When you talk about the meaning of life,?which sense of the term do you use-?external meaning or internal meaning? What bearing,?if any,?does the ephemeral nature of our existenc



Read the assigned reading from the chapter. Then choose ONE of the questions below to answer. Answer the question you chose in a response that is a minimum of 1-2 paragraphs.

Be sure to explain your answers and give reasons for your views. You should cite the textbook and use brief quotations and summaries from the textbook in your response. Do NOT use any other sources besides the textbook

  1. When you talk about the meaning of life, which sense of the term do you use– external meaning or internal meaning?
  2. What bearing, if any, does the ephemeral nature of our existence have on the question of whether life has meaning? Does the fact that we die negate the possibility of meaning in life?
  3. Is Schopenhauer right about the meaninglessness of life? Does the wretchedness of our existence show that life has no meaning?


Here are the kinds of questions about life—serious, uneasy questions—that we all ask ourselves sooner or later, often despairing of ever finding answers while wondering if the questions themselves make any sense: What is the meaning of life? What, if anything, makes life meaningful? What would make my life meaningful? Is life worth living? Does life have a purpose? What is the purpose of my life? Why am I here? What is the point of it all? Does God give life purpose? How can humans have a purpose if there is no God to give them one? How can we matter if we are, as science seems to suggest, not part of some divine cosmic plan? What meaning can my life have if all my struggles, hopes, and schemes ultimately end in death? What meaning can anything I do have if it will inevitably be undone and forgotten? We are microscopic specks in a vast cosmos—ants on a tiny blue rock spinning around a star identical to billions of other stars strewn among billions of galaxies. So how can we think our lives are of any significance at all? How can anything we do matter? In a world darkened by suffering and loss—where children starve, despots enslave, disease kills, and injustice thrives— how can life have any meaning? To all of this, it can be tempting to respond, “Who cares?” But people do care. Successful people sometimes ponder such questions when, despite their many achievements, they begin to wonder what the point of all their work has been. They ask, What is the ultimate purpose of all this activity? Why should I go on? Happy people devoted to the pursuit of pleasure can gradually—or quite suddenly—come to believe that their lives are trivial and without value. People living well-planned and steady lives can find their blueprint for life to be humdrum, arbitrary, or aimless. Questions about life’s meaning are forced to the surface by misfortune, tragedy, and heartbreak—by the death of a loved one, the failure of a career or business, disenchantment with a political or social cause, collapse of a worldview or belief system, devastating illness and disability, social isolation, poverty, racism, persecution. In such cases, life can seem bereft of meaning. And then a deeper question may arise unbidden: why should I keep living? What does philosophy have to say about all this? Actually, philosophy has plenty of useful things to say, although that has not always been the case. Philosophers have 9.1 Overview: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life 417 traditionally explored the goods that a life should contain if it is to matter, even though they have not usually applied the term “meaning of life.” Some famous philosophers have even insisted that probing the meaning of life is the central task of philosophy. Albert Camus (1913–1960), for example, declared in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”1 But only in the last three or four decades have Anglo-American philosophers begun to take the subject seriously and produce insightful work in this emerging field. In most of the twentieth century, philosophers ignored or dismissed the question of life’s meaning, even though many people (especially students) assumed that philosophy is mostly about the meaning of life. A lot of philosophers have insisted that the question is nonsensical because “meaning” is a term that typically refers to words and symbols, not objects, activities, and lives. To them, asking, “What is the meaning of life?” was like asking, “How heavy is the color blue?” Others have thought the question fundamentally unanswerable, that answering it is in principle not possible, or that even if answerable, no one knows or ever will know the answer. This icy pessimism about meaning in life has been thawing. The thaw has taken the form of a growing number of philosophers probing two areas: (1) what the meaning-of-life question means (what we’re