Meaning of life and value of life: a crucial difference

This is an English translation of a philosophy paper written by Julio Cabrera. The original article in Portuguese can be accessed here.

Abstract: In this paper, I will argue that asking for the meaning of (human) life is not the same as asking for its value; that these two questions are often confused; that both questions have clear answers; that, in order for them to be answered, they must be placed in a double dimension, usually ignored by philosophers of an analytic tendency: the meaning or value of life itself, and the meaning or value of what happens within life. I will argue that failing to recognize this double dimension undermines the usual analytic treatment of the issue of the “meaning of life.”

Keywords: Meaning of life, Value of life, Analytic Philosophy, Morality.


Initially, I understand that we provide the meaning of something when we give support to its intelligibility. For example, we provide the meaning of a proposition such as “Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus before 1900” when we say who it speaks about, what is predicated about that person, what we can understand when we hear it, when we show that it is not incoherent or absurd, that it can be analyzed with respect to its conditions of truth, that it can be declared true or false etc. We provide the meaning of, for example, a human action (such as throwing ourselves into a river and saving another person), when we try to explain what this action means, when we say who is the subject of the action, what this person did, what we can understand when we see an action like that, when we show that it was not an absurd action (since we previously saw another person falling etc.), that it can be analyzed with respect to its conditions of (moral) legitimacy, and that it can be declared brave, reckless, innocuous etc. Finally, we provide the meaning of a work of art, for example, of a film, when we try to explain what this work means, what is its plot, what subject this film develops, what we can understand when we watch it, when we show that it has an intelligibility (although in a first impression it may be absurd or disconnected, as, for example, in the films of Jean-Luc Godard), and that this work can be analyzed with respect to its conditions of aesthetic acceptability, and can be considered successful, unsuccessful, badly directed etc.

In all these cases, meaning seems to be something that is distinguishable from the determination of some kind of value: truth value, in the case of propositions, moral value, in the case of actions, aesthetic value in the case of works of art. The very meaning of these things can be understood as the set of their value conditions, of whatever kind. It seems therefore relevant to distinguish “meaning” from “value.” The 20th century has accustomed us, however, to the skeptical idea that there are no value-free descriptions, that one always projects values ​​in one’s descriptions, that descriptions are always “tarnished” with accents and preferences. This would mean stating that one cannot say that the proposition “Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus before 1900 “is about Wittgenstein and the Tractatus, without already saying that the proposition is false; or that it cannot be said that a person threw themselves into the water and saved another person without saying it is a disinterested or selfish action, and so on. Since this position seems to be far from self-evident to me, I will suppose that meaning and value are differentiable things, not in a totally clear and definitive way, but at least methodologically.¹

The distinction, above all, seems important to me in the particular case of the “meaning of (human) life”², precisely because it is more problematic than in the other cases mentioned. Let us suppose that we do not adopt any initial skeptical attitude about the very legitimacy of the question of the meaning of life.³ We would then say, as a basis for what was previously clarified, that we provide the meaning of a human life when we explain, or try to explain, what are the structural and eventual elements of all and any human life; when we provide a description of the basic human condition in which all men are inserted, as well as the human possibilities in regard to perspectives, intentions, actions and reactions, the behavior of the beings about whose life we ​​are asking ourselves, how these beings are constituted, how they are, how they live; by watching how a human life unfolds, what we can understand when we see certain human lives with respect to the ends and purposes that these lives are placed; when we show that the actions of these beings are, in general, intentional and can be clarified by analysis, that they are not absurd; and, finally, when we provide elements to formulate the conditions of legitimacy of a human life—to decide at some point whether it was an enjoyable life, or tense, calm, relaxed, indifferent, frustrated, authentic or petty, that is, to decide about its value.

