A sense of purpose is key to living a meaningful life. It is the heart of passion and it can bring us to deeper levels of long-term happiness, providing resilience amidst great hardships. A sense of purpose is something we often talk about wanting, seeking, or having, but it is somewhat illusive in our world of ongoing life-projects, characterized by multiple careers and highly fluid sociality. This philosophical investigation will provide a detailed blueprint of the concept of “purpose” and will hopefully help the reader along their DIY life-project.
The concept of “purpose” comes from the Anglo-French “purpos,” referring to an intention, aim, or goal. Broadly speaking, it can refer to purposely getting drunk on the weekend, purposely caring for your loved ones, or even purposely putting the toilet seat down; therefore, purpose is goal-oriented action. In order to talk about the specific type of purpose I alluded to in the intro – a sense of purpose in one’s life – we will need to refine the concept. But before we can refine the concept, we need to figure out the role of purpose in one’s life. This means defining the purpose of life-purpose. In other words, the purpose of life-purpose can be called the end-goal of life-end-goals, the end of all other ends, or the ultimate end. In regular English, this simply translates to the question: why do we do what we do?
Luckily, Aristotle is a handy tool that can be used to fix this particular type of philosophical entanglement. Aristotle states that happiness is the ultimate end, meaning that all other goals are in some way directed toward the goal of happiness. Therefore, the purpose of life-purpose is happiness. But before moving further, we need to look at what Aristotle means by happiness. Distinct from hedonistic fleeting pleasures, Aristotle conceptualizes happiness as “eudemonia,” which translates to “good spirit,” or in other words, “living well.” For Aristotle, living well/ living a good life means living virtuously in accordance with one’s reason, based on his ethics of moderation laid out in the Nicomachean Ethics.
To summarize the conceptual progress thus far, we can say that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward living a good life. Therefore, a “sense of purpose in life” is distinct from the sense of purpose one feels during everyday goal-oriented tasks like grocery shopping because it acts as an overarching meta-purpose. What this means is that it is a purpose that shapes all other purposes in alignment with an idea of the good. For example, if one’s life-purpose is heavily governed by a commitment to the flourishing of one’s children, one’s goals while grocery-shopping may be shaped by this overarching goal, moderating the type of foods one chooses to buy. Therefore, the function of life-purpose is regulative. It curbs our short term desires/ hedonic purposes in order to align our actions in accordance with a conception of the good.
To again recap, I first established that the purpose of life-purpose is to direct one toward a conception of a good life. I then established that life-purpose has a regulatory function. Since both its purpose and function are moral, life-purpose can also be called, “moral purpose.” Aristotle refers to the concept of moral purpose when he states: “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids.” Aristotle’s virtue ethics places a strong emphasis on character development through individual will-power. I want to pose a sociological counterbalance to Aristotle’s existentialism. In other words, I will go deeper into the concept of moral purpose by demonstrating its social basis.
Sociologically, the concept of morality is strongly rooted in the work of Émile Durkheim. Similar to Aristotle, Durkheim makes a link between morality and happiness:
But it appears fairly certain that happiness is something besides a sum of pleasures… Pleasure is local; it is a limited affection of a point in the organism or conscience… In short, what happiness expresses is not the momentary state of a particular function, but the health of physical and moral life in its entirety…
For Durkheim, making fleeting pleasures one’s primary purpose is to live in a constantly unsatisfied anomic state of unregulated desire:
Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…. To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.
Although complete happiness is a goal that is unattainable, the goal of eudemonia is a distinct pursuit since it is the end at which all things aim. The pursuit itself is the fulfillment of eudemonia, not an end-goal. Although Aristotle and Durkheim share a comparable definition of happiness, Durkheim is a helpful tool for getting at the social source of moral purpose, distinct from its manifestation through individual willing. In other words, Durkheim helps us understand the types of social environments that facilitate moral purpose.
Durkheim states, “…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.” He places emphasis on the importance of strong social bonds that facilitate a sense of duty. Examples include religious life (in traditional contexts) and one’s occupational group (in modern contexts). Durkheim states:
“…when community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”
For Durkheim, moral purpose is bound up with communal life. Yesterday’s post is a prime example of the importance of the communal life of the family.
To conclude this philosophical exploration of “a sense of purpose,” I have argued that a sense of life-purpose can be called “moral purpose,” because its regulatory function is to direct our mundane purposes toward a conception of a good life. Although Aristotle and Durkheim are aligned with one another on this point, Aristotle gives us the tools to individually develop character-traits that facilitate moral purpose, whereas Durkheim gives us the tools to communally facilitate moral purpose. Hopefully this has shed some light on what it means to have “a sense of purpose.”
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