If You Don’t Believe There is a Meaning to Life, Why Don’t You Just Go Around Killing Other People?

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.

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  1. #1 by brucetheeconomist on January 23, 2011 - 12:29 PM

    “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.”

    I don’t think that no sense of meaning implies violent behavior. I think a desire for an orderly society that is sustainable restrains most antisocial behavior.

    But without a sense that an orderly society that is sustainable is desired by some higher power, I think it is less clear why we desire a good order. Some may ultimately become nihilistic and even dangerous with a sense of God given purpose. Though many become dangerous in the name of God also.

  2. #2 by Keith Spillett on January 23, 2011 - 12:45 PM

    I am not sure what leads to violence and I am not sure what leads to order. I am also unclear as to why a higher power would lead to an orderly society. Is it the fear of punishment of a higher power? Is it the belief that all of what we experience is connected to a deeper meaning? I’m not clear as to why these things correlate with a good order. Couldn’t the punishment of other humans be just as much of a deterrent (social contract instead of a higher power)? Couldn’t order flow from a lack of meaning? I would think that if there were no higher power, humans would be compelled by the need to survive to create working systems to try to achieve their goals. I think these systems are subjective human creations that change dramatically over time.

    I am working on another article defending the idea of nihilism that I would love your feedback on. I’m still in the research phase of it, but I really have questions as to whether nihilism is a dangerous thing. I tend to think that it might not be the evil demon it is thought to be. J.L Mackie has some interesting ideas on this that I’d like to try to explain.

  3. #3 by haematic on January 23, 2011 - 12:47 PM

    Oh I just love all the creative juices that flow out of people the moment you mention that you’re a nihilist.

    I believe that this act of denying no-purpose, is tied closely together with advocating such concepts as morality, the good and the bad, the afterlife, karma and so on and whatnot. And this is simply because, people have this rooted ‘knowledge’ that such concepts are universal and have been born together with the universe itself rather than the human mind.

    Once asked of such provoking questions as ‘What’s the point in living then if you’re a nihilist?’ I simply reply with as much honesty as I can, saying ‘There is no point in NOT living either.’

    Then get bombarded with how absurd that sounds, since, supposedly this ‘point in something’ is a divine concept granting everlasting ground, cause and effect to even the scratch of one’s behind (pardon).

    • #4 by Keith Spillett on January 23, 2011 - 12:57 PM

      Tell me about it!!! Seriously discussing nihilism is like telling someone you watch a lot of horse racing on television. You get really funny looks and even funnier questions.

      “I believe that this act of denying no-purpose, is tied closely together with advocating such concepts as morality, the good and the bad, the afterlife, karma and so on and whatnot.”

      You really hit it there!!! Great, great point. I tend to see my own thinking as being nihilistic optimism (as bizarre as that sounds). There is something overwhelmingly beautiful about seeing humans as a group that don’t have to treat each other with compassion but choose to. This, to me, is the most powerful and poignant defenses of the human race that can be made.

      • #5 by haematic on January 23, 2011 - 1:17 PM

        I tend to see my own thinking as being nihilistic optimism (as bizarre as that sounds).

        If only I could count up the moments I described myself that way to other people, thought of using the name for a website, blog, poem, article or any other medium.

        Laying the philosophy aside, that combination is probably the worst your opponents of thought expect you to have. “He’s a nihilist and he’s happy” is whispered through teeth-grinding, knife clenching fury.

  4. #6 by Keith Spillett on January 23, 2011 - 1:25 PM

    It’s wonderful to meet someone with a similar outlook! It’s hard to find common ground when many people assume you are from Mars. I am very used to getting the eye roll, head shake, deep breath thing from people when I tell them the thing about being an optimistic nihilist. I look forward to reading your ideas on your blog and getting your feedback on my strange thoughts and beliefs.

