Review : On the Meaning of Life by John Cottingham

Categories 3 Literature

John Cottingham argues for a spiritual dimension to life which he defines as shared meaning, values and commitments (page ix). However, having argued for this metaphysical quality to life, he then insists on its ‘objectivity’. ‘Meaning and worth’, he writes, ‘cannot be created by human fiat alone’ (p17). ‘Value is typically grounded not in arbitrary preference but in objectively assessable features of the world’ (p20), ‘all converge on the premise that there are objective values’ (p33). It is, he claims ‘a fantasy that we can create our own values’ (p62). ‘We cannot create our own values’ he repeats on his closing page (p104). These are the preconceptions of a theist. Cunningham’s paradigm thereby excludes the atheist.

He then contradicts this by accepting that morality cannot be prescribed or dictated by any god. It must have human agency. ‘Our moral insights ought to be able to stand alone’ and ‘moral evaluation turns out to have a certain sort of autonomy’ (p65). He celebrates hope (p75), but how can hope be objective any more than thankfulness? He allows for human choice, but then wants to deny that choice by insisting on the objectivity of virtue. We can choose to live virtuously, but we cannot choose what that virtue should be.

These are all bold statements without supporting argument. Virtue can be argued to have alternative sources from i) a deity, ii) a Darwinian mutation, iii) a metaphysical force, to iv) human agency. Cottingham seems to deny them all. He insists on an objectivity he cannot explain. Choice of a virtue such as mercy can be an entirely arbitrary human choice, and does not thereby lose its value. This is the atheist and humanist interpretation of virtue, and is one Cottingham should allow and not summarily dismiss.

He prioritises praxis to doctrine in religion (p86), which is a welcome emphasis if he can persuade religion to follow it, which is doubtful. He claims that ‘human beings are hungry for significance’ (p32), but perhaps not all are, and Cottingham is writing for an intellectual minority? This would need some real research. For many of us our own life is our 100% awareness and is perfectly satisfactory for that, without the need to worry about its microscopic place in the cosmos.

Cottingham could have examined and portrayed virtue more attractively as André Comte-Sponville does in his ‘A Short Treatise of Great Virtues’.

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