really asking when we enquire about life’s meaning) and (2) what, if anything, makes life meaningful (what things can give meaning to a person’s life). The result has been greater understanding and clarity and a sense among those working in the field that—contrary to the pessimists— meaning in life is indeed possible. Philosophers agree that life’s meaning is a vitally important intrinsic value. That is, it is valuable for its own sake, not just as a means to something else. They also distinguish between meaning of life in general (or meaning of the universe or the human species) and meaning in individual lives. People usually call the former “meaning of life,” and sometimes they refer to the latter as “meaning in life.” For many, “meaning of life” is about meaning derived from God or religion or some spiritual or sacred order. They tend to ask questions like “What’s it all about?” or “What does it all mean?” For others, “meaning in life” is about meaning that they find or create for themselves. They might ask, “Is my life meaningful?” or “What things give my life meaning?” Mixing up these two senses of meaning can cause confusion. When people assert that life is meaningless, they may be saying only that life as a whole has no meaning, not that individual lives are meaningless. And when they say that life has meaning, they may be referring only to the meaning that their own lives exhibit. The majority of the philosophical investigations of life’s meaning have focused on meaning in life, on the quality or qualities that make an individual life worth living. Philosophers differ on these questions, but there are some common themes and even consensus on some matters. Most in the field argue that meaning in life is not about just one thing. This monist (one thing only) idea about meaning is a misunderstanding encouraged by the word the in “the meaning of life.” Having a meaningful life is not, they insist, 418 Chapter 9 The Meaning of Life only about achieving worthwhile goals, or only being involved with something greater than yourself, or only attaining choice-worthy purposes. Meaning in life is pluralistic; it has to do with several different elements. The philosopher Thaddeus Metz, author of Meaning in Life: An Analytic Study, offers this pluralistic account: Specifically, I advance a family resemblance approach, according to which enquiry into life’s meaning is, roughly, about a cluster of ideas that overlap with one another. To ask about meaning, I submit, is to pose questions such as: which ends, beside one’s own pleasure as such, are most worth pursuing for their own sake; how to transcend one’s animal nature; and what in life merits great esteem and admiration.2 Joshua Seachris, editor of Exploring the Meaning of Life: An Anthology and Guide, also takes the pluralistic approach: Indeed, when you ask both nonphilosophers and philosophers what they take the question [of life’s meaning] to mean, you will likely hear it explicated in terms of value, worth, significance, or purpose. . . . “Around what purposes should I order my life?” or “Does my life achieve some good purpose?” “What confers value on my life?” or “What makes my life worthwhile and not irredeemably futile?” or “What brings narrative coherence and intelligibility to my life (or some subset of its parts)?” or “In virtue of what is my life worthy of great esteem?”3 And this is how philosopher Thomas Hurka, author of The Best things in Life: A Guide to What Really Matters, explains his pluralist view: I’ll defend two related claims. One is that, contrary to Epicurus, Socrates, and many others, there isn’t just one ultimate good—there are many. Pleasure isn’t the only good thing in life, nor is philosophical understanding; each is just one item on a longer list of goods, so an ideal life can contain different good things. The second claim is that there isn’t a single best human life, say, that of a gourmet or a philosopher, but many kinds of good life. If there are many ultimate goods, then different lives can focus on different ones among them and still be equally good; a life of pleasure can be good, as can one of knowledge or creativity. Moreover, many individual goods can be realized in different ways. Different people can find pleasure in different things, understand different subjects, or achieve things in different domains. . . . So not only are there many ultimate goods, there can be many ways of achieving a given one.4 One way to understand the pluralistic perspective is to see the different manifestations of meaning as aspects of a single quality—value. According to the philosopher Iddo Landau, 9.1 Overview: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life 419 The meaning of life, then, has to do primarily with value. . . . Complaints that there is no meaning in life are complaints that there is insufficient value in life. Questions about