Meaning of lives

I will not apologise for proposing that we should (or will have to) make decisions about ethics, and therefore matters close to people’s deepest feelings, democratically partly out of exasperation. I am fed up with campaign groups holding rigid positions on anything from food to positive discrimination, often in a self-righteous manner or (just as annoying) ostentatiously scoffing at virtue. With so much energy going on campaigning and sniping back, there is precious little room for thinking.

Yet my reaction is also about how I actually see the world – especially Western world – of today. A good number of years ago I came to believe that the philosophy called ‘existentialism’ (roughly definable as the belief that we each have to construct the meaning of our lives for ourselves) can serve tolerably well as a model for the society we are actually living in. Far from digging out a silly and narcissistic 1960s fad, I propose that existentialist notions of freedom (and responsibility), existence precedes essence, confronting nothingness, and so forth, actually describe the position people find themselves in with our fragmented world. It’s therefore not surprising that we have begun to expect that we will be deciding questions which reach into the meaning of our lives, like cultural diversity and integration, inequality, abortion, and so forth, on a democratic basis – that is to say, a basis where each and every one of us can have some kind of say in the decision without just accepting authority. The various campaign groups and their rigidities illustrate one other truth in existentialism: We are scared of our freedom.

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