On Higher Powers and Self-Gratification

Ruth, at Out from Under the Umbrella [edit: or is it Gullible’s Travels? I’m confused. :)], recently posted about meaning and purpose sans a higher power. The post is a response to a conversation she was having, and her jumping off point was this quote:

“The only sensible reaction to a complete conviction that there is no higher power would be to place self-gratification above all else. What logical reason would there be for not doing so?…

…The one who utterly believes in no form of power or purpose would be mentally unbalanced not to go for self-gratification over completely purposeless self-denial. ‘Doing the right thing’ is an acknowledgement of purpose.”

This quote is, to my mind, riddled with equivocations that render it silly. Even so, it allows us to demonstrate how our lives have meaning without a higher power.

Self-Gratification Above All Else

The quote suggests that, absent a higher power, self-gratification becomes paramount. I’m tempted to say, “or, in other words, self-gratification becomes the meaning of life, QED,” but I’m willing to be a bit more charitable. Gratification (be it self-inflicted or externally derived) assumes pleasure and desires.

Pleasure and desires are value-laden terms. It is hard to see how we desire anything in a valueless world. So, if we have desires, there must be value in the world. Likewise, we can certainly understand the relationship of values to pleasures. The value of many things is in how they fulfill our pleasure; hence, we have a desire for them.

If we can self-gratify, sans a higher power, we are acknowledging that value exists sans a higher power. So, self-gratification can be called seeking, for oneself, the values that fulfill the pleasures we desire. I guess this returns us to “self-gratification is the meaning of life. QED.”

Completely Purposeless Self-Denial

So far, we’ve determined that, absent a higher power, there is still value in the world. However, to this point, value has only served an instrumental purpose – to fulfill human desires and pleasures. In other words, value serves the self-gratification of things with desires and pleasures. However, the quote references completely purposeless self-denial. Purposelessness is, by definition, complete, so I will refer to it as purposeless self-denial from here. What is purposeless self-denial?

If values are instrumental, then their existence is predicated on that which provides their instrumentality. So far, the only instrumentality values have is in fulfilling human desires and pleasures. If value is instrumental, it has purpose – to fulfill its instrumentality. So far, all values serve the purpose of fulfilling desires. So, purposeless self-denial is to deny all desires for no reason.

Life is contingent. It cannot exist without certain things. The exact requirements may change with the various forms of life, but life cannot exist in a vacuum. As such, life necessarily needs, and once you have needs, you have desires. Once there is life, there is desire. From here, we can understand purposeless self-denial. Since it is to deny all desires for no reason, and life necessarily desires, purposeless self-denial is a denial of all life. It is to choose no life for no reason.

Would be Mentally Unbalanced not to Go for Self-Gratification Over Completely Purposeless Self-Denial

To this point, absent a higher power, we know that the fact of our living means we have desires, and these desires mean there are values. Absent life, we do not have desires. Absent desires, we do not have value.

The quote in the header suggests that life is better than no life, but why? Well, the answer is in the nature of value. Implicit in value is worth. Worth may be conditional and small. However, having worth means its existence, absolutely, is better than its non-existence, absolutely. In other words, a universe with value is better than a universe without value. Since, to this point, life is the only way we know how to get value, life is better than no life.

First, this eases the concern of absurdity. Why shouldn’t we just kill ourselves? Because life is better than no life. Second, lacking a higher power, life doesn’t serve a purpose for other ends. It is not instrumental in this way. However, we know that we should choose life over no life. Therefore, life is valuable in itself. Life’s value is intrinsic. It is important to note, this doesn’t give life purpose. This simply means life has intrinsic value. Finally, this gives us an axiom to help us choose between conflicting desires. In other words, we’ve got morality.

”Doing the right thing” is an acknowledgement of purpose.

Currently, we know that self-gratification should be chosen above all else. Self-gratification is to fulfill, for ourselves, our desires and pleasures. However, all of our desires and pleasures cannot be fulfilled at one time. Likewise, some desires and pleasures will work against each other. Therefore, we must prioritize the desires and pleasures we seek to fulfill for ourselves.

Per the section above, we have a moral axiom from which to start this prioritization: life affirmative gratifications over life denying gratifications. So, for example, drinking alcohol to excess may please me. Likewise, driving may please me. However, drinking and driving puts my life and other lives at a higher risk than not drinking and driving. As such, I should not drink and drive.

