Handout Philosophy 100: Ethics and the Meaning of Life: Russell, Sartre, Camus and Nagel—
Ethics and The Philosophy of Life
Ethics can be understood as either a technique for attaining a good or meaningful life, or as an
analytic discipline within philosophy that attempts to critically formulate and evaluate ethical codes. The
teachings and works of men like Christ, the Buddha, Confucius, and other mystics and holy men, and
philosophers like Plato, Epicurus, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, as well as novelists like the Great Russian
writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, are all concerned with discovering how to live a proper life. These men
were not concerned with questions like: "How is it possible, if possible at all, to justify an ethical code?"
"What are the advantages of rule over act utilitarianism?" "How do we actually use terms like 'good', 'right',
'duty', 'wrong', etc.?" These questions are, however, commonly addressed by, and define much of the work
of, the professional ethicist.
It is easy to be confused about the difference between ethics on the one hand and the philosophy of
life on the other. Epicurus is an egoistic consequentialist; the good life for him is one that results in
contentment—the avoidance of pain. His philosophy is primarily a philosophy of life. He offers us a way of
living that he considers to be optimal. So do founders of religion. Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, and
Zoroaster are all concerned with how we ought to live our lives.
They all promise happiness or
contentment for those who follow their advise. So do a variety of holy men and saints. The antithesis of all
such programs is nihilism—the view that nothing we do matters one way or another. It is the view that
there are no objective values. Or, to put the matter differently, it is the view that life is pointless, aimless,
purposeless, or hopeless. In the ancient world, this view was expressed by the prophet or sage responsible
for Ecclesiastics, and in the Middle Ages by the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam. In the twentieth
century it has been expressed by the existentialists Sartre and Camus, and by the contemporary American
philosopher Thomas Nagel, all of whom prefer to put the matter in terms of the absurdity of life. They
claim that from the objective point of view, life is absurd. They do allow, however, that life can be
subjectively or personally significant or meaningful. Nagel has a unique perspective on the meaning of life
For him, life can be demonstrated to be absurd, and although it is only reflective individuals who
are aware of its absurdity, this fact, though ironic, is mankind’s most interesting characteristic.
Ethics is related to the philosophy of life issue in an essential and important respect. Ethics provides
one with a justified program for social success, and does thereby provide a pathway to a happy, or at the
very least, a non-painful existence. It greatly increases the possibility for one’s life to be a happy one. If I