Free Inquiry
Appeared in Free Inquiry, vol 37 issue 2


Mattering Matters

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The concept of mattering is rich in implications spilling out in many directions—from the broadly geopolitical to the most intimate of personal struggles, the kind that can drive a person to delusion and despair. The concept of mattering is able to generate so many far-flung implications because it lies close to an aspect of human nature that all but defines what it is to be human. Mattering theory offers the framework for both an evolutionary explanation of this aspect of human nature and working out its multidimensional implications.1

As a secular humanist—with the emphasis here on humanist—I’m interested in how mattering theory offers ways to address the most fraught and recalcitrant differences that beset us, those that involve not only religion but also sexism, racism, classism, tribalism, and other false normative assumptions, some of which we haven’t yet gotten around to naming.

And as a secular humanist—now with the emphasis on secular—I’m excited by the approach mattering theory offers to the so-called “is-ought” gap.

It was David Hume who set the terms of this metaethical problem, challenging us to show how we can logically infer normative propositions regarding what ought to be the case from descriptive propositions stating what is the case. Since logic demands that no conclusion can be deduced from premises that isn’t already implicit within them, Hume’s formulation suggests that we can never validate any ethical assertions.

The theistic response to Hume’s challenge is to hitch a ride to the word of God. (Possible slogan: “It takes a God to override logic.”) On this view, God’s word is the is that miraculously begets the ought.

But what mattering theory suggests is that the Humean formulation of the challenge is misguided. We need not approach ought by way of is. We need not approach ought at all, because ought is embedded in the attitudes and emotions that allow us to pursue recognizably human lives. The normative, being a feature of the infrastructure girding what it is to be human, is a precondition of our being able even to raise Hume’s question in the first place.

It follows that we don’t need to make the impossible crossing from is to ought. We’ve been waiting for a phantom ferry that we don’t need. Though there are steep challenges in advancing our normative attitudes beyond the limited presumptions with which we start out, at least we don’t have to worry about how we can get ourselves to the banks of ought in the first place. We’re already there.

Appeals to the word of God are, at best, unnecessary, and at worst . . . well, you already know the worst: twisted rationales for sanctimony, bigotry, and atrocities.

A Beguiling Polysemy

These are big claims, and in the space of this essay, I can only sketch their grounding. But before going any further, let’s take a moment to appreciate the beguiling polysemy (the coexistence of multiple possible meanings) compressed within the word matter.

As a noun, matter signifies the stuff that composes all the things out there in the world—sticks and stones, brains and vats, moons and cream cheese. The concept of matter is a kind of placeholder for what that stuff is like, and it’s the science of physics that tells us what it’s like—its subatomic structure, its convertibility into energy, and the like. Whatever its details, matter is, by definition, quintessentially objective, meaning that it exists independent of perception. If you doubt whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when there’s nobody to hear it, then you doubt the existence of matter.

But when we transition to the verb to matter, we are smack within the human perspective, drawing distinctions regarding what and whom we ought to care about. That’s what the verb signifies, and it’s applied to both things and people. To say that something or someone matters is to say that we ought to care about them. When you assert your own mattering, you’re asserting that your existence presents circumstances that ought to motivate an attitude of appropriate attentiveness on the part of others.

Notice the presence of the word ought smuggled into the verb to matter. The transition from noun to verb transports us from is to ought, from the merely descriptive into the normative.

If certain attitudes of mattering are presumed in our being able to pursue recognizably human lives, if they are presumed every time we use the personal pronoun I, then the normative is kneaded into our lives. The normative presumption is as necessary a condition of our coherence as the law of noncontradiction, presumed by deduction, and the uniformity of nature, presumed by induction.2 Though none of these presumptions can be independently validated, no coherent human thought—no coherent human life—can proceed without them. The normative is no more expendable in pursuing a recognizably human life than the reliance on logic and empirical evidence.

Together, they all go into what the philosopher Wilfred Sellars had called “our manifest image,” the conceptual scheme that must be in place, and all of a piece, for the critical abilities to operate at all. “The conclusion is difficult to avoid that the transition from pre-conceptual patterns of behavior to conceptual thinking was a holistic one, a jump to a level of awareness which is irreducibly new, a jump which was the coming into being of man.”3

And, I dare say, of woman, too.

