9 comments

  • >There's a lot of pre-Shakespearean philosophy in this question about where good and bad actually lie. Protagoras (485-411BC) said that "man is the measure of all things", and as such there are no actual values because everything is relative to the person judging. Plato would have you believe that good and bad must exist in a higher world of ideas or "forms", which are perfect unchanging entities that we use to measure other things in terms of how they compare to these 'forms'. He said that the fact that our senses can be deceived proves that this higher world exists.Shakepeare seems to imply an agreement with Protagoras through Hamlet's above line. He's saying that what is good and what is bad are subjectively decided. I completely agree, and think that all such conceptual definitions are open to subjective differences in opinion. There are certain things that may seem objective, for instance it's unlikely you'll ever meet anyone who says genocide is good. However this does not mean the opinion is objectively the 'right' one, and indeed if such ideas were objectively held by all then genocide would never have taken place.With regards to Plato's proof I see none. People whose senses are not 'deceived' still come to different conclusions. Yet even if we're all wrong that does not prove a 'right' definition of good and bad exists somewhere 'out there'. It's far more likely to suggest that there is no definitive 'correct' definition.

  • >Perfectly reasonable answer which I won't argue with. The side on which you fall (Protagoras or Plato) has quite pronounced political implications.Taking two examples from stuff I've read recently, so near the top of my head:Phillip Blond would completely disagree with Protagoras and consider it post-modernist relativism (maybe; it is the latter, not the former) and ultimately illiberal through the guise of being liberal. There are such things as 'right' and 'wrong', as he makes abundantly clear in an extraordinary book that flows from pretty sound philosophical musings to what read like snippets from Littlejohn's Daily Mail column. He makes the ingenious, if contestable argument, that the more liberal a social policy (as Britain's has been, under governments of all shades, since the 1960s; or so he says) the more illiberal a state: if licensing laws and alcohol consumption are unregulated, if divorce is free etc. then there is more regulation required to secure the age-old liberal principle that one is free so long as one doesn't impinge another's freedom. The more freedom one is allowed, it follows, the more regulation of its use their must be. He never follows this argument through, but the implication it is, at least to a point, the more regulatory the state the more individual liberty can flourish. Now, Plato (unlike Hegel) believed that his perfect Forms were for (and of) the Gods; they weren't attainable on earth and, in fact, the essence of society tends to degenerate from close to its Form (never its Form, which doesn't change) to something very unpleasant. Plato's entire political thought is a conservative attempt to arrest this rather pessimistic and abysmal degeneration by ensuring that we keep as much of the essence of society – closest to its Form – as possible. It means returning to the essence, which is what the Republic was (and not by any means a republic either, but what Popper would call a 'closed' tribal society where the individual is entirely subverted to the state).If there is an original Good and Bad (as Plato argues that there must be) then the implication is that we must stay as close to and maximise the original Good and avoid its degeneration. This obviously means a directed view of Truth through propaganda, censorship and so on to keep close to the Form of moral standards.This is rushed – and I must run – but the point is that the Platonic view, if followed to political conclusions, must severely inhibit freedom of speech and, by extension, action. As liberals in a free society we must ensure Protagoras' doctrine is preserved through freedom of speech, debate, pluralism and free democratic political systems (which, to Popper, essentially mean preserving the ability for the masses to freely change government without bloodshed).A nice and important moral point, but also a vital political one.

  • >Good points. I always find these arguments good ones to discuss. I agree with the political comments you make, and think we can also take it into religion. Some liberals argue that all people must embrace the liberal idea that all ideas have value, and hence no ideas should dismiss all others without scientific proof. Implied within this view is the idea that the Jehova's Witnesses should not be able to knock on people's doors and try to persuade them of their views that non-believers go to hell. Yet such actions would go against liberal logic, for to ban someone from saying that they believe one thing to be completely true, and that everyone should come round to their version of the 'truth', would be denying these people their ideas.Taking it back to politics again it can be seen as a little hypocritical of the West to enforce democracy on other nations as if democracy is undoubtedly the 'best' of all, when liberal logic explains that the counter-arguments should be respected.

  • >All these comments were good, but seemingly self-evident in regards to us aggreeing with Protagoras and Willy.Until Rob raised the democracy point.I think he is too generous in stating that it is "a little" hypocritical. It's completely hypocritical.Then why do 'liberal' governments decide to convert these countries ?It's because they think that "Human Rights" are objective states.But if Human rights are objective, then we muxt disagree with both Protagoras and Willy.What do you think, can you accept that all things are subjective with the exception of human rights ? And if so, why only human rights, why not other exceptions ?

  • >Good point Sean. It's important to know where politicians actually draw the line. If we say everything is subjective and every opinion-holder has the right to act on their opinion then we permitt anything and everything to happen. So clearly there has to come a point when we say there are some opinions that simply cannot be acted upon. Does this mean that objective concepts of good and bad exist? No. It simply means that it's permissable for some subjective opinions to be forced upon others e.g. those decided upon in the UN Charter of Human Rights. Just like every other ideology out there, if you pursue liberalism to its extremes then you get an extremist.