  5. #7 by WackyWally on January 23, 2011 - 3:24 PM

    Much of the worst cases of violence I’ve noticed in my time has been enacted by those with an extreme belief in their particular view of the meaning of life. At the least, they will use their beliefs, or the beliefs of others as justification for acts that run contrary to human pleasure. This is a term I’m coining to replace ‘human nature’ (Something truly worthy of an argumentative essay) as we non objectivist understand that the pursuit of happiness aught to be the primary philosophy underlying how we live our lives. How to be happy, and bring happiness to others.
    To be honest, the original argument was a stupid one…. one I run into most days at work, with people who believe things in so absolute a way that to argue with them accomplishes nothing more than hurt ego’s and discomforted feelings. I like the nihilistic optimist. It’s the whole E-Prime method of removing objective meaning to our language…. Forces one to internalize his intentions while speaking… I’ve been drinking while writing this, and find my point now lost. Please excuse the incongruity, maybe you can make some sense of it.

    • #8 by Keith Spillett on January 23, 2011 - 3:57 PM

      I think the human nature blog would be an excellent one. Human nature is one of the more interesting reifications I’ve run across and it absolutely deserves an article!

      I wasn’t particularly impressed with the original argument myself. That being said, there are some extremely interesting assumptions about humans that have to be accepted to get from point A to point B. Those assumptions are, I believe, quite common and allow for a deeper understanding of certain mindsets.

      I am working on something on e-prime as well. I would have published it on here last week, but I re-read it and it is an utter mess. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get to that idea in a coherent way, because I am quite impressed with e-prime as a way of better conveying experience through language. It is REALLY tough to write in e-prime or speak in it for more than a few minutes without nearly driving yourself nuts. The difficulty of using that “language” sheds a good deal of light on how much abstraction gets accepted as truth.

  6. #9 by brucetheeconomist on January 23, 2011 - 5:43 PM

    I’m not sure I was very clear. First, clearly those with no sense of a higher purpose, don’t appear to necessarily behave in a violent fashion. I think the main reason is this is just an evolved means of self preservation. That’s what I meant about desiring an orderly society, where one can survive. The same thing is true if you have a sense of purpose.

    But if you don’t go around killing people because that behavior could destroy society, you have only one reason to limit anti-social behavior. If you have a practical desire for preservation of society and a sense that people and life have a higher purpose, you have two reason to limit anti-social behavior. It seems to me that purpose put more limits on dangerously anti-social behavior.

    I agree with you that a sense of purpose can become warped to killing non-believers and often has. It an empirical question what is worse.

    To sum up, I think I understand where your friend is at Keith.

    • #10 by Keith Spillett on January 24, 2011 - 8:27 PM

      Very well put, Bruce. I can see where it could be of value to some people to have a sense of meaning. I’m not particularly against the idea. It’s not one that appeals to me personally, but it has at different points in my life. My issue is more with the leap from lack of meaning to complete abandonment of compassion and an empathy for human life that my friend seemed to be implying in his question. It’s a pretty big jump. I just don’t think the slope is that slippery.

      Thanks so much for the repost by the way! I am honored to have my stuff on your blog as excellent as yours.

  7. #11 by G-LO on January 24, 2011 - 9:43 AM

    Not sure if this is related (I know so little about philosophy), but I read this quote from Albert Brooks this morning (http://www.esquire.com/features/what-ive-learned/meaning-of-life-2011/albert-brooks-quotes-0111?click=main_sr) and thought it may give some insight into the human condition and why we do what we do (or don’t do in certain situations):

    “We’re an odd animal that understands there’s an end. My dog doesn’t know she’s going to die. She can’t. If she knew she was going to die, she would know how to drive.”

    Any guy that can write a film like “Defending Your Life” is ok in my book. 🙂

    Excellent post by the way!

    • #12 by Keith Spillett on January 24, 2011 - 8:43 PM

      Thanks dude! I love Albert Brooks. Defending Your Life is wonderful. I’m not sure if you’ve seen “Modern Romance”, but it’s probably the only film about relationships that I ever liked. That quote is hysterical/extremely insightful. I tend to feel that way about death as well. More than anything, death motivates me to not want to die.

      • #13 by G-LO on January 24, 2011 - 9:02 PM

        Defending Your Life is the most rational view of heaven ever, and it actually makes some sense to me (if there is actually a heaven I mean). You have to keep coming back to Earth until you get it right. Kinda like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. After the 500th do over, he finally figures it all out.

      • #14 by Keith Spillett on January 24, 2011 - 9:10 PM

        I’d be lucky if it only took me 500 tries.

