Saturday, April 16, 2011

Does Thinking Make It So?

Regular readers of my blog will know that it was during my high school years that I broke away from the fundamentalist Christian beliefs which had defined much of my life since young childhood. This time in my life was challenging for a multitude of other reasons as well, including family problems and the fact that I had always been considered by my peers to be "weird" (i.e., I didn't really fit in).  However, I was extraordinarily fortunate to find an amazing mentor in my 11th grade English teacher. She, probably more than any other person, helped to mold me into the person I am today, and consider her to be one of my best friends.

Whenever I was experiencing one of my frequent bad days, she would rattle of a short quote from some great work of literature, which would encourage me to contemplate my situation from a different perspective. The most frequent of these snippets was a little gem from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as the eponymous protagonist speaks with two of his courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Act II, Scene II)

This quote has stuck with me and flickers through my mind often. Of course, I believe it makes a significant point about how we perceive good and bad: much of that perception is not based on external events, but on our internal thoughts concerning those external events. My mentor's purpose in reciting this quote was to remind me that, despite the upsetting and frustrating circumstances of my life at that moment, I could feel better about my situation simply by altering my thoughts. I found this suggestion beneficial. As I said, it continues to flicker through my mind often. Sometimes, humans have a tendency to overreact to our problems. We take small issues and blow them up into larger ones. We become deeply emotionally invested in things that do not truly matter. We let small negative experiences disproportionately impact ourselves and those around us. The way in which we choose to think about a situation, especially a negative one, can greatly modify our discernment of it, hopefully transforming it into something more positive.

However, Hamlet's quote is absolute. He uses the word "nothing". For Hamlet, our perceptions of the "goodness" and "badness" of absolutely everything is determined by our thoughts. Absolutely nothing contains any inherent "goodness" or "badness". It is all a product of our minds.

But is this true? I'm not so sure.

Yes, I am willing to stipulate that our thoughts can, and do, greatly color our moral opinions. We formulate judgments based on mental criteria we have created over time, and these criteria are dependent on our genes, our upbringing, our memories, our knowledge, our beliefs, and our current circumstances, to name but a few. We do this precisely because we are conscious. Precisely because we are human. Our ability to conceive and theorize about morality is, in my opinion, one of the most essential qualities which separates us from other animals.

But does that mean "goodness" and "badness" are only arbitrary definitions existing in the human mind, not actual qualities which exist in their own right? Again, I'm not so sure.

Of course, I am sure that this debate has been held, in slightly different variations, since the dawn of civilization, if not earlier. A Google search will probably take you to hundreds, if not thousands of different answers, each with their own justification(s). In these types of profound enigmas, where no wide consensus exists, I must follow my gut instinct, which is that there is some intrinsic "goodness" or "badness" in particular actions. Case in point, I believe that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong. Even if someone twists their thoughts to somehow legitimize this action, to give it "goodness" in their own mind, it does not change the fact that the murder of a human being is intrinsically wrong.

That is my conclusion, anyway, for the time being. However, in all honestly, I must say that I am not entirely certain. It is a question I have been pondering for a while now, and while I lean towards the hypothesis I presented above, my mind is by no means permanently made up. This is a topic I plan to continue researching extensively, in the hope that I might be able to better understand this puzzle our species has been discussing for thousands of years.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with Hamlet, that good and bad are only illusions of our minds? Or do you believe they are inherent properties, existing beyond the human mind? Or do you conceive a totally different answer? Please, I would love to hear everybody's thoughts on this issue, whether you have a strong position, a hesitant idea (like me), several different theories, absolutely no freaking clue, or just want to comment on the issue itself.


  1. I think good and bad can have varying degrees and can often be situational, but I wouldn't say they are arbitrary. Nor do I think they exist only in our mind. I think you can even make a choice to do a bad thing for a higher good.

  2. I was going to type out a long response...but I agree with Andrew.

    I'd also argue that you can make a choice to do a good thing for a bad reason.

  3. In my opinion, there has to be some context to make the question meaningful. As you wrote:

    "Our ability to conceive and theorize about morality is, in my opinion, one of the most essential qualities which separates us from other animals."

    Those who have studied animal behavior tell us that lower animals have - for lack of a better term - "codes of conduct" which probably is a rudimentary form of ethics.

    The codes of proper conduct varies widely among the human animal from culture to culture. Yes, we differ from the lower animals in our ability to conceive and articulate concepts like "intrinsic value" and "natural rights." That is why I think of ethics as strictly a human enterprise.

  4. I like the idea of contextual ethics. It allows us to take each situation independently. Yet, I believe that as we make this journey we will begin to see that we find more and more that contexts began to appear over and over again. This gives us more or less a set of ethics which we will then follow again and again. As for myself, I find that if I truly follow what my heart tells me, I won't go wrong. Do no harm and treat others with respect as I wish to be treated.