By Steven M. Cahn
Suppose a person I shall call Leslie cares about others, treats them with respect, and seeks to minimize their distress. Leslie has also found contentment, and does not suffer from anxiety, alienation, frustration, disappointment, or depression.
Perhaps you assume that all is well with Leslie, yet many philosophers believe that Leslie’s life might not be worthwhile. Indeed, to use terms employed by Neera K. Badhwar, Leslie’s life might be wasted, servile, pathetic, ignoble, and a failure. How could such a negative assessment be justified?
Susan Wolf maintains that if Leslie is not actively engaged in projects of worth, then Leslie’s life lacks meaning. Richard Kraut asserts that Leslie is not healthy unless possessing, developing, and enjoying cognitive, affective, sensory, and social powers. Stephen Darwall finds that Leslie’s life lacks merit unless it focuses on things that matter, such as beauty and knowledge. Neera K. Badhwar insists that Leslie’s life is worthless if not possessing wholeheartedness, i.e. “an integrated intellectual-emotional disposition to live autonomously.”
Such attacks on the value of other people’s lives are seriously misguided. Would any of these philosophers, meeting Leslie, be willing to say, “I understand that others think well of you, but I’m sorry to say that your life lacks meaning.” Furthermore, “if only you had studied, for example, epistemology, thus engaging in a project of worth, developing your cognitive powers, focusing on things that matter, and thinking more independently, your life would have mattered as much as mine does.” Such arrogance would be intolerable.
Suppose Leslie is married with two children, works as a salesperson in a department store, sings in a church choir, golfs (with enthusiasm but little success), and struggles to solve the daily crossword puzzle. Would Leslie’s life nevertheless be wasted because of a failure, as Badhwar says, “to seek truth or understanding about important aspects of [his or her] own life and human life in general”?
Remember whose life is dedicated to that goal—a philosopher. And recall the insight of Xenophanes, who is said to have remarked, “if oxen and horses and lions had hands, and could draw with their hands and do what man can do, horses would draw the gods in the shape of horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen, each giving the gods bodies similar to their own.”
How many of us suppose that living well depends on engaging in activities that we do not enjoy or may hardly understand? Instead, we promote the value of our own endeavors.
I would urge that we acknowledge the dignity of others by recognizing the worth of their lives regardless of whether their activity is primarily intellectual or manual, whether they prefer symphonies or gospel music, whether they choose solitude or the company of others, whether they are conformists or nonconformists, and whether they admire or are bored by philosophical inquiry.
So long as people act within ethical bounds, their lives are surely of worth. And if they find satisfaction, let us not say that their lives have been a failure. The only failure is our inability to appreciate the variety of good lives.
 Neera K. Badhwar, Well-Being: Happiness in a Worthwhile Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 46, 72, 80, 84, and 222.
 Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters: The Ethics of Well-Being (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), passim.
 Richard Kraut, What Is Good and Why (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). passim.
 Stephen Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).
 Badhwar, 112.
 Badhwar, 23.
 John Manley Robinson, An Introduction to Early Greek Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968), 52.
 For further development of this view, see Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Most recently he authored Teaching Philosophy: A Guide (Routledge).