the meaning of life are questions about what is of sufficient worth in life. A meaningful life is one in which there is sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value. This is one reason why people who take their lives to be meaningless sometimes say that they sense emptiness, although they occasionally find it difficult to explain what their lives are empty of. When asked in discussions, they sometimes reach the view that their lives are empty of issues of sufficiently high value.5 If the pluralistic standpoint is correct, then “What is the meaning of life?” is the wrong question. The consensus among philosophers is that meaning in life is not only multidimensional, it can also vary in intensity or quality. The meaningfulness of a life is not an all-or-nothing business. As Metz explains, Nearly all those writing on meaning in life believe that it comes in degrees, so that, say, some lives as a whole are more meaningful than others. . . . Note that calling someone’s life “more important” or “more significant” than another’s might be thought to imply some kind of assessment from a moral perspective, but in the present context it does not. One can coherently hold the view that some people’s lives are less meaningful, important, etc. than others, or even downright meaningless, and still maintain that people have an equal moral status grounding obligations to help and not to harm.6 People tend to equate meaningfulness in life with happiness, but most who study meaning think this is a mistake. Philosophers have much to say about the relationship between meaningfulness and happiness or pleasure. For now, we can let the philosopher John Martin Fischer make the most salient point: We certainly want to be happy. But meaningfulness is not the same as happiness, although we would expect a connection between them. If one’s life is meaningful, then probably the individual would be happy. But we can certainly imagine people with meaningful lives—scientists, artists, poets, philosophers, and so on—who struggle in their fields and are thus not very happy (if they are happy at all). Or we can consider people whose careers are deeply engaging and meaningful, but whose personal lives are troubled and who are thus not very happy. The recent suicides of the enormously successful fashion designer Kate Spade and the famous chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain illustrate this point. 420 Chapter 9 The Meaning of Life We can also imagine a very happy individual whose happiness comes from what we would consider trivial or superficial activities—maybe a life devoted to crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or counting the bulbs in the banks of lights at Dodger Stadium. We shouldn’t be elitist and perhaps these lives are to some degree meaningful. But meaning in life is not the same as happiness. One can have a very happy life that is only somewhat meaningful, and a very meaningful life that is not very happy.7 The connection between meaningfulness and morality is fraught. Could moral monsters like Hitler, Stalin, and the serial killer John Wayne Gacy have meaningful lives? Could a bad person’s life be meaningful just because he believes it to be? Can a person’s immoral actions obliterate the meaning in her life? While philosophers debate such questions, they mostly agree that moral rightness and meaningfulness need not go together. While creating a beautiful painting, an artist might add meaning to his life, but the act of creation seems to be morally neutral. Or, as Metz explains, [A]sking whether a person’s existence is significant is not identical to considering whether she has been morally upright; there seem to be ways to enhance meaning that have nothing to do with morality, at least impartially considered, for instance, making a scientific discovery.8 To be meaningful (however meaning is defined), what features must a life have? What activities, attitudes, or pursuits must a life comprise? Philosophers have investigated and critiqued particular meaning-conferring features and devised theories to explain how those can or should fit together. They, like the rest of us, have an intuitive sense of what these features might be. They identify many activities and experiences as meaningful, although they differ about the comparative worth of these factors and how they are related. Unsurprisingly, the list includes loving and caring relationships, friendship, creativity, beauty, personal excellence, moral goodness, helping others, knowledge, transcendence, and achievement. Is there a principle or theory that identifies a common thread that runs through all or most of these sources of meaning? Is there a theme that unites them? Philosophers have offered several different possibilities. They have argued that the elements that give meaning to life are those that involve: living according to