I was asked this question recently during a discussion about morality with a friend of mine. I do not believe that there is an objective meaning to life and this was his way of countering my argument. At first, I didn’t really take the question seriously and I laughed it off as a weird reductio ad absurdum argument meant to link my lack of belief to the worst possible outcomes. It is not the first time I have been asked this question in this context and I began to wonder why I felt the question was ridiculous. For the purposes of this article, I really don’t want to debate my feelings on objective meaning. It is a much larger topic that I feel deserves considerably more explanation than I am ready to give. However, I feel there is a basic misunderstanding in this question that is worth addressing on it’s own.
The questions strikes me as a silly one because I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. I am not clear about how Proposition A (There is no meaning in life) leads one to Proposition B (I should go around killing people). The argument makes about as much sense as saying “If you don’t believe there is any ice cream, why don’t you just go around killing people?” Why does the lack of basic meaning imply that people would commit violent acts towards one another? Where is the causal link between violence and the lack of meaning? Proposition A is a stand alone idea. It doesn’t lead to anything. It simply is.
The implication at the center of this idea is that the only thing that keeps human beings from running around causing severe harm to one another is the belief that there is some reason for everything. The deeper idea in the point my friend made was that without meaning, humans are nothing more than bloodthirsty animals that will do whatever they want, whenever they want. This is an extremely Hobbsean conception of what people are. I have a hard time believing that humans without meaning would find nothing better to do with their time then kill other humans. This view of humans, when held up to the light, seems quite vacant of truth. There are many secular humanists, atheists and nihilists who live their lives not believing in objective meaning without causing significant harm to others around them. Violence is something used by people of many different belief systems. There have been Christian murderers, Muslim murderers, Atheist murderers and so on.
I think part of the problem with the question is the assumption of direct correlation between belief and action. A person’s beliefs may help to define their actions, but we are never sure how. A person may believe strongly in a universe with objective meaning and choose to manifest that belief in the form of violence against people who think differently (The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of this) or they may choose to take that belief and manifest it in the form of non-violent protest (Martin Luther King would be a good representative of this). I don’t think we know what drove these people to act as they did. There is often an assumption that humans are basically machines. If you input this belief into the machine a specific set of actions will be waiting on the other end of the conveyor belt. The truth is that we have no idea what believing in certain things leads to. We know that we believe them, that’s all.
A good lens to see this question through is David Hume’s Problem of Induction argument. Hume argued that we can never convincingly prove that A will lead to B. We may assume that every time we flip the light switch on the room will light up, but on some occasions (power outages, blown fuses, unexplained failure) the room will not become illuminated. We may think that if a person has a certain set of values and beliefs they will turn out a certain way, but there are nearly limitless examples throughout history of times when that hasn’t happened. There is no such thing as a sure thing. We never know in advance how a set of beliefs is going to effect a person’s actions. We cannot accurately predict the future thus we never know what believing in certain things is going to lead to.
There is a troubling dynamic in this answer for those who are raising children. If we can’t convincingly know what the beliefs we are teaching our children are going to lead to, how are we supposed to raise them? My wife and I are currently raising two young children, so this question is a very serious one for me. As a parent, one of the most difficult realities that you are faced with is the understanding that you may do a great job teaching your children to love and respect the people around them and they still may turn out to be humans who take actions that appear angry, violent and anti-social. Humans are filled with complexities are impossible to completely understand. We can read the all of the “right” books, make the “correct” sacrifices and do what we think are the right things and we are still given no assurances. All we as parents can do is love our children no matter who they become. I don’t want my children to learn right and wrong, I want them to learn that we live in a world that has extreme shades of grey. I want them to learn to cause as little harm to others as possible (be it real harm or perceived harm). We do what we can and we hope for the best whatever that may be.