Hamlet & Morality: Where The Buck Stops

AGIP/Bridgeman Images
Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of Hamlet, at the Théâtre de la Musique, Paris, 1971

by James Shapiro
April 19, 2018
The New York Review of Books

by Rhodri Lewis 

This book relates to my past efforts on this blog and elsewhere arguing my hope for and the possibility of a global morality. See herehereherehere, and here. I’m not thinking of a morality based on an absolute truth, rather a scientifically-derived provisional truth based on the most simple humane principles. Those being minimizing the harm we do as individuals and maximizing the wellbeing and flourishing of the groups we live in. This would include ideals for human ecology – codes for our relationship to the planet and all its resources and other life forms. We are heading in that direction through the conventions and protocols of the United Nations. Author and skeptic Michael Shermer and neuroscientist and author Sam Harris suggest ways of arriving at such a global morality in their respective books, The Science of Good and Evil and The Moral Landscape. Regrettably, their approach has not been well received in the intellectual community or by the public.

Among the thinkers, criticism is mainly of three types. First, they say, you can’t legislate morality. Codes that might apply to all current and future societies, if such could ever be arrived at, would, due to cultural diversity, be so general that they would be meaningless due to exceptions and shaded meanings on specific moral codes. These critics often mistakenly cite the anthropological notion of “cultural relativity” claiming it prohibits, in all matters, taking moral positions favoring one culture or moral tradition over another. See moral relativism. Also, they ask, who would enforce such legislated morality, by what standards and methods?

The second form of resistance to the idea comes from the techno-economic determinists (cultural materialists). Developing systems of morality, they claim, is not a democratic or consensual process as it might be in a, say, small-scale, hunter-gather society. It is dictated by those wielding the most power and possessing the most wealth. That is, the morality the majority of us on Earth live by is that of those who win legislative power via the ballot box, those who influence voting by expending wealth, those who control the media, and those who use military and police force to defeat or constrain others within and outside their nation-state who dare to disagree with them.

Third is the David Hume objection: You cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is to say, the facts of science cannot be directly converted to moral codes. Even when you use a bridge from the facts to the morals such as tests of harm and wellbeing, the moral codes you derive are not really scientific, rather they are based on the bridges you create. These bridges they claim are subjective, not scientific.

As for the public, there is an insufficiently widespread understanding of science. This includes how a scientific approach to, say, harm, wellbeing and morality might be one that could be persuasive enough to make them abandon the pre-formed, packaged moral systems of their religious beliefs. Or, for the non-religious, their folk morality cobbled together from religious and secular notions and personal life experiences.

The book pictured above and featured in the linked review offers a solution of sorts. It addresses the problem of how a person, in a time of crisis, chooses a moral code for help in making a decision about actions they might take. I say a “solution of sorts” in that the review and the book has no recommendation because this is a too often an activity doomed to failure. The onus, the reviewer and author say, is placed on the shoulders of each individual in every moral search and decision that arises in his/her life. More will be said on this statement about moral codes and the perennial human condition tending toward failure later.

The review gets especially interesting at the paragraph beginning “As the long dominance of New Historicism...” where reviewer James Shapiro begins to examine Rhodri Lewis’s book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness in detail.

It is here, I think, where Lewis hits on a key Dark Mountain Project concept - the lethal myth of the Western notion of a humanism of hope and inevitable progress. Shapiro quotes Lewis then comments on him:

“Hamlet is not thus a model of nascent subjectivity, the first modern man, a dramatic laboratory for the invention of the human, or even a study of the frustrations attendant upon sixteenth-century princely dispossession. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.”

Shapiro: Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be “a victim, a symptom, and an agent” of a world built on hollow and self-serving humanist truisms and a “confused, self-indulgent, and frequently heedless” one at that.

Me: And here it is, Lewis’s indictment against modernity (and perhaps Humankind as a whole?):

“Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn…. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham…. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be.”

Shapiro: The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: “Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.”

Shapiro: The absence of any moral certainties means that it’s a “kill or be killed” world....

Me: The review gets even better from here so I’ll close with this line taken from the book. It spoke volumes to me: “Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of hunting—one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey.”

This is why in my own searching to flesh out, shore up, defend and commit to my personally-fabricated moral system I have been helped but never convinced by any single ideology: Abrahamic or any other theistic religion, philosophy including the Stoics, science (Harris and Shermer), Buddhism (even!), atheism, or pantheism.

Each of us is on our own in concocting or borrowing a moral system, and implementing it variously as needed. And we should be content that it will never be complete or perfect. I, for far too long, was convinced that my personal morality and worldview were substandard and could be uplifted and made whole and comforting to me by others’ ideologies. But I’ve only found that although my personal code can indeed be improved, it can never be fully complete or satisfying to me.

Even my fondness for the ideals and methods of the Enlightenment has its limits. To me, they have become mere suggestions cast into a world of language-wielding bundles of emotion, H. sapiens, who too often behave as brutes or sheep. Even when the most brilliant among us buy into these noble ideals, they are apt to fumble, stumble or find such goals difficult to live by. And it is almost impossible to persuade our fellows to follow them.

DMP’s claim that our modern story of civilization is doomed may be true. But maybe they are wrong that a better story is needed, can be found in the Arts, and will fix things. Maybe there is no such better story. No complete, satisfying story of how we should live.

Just as Lewis seems to think about Prince Hamlet, the poor fellow in his time of crisis had no real font of truth or wisdom to turn to but of his own making, and that, like everyone else’s, is doomed to imperfection and frequent failure.

I’m 70. It's time to reread Hamlet.

Top Image: AGIP/Bridgeman Images, Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of Hamlet, at the Théâtre de la Musique, Paris, 1971


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