There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.

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8 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

  1. *cough*
    A fine series of thoughts, to which I would make only two minor objections.

    Firstly, as I read it, the quote in context in Hamlet has nothing at all to do with moral relativism. All that Hamlet is saying is that whether a thing brings intellectual pleasure or pain depends on how you interpret it: he’s identifying that a lot of what makes people unhappy (or happy) isn’t what happens, but what they think about it:
    H: “Denmark’s a prison” […]
    R: “We think not so, my Lord”
    H: “Why then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.”
    R: “Why then, your ambition makes it one. ‘Tis too narrow for your mind.”
    H: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

    What Hamlet is saying here is interesting, to be sure, but it’s nothing to do with moral relativism! There’s nothing here about right or wrong; there’s nothing even here about good and bad in a value sense, a moral sense, only in a pleasure/pain, happy/sad sense. To Rosencrantz, Denmark seems big and filled with delights and possibilities, while to Hamlet Denmark seems limited, constraining and hateful. This is no more profound (though perhaps more important) than the old observation that what seems cold to someone used to the tropics may seem warm to someone coming in out of a blizzard. This is actually a point of connexion to Epicurus: to one who has trained their mind, a meal of bread and cheese is as good as any food in the world, but those who habituate themselves to rich food find themselves discontent with wholesome, simple repasts. The needs required by nature are few and easily satisfied, as the famous observation goes, but the desires engendered by vanity extend without limit. So Rosencrantz is channelling Epicurus (it may be intentional, actually, given the time-period at the fact that Rosencrantz is a scholar), blaming Hamlet’s ambition (a form of vanity) for his inability to be happy with what he has.

    The fact that he’s thinking about a subjectivity of impression of physical things – rather than anything ethical – is hammered home when he goes off into his famous Richard E Grant speech a few moments later about his depression, reiterating the importance of interpretation: “this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilential congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – no, nor woman neither.” We should note from this, incidentally, the Hamlet clearly didn’t mean “thinking” in a purely intellectual sense – Hamlet THINKS that man and the sky are these wonderful things, knows they are, yet does not PERCEIVE them that way. It’s really perception that is subjective here.

    It’s also, incidentally, worth pointing out that unlike most people who stress this subjectivity of perception, Hamlet isn’t suggesting that impressions can simply be altered by choosing to think differently; the interpretation seems in-built, for all that it is non-universal. When Rosencrantz agrees that dreams are shadows, and says that ambitions (which he blames for Hamlet’s inability to be satisfied with Denmark) are only shadow’s shadows, Hamlet disagrees: “then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggar’s shadows.” That is, it is these insubstantial perceptions that are the monarchs over our lives, not vice versa. Here he is returning to a theme he addressed a few years earlier in Richard II:
    GAUNT: “What is six winters? They are swiftly gone.”
    BOLINGBROKE: “To men in joy; but grief makes one hour ten.”
    GAUNT: “Call it a travel that thou tak’st for pleasure.”
    BOL: “My heart will sigh that I misname it so / which finds it an enforcèd pilgrimmage”

    GT: “Teach they necessity to reason thus: / there is no virtue like necessity.
    Think not the king did banish thee / but thou the king. Woe does the heavier sit
    Where it perceives it is but faintly borne […]
    Suppose the singing birds musicians, / the grass whereon thou tread’st the presence strewed
    The flowers fair ladies, and their steps no more / than a delightful measure or a dance;
    For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bit / the man that mocks at it and sets it light.”
    BOL: “Oh, who can hold a fire in his hand / by thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
    Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite / by bare imagination of a feast?
    Or wallow naked in December snow / by thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?”

    …our perceptions, the suggestion seems to be, may be subjective, without being mutable!

    So anyway, in context, I don’t think the quote is relevant to moral relativism.

    The second point I’d make is that even out of context the quote isn’t really relevant to moral relativism. You seem to confuse two (confess’dly oft-confusèd) things, key to which is your line that morality was thought of as “absolute and objective”. Yes – but those two things are not synonyms! The opposite of absolute is relative; the opposite of objective is subjective. Relative qualities are those that cannot be described in neutral terms but only through reference to some specific thing that must be selected. In this sense almost all moral theories are relative – saying “yes” is only wrong in contexts where the truthful answer would be “no”, for instance, so the morality of the action is relative to its context. More usefully, moral relativism usually means in the strong sense morality relative to the agent or the judge, or more broadly relative to the surrounding cultural context. Subjective qualities, on the other hand, are those that would not exist in nature without intelligent minds. “Reminding people of ostriches,” for instance, is a subjective quality – without an intelligent observer, nothing would remind anybody of ostriches. There is no “reminds people of ostriches” particle to be discovered in an accelerator.