The skeptical thesis would say, on this point, that it is not possible to describe in an exempt way the meaning of a human life without already assigning values to it. In this case, at first glance, this criticism would seem to be more appropriate, given the peculiarity of the object in question. After all, human lives are not propositions. But I will try, in the following sections, to convince the reader of the relevance of making the distinction also in this case, with all the problems and limitations that surround it.⁴


When one asks about the “meaning of life,” very frequently, both the analytic authors as a writer like Camus, for example, go callously from the domain of meaning to the domain of value, in the definitions I have given to these terms. However, to ask about “meaning” does not mean to inquire about something like the situation in which men find themselves in the world, but to inquire about the point of them being here, of coming into the world, of living and dying etc. “Meaning” does not mean simply intelligibility here, but something linked to the satisfaction of our desires for happiness, personal fulfillment, and immortality. It is not only a matter of explaining how the world is where man finds himself in, but also how he could feel gratified by what he does, how he could attain happiness, how he could feel that his life was not useless etc. I maintain that all these questions are linked no longer with meaning, but with the value of human life.⁵

In fact, I have tried to show that meaning and value are different things. But in many texts of the analytic tradition, the meaning and value of human life get extremely close, for example, when one asks about the meaning of a life with suffering, about the “meaning of the pain” etc.⁶ We can perfectly explain why diseases exist, why beings like humans are strongly affected by them; we can obtain a full intelligibility as to why and how suffering arises in human life etc., that is, strictly, to explain the meaning of suffering in my definition. On the contrary, when we ask ourselves questions such as “Why are we born if we have to suffer?” or if we make statements like “Suffering takes away the meaning of life,” “To suffer so much is absurd” etc., in truth, we are already raising—fully meaningful!—questions about the value of a human life with suffering, and not, strictly, questions about the meaning of life.

The meaning and value of life are crucially different things, and it would be detrimental to confuse them, which is shown in the fact that one of these instances can be present without the other being. A human life may have meaning, but not have value: a human life can be mean and cruel, like Hitler’s life, and be considered of no moral value, but have its meaning perfectly explained, in regard to purposes, ends and intentions—as John Toland, for example, tried to show in his book on Hitler. In this case, Hitler’s life has as much meaning as the life of Gandhi. It is not absurd. That is, we can have full intelligibility of something we consider monstrous; we can often understand without appreciating. The opposite is also true: we might sometimes know that some people have sacrificed themselves for others and give a great deal of value to what they did, without being able, for cultural reasons, for example, to understand their actions, that is, to grasp their meaning. Many times we admire without understanding. And the other two cases, too, are logically possible: we get both things—as in the case of Churchill or Che Guevara, whose actions we can understand and admire—or we do not get any of them.⁷

I understand that it is therefore appropriate to keep these two concepts (meaning and value) distinct, even though they are linked, when we speak about human life. It does not seem appropriate to identify the structure of something (which can always be described) with its conditions of value. I will argue in the following that, although we can always, in principle, understand the meaning of human life (in a sense that will be explained), this does not yet mean to attribute a value to it. That is, I intend, against the skeptical thesis, to strip the term “meaning” out of valuations when applied to human life.


Philosophers and people in general, when asking themselves about the “meaning” of human life, make an inquiry about human life in general, of any human life. One asks not for the particular purposes of certain lives, but for the general purpose of human life on Earth, or in the Universe. Like many authors, I believe that this issue only has full validity for so-called theistic approaches, which believe in a certain transcendent being that created the world for some purpose. In light of this belief, it is perfectly legitimate to ask the question of what was the ultimate purpose that this transcendent being gave to the world he created. I, like many other philosophers, do not think we have a right to believe that such a transcendent being exists, in such a way that, after the fall of the metaphysical-religious referentials of the past, one can no longer ask about the meaning of life in relation to the ultimate purpose that such a being would have given the world. Would it still be plausible to pose the problem of the meaning of human life in general, even if one does not accept the existence of a transcendent being? One might in this case ask for something like a natural explanation—in causal or other terms—of the emergence of human life in the Universe, and on Earth in particular. Something that would provide a kind of ultimate and general “natural purpose” for this kind of life, for example, in terms of the theory of evolution. Man would be a transition experiment in this immense search of millions and millions of centuries, which would give human life in general the meaning of being inserted within that chain. Thus it would seem that when one inquires about the meaning of human life in general, one should accept some cosmic purpose, whether given by a transcendent being or by some general trait of nature.

