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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

The Roots of Meaning, Morality and Value

So for the past couple years I have been pondering the nature of morality and values. The internal conversation arose as I came to realize a particular indisputable fact about the nature of being.

Premise 1: The inescapable and universal ultimate end/goal of all human behavior is the pursuit of ones own well being.

Well being: The opposite of suffering.





This observation/premise is not a new idea, it goes at least as far back as Aristotle and recently has been strongly articulated by Sam Harris. Don't think its true? Just try an think of an action a person takes that is not ultimately in pursuit of well being. This is NOT to say that everyone makes choices that actually result in sustainable long term well being, it just means that every action ultimately is motivated by a desire for well being. Even a person who commits suicide is pursuing well being because they are suffering and figure to (echoing Hamlet) non being is better than being. People sacrifice themselves for others because, ultimately, they would rather make the sacrifice (even of their own lives) than live with themselves not having made that sacrifice. This idea is fairly well understood in psychology. In pondering this idea it has become apparent that its implications are MASSIVE to the discussion about the source of human values, meaning and morality. Ultimately a huge portion of our social conversations (politics, media, religion, literature etc) are either direct or indirect discussions about what is right or wrong. But this begs a more fundamental question: Is there any such thing as right or wrong? Or are we all just really saying “I prefer vs you prefer” and there is no right answer, just subjective preferences. Many don’t realize that if Premise 1 is valid it logically answers this debate. But first lets clarify some terminology and additional premises.

Subjective= existing dependent on personal opinion and preference.

Objective= existing regardless of ones opinion of preference.

Value= the concept of good vs bad.

Premise 2: Value is assigned to something as it pertains to its contribution to, or detraction from, a particular end or goal.

Premise 3: The meaningfulness of something is determined by it’s affects on an end or goal. No end or goal, no meaning.

Morality= Value + “The Ought”

Premise 4: “The ought” (aka “the should”) is a mental/linguistic construct formed by the pursuit of an end or goal.

Premise #4 is most easily illustrated by the tale of Alice in wonderland. In the book Alice is Lost and she meets the Cheshire Cat.


She asks the cat “Which way ought I go” the Cat simply replies, “well that all depends on where you want to end up”. The idea is that if I am in LA and want to go to San Diego I “ought not” go north on the 5 freeway. In the end morality is determined by the end/goal.

At this point, you might be noticing something. It is the end or goal one has that determines somethings value and if one “ought” to take a given action. This is why Premise 1 is SO profound. It says that EVERYONE EVERYWHERE ALWAYS ultimately has the SAME goal. It is a goal that simply exists as part of your nature. You cannot choose it. Therefore, morality is the mental/linguistic construct we use to express if someones action aligns with or detracts from well being. All moral statements ultimately come down to expressions about the nature of well being because internally we RIGHTLY assume that everyone wants their own well being.

But isn’t well being subjective?

Premise 5: Well being (like health) is not subjective but determined by complex objective interdependent principles.

Premise 6 : Truths that express the cause and effect relationship between actions and well being/suffering are what we call moral principles.

Even if a person says they think well being is subjective, they don’t act like it and its the reason they say people should or should not do certain things. This is because it seems totally obvious that certain behaviors will lead a person to be miserable. It is one of the most self evident things we know about conscious experience. We can see that some patterns of behavior lead to flourishing and others lead to suffering. Well being is like the concept of health. Its complicated but we can observe very obvious patterns and principles that lead toward or away from suffering.


What is the nature of well being?

This really is the crux of the issue. All humans, at all times and in all things are ULTIMATELY seeking well being, but there is much disagreement about what well being is and how to get it. This comes because we don’t agree about the nature of being itself. For instance, if a person will exist for only another 3 years that changes the dynamic to compared to if they were going to exist forever. If a person thinks they can actually get away with something because there is no ultimate justice, that changes things considerably as they calculate the risk vs reward of doing harm to others. The examples are endless. This is why we as human beings care so much about finding objective truth. We care because objective truth is our way of understanding the world so that we can minimize our suffering and maximize well being.

Conclusion and Implications.

I can’t understate how profound the implications of premise 1 are if its valid. It acts as the basis for the concepts like morality, meaning and value. It underscores every single action we ever take. However, it also presents us with a profound additional set of questions because the nature of well being requires us to deeply understand one of the greatest mysteries of all, the nature of being itself. Most human beings accept their being is essentially the product of consciousness and therefore to understand well being it requires us to understand the nature of consciousness itself. In addition, most people seem to believe it is self evident that reductive materialism (the belief that we are nothing more than matter in motion) fails to account sufficiently for the reality of human consciousness. This is the reason the realm of “spirituality/religion” is so persistent and important to human beings since the dawn of time. Our exploration of the “world of the spirit” and the language we use to discuss it is essentially the root of the human phenomena of religious and spiritual thought. Far from being superstitious nonsense (though in many cases it may be), the pursuit itself represents mans timeless search to understand his true nature. If anything in life can be deemed meaningful, it is the pursuit of this end that sits in the core of our most universal and inescapable desire as human beings- the desire for our own well being.

Argument summary Premise 1: The inescapable and universal ultimate end/goal of all human behavior is the pursuit of ones own well being.


Premise 2: Value is assigned to something as it pertains to its contribution to, or detraction from, a particular end or goal.

Premise 3: The meaningfulness of something is determined by it’s affects on an end or goal. No end or goal, no meaning.


Premise 4: “The ought” (aka “the should”) is a mental/linguistic construct formed by the pursuit of an end or goal.


Premise 5: Well being (like health) is not subjective but determined by complex objective interdependent principles.

Premise 6 : Truths that express the cause and effect relationship between actions and well being/suffering are what we call moral principles. Logical Conclusion: The ultimate inescapable end/goal of human behavior is the attainment of well being by living consistent with the moral principles Definitions. Subjective= existing dependent on personal opinion and preference.

Objective= existing regardless of ones opinion of preference.

Value= the concept of good vs bad. Morality= Value + “The Ought”

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