What exactly do we mean when we say that “nothing matters”? More than sixty years ago, the British philosopher Richard Mervyn Hare attempted to answer this question in an early essay.1 The way he answers it is intended to convince us that the view that “nothing matters” is an untenable position, and quite obviously so.
Hare starts his essay by relating the story of a young Swiss student staying with the Hares, who after reading Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) suddenly became convinced that “nothing matters”.
Hare then proceeded to talk him out of it in Socratic fashion: when we say that something matters what we do is express concern about that something. Concern, however, is always somebody’s concern. Therefore, when I say that something matters, I express my concern for it. I am saying that it matters to me. Accordingly, when you say the same, then you express your concern for that thing. You are saying that it matters to you. Neither of us is then really saying anything about the thing in question. We are only saying something about ourselves.
For the statement “nothing matters” to be true it would have to be true that the one who makes the statement is not concerned about anything at all.
Now most of us are in fact concerned about many things. And so, apparently, was Hare’s Swiss student, which means that things did matter to him, which means that they did matter, period. For the statement “nothing matters” to be true it would have to be true that the one who makes the statement is not concerned about anything at all. So, if I am the one who says that nothing matters, then this is true if and only if nothing matters to me, and if you are the one who says it, then it is true if and only if nothing matters to you. Yet if it were true that nothing mattered to me, why would I then bother to make that statement in the first place? It seems I would at least have to care enough to find it worth pointing out that nothing matters, in which case I would have immediately contradicted myself.
The reason we may not be immediately aware of this contradiction is that we tend to misunderstand the function of the word “matters”. Its function is to express (somebody’s) concern. It does not tell us anything about the nature of things. Contrary to what we seem to think when we declare that nothing matters, mattering is not something that things do. My neighbour may both chatter and matter, but while the chattering is something that she actually does, the mattering is not. In that sense it is quite true that things do not matter (which is to say that they do not engage in an activity called mattering), from which we can easily, but mistakenly, infer that nothing matters: we take a deep and hard look at things, fail to observe any mattering activity in them, and then conclude that nothing matters. However, we have looked in the wrong place. We should have looked at ourselves. If we had done that, we would most likely have found that some things do matter, namely to us and therefore in the only way something can matter.
Contrary to what we seem to think when we declare that nothing matters, mattering is not something that things do.
There may of course be people out there who are not concerned about anything much, but they are an exception, and even if nothing matters to them, this has no bearing on the question what matters, or should matter, to us. Instead of wondering whether things matter, Hare suggests in conclusion, we had better ask ourselves what matters to us, what matters most to us, and what should matter to us and how much it should matter. These are all important life questions. Whether things matter is not.
But is Hare right to say that what we mean (and all we can mean) when we say that something matters is that it matters to us? Is the function of saying “it matters” really the expression of one’s own personal concern, and nothing else? Is there really no difference between “this is important” and “I find this important”?
Personally, I am inclined to agree with Hare, mostly because I don’t see how things can matter if they don’t matter to someone, and how they can matter other than by mattering to someone.
On the other hand, it seems to me that when we say something like “nothing matters” we do not really mean to say that nothing matters to us. That is why we would, when we say this, not feel contradicted if somebody pointed out to us that some things do in fact matter to us. We already knew that, and never meant to deny it. So apparently it is something else we wished to express by saying that ‘nothing matters’. But the question is, what do we mean if we don’t mean that nothing matters to us? I find this question very difficult to answer.
Consider the following fictional dialogue between Jack and Jill:
Jack: Nothing matters!
Jill: What do you mean, nothing matters?
Jack: What I said.
Jill: So, what you mean is that nothing matters to you, right?
Jack: No, I don’t mean that at all. In fact, it matters very much to me that nothing matters. I’m extremely concerned about it!
Jill: But if you are concerned about it, then there clearly is something that matters.
Jack: Yes, but only to me. The point is that it doesn’t really matter what matters to me or if anything does. It doesn’t matter whether or not things matter to people, me included.
Jill: Okay, but what do you mean when you say it doesn’t matter? If they matter to you, and they matter to me, if there is somebody to whom they matter, how can they still not matter?
Jack: They do not matter in the sense that it makes no difference whether or not they matter to me, or if they exist or not exist.