Following my previous line of reasoning, I see the possibility of deciding this question of “meaning” in the following two alternatives:

(a) If we ask for the meaning of human actions in life, as directed by purposes, ends etc., the meaning of a human life is something that can always be provided in principle in the definition presented above (section 1). We can understand the meaning of intentional human actions inserted within a specific condition (of finitude etc.) in which men find themselves in. Of course, it may happen that we cannot understand actions or intentions, but this understanding is in principle possible if we are given the cultural elements to do so—for example, to understand the meaning of the actions of Muslims. Every human life can be analyzed in terms of its meaning or meaninglessness, and we can be more or less successful or unsuccessful in grasping that meaning.

(b) If we ask about the meaning of human life in general, I believe that this question only makes sense to the theistic point of view—which can perfectly be adopted, although I do not adopt it here—or to a viewpoint that believes in some natural end given by the theory of evolution or by some other scientific theory. (Since a natural theory of the general meaning of life is not currently available, beliefs in this natural purpose are as diffuse and unjustified as theistic beliefs.) The question for meaning needs some parameter, in such a way that human actions and intentions can only have meaning or not in reference to them, and it is entirely natural that this meaning be lost when we move away from the parameters—as we do when we study cosmology, or when we watch a film such as Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

These two alternatives deplete, in my perspective, the problem of the “meaning of life.” I think that all the other problems put into the phrase “meaning of life”—and others like “absurd,” “meaningless,” and so on.—refer, in fact, to the value of human life, about which, yes, I have much to say.

But at this precise point in my reflection, I am already in a position to introduce what I call two dimensions of asking for the meaning and value of human life. In fact, I am not introducing a difference, but already picking up the distinction made by philosophers—not only by theists!—when they distinguish between the meaning of each human life in particular and the meaning of life in general. Many people admit that even if we are unable, without adopting religious beliefs, to give meaning to life in general, to life “in itself,” we can always provide meaning to our particular lives, to this or that life, within certain parameters. Many of them even think, as mentioned, that the question of the meaning of life in itself, in its being, is meaningless, because it does not utilize a rationally intelligible parameter.⁹ See, for example: “These people mistakenly conclude that there can be no purpose in life because there is no purpose of life. . . .”¹⁰ “They naturally assume that this life or that can have meaning only if life as such has meaning.”¹¹ The difference is, then, between the meaning in life and the meaning of life, between intra-worldly meanings and the meaning of the world itself, between the meaning of lives and the meaning of life. This difference can be regarded as a weak version of the ontological difference between being and beings, in approximately Heideggerian terms. I maintain that this distinction is also done in the analytic tradition, but it is not sufficiently addressed, which considerably limits the analyses made by this tradition on existential questions. I think that this difference is crucial, but I consider that, on the domain of the question of meaning, it is not as fruitful as we shall see, as it is on the level of the question of value.¹²

Summarizing the present section, I maintain that the question about the meaning of the being of human life has suitability only in the religious or metaphysical-natural context explained above; and that the question of the meaning of human lives, that is, of the lives of (human) beings can always, at least in principle, be answered in intra-worldly terms (about certain purposes or ends).


This is the part of the reflection to which I have devoted the most attention in my negative ethical-metaphysical studies.¹³ I think that by setting ourselves clearly in the domain of the question about the value of human life, without further confusing it with that of the question of meaning, the difference being/beings, worldly/intra-worldly is crucial. The question of the value of human life should be divided into two: the question of the value of the very being of human life and the question of the value of the beings that live. Just as it was admitted before that lives could have meaning even if life itself did not, the possibility of lives having value without life itself having it now opens up. But while the question about the meaning of the very being of life seemed to me to have suitability only in theistic and metaphysical positions, the question of the value of the very being of life seems to me to have full philosophical suitability. I will try to explain why.