your vision of life; recognizing the value of love; loving the good in everything; filling life with objective moral goods (love, loyalty, trust, etc.); exercising your capacity for creative activity; using or advancing your rational nature in exceptional ways; actively engaging in projects of objective worth; creating a world where happiness and love can thrive; or transcending yourself through moral, intellectual, and artistic achievement. These theories are not all created equal. But through critical reasoning, analysis, and argument, philosophers have tried to sort the plausible from 9.1 Overview: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life 421 the implausible. Along the way, they have looked for answers to a host of related questions: Is the meaning of life subjective? That is, is a person’s life meaningful just because she believes it is? Or are there objective criteria for judging whether her life is worthwhile? Can an ordinary person with limited talents and few resources live a meaningful life? How can her life be meaningful if she has not achieved something great or remarkable on a par with Beethoven, Gandhi, or Einstein? Can someone have a life worth living despite great pain and relentless sorrow? Suppose a man turns his back on his desperately poor family to obsessively pursue a life as an artist, a musician, a scientist, or a social crusader. Would his life be meaningful? Should we consider our life meaningless just because we can’t identify a goal or purpose for it? Is life in some sense so absurd that meaning in life is impossible? Any honest examination of life’s meaning must take into account the views of philosophical nihilists (or pessimists) who deny that life has any meaning or value. They have argued, among other things, that nothing matters because life is unremitting struggle, dissatisfaction, and pointless repetition; because in a thousand years nothing we do now will matter; because our lives will end in death and the cosmos in annihilation; because from the cosmic perspective life is absurd, arbitrary, and insignificant; because there is no God to give our lives purpose; and because there is no objective morality. Are the nihilists right? Contemporary Figure 9.1 People often begin their search for meaning by asking, “What is the meaning of life?” But the first step in finding answers is to understand the question. 422 Chapter 9 The Meaning of Life 1 When you talk about the meaning of life, which sense of the term do you use— external meaning or internal meaning? Life takes on meaning when you become motivated, set goals and charge after them in an unstoppable manner. —Les Brown Figure 9.2 Is a meaningful life possible only when lived in accordance with God’s plan? Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. —Jean-Paul Sartre My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right? —Charles M. Schulz philosophers acknowledge that there is truth in some nihilist claims, but they have also challenged them and argued for the possibility of meaningful lives. Most people seem to think meaning in life is some grand, towering truth. Or a deep mystery revealed only to the fortunate few, some esoteric wisdom that must be extracted from gurus and sages who live in caves or temples. This chapter should convince you otherwise—and demonstrate that with the help of philosophy, you can find your own way. Consider this odd fairytale. A graduate student with a master’s degree in business pays a visit to a philosophy professor. The student has come seeking something that she has so far failed to acquire in her studies: the ultimate secret, the meaning of life. The professor pauses, then answers in his best guru-like voice, “The meaning of life is . . . a big purple thing.” Silence. The professor chuckles; the student doesn’t know whether to laugh or sigh. With his absurd answer the professor means to make a point, or several. There is no great secret concerning the meaning of life, no cryptic bit of knowledge that, once known, will reveal all. There is no slogan or incantation or parable that will ensure your life is worth living. Moreover, no one can simply hand you the meaning of life as if it were a gift basket. The process of examining the question of life’s meaning or purpose is personal. You have to make that journey yourself. No one can bestow upon you what you must find for yourself, no more than a friend can tell you what your favorite foods are supposed to be. To the question of whether life holds any meaning for us, there are two principal answers: (1) Life has no meaning (the pessimist’s view) and (2) life in some sense does have meaning (the optimist’s view). The optimist’s answer can be further divided: Either (1) life’s meaning is external (the common religious perspective) or (2) life’s meaning is internal (the view held mostly by the nonreligious or nontheistic).


