I just finished writing up an interview with Ronald Dworkin for The Philosophers’ Magazine. He talked a bit about the meaning of life. Lots of people think that for a life to have meaning it has to leave something valuable behind — a meaningful life is one that produces a cure for disease, a fine book of sonnets, some lasting contribution to the human story. Most lives aren’t meaningful in this sense. We’re not all Alexander Fleming.
Dworkin argues that this ignores another kind of value a life might have. What matters is not just what you leave behind when you check out, but how your life is lived. His distinction is between the product value of a life and its performance value. A dancer dances, a diver dives, and that’s it, there’s nothing left, but didn’t something of value come into the world? Maybe, so too, with a human life.
As he puts it at the end of Justice for Hedgehogs, “Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. But if we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”