The Reckoning: Why “serving a cause greater than yourself” cannot give life meaning

Don Watkins
Jul 31, 2019 · 14 min read

Don Watkins

Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

Call it the reckoning: it surfaces when, at the height of your success, you face a crisis.

Ambitious, driven people begin their careers with a vision that orients them in the world and gives them a purpose: to write books, to start a company, to make movies, to design software, to pull energy from the gritted teeth of shale.

Whatever the nature of their aim, it fuels their years. They work hard and dream of arriving. Until one day they do: they have what they thought they wanted.

Then, the reckoning. Its guise is a question: why?

Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why do I desire money, or fame, or power? Why does it matter that I created a business or a work of art?

Unable to answer these questions, they find that the things that had given their lives meaning seem to lack meaning — and they do not know what to do.

The problem is so common even self-help gurus have noticed it. From Tony Robbins’ website:

Have you ever felt unhappy after completing an important goal? It happens to many of us. We’ve been focused for so long on a particular outcome, but when it comes, we find ourselves thinking, “Is this it?” Instead of feeling joy and excitement — instead of feeling fulfilled — we’ve become blasé. “I don’t feel fulfilled,” we tell ourselves. How can that be the norm? Why isn’t that achievement enough?

“Why” is a dangerous question: it cuts through illusions and leaves us staring naked into an abyss. By questioning our deepest goals and values, we confront the issue: does life have any meaning at all?

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes his own reckoning, which occurred not at the midpoint of his career but at its very start.

During his senior year of high school, despite a happy relationship with his girlfriend and parents, despite a sports car and the status that came with being captain of the track team, Haidt “kept wondering why any of it mattered.”

I had become ‘obsessed with the question “What is the meaning of life?” . . . I spent the winter of my senior year in a kind of philosophical depression — not a clinical depression, just a pervasive sense that everything was pointless. In the grand scheme of things, I thought, it really didn’t matter whether I got into college, or whether the Earth was destroyed by an asteroid or by nuclear war.

The Dictum

Our culture offers a ready-made diagnosis for the reckoning, and a ready-made solution. The problem, we’re told, is that we’ve been too focused on ourselves. The solution is to serve a cause greater than ourselves.

  • “The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves,” said the late senator John McCain.
  • “It’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story,” Barack Obama told students at Wesleyan University.
  • “Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” agrees Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

To serve a cause greater than yourself, one writer explains, is to act “in ways that are beyond personal concerns and direct personal gain.” In the terminology of psychological anthropologist Richard Shweder, it is to embrace an ethic of community or of divinity. Meaning is to be sought in the group or in God — in society or the sky. Not the “I.”

And who could disagree? The alternative, we’re taught, is to be self-centered: to be, in Urban Dictionary’s trenchant description, “The asshole that won’t offer a hand to anybody.”

Such people are not happy. Like an ant that marches obliviously over the pages of Othello, they are blind to anything sacred or sublime. They lust after attention, trading dignity for “likes” or paychecks or power or the conquest of easy women and sleazy men. They project, not joy, serenity, or confidence, but fear, touchiness, and neediness. They can, if clever and ambitious, achieve the trappings of success — made gaudy by their shallowness and lack of taste. But there is nothing to them.

And so, it seems, our problem is solved. Forget your career — or at least don’t expect to find meaning in it. March, ladle in hand, to your nearest soup kitchen, or, Bible in hand, to your nearest church.

The Dictum Reconsidered

Everything has its price. Let’s consider the price of the dictum. Two things stand out.

First, instead of fortifying our initial sense that our work was meaningful and worthwhile, the dictum is a death knell. Work — if we choose it for personal fulfillment rather than the service it can render to society or God — has no moral significance and is relegated to the lowly realm of the “practical.”

It follows that all of our personal values lack moral significance, and all of our “practical” choices are to be made without moral guidance. Morality becomes, not a prism through which to view our choices, or a beacon urging us to forge a noble character, but an obnoxious push notification reminding us to ignore what we want.

As Haidt puts it:

[O]ur modern conception confines morality to a set of situations that arise for each person only a few times in any given week: tradeoffs between self-interest and the interests of others. In our thin and restricted modern conception, a moral person is one who gives to charity, helps others, plays by the rules, and in general does not put her own self-interest too far ahead of others’. Most of the activities and decisions of life are therefore insulated from moral concern.

Even more troubling: it is not only the successful who are scolded to prostrate themselves before society’s and God’s commandments. It is the young. The dictum, you may have noticed, is a commencement address platitude.

“Get out of the shallow waters of selfishness and give yourself to causes greater than yourself,” Mitt Romney told Coe College graduates. “Launch yourself into the deep waters of great causes.”

This is poison. Would the world be better if the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or J.K. Rowling abandons dreams of a money-making career in order to join Antifa or the alt-right or the clergy or the government? Are selfless crusaders inherently superior to self-interested creators?

