ago, but even the kindest among them had a casual attitude towards slavery, violence, and capital punishment. Our overall standards have changed so much that it dwarfs individual differences.
That suggests that our individual conscience is less perfectible than our collective social conscience. When we differ from society, therefore, society is more likely to be right. We can tell ourselves that our attitudes will be embraced by the society of tomorrow (and are therefore better than today’s) but people are remarkably poor at predicting the future. When we tell ourselves that the future belongs to us, we’re probably flattering ourselves.
That gives us a solution to the death of honor and the death of God. We have something that we can hold higher than our own judgment: the collective judgment of humanity. If that’s too lofty, then at least we can look to the judgment of our community.
This may sound like cultural relativism: the belief that good or bad are determined by a culture’s values. A cultural relativist would say that stealing is wrong if you’re part of a culture that says it’s wrong, and it’s fine if your culture says it’s fine.
I’m not advocating that view. Cultural values don’t determine right and wrong: if they did, “progress” would be meaningless. Instead, culture is the accumulation of millennia of refinements in our sense of right and wrong. It gets things right more often than our gut judgment. Cultural values are better guesses at right and wrong.
Think of science as an analogy: our body of scientific knowledge is always open to revision. Because it’s open to revision, it’s more likely to be true than the results of any individual experiment. It’s reached its conclusions from the results of thousands of experiments. Only the weight of many new experiments contradicting established theories justifies changing our old understanding.
Our moral sentiments are like the individual experiments. When we feel society is unfairly labelling something morally acceptable as evil, or vice versa, we must be tentative about rejecting society’s judgment. To a naïve critic this is cowardice, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Another analogy is the free market. Different businesses (or social movements) offer their wares. The best are selected for and the weakest are weeded out. Any new business or social movement is likely to fail, because it’s being introduced to an efficient market. Only the best can compete and succeed.
This all sounds like abstract navel-gazing. How can we use it to find meaning and ethics?
First, it means the judgment of society matters. If you’re in a group that society scorns– a circle of thieves, a religious cult, political radicals –ask yourself hard questions about whether your group is really doing the right thing. The rest of the group will tell you that they’re good and everyone else is wrong, of course, so ignore them. Take a step back and look at it impartially.
Second, it means status-seeking isn’t as grubby as it feels. It’s easy to mock people who aspire to be managers, businesspeople, or professionals. Those roles have value, though, even if they’re scorned by pop culture. Pop culture, like soda pop, is temptingly sweet but lacks deeper value.
Status-seeking isn’t the only goal that matters, but it is a remedy for a lack of ambition or a sense of meaningless. If you can’t find goals for yourself, ask what accomplishments would make your grandparents proud of you then pursue those goals. There’s hidden value in the mundane life they’d probably want for you.
Most importantly, be humble. There’s something bigger and better than you. It’s older than you and will outlive you. Only if you keep your heart and mind open can you improve it.