All Meaning Is Relational
Jag Bhalla is an entrepreneur, inventor and writer. His current project is Errors We Live By, a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives, details at www.errorsweliveby.com. His last book was I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, details at www.hangingnoodles.com. That explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
All meaning is relational (otherwise it’s potentially useless and unhealthy). That’s true for both senses of meaning, and Nozick’s “Pleasure Machine” shows why workable individualism must be relational.
1. Individualism’s definition includes seeking your “own goals without reference to others,” especially free from collective constraints. “Individual” itself means “nondividable” (Latin translation of Greek “atom” = “uncuttable”).
2. Individualized meaning in language (private usage) if unshared, is logically irrelevant to others.
3. “Meanings of life” work the same way. Purposes pursued to make life feel worthwhile, if too self-oriented (unshared, unrelational) risk uselessness and unhealthiness.
5. Nozick felt few would choose this individualist Eden; its extremely self-absorbed pleasures wouldn’t make a meaningful life (showing we aren’t entirely solo pleasure-seekers).
6. Philosophically there’s no trace of genuine individualism in Plato or Aristotle (an Epicurean version arose later). Hobbes (the mushroom-logic guy) and Bentham (of utility bucket fame) invented today’s pleasure-centric individualism (they’d both love Nozick’s machine).
7. Related religious ideas illustrate Judeo-Christian differences. Christianity promotes self-sacrifice and selflessness (and somehow a gospel of wealth). But Judaism favors both self-benefit and other-orientedness (see Hillel).
8. Pop-science claims nature is ruthlessly “selfish.” But human nature crucially adds otherness to selfness. We’ve evolved for team survival for ~10,000 generations (we’re highly self-deficient and other-dependent). Hence our deep drive to belong to and seek “responsibility to something greater than the self.”
10. Economic ideas now dominate how we balance selfness and otherness (often trumping philosophy, religion, science, data, and experience). Economists generally promote maximum self-seeking, delegating most otherness to markets (turning relational into transactional). But free markets alone don’t—and can’t (in practice)—work as advertised, or deliver all that’s needed.
Meaning and pleasure (or supposed synonyms like utility or happiness) aren’t interchangeable labels for life purposes. Meaning is inherently relational. Many pleasures now are not. Their logic leads to Nozick’s machine (or a globally self-oriented market “Matrix”).
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
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