  • >The point re: human rights reminds me of the English jurist, Jeremy Bentham's opposition to the French Revolution's language of 'natural rights' (Paine, for example; he did not oppose the revolution itself which, like most liberals, he supported at least until 1792-3). Such assertions were to Bentham 'nonsense upon stilts': a 'right' is a positive concession to one individual (i.e. to hold security of property) guaranteed by a restriction of the liberty of another (i.e. to steal it). Such guarantee exists only in laws, which are human artifices; the only 'law' that exists in nature is that of the stronger, cleverer, quicker etc. and, as such, there are no 'rights' at all. One may as well, according to Bentham, talk of a 'natural pair of trousers' as natural rights.Why then, if not natural, do we institute basic human rights, and by so doing make very real restrictions on human actions which very well contradict the relativism of of Protagoras and Shakespeare (who wasn't really a relativist; or, at least, I'm not convinced that he was)? The obvious and worn answer is that in forming state and society the individual foregos elements of his freedom (it is never absolute from the moment society is formed) in return for security. Practically every political philosopher to have ever considered this question reaches something like this conclusion; the debate usually revolves around how much individual freedom should be retained within the state itself. It is in the interests of both individual and society that, for example, one has a right to a fair trial: the consequences for the individual are obvious, the (longer term) consequences for society are discord, oppression, revolution and instability. It is not absolutely right that I have a fair trial – any more than that I shouldn't be raped – but it is in the interests of individual and society that these actions are punished and discouraged.So much for the state; what about those states who choose not to follow human rights. If morals are relative, as laws, what justification for enforcing one set of values on another internationally, or *beyond* the state – what used to be called 'liberal imperialism'?The short answer is that it's rarely done. For all the proxy wars of the Cold War there are (probably) as many examples of egregious infringements of human rights that have not been met by significant foreign intervention – Rwanda, apartheid South Africa, the Jim Crow southern US etc. Even many events that are often remembered as 'humanitarian' – the Second World War, Iraq from 2003 – were not justified as such at the time and the primary reason for their occurance was not humanitarian.Sanctions will not be imposed on Saudi Arabia for not allowing women to drive or the UAE for punishing exramarital sex by imprisonment (I imagine both of these practices would contradict human rights somewhere along the line). Although there will (quite properly) be some action where *human life* is threatened on a massive scale (Bosnia, Kosovo), this is by no means a set rule, as Rwanda shamefully exemplifies. Plenty is being done to foster democracy in Afghanistan, but this is secondary to the primary geopolitical and strategic purpose of the mission: no 9/11, no invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. And yet the Taliban were still there, the regime was as oppressive and inhumanitarian as we're all told it was.There are plenty of places where, 50-odd years on, the UN Charter is not enforced to the letter, or even to the spirit. Is this because world leaders are all Protagoreans who believe human rights are relative? Not a bit of it, it's probably just too inconvenient to get upsetting people and stirring up hornets' nests across the globe. That said, liberal interventionism, other than its modern variant as a back-up justification for botched/dubious foreign policy with different primary aims, is not what it was.

  • >So, are human rights objective? No, but neither are laws, but just as laws must be in place – with all their infringements of liberty – for the good of people and society, so should human rights. We're not, I believe, quite at the stage of political globalisation where international opt outs are properly dealt with. When they are, that might raise a more difficult issue, but one which could be justified in terms of global stability, as national recourse to law is at present.

  • >Finally, re: Shakespeare.Hamlet was the character who uttered those lines. Hamlet, I think, for all his wonderful shading and dimension, is entirely a literary device. He is a tragic caricature of brooding, indecisive intellectualism.Note the (quite deliberate, I think) contrast between Hamlet and Polonius' family.Hamlet feigns madness following his father's death (at least to an extent) – Ophelia dies of her real madness and grief.Hamlet over-intellectualises and affects his plotted vengeance – Laertes fair breaks down the doors of Elsinore.This was, in Olivier's phrase, 'the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind.'If, for example, at the moment he sees Claudius praying he kills him then, rather than thinking about sending him clean-conscienced to heaven, the would be no tragedy. Polonius, Hamlet, Gertrude, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern etc. all live; the sole villain of the piece dies: everyone's a winner. At *this very moment* the entire tragedy could be averted, a point hammered home by Claudius' private admission that he does not pray with a pure heart and 'heavy words do not to heaven go' (or something more poetic). This suggests to me that the man with the intellectual disposition to utter the line above is hardly Shakespeare's idea of a hero, especially given that, at the time, he was at the height of his intellectual turmoil.This is getting beyond the debate and, such is the infinite variety and personal slipperiness of the bard, formulating Shakespeare's moral and political thought is a fool's game in any case. (I once wrote an essay somewhere about how Measure For Measure outlined a proto-liberal jurisprudence; not my finest hour, I imagine.)

  • >nice treatise Ross and you make good points, which of course all back up Shakespeares quote.I guess western society holds the tenets of human rights so dearly that we forget that it is only an opinion, and one that we trade off for other things.i like the quote that property rights are infringing upon my right to steal, i will have to use that sometime.

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