Staking a Claim in One’s Life

Our concerns about mattering are, at least in their most urgent and inescapable form, radically first-personal. We are concerned both with what matters and who matters, but it’s the latter that is the more emotionally urgent concern, especially as presented in its first-personal form.4

Our commitment to our own mattering is implicit in just about every emotion that we feel. One has to be emotionally engaged in one’s own life as in no others. One has to regard that life as mattering, if only to oneself. That’s what it means to pursue a life. That’s the condition of identifying that life as one’s own.5 It’s why you don’t (unless you’re a very sophisticated philosopher) regard your future self as if it’s another person, not identical with your present self and, therefore, a person about whose well-being you require a sophisticated argument in order to care.

The entire repertoire of our emotions—happiness, sorrow, hope, frustration, disappointment, gratification, fear, embarrassment, pride, shame, remorse, gratitude, longing, love, hatred, worry, relief, jealousy, envy, anger, humiliation, insecurity, resentment, betrayal, dread, desperation, resignation, despair—is the means that natural selection has provided us in order to monitor the ways that our lives, our very own, are going. They are the readings we are constantly taking on our major task in life, which is to persist and to flourish in the face of all obstacles, the same as for all organisms.

If our emotional repertoire is more extensive than that of other animals, it’s because our lives are more complicated, with many more opportunities not only to flourish but also, even more plentifully, to fail. If there are many more names for negative emotions than positive ones (and there are), blame the second law of thermodynamics, which yields far more ways for our lives to go wrong than right. As a little experiment, imagine right now the things that could happen to you today that would significantly improve your life. Now imagine the things that could happen to you today that would significantly ruin your life. Now compare the numbers.

Call this first-personal attitude of mattering “identity-mattering” in order to highlight how necessary it is to your having a sense of self at all. Identity-mattering, as thoughtlessly involuntary as drawing oxygen into your lungs, is the condition of staking a claim in your own life. Without it, it’s impossible to pursue your life.

And like all other reflexive responses, identity-mattering is ultimately to be explained by natural selection. Self-preservation is a prerequisite to an entity persisting rather than entropically falling apart, and the genes’ best strategy is to keep an organism intact for as long as the genes need it in order to get themselves replicated.6

And so it is that each organism is endowed with an unthinking, ceaseless will to survive and flourish: to seek sustenance, flee the predator, be devoted 24/7 to seeing another dawn. No organism has to think about whether it has the right to put its survival and flourishing first and foremost. The genes don’t have time to waste with tortuous and fallible justifications—not even in us, the creatures who specialize in tortuous and fallible justifications.

If an organism—any organism—were to have the capacity to articulate its deepest motivation, the one that is presumed in all its other motivations that drive it on in its ceaseless tasks and activities—its scurrying, hiding, roaming, raiding, mating—it would say that its own existence in this world, its persistence and its flourishing, matters. Its own life deserves the assiduous attention and dedicated activity that every creature unthinkingly gives it for as long as it is what it is.

The assertion of its own individual mattering is precisely what an organism would speak—what its genes would have it speak—had it, among its genetic endowments, the capacity for speech. We, of course, are the organisms who do have that capacity. Our identity-mattering, so constant an aspect of our lives as to go as unremarked as a steady hum we only notice when it stops, is the expression of the fundamental mechanism of natural selection.

Close One Gap and Another Opens

But what exactly does the articulation of identity-mattering amount to? Not much, at least in terms of the mattering claim that it’s staking out. The mattering being asserted doesn’t extend beyond the borders of a person’s own point of view, a point of view that the person can’t help having, given the fact of who that person is. I matter to me: that’s the most that can be squeezed out, by way of implication, from identity-mattering. And I matter to me is rather a faint and halting whisper of a mattering claim. It’s a proposition that’s both hypothetical and relative. It amounts, logically speaking, to no more than this: For any x, if x is identical with RNG, then RNG matters to x.

And yet identity-mattering feels like so much more than this hypothetical statement of relative mattering. Identity-mattering seems to burst through the bounds of the qualified “I matter to me” to spill over into the categorical “I matter.” Not “I matter to me” because, well, I happen to be me, but rather “I matter,” full stop. Not “my existence and flourishing ought to claim the appropriate attention from me” but “my existence and flourishing ought to claim the appropriate attention from others.” This normative claim is what any of us means when we make an appeal to our intrinsic human dignity.

And when other members of our species disregard one’s own being as demanding the appropriate attitude, the sense of indignation and outrage that naturally ensues makes abundantly clear that our identity-mattering swells out beyond that whispered assertion of relative mattering that dare not make any claim on the attitudes of others. Oh, we make such claims, if only in the silent recesses of our raging hearts.

