Todd May’s Theory

Philosopher Todd May came up with the idea of narrative values – a way of describing one’s live through an overarching theme. Different from Susan Wolf’s theory, May didn’t believe that an individual had to have a project to provide meaning in their life or that they had to be successful – he believed that if an individual exhibited a narrative value throughout their life, they would lead a meaningful life. May said that what people cared about is if their lives actually possessed these values. Assessing meaning in one’s life is not easy – it is very complex in judging what narrative values a life possess, especially when these values may conflict with each other. The complexity of judging one’s life is supposed to reflect the complexity of life itself. The connection between narrative values and meaning in life is that these values illuminate a life worth living; the values must be active and lived by that person. Because these values can come in varying degrees, some lives may be seen as more meaningful than other lives that exhibit a lesser degree of the same narrative value. Listed below are examples of celebrity lives that can be evaluated to see how meaningful they are.


Caitlyn Jenner

In the video at the URL above, Caitlyn Jenner can be seen accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage award at the ESPYs.  She is recieving this award because of her tremendous courage in being able to open up and tell everyone who she truly wished she could be. One of the narrative values discussed by May was courage. In a very obvious way, this award is reassuring Jenner that her life does have meaning, at least in May’s mind.  When talking about courage, May uses the example of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist. Hamer fought for many years against the Democratic party’s all-white Mississippi delegation. In 1964, a compromise made was taken back and denied her and others, including Martin Luther King, observer status. In 1968, she was seated as a member of the delegation. This act of courage through times of diversity can be compared to Caitlyn Jenner’s story. When she come out and told people she was going to go through a sex change, she faced a lot of criticism and judgement. The fact that she could stay true to herself and go through with the surgery anyway shows that her life could find meaning through the narrative value of courage.

Donald Trump

For a short video highlighting some of Trump’s beliefs in his own words, click here.

Different from under the scope of Wolf’s philosophy, Trump’s life may not have as much meaning when assessed by the the narrative values that Todd May considers the derivation of human meaning in life. Trump’s life can be characterized by such values as dedication, intelligence and intensity, but also by anti-values such as greed, violence and apathy. While dedicated to his own success and ideals, he pursues them with the thoughtfulness of a bulldozer, running over other ideas in his way, and taking everything he can for himself, as demonstrated by his ranking as one of the least charitable billionaires in the world: giving just $6.7 million of his multi-billion dollar worth in 20 years. He is commonly cited for inappropriate language and behavior at public, televised events, and has the unbridled temper of a child, promising unreasonable things for his future plans just to get attention and a defined support group. While a smart business man and apparently politician, these successes do not make a meaningful life, or make up for his lack of character and successful demonstration of narrative values. So while not a use-less life in May’s eyes, Trump’s life leaves a lot to be desired in terms of meaning through life-long, narrative values.

Kanye West 

As for May’s theory, Kanye West displays many narrative values. A few that he displays are egocentrism, self righteousness, and arrogance. He displays these attributes through his work and personal life. If someone were to listen to his music, these characteristics would become very prevalent. He made a whole song about how much he loves himself, and most of his other songs are about his pursuit of women and money. Kanye also makes it very clear that he thinks he is the best at everything he does and that he only deserves the best. His clothing line also shows how highly he thinks of himself. He thinks his work is so valuable that he will sell shirts that are usually $20 for over $2,000 because his name is worth it. Kanye West does whatever he wants in public without thinking of the repercussions. In 2009, at the MTV movie awards, he cut off Taylor Swift because he believed she did not deserve the award she got. Instead he went on a rant about how Beyonce really deserved the award and how Swift had no business being there. He later apologized, but he continues to make fun of the situation with Taylor to this day. This is the way he will always be perceived and talked about. Because as Kanye says in his song about himself  no one loves Kanye like Kanye loves Kanye.

Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner’s life is viewed rather differently through May’s scope than is under Wolf’s philosophy. His life displays a spectrum of narrative values that includes boldness, creativity, immorality, and egocentrism that are responsible for both his successes and his flaws. Hefner lives a very glamorous and controversial life, and he is well known for living in a mansion with bikini clad women and marrying women more than fifty years younger than him. He has also had three marriages end in divorce due to him cheating and is known for his promiscuity. This immoral and egocentric lifestyle is what makes him into an icon, for better or for worse. He also embodies positive characteristics such as boldness and creativity, which are also responsible for his rise to fame and fortune. The audacity necessary to begin a magazine like Playboy is overwhelming, and Hefner’s courage is what ultimately caused him to revolutionize the adult entertainment industry. Hugh Hefner does not care about public opinion and lives life on his own terms. Even though his character is very questionable, May would still find his life meaningful because he has lived an actively engaged life and while his work may not have been morally right, it still had an impact nonetheless.