The meaninglessness of life, or, if you will, its absurdity, is a key tenant of some philosophical traditions, most notably existentialism.
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche are generally regarded as early thinkers in this Western tradition, though I personally find the creative works of Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett particularly enjoyable.
But the existentialists have a problem: if life is ultimately absurd, why not just act like a self-centered fool at all times?
This challenge is a step beyond the derogatory thought that those without religion are incapable of having morals. It’s more than an absence of punishment or reward that presents an issue. An acceptance of the absurd is an acceptance that life is meaningless – that ultimately nothing makes a difference. How you treat yourself doesn’t matter. How you treat others doesn’t matter.
There are, of course, ways to address this challenge.
A simplistic response is that, irregardless of deeper meaning, corporeal actions have corporeal reactions. That is – assuming a society is governed by ethical laws, people will behave ethically because otherwise they will face social punishments. Similarly, there may be social incentives to behave well.
I find this argument unsatisfactory.
In our society, for example, many people are willing to cross ethical lines to pursue a social reward of wealth, but not everyone is willing to do so. Of course, you don’t really know how you’ll react to a given ethical situation until confronted with it, but – if social regulations were all that kept people in line, it seems that we’d have a lot more unethical people than we already do. Maybe that’s just me.
I would imagine that different people are likely to respond differently to an absurd world. Depravity nor morality are intrinsic.
Camus explores these different reactions in The Plague.
A small city is quarantined after an outbreak of the (presumably bubonic) plague. Faced with almost certain death, residents react in different ways. Some turn to God. Some turn to alcohol. Some just whither away. And some try to help.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter to the universe which path a person took.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all.
If the question to an Existentialist is, “How do you make everyone moral in an absurd world?” The answer is you can’t.
The very meaning of morality becomes muddled in such a world. Each person chooses their own actions, and each person’s actions are their own to choose. There is no right or wrong about it.
But if the question is, “How can I be moral in an absurd world?” The answer is…do the best you can.
There is no clear path of morality in a meaningless world, but you can develop your own sense of right and wrong. You can create a moral code and live by it as best you can.
Other people will do what other people will do.
Your own moral code may involve persuading others to live what you would consider a more moral life. Or it may involve ignoring other’s moral inclinations.
It ultimately doesn’t matter.
But at the same time, it matters very much.
It matters to you.
It probably also matters to those around you, but – their feelings may or may not matter to you.
Seeing an absurd world doesn’t mean devolving to depravity. It means making your own choices and doing the best you can. It means trying to be the person you want to be – not because it’s the moral thing to do or the right thing to do, and not because any being here or beyond will judge you for your actions.
It means being the best person you can be because, really – in a world where nothing truly matters, what else is there?