  8. #15 by Joshua Bentley on January 24, 2011 - 1:43 PM

    I remember a sociology class in undergrad where the prof talked about the “Judeo-christian duality of heaven and hell.” When I corrected him regarding the lack of a “hell” in Judaism (in fact, there is great dispute and no definitive answer of what, if anything, comes after) he asked me why people would be good if there was no thought of punishment. I thought about this for a while and the answer seemed pretty definitive. People do good things because they are good things to do. No one thinks they are evil (no one sane, anyway), even if they think things that they do might be bad.

    • #16 by Keith Spillett on January 24, 2011 - 8:44 PM

      “People do good things because they are good things to do. No one thinks they are evil (no one sane, anyway), even if they think things that they do might be bad.”

      Fantastic point! I agree with this completely.

  9. #17 by rtm on January 24, 2011 - 5:08 PM

    Oy, this is far too deeply philosophical for my poor little brain to process, Keith! But I sure hope that just because one doesn’t believe in the meaning of life, they don’t take it upon themselves to alienate other people. I feel sorry for those who subscribe to this belief (not believing in something IS a form of belief) as they’re not really ‘living’ but simply ‘existing.’

    I don’t have kids yet, but I share your sentiment about raising kids. I subscribe to a world view that believe in a Higher purpose and that we are created in His image. I don’t attribute people who do violent things in His name as the best representation of those who subscribe to that worldview, but in fact, it’s the opposite, they’re twisting it to fit their OWN purpose.

    You’re right though, we can only teach our kids to be peace-loving and still love people who disagree with us… I can only pray that they don’t end up like Jared Lee Loughner!

  10. #18 by Keith Spillett on January 24, 2011 - 8:56 PM

    I hope so too. It’s really a hard thing to accept that people can turn into monsters. I think a lot about Loughner’s parents. When people do bad things, you often hear people say things about the parents, that they must have somehow been negligent. I think about the horror they must feel, the second guessing and feelings of doubt they must be going through. I wonder about what it must be like to be recognized and have to know that many people are thinking that they failed. I think people can’t process something this awful and try to rationalize it. People figure that these must have been the bad ones, they didn’t do things correctly and if we do things right our kids won’t end up this way. There is, unfortunately, no perfect formula and sometimes great parents raise kids who do very bad things. I also think of what it must have been to try to love this sick kid. Maybe they really did everything they could do and this still happened. Maybe they came home everyday trying to figure out a way to get through to him and it didn’t work. Maybe he couldn’t be reached.

    Children are amazing because they can make you as happy as you can possibly be and as frightened as you could possibly be all at the same time.

  11. #19 by tinadot on February 4, 2011 - 8:47 PM

    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) – me neither, how does this person link the two? :S

    • #20 by Keith Spillett on February 4, 2011 - 9:20 PM

      I thought it was quite odd myself. The connection is apparently meant to be implied, but I do not get it. Maybe it’s because I do not believe there is an objective meaning to life and I’m not running around killing people. But hey…maybe I’m missing something.

      • #21 by tinadot on February 4, 2011 - 11:33 PM

        Perhaps we are both missing something and this person was altruistically trying to lead us into the right direction towards something that has alluded us this entire time. Well, I feel foolish now.

  12. #22 by Drew on January 12, 2013 - 10:12 PM

    Hume’s is/ought problem and the fact that values and morals and SUBjective not OBjective not just by definition, but down to their intrinsic cores as concepts, rule out any possibility for there to actually BE an OBjective “meaning of life”. The only reason we are even concerned with it is because of the inevitability of suffering we will endure in our lives (be it anything from petty relationship squabbles to physical injuries to observing hardships in others we care about), and the inescapability of death. If people lived forever and knew they would ever have a negative experience, I guarantee the trouble of not knowing why they were there would seem much less paralyzing and serious.

    In the end it’s just another (perhaps the ultimate) example of hunanity’s intrinsic hypocrisy. That’s not to say we are somehow worse than we should be, hypocrisy is a side effect of imperfection, everyone has it to some extent. But when it comes to the topic of our very existence, we can never take the blindfolds all the way off and stop guessing, because to do so would require observing and analyzing our existences… without existing…

  1. If You Don’t Believe There is a Meaning to Life, Why Don’t You Just Go Around Killing Other People? (via The Tyranny of Tradition) | Brucetheeconomist's Blog

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