Why do we need to matter? It sounds like kind of a hollow question. Of course we matter. But when you really consider it, do you think an ant has decided whether it matters or not?
When it comes to humans we seem to have a deep need to believe that our actions carry us towards some essential goal. Otherwise, why bother? (In fact, we think our lives matter so much that most of us seek straight-up immortality.)
In a new essay on Edge, philosopher and author Rebecca Goldstein argues that this mattering is a necessary, biological imperative. Contrary to some popular thinking, it is science, more specifically the science of evolutionary psychology, which can give us some insight into the problem of why we need to matter. As Goldstein argues, this is a place where science and philosophy very usefully overlap.
Goldstein calls this need to matter the Mattering Instinct, labeling it as such to give it a flavor of biological grounding; something that exists not just in a metaphysical way. We do really, actually, need to matter. We’re dependent on it. It’s not abstract, but a core part of what makes us tick and survive.
We can’t pursue our lives without thinking that our lives matter—though one has to be careful here to distinguish the relevant sense of “matter.” Simply to take actions on the basis of desires is to act as if your life matters. It’s inconceivable to pursue a human life without these kinds of presumptions—that your own life matters to some extent. Clinical depression is when you are convinced that you don’t and will never matter. That’s a pathological attitude, and it highlights, by its pathology, the way in which the mattering instinct normally functions. To be a fully functioning, non-depressed person is to live and to act, to take it for granted that you can act on your own behalf, pursue your goals and projects. And that we have a right to be treated in accord with our own commitment to our lives mattering. We quite naturally flare up into outrage and indignation when others act in violation of the presumption grounding the pursuance of our lives. So this is what I mean by the mattering instinct—that commitment to one’s own life that is inseparable from pursuing a coherent human life.
Goldstein sees the concept of mattering as so important that we’d live an incoherent life without it. Imagine if you took the concept of true nihilism to its logical conclusion: What kind of Joker-like tricks might you be tempted to play on the world? Of course, some solve this problem in the opposite way, through religion: I matter because God cares about me, and because my soul will live eternally in an afterlife. But what if you can’t get yourself to accept a religious worldview?
Mattering and Morality
Goldstein argues that you don’t really need either conception, nihilism or religion; that mattering is simply a precursor to successful living and survival at all.
And I also ought to mention that I think the mattering instinct is a natural consequence of natural selection. The basic unit of survival in natural selection is the gene, which survives by being replicated in future generations—the gist of Richard Dawkins’ useful, if misunderstood phrase, “the selfish gene.” A gene’s default scheme is to give the organism traits that help it (the organism) to survive, and to endow that organism with an unthinking ceaseless instinct to survive: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and a gene’s best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated. Of course, individual organisms eventually wear out their usefulness to the genes, which is why senescence is built into living cells, leading to inevitable decline and death. From the vantage point of the gene, individuals are always expendable, which is something that individuals—certainly us!—find profoundly regrettable. If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the motivation that’s a prerequisite for all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it. This is a presumption that lies beyond the sphere of justification. To be within that sphere is to be subject to the possibility of doubt, to require grounding. Natural selection wasn’t going to leave it to such an uncertain process as that!
This philosophy is taken by some to mean that a pure biological view of life leads naturally to selfishness and amorality. Goldstein disagrees. This drive to matter creates a very useful non-religious morality. As Goldstein puts it, I would argue that the core of the moral point of view is that there is an equitable distribution of mattering among humans. So not only does mattering have a core impact on how we carry out our lives, it also leads us to greater general morality over time. This is philosophy’s greatest achievement.
Returning to some themes we took up toward the beginning of our conversation, that far from invalidating our moral intuitions evolutionary psychology can be put to work to help ground them. I bring it back to the concept of mattering. We can’t live lives that are recognizably human without presuming an attitude toward our own mattering. If we’re going to presume that we matter and that others have to treat us as if we matter, either we think that we’re somehow ontologically special and the universe revolves around us—which is to be certifiably nuts—or we’re going to have to extend this modicum of mattering to other creatures like us. How far do we take it? What are the justifiable borders of demarcation between our own obvious mattering and others to whom we attribute a lesser portion of mattering or even no mattering at all?
