Interviewer: What about marginal cases, in which the person is – arguably – incapable of loving, such as a miscarried baby, or a person in a ‘persistent vegetative state’? Do these cases fall outside the category of those capable of living meaningfully? Do we have to concede that the experience of one’s life as meaningful is, in these cases, the wrong measure?
Patrick: Perhaps it is worth beginning by considering animals before moving onto the examples you offered. Can an animal be said to be capable of living a meaningful life? I would have to say no. Of course animals may make other peoples’ lives extremely meaningful (for example I am pretty sure I read somewhere that some people marry their pets), but I think that questions of meaning only become relevant once one has a certain level of consciousness, including language, culture, and other elements that offer meaning to the question of meaningfulness. It’s a bit like looking at a hamster spinning in its wheel in an apparently frantic attempt to make time move faster and wondering ‘is the hamster bored?’ Surely not. The question of a meaningful life pre-supposes a subject that can engage with such a question and strive towards achieving such a goal. In light of this, I think that in those cases where human consciousness is so severely restricted that one cannot learn, gain satisfaction or fulfilment, and so on, questions surrounding such higher goals as a meaningful life are misconceived. Having said that, it is clearly possible to imagine someone with severe learning difficulties, for example, who finds meaning in life through caring for a goldfish or tending to a pot plant or something like that. While such an activity may not be seen by less cognitively impaired people as very meaningful when compared to falling in love or devoting one’s life to a worth cause, insofar as it offers a sense of fulfilment, self-efficacy, social approval and so on to the person with learning difficulties, it must be seen as contributing to a meaningful life. This suggests that in questions of living meaningfully there are no objective criteria we can point to independent of the needs of the individuals in question. Some people may just have to work a lot harder to achieve a sense of meaning in life, but this does not mean that their activities are objectively more meaningful than those who may find meaning in looking after a goldfish.