The pessimists (also called nihilists) have something in common with the religious optimists: They both believe that unless a divine entity or transcendent reality has provided the world with ultimate purpose or value, life is meaningless. In other words, life can have no meaning if external meaning is nonexistent. Among famous pessimists we can count the renowned Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Before undergoing a Christian conversion (and becoming an optimist), he found himself at age fifty doubting the existence of God and being tortured by the thought that life was entirely without meaning or purpose. Here we can see that his agony at the loss of meaning was extreme: Leo Tolstoy, My Confession [F]ive years ago something very strange began to happen with me: I was overcome by minutes at first of perplexity and then of an arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do, and I lost myself and was dejected. But that passed, and I continued to live as before. Then those minutes of perplexity were repeated oftener and oftener, and always in one and the same form. These arrests of life found their expression in ever the same questions: “Why? Well, and then?” At first I thought that those were simply aimless, inappropriate questions. It seemed to me that that was all well known and that if I ever wanted to busy myself with their solution, it would not cost me much labour,—that now I had no time to attend to them, but that if I wanted to I should find the proper answers. But the questions began to repeat themselves oftener and oftener, answers were demanded Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it. The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be. Being alive is the meaning. —Joseph Campbell Philosophy Lab Imagine that you are a devout person who feels that your life can be meaningful only if you act according to God’s plan. Fortunately, an oracle can tell you exactly what God has in store. He wants you (and everyone else on the planet) to . . . serve as food for beings on another planet, who happen to be God’s favorite people. You and all other humans, on the other hand, are to be meat for aliens. Now that you know God’s plan, is your life finally meaningful? That is, if you know only that God has a plan for you but know nothing about it, would that fact alone make your life meaningful? 424 Chapter 9 The Meaning of Life more and more persistently, and, like dots that fall on the same spot, these questions, without any answers, thickened into one black blotch. There happened what happens with any person who falls ill with a mortal internal disease. At first there appear insignificant symptoms of indisposition, to which the patient pays no attention; then these symptoms are repeated more and more frequently and blend into one temporally indivisible suffering. The suffering keeps growing, and before the patient has had time to look around, he becomes conscious that what he took for an indisposition is the most significant thing in the world to him,—his death. The same happened with me. I understood that it was not a passing indisposition, but something very important, and that, if the questions were going to repeat themselves, it would be necessary to find an answer for them. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed to be so foolish, simple, and childish. But the moment I touched them and tried to solve them, I became convinced, in the first place, that they were not childish and foolish, but very important and profound questions in life, and, in the second, that, no matter how much I might try, I should not be able to answer them. Before attending to my Samára estate, to my son’s education, or to the writing of a book, I ought to know why I should do that. So long as I did not know why, I could not do anything. I could not live. Amidst my thoughts of farming, which interested me very much during that time, there would suddenly pass through my head a question like this: “All right, you are going to have six thousand desyatínas of land in the Government of Samára, and three hundred horses,—and then?” And I completely lost my senses and did not know what to think farther. Or, when I thought of the education of my children, I said to myself: “Why?” Or, reflecting on the manner in which the masses might obtain their welfare, I suddenly said to myself: “What is that to me?” Or, thinking of the fame which my works would get me, I said to myself: “All right, you will be more famous than Gógol, Púshkin; Shakespeare, Molière, and all the writers in the world,—what of it?” And I was absolutely unable to make any reply. The questions were not waiting, and I had to answer them at once; if I did not answer them, I could not live. I felt that what I was standing on had given way, that I had no foundation to stand on, that that which I lived by no longer existed, and that I had nothing to live by. . . . All that happened with me when I was on every side surrounded by what is considered to be complete happiness. I had a good, loving, and beloved wife, good children, and a large estate, which grew and increased without any labour on my part. I was respected by my neighbours and friends, more than ever before, was praised by strangers, and, without any self-deception, could consider my name famous. With all that, I was not deranged or mentally unsound,—on the contrary, I was in full command of my mental and physical powers, such as I had rarely met with in people of my age: physically I could work in a field, mowing, without falling behind a peasant; mentally I could work from eight to ten hours in succession, without experiencing any consequences from the strain. And while in such condition I arrived at the conclusion that I could not live, and, fearing death, I had to use cunning against myself, in order that I might not take my life. Figure 9.3 Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Leo Tolstoy, My Confession 2 Is Tolstoy’s pessimism about life’s meaning a result of his objective assessment of his life, or is it merely a product of his unique personality traits? 