My view about morality is that it’s rooted in human nature but in such a way as to objectively ground moral conclusions we draw. There are certain things that we have to take for granted about our own life. We can’t live a coherently human life without taking for granted that we have the right to live and to flourish, and that’s what we all try to do. You can begin to explain what it is to pursue a life without seeing how this commitment to our own mattering operates. This means that in simply pursuing a recognizably human life, we’re already occupying moral ground, and then you have to see what follows from that. We don’t have to make the impossible leap between is and ought. We’re already firmly implanted in the land of oughts.
That’s what the history of moral philosophy has tried to show us. You have to extend the mattering you claim for yourself to enslaved people, to colonized people, even to women. They have as much right to matter as men, to pursue their lives and find their own diverse ways of working out their mattering, even if their doing so sometimes has bad effects on male egos, making them feel like they matter less because of this striving to matter of women. How are they going to impress women if those women are achieving so much?
Does What Matters to You, Matter to Me?
Where the mattering instinct can go wrong, though, is when it leads us to think that what matters to us is what should matter greatly to all. Goldstein calls attention to something she calls the mattering map. We each have our own map, but we sometimes cannot see outside our own mattering maps. We can barely conceive that someone else’s map would look a lot different than our own. And this leads to us being upset or combative when we simply need to do a better job of putting ourselves into others’ shoes or to step back and take in the larger perspective.
I’m a philosopher and a writer. It matters to me that I think well and that I write well. I could feel like I don’t matter—to the point of genuine depression—because other people think so much better than I or write so much better than I. It’s good to gain perspective on these sorts of things. Such perspective is part of what it is to attain wisdom. And it helps sometimes to realize that there’s no absolute value to the region of the mattering map you happen to occupy, by reason of your own individual traits and talents and history. I might want to put a gun to my head because I’m not the most brilliant philosopher of my generation, but to the guy situated in the next mattering region over, philosophy doesn’t matter in the least—the whole subject is a waste of time. He’s got the gun to this head because he’s not the greatest physicist of his generation, or not the greatest speed skater of his generation, or actor of his generation, or is losing his fabulous looks.
I’m particularly interested in the ways in which the mattering instinct can go terribly wrong—not only psychologically but ethically. The mattering instinct is so strong in us, and our tendency to want to justify our own mattering is so persistent that it leads us to universalize what individually matters to us into dicta about what ought to matter to everybody. This is a tendency that ought to be resisted.
When you figure out what matters to you and what makes you feel like you’re living a meaningful life, you universalize this. Say I’m a scientist and all my feelings about my own mattering are crystalized around my life as a scientist. It’s quite natural to slide from that into thinking that the life of science is the life that matters. Why doesn’t everybody get their sense of meaning from science? That false universalizing takes place quite naturally, imperceptibly, being unconsciously affected by the forces of the mattering map. In different people the need to justify their own sense of mattering slides into the religious point of view and they end up concluding that, without a God to justify human mattering, life is meaningless: Why doesn’t everybody see that the life that matters is the life of religion?
In some ways, this line of reasoning reminds us of David Foster Wallace’s speech, wherein he says that whatever deep needs we live by are the things we’ll die by when they’re no longer being met. It’s up to us to rein in that mattering instinct a little bit and give it a leash in order to save ourselves from being too harsh on ourselves and too narrow with others.
In the end, we all feel the need to matter, and there are deep biological roots for that, roots which help us survive. These roots help us form a Golden Rule style morality that exists independent of our views on religion or our existential place in the universe. But at the end of the day, we must realize that everyone else carries around their own mattering instinct, and live in a way that respects this basic truth.
Still Interested? Check out Goldstein’s conversation on reasoning with her husband Stephen Pinker.