But the forces of natural selection have also shaped us into reason-giving creatures, capable of casting doubt on what we unreflectively feel to be the case. And it doesn’t take all that much reflection to glimpse the gap between I matter to me and I matter full stop. Grant us any leisure at all from the violent struggle for existence, advance us any distance beyond the Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and short” state of nature, and the gap is there to be glimpsed.

We can’t help feeling both that we categorically matter and, at the same time, feel compelled to demonstrate that we categorically matter. This compulsion is what I call “the mattering instinct,” and the choices we make in responding to it individually define us.7

Our striving to make good on the mattering instinct somehow or other is common to us all. It’s in that “somehow or other” that we differ, so drastically as to often amaze, amuse, baffle, and sometimes horrify each another. Just as the language instinct generates the great diversity of languages, so, too, the mattering instinct generates all the passions and projects to which people dedicate their lives—George Eliot and Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt no less than Donald J. Trump.

The very best of our species, and the very worst, is to be found in the diversity of responses to the mattering instinct, which means that, yes, not all ways of responding are equally good, neither psychologically—in terms of the sense of happiness and well-being they provide—nor ethically. If I feel that the only way for me to establish that I categorically matter is to invade Poland, then too bad for me.

The Human Condition

And in case you haven’t yet had your fill of the protean materializations of the wonder-word matter, let me suggest that its polysemy provides the most succinct statement I know to give of the human condition. What we are, we humans, are creatures of matter who are determined to matter. We are matter that would matter.

In fact, for some—for many—the determination to matter leads to a rejection of the extremely probable truth—especially given what we now know scientifically—that we are indeed creatures of matter. How could mere matter attain the mattering sufficient to close the gap between I matter to me and I matter full stop? The mattering instinct—delivering a psychic punch that induces confusion—is at least as responsible for the belief in a human immaterial essence as our primal animal fear of death.

The great psychic force of the mattering instinct often tramples evidence underfoot. If people assume that the world must be a certain way in order for their mattering instinct to be met, they will passionately believe that the world is that way, evidence be damned (literally). There is nothing—not only empirical evidence but also logical coherence and compassion for our fellow creatures—that can’t be overcome by the explosive psychic power coiled up within the mattering instinct.

This last observation suggests—even without getting into the developed normative aspects of mattering theory—some objective standards for evaluating the multiplicity of responses that human ingenuity has churned up in response to the mattering instinct: namely, that any response that violates empirical evidence, logical coherence, or compassion for our fellow creatures is inadmissible. There’s no need to trample rationality and compassion underfoot in trying to do justice, somehow or other, to the mattering instinct.

As secular humanists, we don’t have to think twice about endorsing these standards. They simply clarify what we’ve always advocated.

Mattering Cheesecake

And this brings me, quite naturally, to the subject of religion. What religion offers us is mattering cheesecake.8 It simultaneously stimulates several mattering receptors, which makes for an intensely gratifying validation of one’s mattering.

For not only does religion offer us an immateriality allegedly shared by God and his heavenly hosts, it also offers us cosmic mattering, and it doesn’t get any bigger than that. We matter to the universe, in the personhood of God, who matters as categorically as it is possible to matter. Even if we feel that our existence is failing to elicit the appropriate attention from mortal others, it’s got the infinite and eternal attention of the incomparable Other.

Is religion the only way to arrive at a sense of mattering sufficient to get one happily through one’s life? Of course not. But let’s be honest. Only religion can offer, in response to the mattering instinct, the sublime sense of cosmic mattering.

But wait, as the late-night television commercials blare out: There’s more!

Another common way that people arrive at their sense of mattering is to convince themselves that they matter more than others. Just as some can’t rustle up a feeling of mattering sufficient to carry on with life without believing in cosmic mattering, many can’t achieve the requisite sense of mattering without feeling that they matter more than others. Call it “comparative mattering.”

And religion stimulates this powerful mattering receptor as well. Believers believe the content of their beliefs renders them superior to all those who believe otherwise—the unconverted, the unsaved, the unchosen, the infidels, the heretics who interpret some line of a holy book that way instead of this way.

What religion offers is the richest confection lined up in the mattering display case. Sublime cosmic mattering folded into divine immateriality, with scrumptious comparative mattering sprinkled on top.

Now there’s a mattering cheesecake to clog the critical faculties.