9.2 Pessimism: Life Has No Meaning 425 This mental condition expressed itself to me in this form: my life is a stupid, mean trick played on me by somebody. Although I did not recognize that “somebody” as having created me, the form of the conception that some one had played a mean, stupid trick on me by bringing me into the world was the most natural one that presented itself to me. Involuntarily I imagined that there, somewhere, there was somebody who was now having fun as he looked down upon me and saw me, who had lived for thirty or forty years, learning, developing, growing in body and mind, now that I had become strengthened in mind and had reached that summit of life from which it lay all before me, standing as a complete fool on that summit and seeing clearly that there was nothing in life and never would be. And that was fun to him— But whether there was or was not that somebody who made fun of me, did not make it easier for me. I could not ascribe any sensible meaning to a single act, or to my whole life. I was only surprised that I had not understood that from the start. All that had long ago been known to everybody. Sooner or later there would come diseases and death (they had come already) to my dear ones and to me, and there would be nothing left but stench and worms. All my affairs, no matter what they might be, would sooner or later be forgotten, and I myself should not exist. So why should I worry about all these things? How could a man fail to see that and live,—that was surprising! A person could live only so long as he was drunk; but the moment he sobered up, he could not help seeing that all that was only a deception, and a stupid deception at that! Really, there was nothing funny and ingenious about it, but only something cruel and stupid.9 The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), another famous pessimist, argues that life is so bereft of meaning and so fraught with misery that the nonexistence of the world is preferable to its existence. Figure 9.4 Is life any less meaningful because it is short? 3 What bearing, if any, does the ephemeral nature of our existence have on the question of whether life has meaning? Does the fact that we will die negate the possibility of meaning in life? The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity. —Leo Tolstoy 426 Chapter 9 The Meaning of Life Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World” Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule. . . . The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one. But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole! We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have presently in store for us—sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason. No little part of the torment of existence lies in this, that Time is continually pressing upon us, never letting us take breath, but always coming after us, like a taskmaster with a whip. If at any moment Time stays his hand, it is only when we are delivered over to the misery of boredom. . . . Certain it is that work, worry, labor and trouble, form the lot of almost all men their whole life long. But if all wishes were fulfilled as soon as they arose, how would men occupy their lives? what would they do with their time? If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every Jack obtained his Jill at once and without any difficulty, men would either die of boredom or hang themselves; or there would be wars, massacres, and murders; so that in the end mankind would inflict more suffering on itself than it has now to accept at the hands of Nature. . . . Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat. . . . If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence? or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood.10 The distinguished atheist lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), defense attorney in the famous Scopes “monkey trial,” came to the same conclusion that Tolstoy and Schopenhauer did: Life is not worthwhile. “Life is like a ship on the sea,” he says, “tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed for no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot; simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.”11 4 Is Schopenhauer right about the meaninglessness of life? Does the wretchedness of our existence show that life has no meaning? Figure 9.5 Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). 5 What is Schopenhauer’s argument for the meaninglessness of life? Is his assessment of life based on objective facts or on his distinctive frame of mind? 9.2 Pessimism: Life Has No Meaning 427 Nietzsche: Reflections on Meaning Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844–1900) lived in the nineteenth century, but his ideas echoed loudest throughout the twentieth, and they resound still, over one hundred years after his passing. Today he is both reviled and embraced, and he has outraged many— including exponents of Christianity, contemporary culture, traditional morality, democratic socialism, and Western philosophy. Among those who have claimed to be inspired by his words are Marxists, postmodernists, atheists, anarchists, feminists, reactionaries, vegetarians, and Nazis. Some have claimed him as one of their own even though he has given them no explicit reason to (as in the case of the Nazis). The divergent perspectives on his work are due in part to his writing style, which is mostly brilliant but by turns opaque, poetic, aphoristic,

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