    Importantly, however, relative qualities may be objective. “Larger”, for instance, is a relative quality (larger than what?), but it is not subjective – X would be larger than Y even if nobody were looking (we can assume for sake of argument). “Would appear the same colour as a bluebell to a distant observer” is relative (which bluebell? is the observer on the far side of a coloured film?) but is not inherently subjective (the property could be true even if there were no observer – even if there were no observers anywhere in the universe (provided we define ‘appear as X colour’ in physical, retinal-sensory terms rather than subjective impression terms)).
    On the other hand, subjective qualities may be absolute. “Is the capital of England” is subjective (in a mindless universe, “being the capital of” is meaningless) but is not relative (at least, not if you begin by specifying a time, an England, etc). “Is disliked by at least one person” is subjective, but is not relative (outside of the trivial relativities of timeframe, etc). “George is disliked by at least one person” is just a fact, it’s not relative to anybody or anything (relative to me, Jack dislikes George; relative to Jack, Jack dislikes George; etc).

    So your idea of solitary confinement being ‘unambiguously bad’, for instance, is saying that the harm that solitary confinement does is absolute and non-relative (in existence, if not in precise nature), even though it is clearly (if we’re talking about mental harm) subjective.

    Subjectivism and relativism often go together, but they’re quite different things.

    A third point I’d make (I know I said two, but that was mostly a Red Dwarf joke) is that solitary confinement isn’t obviously “unambiguously bad”. You can’t get away with just condemning the things you think are bad while treating everyone else’s judgements as relativism and subjectivism! Yes, lots of people don’t like being confined by themselves. But you face three problems:

    a) almost everything is in gross (if not in net) harmful to people. But most things you do not consider unambiguously bad. So solitary confinement must not just produce some identifiable harm, but that harm must cross a certain threshold. How can you define that threshold?

    b) the actual harm done by solitary confinement clearly IS relative. Many people are greatly wounded by even brief periods of solitary confinement. Others, however, suffer little or no measurable injury even from extended periods of solitary confinement. Indeed, many people seek out solitary confinement voluntarily, whether for (in retreats and the like) short spans of time or (in the case of hermits and recluses) for a lifetime, and while they may be slightly odd people in many cases it’s hard to say that they are all horribly damaged by the experience.

    c) you treat words like ‘harm’ and ‘need’ as though their meaning was obvious, but it is not. Solitary confinement deprives us of something we need? Well, not in the most obvious, objective sense of ‘need’ it doesn’t – people can biologically survive for decades in solitary confinement without dying. So presumably you mean something broader by ‘need’ than just ‘prerequisite for continued biological existence’. Confinement can often change a person, so is that it? But everything changes us – which changes do we ‘need’ to avoid? The whole approach seems a bit like question-begging, because if we could arrive at any consensus on what people “need” and on what “harms” them, then we would be a long way toward having solved all the substantial problems of ethics already!

    d) this begins from the thesis that what is harmful is bad, and by extension that what is not harmful is not bad. Finding non-relative morals is just then a matter of finding something unambiguously harmful (problematic though, as addressed above, that might be). But that starting point is already begging the question (assuming that your ‘harm’ means something more concrete than just ‘whatever is bad’). Many would say that, for example, justice might be a good thing, although justice often seems to be at odds with the path of least harm. For instance, X has raped Y and murdered Y’s family. What should be done? Most people have the instinctive view that X should in some way be punished, but those punishments will themselves be things we generally consider harmful – things like imprisonment, or execution, or deprival of property. Wouldn’t it result in less ‘unambiguous’ harm if we simply gave Y happy-drugs that made them forget and not care about what had happened? Assuming that we could somehow prevent X from re-offending without harming them (or without harming them as much as punitive measures would do), it would seem that medicating Y would clearly be the least-harm response from society, since any serious punishment of X would be, as you put it, ‘unambiguously bad’. [some would say that in these cases punishment does not harm X, and that things like pain and suffering and confinement and even death are good for them, because they’re good for their soul or for their standing in the calculus of justice; but obviously those definitions of ‘harm’ don’t let us use pseudo-scientific objective ‘harm’ measurements like pain and pleasure as the basis of our judgements, but are talking about something else]. Likewise in distributive justice. If A works hard for society while B is a freeriding slacker, we instinctively think that A should receive more than B, particularly if A is poorer to begin with. But if A is a tough, capable, no-nonsense person with simple needs and great resilience, and B is a mollycoddled aesthetic sophisticate who weeps in agony at the very thought of wine that hasn’t been oak-aged, yet physically orgasms at the sight of siny shiny platinum, it would seem that giving A even as much as B, let alone a greater share in proportion to their greater labour, would do A little good, while doing B immense harm (perhaps even to the point of mental breakdown and suicide). So there is no room here for justice, it would seem, if harm and badness are equated. And what about the obsessive psychopath? When they are prevented from killing, they suffer great harm, the way that obsessives and addicts can do when blocked from fulfillment of their cravings. They appear to “need” to kill, and to be “harmed” by being restrained. Even if the world coincidentally aligned itself so that restrained always yielded the better calculus (so that, for instance, there never arose a situation where “we”, the moral judges, had to kidnapp victims, let them be sadistically tortured (but not physically damaged) and then wipe their memories with drugs, in order to give the compulsive sadist what they ‘needed’), most of us would cavil at the idea of calling “restraining compulsive sadists, murderers and rapists” “unambiguously bad” even in a prima facie and pro tanto way. And yet to avoid saying this, we would seem to need something different from psychologically-based measurements of “need” and “harm”…

    …so I think the situation is rather more troublesome than you suggest!

