Using Philosophy to Find Fulfillment

Jack MilesFebruary 19, 2020FulfillmentFeatures
Using Philosophy to Find Fulfillment

Since ancient times, philosophers have wrestled with the concept of fulfillment and its implications for happiness and a meaningful life.

However, a breakthrough was made in the late 18th century when Jeremy Bentham pioneered utilitarianism: a moral theory based upon the requirement to maximize “utility” (a term for happiness, though subsets of utilitarianism refine this definition). Bentham and his contemporaries provide guidelines for lives full of pleasure. However, their original utilitarian theory fails to provide guidelines for fulfilling and meaningful lives. Examining the flaws in Bentham’s utilitarianism allows us to build upon his foundation and derive a moral theory that contributes to our understanding of fulfillment.

Bentham’s utilitarianism is also called hedonic utilitarianism, because it defines utility as pleasure. Under hedonic utilitarianism, “good” would describe the best balance of pleasure over pain (pleasure’s opposite), and “bad” the highest balance of pain over pleasure. From this, we derive the requirement for our actions to produce the greatest difference between pain subtracted from pleasure. Act utilitarianism, a subset of this moral theory, specifies how one can live a morally permissible life according to hedonic utilitarianism, where every agent is always required to act in a way that maximizes aggregate utility. In act utilitarianism, it is not a mere goal to produce the outcome with the greatest utility, rather it is the standard. A major epistemic problem arises with act utilitarianism and hinders our ability to use utilitarian theory as a model for finding fulfillment. For example, under act utilitarianism, a person is responsible for making choices that result in the most pleasure, even though they cannot always know which action will produce the most utility. Although this is an impossible standard, under act utilitarianism, if they choose a situation that causes pain regardless of unfortunate circumstances, they have acted immorally.

Since the days of Bentham, philosophers modified utilitarianism to account for this issue, but another significant flaw remained: the basis of utility. The hedonistic base for both moral theories causes issues when delving into the definition of happiness. Under hedonic utilitarian theories, the desired outcome is the one that produces the most pleasure. But this is not necessarily the outcome that produces the most fulfillment. In the 1970s, Robert Nozick came up with a thought experiment called the experience machine. We assume that a machine is created that attaches to your head and simulates your experiencing your dreams and desires. It gives you the most pleasure scientifically possible. Under all hedonic utilitarian theories, we would be required to choose to plug ourselves into this machine to create the highest aggregate amount of pleasure. However, most people would not say this would make them happy; they would lack fulfillment. The distinction between the two is important. Fulfillment is happiness that results from the realization of predicated desires and preferences, while happiness and pleasure are merely the resulting feelings. People would not prefer the machine over normal life, where their happiness is derived from their actions and not the deceitful mirage of a mere simulation. Since raw pleasure does not equate to happiness, we cannot model utility on hedonism and pleasure.

Luckily, there is a model of utility that renders utilitarian theory permissible based on changes to the definition of utility. Preference satisfaction utilitarianism states the goal of establishing the rules we adopt is to fulfill our preferences and interests, not produce pleasure. Under it, utility is the satisfaction gained from accomplishing what we desire and fulfilling our preferences. In reality, a factor in obtaining happiness is overcoming obstacles and earning our happiness, and the preference satisfaction theory accounts for this. Preference satisfaction utilitarianism provides a permissible set of guidelines for acting in both a fulfilling and moral manner. With this model, philosophers can account for a more emotionally complex understanding of utility and happiness. Our goal should be to act to satisfy our preferences and to find fulfillment and meaning in our own lives.

Preference satisfaction utilitarianism is valuable because it is designed to be interpreted at the individual level. It’s universally applicable and allows us to operate freely to find fulfillment (as long as we remain within ethical boundaries). However, people often undervalue preference satisfaction utilitarianism and other moral theories because of the social rhetoric around fulfilling and meaningful lives.

We’re often asked what gets us out of bed in the morning. On the surface, the question prompts us to answer with mundane tasks that are basic parts of our self-sufficiency, such as eating breakfast, going to work, hitting the gym. However, the implied question here is: What gives us meaning? And in the context of the question, “us” usually refers to humanity as a whole.

People treat the “meaning of life” question as if there were one definitive answer that is awaiting discovery, but this is a ridiculous notion. When we consider fulfillment, this becomes clear, since no two people share the same preferences. The human experience is diverse; our lives and preferences can revolve around careers and home life, lifelong passions and part-time hobbies, or just making ends meet.

Fulfillment should be a subjective and personal word and a marker for one’s own goals. Using the preference satisfaction model introspectively is the best way to find fulfillment and therefore true happiness. This is important to emphasize today since conformity is encouraged worldwide and standards are rigid. In every society, norms dictate what a fulfilling life should be, whether it is achieving levels of economic success, religious devotion, or moral sanctimony. However, preference satisfaction utilitarianism shows that separating oneself from societal standards is necessary to find fulfillment. An individual’s fulfillment will not come from satisfying standards that others set for them.


Alexander, Larry and Moore, Michael. "Deontological Ethics.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition).

Kay, Charles D. “Notes on Utilitarianism.” Wofford College Department of Philosophy, 1997.

Jack Miles is a 16-year-old writer and editor from New York. When he's not writing, he enjoys spray painting, playing soccer, and singing with his choir.