Robin Hanson writes (some time ago, but it’s a classic):

So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them. Also, since such folks tend to embrace far mode thoughts more, and tend less to think that near mode desires say what we really want, such folks should also be conflicted about their overwhelming emphasis on happiness over meaning when giving policy advice.

I think there’s something interesting here, with my gloss on the interesting question being: when we intervene in other people’s lives, why don’t we try more often to make them meaningful rather than happy?

Let’s take two premisses. First, that people often gain meaning in their lives from being good (as Hanson argues policy-makers do). This obviously isn’t the only source of meaning, but it is one.

Secondly, let’s suppose that we buy Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory. “Elites” are anecdotally biased towards the Harm/Care foundation, and thus they get meaning out of helping other people. But what would it mean it mean to help other people have more (morally) meaningful lives? You would have to help people to help some third party. Now, this may be an effective approach to helping the third party, but in most situations you might expect that it would be easier and more straightforward to just help the third party directly, rather than doing it indirectly.1

Harm/Care is unusual among the foundations in that it’s other-directed. The goal is to help other people, and it does not especially matter how that occurs. In particular, it seems somehow inappropriate for someone who cares about harm/care to care about who does the helping - this focusses the attention on the helper, when it is the helpee who is relevant.

In contrast, the other foundations centre on the moral actor themselves. I cannot be just, loyal, a good follower, or pure for you. You have to do this yourself, and so any attempt to make the world better for one of these foundations is going to require getting lots of other actors to be more moral. Which may also make their lives feel more meaningful, if they subscribe to those foundations.

So we should expect to see a lot more morality/meaningfulness interventions from people who subscribe to the other foundations. And I think we do: the war on drugs (purity), nationalism (authority), abstinence-only sex ed (purity again), etc. These are all things (partly) aiming to get people to behave “better”. And maybe this even works: if you do think purity is morally important, and you don’t have sex until your wedding night, perhaps you do feel like it was more meaningful.

So here’s my argument for why we don’t tend to talk about meaningfulness interventions: we mostly don’t know how to get it, and while we can get some of it from morality interventions, those mostly don’t make sense under the harm/care foundation.

We could clearly do better than this. At least we should consider cases where we can empower people to help others, thus hopefully making their lives more meaningful. If we think this is valuable, then we should be willing to trade off some amount of efficiency to get this. I don’t know how much, but we should at least think about it.

Secondly, even if you don’t subscribe to the other foundations, if you can help people who do subscribe to them to follow them better, then that may make their lives more meaningful, even if we don’t think it’s actually morally better. Obviously, we’d only want to do this in cases where it isn’t actually harmful: we certainly shouldn’t support abstinence-only sex ed. But perhaps we should consider e.g. helping people maintain family loyalties through difficult times.

  1. There are some notable exceptions to this. For example, Wave is all about reducing costs for people to send remittances to their families, i.e. helping them to help others.