What about things that we tend to think have moral import but do not obviously maintain life? Stealing, for example? We rely on our possessions for many things, including survival. For example, we rely upon and expect the food we store to be available to us. If we went about stealing each other’s food, we could not rely on having our possessions necessary for survival. As such, stealing is life denying.

However, consider a very particular situation. For example, a war zone where a bomb is dropped into a commercial district. In the rubble of a building, you find a survivor that is very injured, and his clothes have been torn to shreds. It being night time and late fall, it is cold. Moreover, due to the rubble, rescue crews are not able to reach the bombed area quickly. Keeping the injured survivor warm is important to keeping him alive; however, you are not a medical professional, and you do not want to move him for fear of making things worse.

Near the rubble is a store that sells blankets. You are not the store’s owner, and you have no way to pay for the blankets. Should you steal one to provide warmth for the survivor, increasing his likelihood of survival? In this case, yes. In this scenario, contrived as it may be, an act of theft is the life affirming act. As such, it is the moral action.

With morality, we have a good. The good is that which is life affirming. A good life is a life lived in a life affirming manner. The best possible life is one whose every activity is life affirming. Because we lack perfect knowledge, this is surely impossible. However, a life lived as closely to this best possible life is still worth pursuing. In fact, it is a desirable life.

Again, turning to the quote in the heading, “doing the right thing” – being moral – means purpose. So, living morally gives our lives purpose. Living morally is to live in affirmation of life. We should desire that which is life affirming; therefore, the best and moral pleasures are life affirming pleasures. Gratifying such pleasures is to act morally. It is to act with purpose.

Self-gratification now becomes fulfilling, for oneself, one’s life-affirming desires and pleasures. This is to live a moral life. It is to live the good life. It is to live a life that affirms value in this universe. In short, it is a life with purpose.

What was it I said at the beginning? Oh, yes. Assuming there is no higher power, self-gratification is the meaning of life.


Other Thoughts:

I drew a lot of inspiration from this article by Gianluca Di Muzio. It is addressing a slightly different insistence that, sans a higher power, life has no meaning.

I wrote this in a relatively short amount of time, so I hope it is clear.

I don’t know if it would stand up to thorough scrutiny since I am taking the quote as a given. My point was to show that the quote allowed us to salvage quite a bit of the things we want in our lives that are often assumed to be derived from higher powers.

There is a lot I left unaddressed (e.g., tragedy, death, and the end of the universe). I have responses to them, but I wanted to post this.

Feedback welcome.



  1. Michelle at The Green Study · February 22, 2014

    I couldn’t read that quote without needing a stiff drink. I don’t see any problem with starting at “life has no meaning”. This is why we have brains, to imbue it with meaning, with a sense of purpose. That people can see no purpose in life without dogma and authority figures (literal or figurative) just baffles me.

    • thecaveatlector · February 23, 2014

      In the Di Muzio article I link to in the , he offers the following as a way of understanding meaning;

      “Often, we take ‘meaningful’ in the sense of ‘choiceworthy, fulfilling, valuable in itself.’ More precisely when applied to a life, the adjective ‘meaningful’ usually means ‘worth
      living, good on balance for the person who has it, characterized by valuable accomplishments’ as when we deny that a Sisyphus-like existence or a life spent in
      a coma from beginning to end would be meaningful.”

      As you say, if we set aside the “part of God’s plan” notion of life having meaning, how is Di Muzio’s understanding not readily apparent? Why wouldn’t you see that you can still live a life that accomplishes something of value and, therefore, live a meaningful life? It’s one things to say, I see how one might derive meaning from that but I still think meaning requires a higher power. Fair enough. But the outright denial of the possibility seems almost despising of life, itself.

  2. Ruth · February 22, 2014

    There are scenarios in which “thou shalt not steal” just doesn’t seem prudent. What about a single parent with no means stealing food for their family? True story: What about my grandad stealing food from the mess hall during WWII to feed hungry German children. He was thrown in the brig for that.

    It takes a pretty twisted mind to need an s.o.b. to keep them from being an s.o.b. By all accounts that’s what the God of the Bible is. That’s kind of the fox watching the hen house, eh?

    • thecaveatlector · February 23, 2014

      You seem to be suggesting that suffering for eternity is not the appropriate response for feeding hungry children.

      • Ruth · February 23, 2014

        Do I? Silly me.

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