Here I understand the question of value in the two Kantian dimensions: the sensible value of human life, concerning pleasure, happiness etc., and the moral value of human life, referring to dignity, duty etc. I believe that, unlike meaning, which moves in the domain of pure intelligibility, value, in its two dimensions, moves in a domain of impact, of affection, on an existential-lived domain that touches human life in a way that the question of meaning—as it was understood, that is, connected with pure intelligibility—does not touch. Indeed, commonly, we can be deeply worried when someone close to us tells us that they “lost the meaning of their life” because they not know where to go, what to do, what course to give to their life, their profession etc. But we are terribly distressed when someone close to us, or someone else, informs us that they were shot, that they have cancer, that they have been tortured by the police, or that they have been arrested for a crime they did not commit, that is, questions concerned with the sensible or moral value of life. Here, worry is not enough; we feel that the person who interests us is suffering, they were struck by a kind of lightning. It is not only about the phlegmatic and serene question of meaning, but something linked to the way life is being treated and valued, sensible and/or morally.

It is precisely by virtue of this characteristic of vital impact—sensible or moral—of value that the question about the value of the very being of life does not have the metaphysical-theistic nature of the question about the meaning of the very being of life, but a very concrete, intelligible and empirically analyzable definition. To ask about the meaning of the very being of life implies, as we have seen, to ask about some kind of divine plan of the world, or natural finalist structure. But to ask about the value of the very being of life entails asking whether it is valuable, in sensible or moral terms, to have arisen in the world, to have a being, or a life, independently of the concrete contents that this life may contain—that is, of the intra-worldly elements of each particular life. Let us try to understand this better.

We can understand that all human lives have a stable structure, consisting at least of the following five elements: (A) A mortal birth, that is, an emergence marked by the terminality or mortality of one’s being, an emergence that carries with itself its own deterioration. (B) A development that consists of a progressive physical and mental decay over an indefinite period of time. This development can, at any moment, be interrupted by accident, without being completed. (C) One being subject to many kinds of diseases (specialized dictionaries count more than a thousand, with all their varieties) that can end human life at birth, in childhood, in adulthood or in old age. (D) A punctual death, by progressive development or by accident (to which we should add the open possibility that a human life decides to end itself), which consummates the mortality already given at birth. (E) An intra-worldly space where one is fully aware of all the previous elements (of one’s own mortal birth, of the decaying development, of the susceptibility to disease and pain, and of the consummating punctual death), a place where human beings should “take a stand” or “take an attitude” towards (A)-(E).¹⁴ It is important to note that it is precisely clause (E) that distinguishes human life from life in general, which seems equally affected—leaving out the possibility of suicide—by all other characteristics. Items (A)-(E) constitute a structure of the very being of human life in the sense that, whatever concrete lives are carried out, whatever their options and contents, any human life will have, monotonously, the characteristics (A)-(E). We could say that the structure (A)-(E) is part of what we know (at least the relevant part to the question of the value of life) about someone’s life before they are born. The differences between human lives will not appear in the characteristics (A)-(E), but in the different types of equilibrium between world and intra-world, between being and beings—from suicide and madness to the construction of a “productive life.”

Now, it seems to have full philosophical sense to inquire about the value—sensible and moral—of this structure, as something different from the question of the value of what happens in particular lives, which always occur on the background of this structure. People with the same structure (A)-(E) may be intra-worldly happy and fulfilled or unhappy and frustrated. Analytic philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel and all the philosophers studied by Metz and Klemke, do not address the ontological difference (although they sometimes discover and mention it), and think that the question of the value of life must be decided entirely on the intra-worldly domain: if there are intra-worldly values such as affections, health, economic prosperity and good wines, then for them, life will be valuable. There is no structural consideration of human life here. With this, they forget the difference they once made between the meaning in life and the meaning of life when it comes to the question of value. But the possibility of considering the structure (A)-(E) as good, despite intra-worldly misfortunes and frustrations, or as bad, despite intra-worldly joys and accomplishments, seems perfectly intelligible. It is not the same to evaluate the structure and evaluate what happens inside it. The biggest intra-worldly joy will not suffice to say that life itself, in its being, is good. It could be a reactive happiness, in the register of “despite everything.” On the other hand, the biggest intra-worldly misfortune will not suffice to say that life itself, in its being, is bad because of that misfortune. This does not seem at all a religious or metaphysical question, but a strictly naturalized and philosophical question.


