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geniuses, history will never even be aware that most people even lived at all, much less that their lives had any real purpose, meaning or worth. All ideas of human equality and natural rights are just pious little myths and fables, since only a handful will ever have the talent and intelligence to be recognized as standing out from the anonymous masses. This world is a very cruel and Darwinian place in which only a handful achieve success and recognition, at least by the material and monetary standards that the capitalist system values so highly. In short, the majority of people who ever lived have simple been drones and worker bees, and if they have any talents or worth, few will ever notice them outside of their narrow little spheres of existence. Many people may have certain natural talents but make little effort to develop them, and through bad luck or circumstance end up believing their lives have been wasted. Ideally, those with the highest level of talent who put forth the greatest effort will achieve the most success in life, but it does not always work out that way. People who are born with few talents and put little effort into life but have inherited wealth can still buy everything they desire, while those born with great talents but into an environment of poverty and lack of opportunity may never achieve anything. In reality, most people's lives are guaranteed to be wasted from the day they were born and they will never have much chance for anything else.
Whether a person's life has been wasted raises all kinds of issues about defining the meaning of success and failure, and what the criteria are for a life that has value, worth, meaning and purpose compared to one that does not. A sense of success and accomplishment, no matter whether defined in purely materialistic or ethical terms, has to be adjusted to the limits and obstacles that each individual faces in life, although a life in which the individual uses his/her talents and abilities only for their own comfort and well-being does seem to be a life misspent. I do agree that talents and opportunities are hardly distributed equally to everyone at birth, but rather through what John Rawls called a social and biological lottery. Essentially, nature is cruel, unjust and unfair in handing out DNA, just as capitalist society is unjust in the distribution of wealth and incomes. These are facts of life that simply cannot be changed, although welfare states may take some of the hard edges off the system. Some people are lucky enough to be born in inherited wealth and privilege, but this is not the case for the majority of people on earth. A few people are born with the natural genius of Albert Einstein, and are then brought up in an environment where they can develop their talents and abilities, while others are born into a world of poverty, hunger and abuse where they have no such opportunities. Of course most people are born only with average talents, and therefore should not be expected to achieve the level of success and greatness of an Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, no matter how much effort they put forth. In short, even if equality of opportunity existed -- which it definitely does not in this world -- the results or outcomes would never be egalitarian.
I also think that any attempt to define a successful or wasted life will come up with many answers, such as the religious person who would define success as doing God's will or living according to certain moral precepts rather than achieving fame, fortune and material success. Others would define a successful life as using talents and abilities to assist others or make society a better place rather than simply fulfilling subjective or hedonistic needs. Utilitarian philosophy holds that the main criteria for success is maximizing the happiness for the greatest number, while libertarians insist that only individuals can set these goals and make rational choices about their own lives. This relates to the issue of whether the individual who feels that their life has been a failure or a waste, or that the future only has pain and unhappiness to offer, has the right to end that unbearable existence. Most philosophers in history have taken a very negative view toward suicide with certain exceptions, but by no means all. Of course, if God does not exist and history will not really notice the death of most people anyway, then their self-destruction would only have meaning to themselves, their families and narrow circle of friends and acquaintances.
John Rawls and most other modern liberals and socialists argued that the welfare state should compensate the losers in the social and biological lotteries, and that a good society should operate according to the principles of distributive justice. As Rawls wrote in A Theory of Justice, the ability to achieve success in life, no matter how that might be defined, often comes down to the luck of the draw and which cards have been dealt (Boss 349-61). Those who believe in God, karma, fate or predestination might at least be comforted by the idea that some omniscient supernatural force is making the right decisions or that justice will be done in the end, while revolutionaries like Karl Marx were probably right to dismiss all religions as the opiates of the masses, designed to keep the lower orders in their place and stupidly contented with their lot (Boss 361-64). Contrary to liberals and the left, classical liberals and libertarians insist that real equality of opportunity already exists in countries like the United States -- despite massive evidence to the contrary -- and that the talented should simply be allowed to rise as far as their abilities will take them (Egalitarianism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egalitarianism/). A life that has meaning or a sense of purpose and success does not necessarily require that the individual be happy, talented, beautiful or wealthy, although many people in modern society assume that this must be the case. In modern capitalist societies like the United States, success is almost always defined by who dies with the most money, fame, power and material possessions.
Immanuel Kant's idea that each individual has equal intrinsic worth and must be treated with respect is easy enough to ridicule, given the grim realities of this world. So is the myth that all humans have the capacity to make real moral or ethical choices in life, when in reality most people on earth are simply concerned with sheer physical survival. This was the same in Kant's time -- probably even more so than today -- but then again his writings were mostly aimed at the educated elites. Kant stated that there was a difference between a life that has meaning and a life that has worth, since a meaningful life would include making ethical choices and acting according to the categorical imperative, treating others as ends in themselves rather than means or objects and acting as if this were a universal law. Acting according to Kantian or Golden Rule ethics, many people find the greatest meaning through helping others rather than themselves, living according to universal principles (Boss 302-14). This is the type of principle that many will pay lip service to but only a few will actually practice. Richard Taylor was at least honest enough to assert that a sense of worth and meaning came from having one's strongest desires satisfied. At one extreme, a hedonist will attain the most meaning from satisfying purely physical desires, but such a life may not be truly meaningful or socially useful. If talents are debased or misused in a life of pure pleasure or self-indulgence, the moral meaningfulness of that life is questionable at best.
Those who believe in God declare that life has no meaning apart from doing God's will or fulfilling some divine plan, although there is no real scientific proof for the existence of God or the soul. Many talented individuals like Einstein or Pablo Picasso would have had worthwhile and meaningful lives regardless of whether God really existed (Boss 252-69). Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, offered a very common opinion that meaning and satisfaction come from doing good and making a difference in the world, although people can find meaning this way regardless of whether God or the soul exist. Objectivists maintain that moral standards exist outside the individual, and that even a creative or talented person who lives an immoral or amoral life will ultimately find that it has no meaning or purpose. For utilitarian philosophers, morality is ultimately social and collective, by providing the maximum happiness for the largest number of people, although each individual also seeks to maximize their personal happiness while minimizing pain. Subjectivists, positivists and pragmatists, on the other hand, found that happiness, satisfaction and a sense of worth came from within, with each individual achieving…[continue]
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