Jill: No difference to you, you mean?
Jack: No, not to me. To me it does make a difference.
Jill: To whom then?
Jack: To nobody in particular. It simply makes no difference.
Jill: But it does make a difference. After all, if those things didn’t exist or if they were different, other things would be different, too, wouldn’t they?
Jack: Yes, but not in the long run. A time will come when the world will be exactly as it would have been if things had been different. Say in 5 billion years when the sun will swell up and swallow Earth. None of the things that we do now will then have made any difference. So when I say nothing matters I mean that nothing matters ultimately or in the long run.
Jill: Okay, fine, perhaps what happens now and what we do and whether we live or die makes no difference in the long run. But all of this certainly makes a difference now. Why should we want it to make a difference for all eternity?
Jack: Well, I guess you are right. Although when that future comes, there will also be nobody left to whom anything matters that matters to us now. And then nothing will matter anymore, right?
Jill: Yes, correct, but why should we worry about that? Perhaps one day nothing will matter anymore, but that day is not here yet. That nothing will matter does in no way show that nothing matters now. Because things do matter now. So what is your problem?
Jack: Oh, I don’t know. You are confusing me. Let’s go and have a drink. It doesn’t really matter anyway.
Still, it remains difficult to consistently think about ‘importance’ or ‘mattering’ the way that Hare suggests we do.
Hare himself seems to forget what he has just told us when he advises us to “learn to prize those things whose true value is apparent only to those who have fought hard to reach it.” This is clearly something that matters to Hare. However, in suggesting that this matters he is also clearly not merely expressing his own concerns. He is, rather, expressing the belief that we, too, should be concerned about it. So ‘this matters’, at least in this particular instance, means, in addition to “this matters to me (= Hare)”, “this should matter to you (= the reader)”.
Why should it, though? The reason seems to have something to do with some things being truly valuable and others not, yet if Hare’s own analysis were correct, it would make little sense to assert that things have a “true value” that is not in some way apparent to us. What we would mean (and all we could mean) when we say that “something has true value” is that it has true value to us.
“True value” implies the possibility of “false value”, but it would be very odd to say that certain things have a false value for me.
But in that case it would make no sense to say that the “true value” may not be apparent to us. If having such a value means having such a value to us, then it needs to be apparent to us. Yet the very term “true value” is designed to suggest that we may be mistaken about a thing’s true value (just as, perhaps, we can be mistaken about what truly matters, or that things matter at all). “True value” implies the possibility of “false value”, but it would be very odd to say that certain things have a false value for me. They either have value or they don’t. That their value is false can only mean that even though they appear to be valuable to me, they are in fact not valuable at all. Accordingly, to say that something is truly valuable can only mean that it has value even if I am unable to see it (so that it has no value to me). Yet if nothing matters unless, and to the extent that, it matters to someone, then nothing has value either unless, and to the extent that, it has value to someone.
Clearly, though, some of the things that appear valuable to us are actually rather bad for us, while others that we don’t much care for are in fact, or would be, good for us. So there is a sense in which things can be valuable even though we attach no importance to them. And yet, even though they may not have value to us, they still need to have value for us.
Not everything that appears good (important or valuable) to us is good, but whatever is good must in some way be good for us (or for someone). If it has value for nobody, then it is hard to see how it can have value at all. Likewise, things may matter for us even if they don’t matter to us, but they cannot matter if they don’t affect us in any way. We may reach a stage in our lives where nothing matters to us, but even then some things will continue to matter for us in the sense that they can affect us, making our lives better or worse. Only if nothing mattered both to us and for us would it be true that ‘nothing matters.’
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Michael Hauskeller is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool, UK. He specializes in moral and existential philosophy, but has also done work in various other areas, most notably phenomenology (the theory of atmospheres), the philosophy of art and beauty, and the philosophy of human enhancement.
“Nothing Matters” was written in 1957 when Hare was 38. It was originally published in French as “Rien n’a d’importance” in La Philosophie Analytique, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit 1959, and later reprinted in English in Hare’s Applications of Moral Philosophy, London: Macmillan 1972, 32-47. I am using another reprint, the one in in Life, Death and Meaning, ed. D. Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 41-47. ↩︎