My idea is that we can say, rationally and argumentatively (in other words, without introducing feelings, mystical impressions or religious convictions), in a Schopenhauerian tone,¹⁵ that the structure of human life, in its very being, has a negative sensible value, to the way in which beings made like humans live and suffer the impacts to which their lives are subjected. It can be said that it is not valuable to be born mortally, to be subjected to the suffering of diseases, to our constant and inexorable decay, to the sufferings associated with punctual death, and to be aware of these facts and forced to position ourselves. I believe that the totality of human beings, when confronted authentically with their condition and without religious smuggling, admit that the structural situation of human life is not good. And I believe that this is precisely what leads human beings to the intra-worldly construction of sensible pleasures and moral values ​​and to the constant struggle against the terrible structure of life, as if they intended to hide it behind what can be built in the intra-world. I see human lives as a delicate balance between the radical lack of value of the structure (of decaying, of falling) and the immense value (sensible and moral) that men can intra-worldly construct (or invent, in Mackie’s terms).

In general, we judge a life of sensible pleasures and moral gratifications to be better than a life full of pain, suffering, and injustice. We consider a life to be better without these latter things than a life with them. Since the structural and constitutive mortality of being ensures these elements—since there is no human life, whatever its intra-worldly content, that does not contain suffering, pain, moral conflicts, death, self-consciousness and reactive dealing with the structure (A)-(E)—it is coherent that we should evaluate the very structure of our life as negative, as not valuable from a sensible point of view.¹⁶ A structurally decaying being, whose decay inevitably generates suffering and pain, cannot fail to recognize the negative value of their very being and the imperative need to counterbalance this negative value with what they can create of valuable in the intra-world, in the domain of beings, against the background of the fundamental structural negativity. In fact, our lives can be seen as a constant struggle to delay, through our intra-worldly creations, the consummation of the mortal structure of being already given at birth. I maintain that the whole value, sensible and moral, of human life is intra-worldly. There can be no sensible or moral value in the very structure of the decay, but only in what we do with and within the decay.

By re-attaching meaning to value, one could say that life lacks structural value not because it “has no meaning,” but because it is perfectly possible to construct meaning for it—on the basis, as we have seen, of intentions, and specific ends—a meaning which will be, however, constantly corroded and finally interrupted, perhaps brutally, by the mortality of being. The perfectly open possibility of constructing meanings in the mortality of being constitutes what I call the negative value—or lack of value—of human life in its structure. The problem is not, as is often believed, that we cannot find meaning for our lives, but that we can perfectly find it, but only in the shifting sands of the mortality of being.


The elements (A)-(E) of the mortal structure of being seem to make clear the negative sensible value of the very being of human life—with its elements of decay, physical and mental fragility, disease etc.—but not the negative moral value of the being of life. Following the Kantian distinction, which I accept, sensible suffering is not enough to impede the world morally—remember the example of the gout patient in the second Critique. On the contrary, as Fichte will argue later, sensible suffering could be—and usually has been—a stimulus for the growth of morality and for the establishment of human dignity. But here my arguments from the Critique of affirmative morality are very relevant, about the problem of moral impediment caused regularly and gradually by suffering, from the small daily sufferings to the great pains at whose risk we are always subjected. A being that is sensibly cornered by suffering is also a poor being to be a moral agent or to be considerate of his fellow men. In fact, throughout their sinister history, human beings have treated each other in inconsiderate manners up to the extremely unprecedented, impossible to even be narrated, both in constant wars and in the torture of religious and political persecution, racial discrimination, the extermination of races, and in the cynical and partial administration of justice—which discriminates between rich and poor, for example—in so-called democratic societies. I do not believe that men treat themselves inconsiderately because of some sort of “radical evil of human nature” or “original sin,” but only because of the factual situation in which they have always been, in the slow and stifling consummation of the mortality of their being. The structural condition in which men find themselves drastically narrow their spaces of consideration of the interests of others. It is a radical situation, not an essence. This situation, although it does not change, could be changed. It is possible to think of other things that beings like humans could do with the mortality of their being. But throughout history, disregard for others has been the magic solution to the narrowing of moral spaces by penury and suffering, as if the other were to blame for the mortality of being, as if, by being exterminated, the being could be lived in a non-mortal way. As in the fable of the Project of Negative Ethics, where several men locked up in a small cell end up killing each other as if they were the ones to blame for the imprisonment. Now, if the suffering of the mortal decay is structural, then moral impediment, the disregard that men have regularly treated themselves with, presents itself as a regular consequence of that situation. In this way, a moral negative is internally linked to the structural situation described by (A)-(E).