And yet there is something right in the dictum’s advice. We do need to live for something. We do need to set our sights beyond our daily desires and fears. We do need to aim at the highest possible good. But the dictum misleads us as to the nature of that good.

The art of morality

What most of us sense — whether at the dawn of our lives or the pinnacle of our careers — is that we have a fundamental need to live for a moral ideal.

Haidt hints at the issue:

Aristotle asked about aretē (excellence/virtue) and telos (purpose/goal), and he used the metaphor that people are like archers, who need a clear target at which to aim. Without a target or goal, one is left with the animal default: Just let the elephant graze or roam where he pleases. And because elephants live in herds, one ends up doing what everyone else is doing. Yet the human mind has a rider, and as the rider begins to think more abstractly in adolescence, there may come a time when he looks around, past the edges of the herd, and asks: Where are we all going? And why? This is what happened to me my senior year of high school.

It is a moral ideal that supplies the answers to these questions: Where are we going? And why? It is what sets our proper aim and establishes the virtues that will realize our aim. The purpose of morality is to tell us what kind of person we should strive to become.

Morality today has largely been emptied of idealism. Whereas it once connoted character, virtue, strength, reverence, nobility, the heroic, today it is a synonym for “nice.” We have confused a rocket ship for a paper weight.

A moral ideal is not the lifeless, neutered set of rules, prohibitions, and calculations buried inside today’s dust covered ethics textbooks. It is the inspiring and ennobling vision of what is possible to us that we acquire first and foremost through art.

We hear Cyrano De Bergerac declare that he has “decided to be admirable, in everything, for everything” . . . We witness a fugitive declare in open court, “I am Jean Valjean” . . . We listen as Scout is exhorted, “stand up. Your father’s passin‘” . . . We gaze at Michelangelo’s David or David’s Death of Socrates . . . We are swept away by the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto or the last movement of Rachmaninoff’s second . . .

These experiences, and the deep, soul-changing emotions they evoke, elevate us. “Elevate” means: inspire us to live for a moral ideal.

Allan Bloom argues the point eloquently in The Closing of the American Mind, writing that idealism

should have primacy in education, for man is a being who must take his orientation by his possible perfection. . . . As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one. They do not even imagine that there is such a thing.

This is tragic. And it explains, at a much deeper level, the “self-centeredness” that we see in those who do not live for a moral ideal. Their failure is not that they attend only to their own desires — it’s that they do not attend to their own souls.

And so we do not see in such people the ambitious self-improvement of Ben Franklin, the proud dignity of Abraham Lincoln, the principled courage of Harriet Tubman, the indomitable will of Winston Churchill, the all-consuming curiosity of Bill Gates, the intense passion and demanding quest for beauty of Steve Jobs.

The “self-centered” have no self on which to be centered — only a hazy canvas of self-doubt and a palette of pretense. What we call their desires are only the unexamined impulses given to them by nature or copied from neighbors. What we call their “ego” is precisely the cloak that conceals an empty hole where genuine self-respect could have grown. They cannot show gratitude, appreciation, or admiration because those are marks of spiritual abundance, of which their impoverished souls cannot conceive.

When, in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, Howard Roark turns down an architectural commission he desperately needs rather than compromise his design and his integrity, it is for good reason that he says his action was “the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.” And it is for good reason that the empty vessels he is speaking to cannot understand him.

The proper role of morality is precisely to guide us in forming the values and character that constitute a self, to guide us in achieving those values and that character in reality, so that we can realize in our own lives what is promised by timeless art.

This-worldly idealism

Art is how we worship. But what should we worship? Although art conveys what is at stake in pursuing or failing to pursue a moral ideal, it cannot validate any particular ideal or elucidate its principles. That is the task of ethics.

What ideal should we pursue? Should we live for God, as religion says? Should we live for pleasure, as the hedonists say? Should we revert to primitivism, as environmentalists say? Should we live for society, as everyone today says?

These are perennial questions, but the very reason we have for seeking an ideal gives us a clue as to what kind of ideal we should embrace. For if it is our happiness that is at stake in deciding whether to pursue a moral ideal at all, then that suggests that our happiness is the proper goal of morality.

Like “morality,” “happiness” has been castrated and no longer carries deep meaning. We equate it with momentary satisfaction or an ephemeral sense of “feeling good.” Jordan Peterson calls happiness “fleeting and unpredictable,” like “cotton candy.”

This is preposterous. Happiness is not weather — it is climate. It is the emotional undertone of a life well-lived. Happiness is not something we lose when life gets difficult: happiness, and the promise of it, is what sustains us in choppy waters.

Even worse than confusing happiness for fleeting satisfaction are our false idols of happiness: an addict getting his fix, a preacher shouting hosannas, an Instagram “influencer” hash-tagging a sunset, a self-help guru sporting a phony perma-grin.