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    1. Your point about the quote’s original context is well taken. I like the excerpts of the Shakespeare plays you’ve included. I suppose I do ascribe certain positions to Shakespeare which I should not have. Hamlet’s idea about good and bad is stated so forcefully and memorably that it’s hard for me not to see it as something detachable from the context. But I’m definitely no Shakespeare scholar.

      Also I like your point about the different meanings of subjective and relative. I could definitely have been more clear with my terms. I was trying to compare subjective & relative vs objective & absolute. The two pairs are so often bundled together that it seemed permissible to do so. Yet it does leave my analysis rather vague.

      As regards my sentence about solitary confinement, I should have said “unambiguously harmful.” This still leaves the problem of defining harmful, of course, but I have trouble seeing how an uncontroversial threshold for harmful vs non-harmful could be established. Similarly with the concept of ‘need.’ In order to attempt any working definition of these terms, I think you’d need to think about the general run of people, not exceptional folks like ascetic monks. I also think a certain amount of medical and psychological knowledge would be necessary, which I certainly don’t possess.

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  2. Well, you’d need medical and psychological knowledge to set the exact limits of what you consider needful and harmful, but I don’t see that they’d be helpful in setting what you mean by ‘harmful’ and ‘needful’ as concepts (I may need a thermometer to tell me how hot something is, and even to help formulate my definition of “a hot day”, but the thermometer wouldn’t be help if I were trying to create the concept of ‘hot’ in the first place). Certainly if you’re trying to draw lines in the sand with words with “limit to relativism”, “quite simply”, “simply cannot” and “unambiguous”, I think you need to line up what you mean by your words first! Otherwise you’re just where you started, only instead of “bad” you now say “harmful”…

    I should clarify, incidentally, why I was making that subjective/relative distinction: if you take the Hamlet quote as making a moral claim, which I agree it often is, then it’s claiming moral subjectivism, rather than moral relativism per se. Which is important because moral subjectivism is a far, far less controversial position than moral relativism.

    And to simplify why I think (despite not being a Shakespeare scholar) the quote is out of context: I don’t think he means ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a moral sense. I think he means ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the sense in which they’re broadly synonymous with ‘nice’ and ‘not nice’, like a good meal or bad weather.

    I’m sorry, incidentally, if my comment ended up seeming too much like I was trying to take your brief remarks apart. It’s just, you get a philosophy degree, and nobody ever wants to talk philosophy (apart from the people who do but really shouldn’t), and then you see someone write a blog post with philosophers in it and you see they’ve used the word “unambiguously”… and oh, that’s a seductive, thrilling word, “unambiguously”!

    As compensation for my boorishness, take this rainy Hamlet clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WnNL67PEKU

    And just for fun, this clip on serious analysis of Shakespeare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOBV7DS65S8

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    1. No need to apologize! I relish the opportunity to talk with someone who has a background in philosophy. Often I feel incapable of giving adequate responses to your points, since I lack the training and have the habit of thinking sloppily. Occasionally I feel that I have a knack for philosophizing, but then I see someone who really does, and I know better!

      I loved the videos!

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      1. Oh, I’m doing it badly if I’m discouraging you! And to be honest my training was just getting in some arguments and reading some books, nothing… trained… about it.

        My general advice on thinking philosophically? When you find yourself thinking two things are equivalent, remind yourself that they are entirely different. Conversely, when you find yourself thinking two things are entirely different, remind yourself that really they’re more or less the same…

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        1. You’re not doing it badly! Every time I get a philosophical comment, I get a little better (hopefully).

          So what’s the philosophical consensus on apples and oranges?

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          1. Apples and oranges are virtually identical for most purposes – topological, cladistic and culinary. It’s no surprise that they provide the two most popular fruit juices.

            At the same time, while it is possible to see the ultimate similarity between the two fruits, they are an important reminder that when trying to compare two things by their attributes, those attributes cannot be compared directly in isolation, but only in the context of the whole. A certain looseness of skin, for instance, is a virtue for an orange, but a terrible vice for an apple! This has important consequences for our daily lives, whether we’re judging the moral worth of people or the robustness of an institution – we must bear in mind that in the quest for the sweetest fruit, what is promising in candidates of one kind may be disqualifying in candidates of another; and all parts must be judged within the context of the whole. Fortunately, what we also learn is that fruit of quite different kinds may often be equally of service to us!

            So they’re important things, apples and oranges, philosophically speaking.

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