For the proof of the negative nature of human life in its structure, the moral aspect is relevant, because it is not enough to show that this structure is painful, but it is necessary to show that it is also morally impeding, that is, bad not only in a sensible sense, but also in a moral sense. This problematizes not only the idea of ​​happiness, but also the idea of ​​being worthy of happiness, to use Kantian terminology. For a sensitive person, a world where it is not possible to be moral must be as unpleasant as a world where it is not possible to be happy. Ab initio, one may not understand the structural nature of moral impediment. After all, it will be said: there are honest people. But I maintain that they are always, at best, honest intra-worldly actions carried out against the background of a structural impossibility of being honest in all circumstances. Here it is good to remember the fundamental ethical articulation (FEA), presented in the Critique of affirmative morality, the obligation to also take into account the interests of others. I maintain that the strangulation of spaces of action, by the work of the mortality of being—not only because we are mortal, but because we are, according to the structure (A)-(E), in the register of suffering, of decay, and so on—makes all humans transgress the FEA at some point in their acting in the world, sometimes accidentally, or out of pusillanimity, at other times, in an openly intentional way. Yes, not all people are dishonest. Most do not even have that kind of courage. Many are silent, indifferent, cowardly, timid or conniving. Nazism was not only raised by the dishonesty of a group but also by the omission, indifference and stupidity of the population and the intellectuals. Immorality does not exist only due to dishonest people.

Human actions must be seen within a cycle in which honest and considerate actions can be made at a certain point in that cycle, followed in other points by dishonest, inconsiderate or indifferent actions and omissions. We continually move from consideration to disregard, from indifference to affection, from respect to mockery. This becomes evident in Last orders—the recent film by Fred Schepisi—through the group’s different attitudes towards Jack, the dead friend. Another confirmation of this fact is in the sinister cordiality of the German soldiers with the Jewish ladies who arrived at Auschwitz. Even the worst executioners feel, at a certain point in their cycle of actions, good feelings, a willingness to talk and understand their victims, perhaps minutes before resuming torture. I believe that an empirical study of actions could show this point, contained in the Kantian intuition of never having existed, in truth, a single action guided by the moral law.

To sum up: human life itself can be shown as sensibly and morally bad in perfectly natural terms—neither theistic nor diabolical—while we could not non-theistically show something such as a meaning of human life in itself. Notwithstanding this, we can perfectly assign intra-worldly values to the internal things of life, which we habitually do, even accepting the—sensible and moral—structural lack of value of life. In the case of meaning, intra-worldly construction was everything, because there was nothing like a meaning or meaninglessness of life itself—without theistic resources; on the other hand, on the domain of value, the values constructed in the intra-world seem reactive to an initial negative situation.¹⁷


So far we have gone through the problems of the meaning and value of human life. A pessimistic thesis was formulated on the structural lack of value of human life, on the sensible and moral domains. Would a negative answer to the question: “Is life worth living?” automatically result from this? In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus suggests this.¹⁸ But I do not agree. While the proof of the structural lack of value of human life seems to me perfectly objective, the question of whether or not it is worth living a human life seems perfectly subjective, or rather personal. Any human life, in my analysis, is a kind of attempted equilibrium between the negative structure and the sensible and moral values ​​created in the intra-world. In some lives, the negative structure may totally deprive them: one commits suicide, or begs for others to kill them, as in euthanasia, or goes mad. In other cases, intra-worldly values ​​can be extraordinarily strong, so strong that they make one completely forget about the mortal structure of being. And there are many intermediate cases. Most people seem to be satisfied with being alive, despite sufferings. But the possibility of one not being satisfied of having emerged (of having to decay), in spite of intra-worldly pleasures and achievements is not ruled out. I believe that this issue has no objective decision. But this should not be confused with the description of the structure (A)-(E), which seems to me to be objective. Starting from there, the decisions are many and varied, but there is a hard nucleus, from which the variety of decisions arises.