False Moralities

Of course, it’s not just in religion that the comparative sense of mattering functions heavily. Attaining an adequate sense of mattering by measuring yourself against others and concluding that you matter more than they do, for whatever reason—being richer, smarter, stronger, classier, sexier, better-looking, better-connected, better-dressed, better-born, more famous, more athletic, more literate, more scientific, more sociable, more mathematical, more artistic, more beloved, more authoritative, more self-sacrifi­cing . . . the list goes on and on—is quite common.

All the ideological biases we’ve (most of us) finally learned to spot and (in principle) denounce—racism, sexism, classism, colonialism, tribalism, ageism, ableism, lookism, nationalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity—fall under the rubric of categorical mattering of the comparative kind: one race matters more, one gender matters more, the rich and/or well-born matter more, citizens residing in powerful nations matter more, those related to me matter more, the young matter more, the able-bodied matter more, the good-looking matter more, the citizens of one’s own country matter more, those whose sexual practices could lead to procreation matter more.

The laborious moral progress that we’ve made over the centuries has consisted in undermining, one by one, these ideological claims to comparative mattering. The stubborn persistence of so many of them, the way that—once caught out—they may retreat but aren’t entirely extirpated, attests to their being sourced by the powerful mattering instinct.

There are far more forms of comparative mattering than we have names for. So, for example, there is the view that the most gifted, capable of originality and depth, categorically matter more than the insipid and uninspired. We might call such a viewpoint “talentism.”

Talentists don’t simply assert the obvious truth that, relative to a particular endeavor, a particular talent matters. So, for example, relative to my occupation as a philosopher, my philosophical abilities matter. No, talentism is—like racism, sexism, classicism, etc.—an assertion of categorical mattering put forth on the basis of comparisons with others, achieving a sense of categorical mattering at the expense of regarding others as your mattering equals.

Nietzsche was a proponent of a strong version of talentism, asserting that not only do the talented—those who have the potential to realize the human capacity for the extraordinary and thus carry humanity to the next stage of its advancement—matter more, the untalented don’t enjoy any categorical mattering at all. All of the chaos and destruction of the Napoleonic wars, Nietzsche writes, were worth it to have brought forth such a startlingly original specimen as Napoleon. “The Revolution made Napoleon possible: that is its justification. We ought to desire the anarchical collapse of the whole lot of our civilization if such a reward were to be its result.” (The death toll of the Napoleonic Wars was roughly four million.10)

Talentists often refine their position so that it focuses on some particular chosen form of talent—unsurprisingly, usually one that the talentist in question enjoys. The academic brouhahas that set scientists and humanists in fierce opposition to one another aren’t only a matter of competing over university funds. The pitch of passion aroused points to the mattering instinct as instigator.

A Shakespearean scholar of renown once told me that she used to live with a physicist who, when asked to help clear the dinner dishes, would remark that he spent his life discovering the laws of nature while she merely interpreted lines of man-made poetry, the implication being that his time—his self—mattered more.

The urgency with which we feel the mattering instinct, which then flows into our individual responses to it, makes us commit all manner of fallacies, secular as well as religious, generating false moralities as we go. Talentism is yet another of them.

Our Projects’ Progress

There are additional reasons pushing us in the direction of talentism. To make use of one’s own particular talents—to put them to work on projects that will quicken a person’s interest in pursuing one’s own chosen life, whether it be in science or poetry, fashion or philanthropy, social activism or sexual seduction, home improvement or “soul-improvement”—is part of our strategy for answering the mattering instinct. This strategy is perhaps even more relied upon by us secularists, who abstemiously forego the mattering cheesecake.

The choice of appropriate projects for our particular talents is not only, for many of us, a necessity (along with our personal relationships) for having a life that we have a keen interest in pursuing. These projects, and the talents that are (we hope) displayed in them, get enlisted in our attempts to demonstrate our categorical mattering, so that their progress and setbacks become one with our sense of how well our lives are going. Our projects and their associated talents, embodying what matters the most to us, are cathetically (that is, in relation to mental or emotional intensity) attached to our evaluations of who matters in its most urgent first-personal form.

It’s therefore mighty natural, if also mighty fallacious, to conclude that what matters to us is the very thing that, in general, accords more mattering to people. But in doing so, we fall victim to yet another specious inference from is to ought.

Let me suggest, as an additional standard for evaluating the various responses churned up by the mattering instinct, the following: any that are grounded in a form of comparative mattering—including not only sexism, racism, classism, tribalism, nationalism, etc. but also the many versions of talentism—are just as inadmissible as those that are irreconcilable with empirical evidence, logical coherence, and compassion.