My God.

I recently took my six year old swimming. She was petrified — then she became brave. She stopped clinging to the side of the pool. Eventually, she would doggy paddle as I held her. When I let her go she at first reached for me in fear. The next time, she tried.

“I’m swimming! I’m swimming!” She could not stop yelling it. “I’m swimming!” I cannot communicate that tone of voice, except to say that it was ineffable in the literal meaning of that term. I cannot communicate what I felt, except to say that only once had I felt it in so intense a form — when, at the climax of The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan ecstatically cries out, “She knows!

That is a glimpse into happiness. Happiness is a life of unadulterated joy in existence, in our capacity to live, and in our worthiness of living. And it is the conviction, in those moments when we suffer terribly, that suffering is not our proper state but an aberration to be fought, endured, and forgotten.

This rich, enduring concept of happiness was endorsed by Aristotle as our proper moral end, to be served by the cultivation of virtue. Virtue, he and other ancients held, is not a nag shooing us away from our interests, but a golden road showing us the way to happiness.

What virtues do lead to happiness? The ancients’ list included reason, courage, honesty, justice, pride. They, however, had not lived through the Industrial Revolution but in aristocratic societies reliant on slavery. This masked for them the role of production in human life — production as the central rational activity allowing us to flourish.

This was one of the gaps filled in by Ayn Rand, the most underrated philosopher of modern times. Building on the Aristotelian tradition, Rand emphasized that the pursuit of creative, productive goals should not be relegated to some amoral “practical” sphere of life. It is at the heart of a moral, flourishing, happy existence.

The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself. Productive work is the road of man’s unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character: his creative ability, his ambitiousness, his self-assertiveness, his refusal to bear uncontested disasters, his dedication to the goal of reshaping the earth in the image of his values. “Productive work” does not mean the unfocused performance of the motions of some job. It means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.

This attitude towards one’s work Haidt calls “vital engagement.”

Vital engagement is what I was missing during my senior year of high school. I had love, and I had work . . . but my work was not part of a larger project beyond getting into college. In fact, it was precisely when the college project was ending . . . that I became paralyzed by the Holy Question.

A this-worldly, pro-self morality doesn’t denigrate productiveness or demand that it be performed for any reason other than the spiritual and material rewards it brings the producer.

The task of ethics — and the solution to the reckoning — is to expand our vision so that we can integrate the pursuit of productive achievement into a larger moral ideal aimed at happiness.

The most important question we face in life is not, what is its meaning? It is: what do I want? And that question is to be answered, not by staring blankly at our desires, but by examining them. Are they consistent with reality? Are they consistent with each other? Do they reflect the highest aspirations of which we can conceive? What are the virtues required to achieve them?

Reckoning with the Reckoning

For most moralists, this is blasphemy. “It’s not all about you,” begins the best-selling Purpose Driven Life.

Religion’s contribution to ethics was to declare that when you ask, “What do I want?” about your life, you are asking the wrong question. As philosopher Onkar Ghate has pointed out, religion replaces an earthly father demanding blind obedience with a Heavenly Father demanding blind obedience. Morality isn’t about doing what you want, it’s about doing as you’re told.

Jordan Peterson has made the point that even atheists believe in God, if judged by their actions. I half agree: most atheists believe in God if judged by their ethics. They accept a secularized form of the Christian morality, wherein it is not God who issues commandments that trump what we want, but other people. Auguste Comte called this “altruism,” meaning “other-ism.” It means self-sacrifice: placing other people and their demands above our own personal happiness.

Whatever the differences, religious ethics and social ethics agree on one thing: the good must be some form of subordinating the self to an outside authority’s orders.

The ugly meaning of this doctrine — that what matters to you doesn’t matter — is whitewashed by equating religious morality and altruism with love, benevolence, and generosity. This is madness.

Other people are very obviously an enormous source of pleasure. Aristotle devotes two chapters in his ethics to friendship, and Rand viewed romantic love as life’s greatest reward. That has nothing to do with the anti-self moralities of religion and altruism. Who would want to be considered a friend or a lover, not for the personal pleasure that we give our companion, but out of charity or duty?

The central issue in ethics is not whether to love and help others. It is whether we are committed to achieving personal values — or whether we are committed to surrendering personal values because some external authority says so.

Haidt, though he grasps so much, does not challenge the modern equation of morality with selflessness and tries to forge some compromised truce between a morality of personal happiness and a morality of self-obliteration.

We were shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work.

This is hopeless. And it is unnecessary. There is no reason to accept one ounce of the impersonal in ethics. When we are told to obey an authority — whether God or society — there is no answer to that dangerous question: why?

A moral ideal of personal happiness through virtue does not fear such scrutiny. It proudly holds that our noblest project is to shape the earth and our soul in the image of our highest values.

Why? Why not?

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