I believe that my arguments about the meaning and value of human life are correct. I think Schopenhauer is correct in saying that if we were to examine the question of the value of life only with reason, we would choose the non-being. But we are also will, drive, sexuality. We do not live by arguments alone. In this sense, I believe that life in general and human life in particular possess an extraordinary power of self-sustenance which is not argumentative in nature and which no argument is capable of taking down. We can be aware of all that is bad in life and continue living. But this should not be considered as an argument in favor of the value of life. Life self-sustains itself, without arguments, in its lack of value. I think the arguments are all in favor of the non-being, of pessimism and the negative. But it is not by arguments that life self-sustains itself. In this direction, the whole question of the meaning and value of life seems to me a typical philosophical question. If we adopt the philosophical position before the world, life should be judged by its lack of structural value. In this sense, as Nietzsche had already stated, philosophy is viscerally nihilistic. But if philosophy shows the lack of value of life, life shows the lack of value of philosophy. If philosophy shows that life has no value, life shows that value has no life, that one who poses the question of the value of life has already lost its vitality, because an exultant life does not ask itself about its own value, it only ends. This is Nietzsche’s line. I believe both are true. There is a kind of conflict between life and truth, life and philosophy. From the point of view of philosophy, life is condemned, and vice versa. In order for the lack of value of life not to appear, for the “problem of life” to dissolve, one must abandon the arguments, or, as Wittgenstein said, one should cease to be a philosopher. The whole problem of the “meaning of life” shows life as seen from philosophy. Seeing philosophy from life, the whole problem of the “meaning of life” simply dissolves, not because it is “absurd” or “meaningless”—categories that life does not handle—but by the same impetus of rejection with which the tearing of the eyes expels from them a foreign body.


1. Of course, the thesis of the distinction—not of separation—between meaning and value has a chance to sustain itself only if we understand these terms as I present them here, and not in the way some dictionary, or some other philosopher, such as Wittgenstein, for example, present them (see, in this issue, the text of Prof. Paulo Margutti).

2. Although the literature speaks generally only of the meaning of life, it seems evident that all work on this question, unless it is clarified about it, refers to the meaning of human life; so every time I speak only of the meaning (or value) of life, I will be speaking elliptically of the meaning (or value) of human life.

3. Klemke (2000), part three: “Questioning the question.” I thank Agnaldo Cuoco Portugal for providing me with the book of Klemke for some of my confrontations.

4. I thank Marcos Paiva for his important criticisms of the issues raised in this section.

5. “When we ask: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ we want an answer that is more than just an explanation or description of how people behave or how events are arranged or how the world is constituted. We are asking for a justification of our existence” (Nielsen Kai, “Linguistic Philosophy and ‘The meaning of life,’” in Klemke, op. cit., p. 237). Here, the distinction that I try to establish is clearly made.

6. Cf. R. W. Hepburn, “Questions about the meaning of life,” in Klemke, op. cit., p. 269, where it is pointed out that people usually refer to a life of suffering as pointless and meaningless. Here, what is unpleasant—the sensible lack of value—which is a question of value, is clearly confused with the absurd or unintelligible, which is a question of meaning. A pain could continue to be unbearable, that is, without sensible value, even when someone, perhaps the same person who suffered it, could give it some “meaning,” or discover that this pain really had a meaning. Pain is intensive, while meaning is extensive. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, gives a “solution” to the problem of the absurd, that is, to the problem of the meaning of life, but not to the problem of the value of life. For a better treatment of this, the myth of Prometheus would be more appropriate, because while Sisyphus suffers only because his life is meaningless, Prometheus is suffering from unbearable physical pain (see sections 5 and 6 of this paper).