And this is true even if your talents are so awesome that Nietzsche himself would grant you the grace of mattering.

So Maybe You Ought to Help with Those Dishes

Since the conditions that give rise to our irrepressible sense of categorically mattering, as well as to our agonizing over it, are universally shared, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to categorical mattering, we are all in the same boat.

This leaves us with two possibilities. Either none of us categorically matters—our sense that we do is a kind of trompe l’oeil thrown up by the existential pressure of our identity-mattering—or we all categorically matter and to the exact same extent.

Which of these two possibilities is true hardly matters, ethically speaking, since the consequence of both is the same: to the extent that we feel our own categorical mattering—which we do, which we must, since it provides the very infrastructure for the emotions that evolution has bequeathed us—we have to extend that same categorical mattering to all who share the mattering instinct, which is, of course, all of us.11

Though so many human goods are inequitably apportioned among us—riches and status, beauty and health, talent and love—when it comes to the distribution of categorical mattering, there is absolute and inviolable equality.

And if anything at all ought to matter to us, then surely it is that.


  1. It was Andy Norman who first suggested the term mattering theory, after I gave a talk at his invitation at Carnegie Mellon.
  2. It was also David Hume—such a troublemaker—who posed “the problem of induction,” demonstrating that the presumption of the uniformity of nature (that nature has laws that are the same always and everywhere) underlies all of our empirical reasoning but cannot itself be justified, since it is neither true by reason of logic nor capable of empirical support without vicious circularity. See David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapters 4 and 5, and also his A Treatise on Human Nature, Section 3. In the Treatise on Human Nature, Part 4, section 1, Hume also addresses the problem of noncircularly validating logic.
  3. Wilfred Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962, and New York: The Humanities Press, 1963).
  4. Compare: “Practical thought is radically first-personal.” Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana, 1993), 19. Williams’s emphasis on the ineradicably first-personal aspect of all our practical reasoning set him in opposition to utilitarianism. If utilitarianism is understood as forbidding us from having a special emotional stake in our own lives, then I’m with Williams on this one. Even the most extreme of altruists—of the kind portrayed in Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help—has an emotional stake in those lives of theirs that they dedicate to extreme altruism. Cut out one’s special attitude toward one’s own life, and you not only cut out the first-personal source of normativity; you cut out the entire emotional and motivational structure of pursuing a life.
  5. The germ of this idea is to be found in Spinoza. He asserts that what he calls conatus—the striving that each thing has in its own persisting and flourishing—constitutes the very identity of that thing. See The Ethics, Part 2, proposition 7.
  6. Organisms are, from the gene’s point of view, mere means to an end, which is why senescence is genetically built into an organism. From the gene’s point of view, this makes perfect sense; from our point of view, it’s bloody tragic.
  7. When I first began to explore these ideas, in a book published in 1983, I called this determination to establish our mattering “the will to matter.” Though that earlier phrase has some merit, since it suggests the exertions we make on behalf of our mattering, I’ve come to prefer “mattering instinct,” since it marks this aspect of human nature as falling under the explanatory scope of natural selection. I once again thank Andy Norman for suggesting the change in terminology.
  8. This is to adapt a metaphor that Steven Pinker had used to explain the nonadaptive pleasure we get from music. “I suspect music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of . . . our mental faculties.” How The Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 534.
  9. Nietzsche had extremely high standards for whom he considered redeemable by reason of talent. Wagner enjoyed the Nietzschean imprimatur for a short while but was soon stripped of it.
  10. Mathew White, Atrocities: The 100 Worst Episodes in Human History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013). The Napoleonic Wars, in White’s ranking, come in at number nineteen.
  11. In Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Thomas Nagel argues that the neo-Darwinian conception of humans undermines any claims to the objectivity of morality. What I am arguing here is that, on the contrary, neo-Darwinism grounds morality, providing the explanation for why we are already firmly planted on the banks of ought, with no need for the phantom ferry we’ve been waiting for since Hume. It doesn’t matter if we only necessarily feel, as a condition of our being human, that we categorically matter and really don’t. Moral universals nevertheless follow.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She has written ten books, the latest of which is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Pantheon, 2014). She has won numerous awards for her fiction and scholarship, including a MacArthur fellowship. In 2015, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Goldstein is a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a project of the Council for Secular Humanism, and an Honorary Director of the Center for Inquiry.

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