7. Cf. Paul Edwards, “The meaning and value of life,” in Klemke, op. cit., p. 144.

8. Klemke, op. cit., first part.

9. Cf. Ayer A. J, “The claims of philosophy,” in Klemke, op. cit., p. 226.

10.Cf. Kurt Baier, “The meaning of life,” in Klemke, op. cit., p. 120.

11. Likewise, p. 128. Other passages in which the distinction is made: Klemke, p. 129, 143, 152, 157.

12. I would say that the understanding or misunderstanding of the ontological difference is the focal point of conflict between analytic and continental philosophies, and not just in the question of the “meaning of life.”

13.Cf. Projeto de ética negativa (1989) and Crítica de la moral afirmativa (1996).

14. I thank Jorge Alam Pereira for the observations that led me to modify the initial formulation of this structure, particularly with regard to the characteristic (E).

15. Only the tone, because the line of argument is different. In particular, I follow Schopenhauer in his description of the human condition, but I am not obliged to follow him in everything, particularly in what Paulo Margutti calls the “redeeming dimension” of existence, and which involves mystical and religious elements. I can accept these elements as if they were part of perfectly viable human forms of life, but not as philosophically relevant arguments for judging the value of human life. In this sense, I agree with John Searle’s vehement manifestation in The Rediscovery of the Mind (Chapter 4, paragraph I, pp. 134-135). In a future number of Philósophos I intend to answer one by one the points placed by Margutti in his stimulating text.

16. Or as a “bad commodity,” in Schopenhauer’s terms (see BRUM, José Thomaz, O pessimismo e suas vontades, p. 40).

17. Even philosophers as unsuspectedly affirmative as Fernando Savater (see, as a sample only, his preface to my book of 1996) clearly put this “reactive” aspect of the invention of values as an initial disadvantageous situation. Cf: “The ethical ideal is, therefore, an active proposal against the works and pomps of death. One is neither saved nor comforted by death; one affirms oneself against it, denying the time that death is made” (Fernando Savater, Invitación a la ética, p. 146). Or: “To such an extent that values arise from the desire to persevere in being . . . that without a project of immortality there would be neither ethics, nor law nor politics. . . . The only thing that the human will does not want is to die; even when it opts for a certain type of death, it does so in the name of radical survival” (Fernando Savater, Ética como amor propio, p. 20). The idea of ​​mortality as a primordial negative value (or lack of value) is not present in Savater, but here I would ask: why would every human life run away from something good, positive, and desirable?

18. This idea—which I find extraordinarily simple-minded and not very subtle (and perhaps even aggressive?)—that suicide must necessarily and without mediation be derived by rational means from the negative analysis of the value of human life, is also present, in an attenuated way, in the text of Margutti and in objections of some of my graduate students of the University of Brasília. I will deal with this issue in my announced reply.


BRUM, José Thomaz. O pessimismo e suas vontades. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1998.

CABRERA, Julio. Projeto de ética negativa. São Paulo: Mandacaru, 1989.

_____. Crítica de la moral afirmativa. Barcelona: Gedisa, 1996.

CAMUS, Albert. El mito de Sísifo. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2001. [2a reimpr.].

KLEMKE, E. D. (Ed.) The meaning of life. 2. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

METZ, Thaddeus. Recent work on the meaning of life. Ethics, n. 112, p. 781-814, 2002.

SAVATER, Fernando. Invitación a la ética. 4. ed. Barcelona: Anagrama, 1986.

_____. Ética como amor propio. Madrid: Mondadori, 1988. SEARLE, John. A redescoberta da mente. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1997.

One thought on “Meaning of life and value of life: a crucial difference

  1. Very good, Sirhu! Every new post is a sweet gift. I am quite pleased with your talent and dedication in translating Cabrera’s works. I can only hope you find and continue to find meaning (or value, as Cabrera would would have corrected) in doing so.

    (The only obvious error I found upon my initial reading was not a translation error: in section 6, first sentence, the word “negative” is printed twice.)

    Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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