I’d begin by saying that the question seems to be intended as ambiguous. On one reading, it’s a question about suicide: “Given that I’m alive now, how much longer should I live? Should I end things now, or should I allow things to take their course for a bit longer?” Given what we are, and given what almost all of us know about what we are, we have a natural expectation that we will die at some point in the future. So an aspect of the question can’t be “Should I go on living or not?” because we know that at some point that question will be settled for us. So one question is, “How much longer should one go on living and whether, from one’s perspective now, dying soon would be a bad thing?’’ It raises the question of whether it would be bad to die now, or whether it would be bad to die at all.
A second reading of Hamlet’s question makes it concern whether it would have been better not to have been born at all. That seems to be a question from the perspective of the universe, rather than oneself, because if one had never existed, then that wouldn't be of any value or disvalue for one. So there’s a kind of question from the perspective of the universe, whether the universe is better given one’s existence, or given one’s non-existence.
These are both questions philosophers might be interested in.
One would naturally expect that a question about being is very close to a question about existing. They are then questions about what it takes for different kinds of things to be, or to exist. Fairly clearly, there are things that can be or exist without living; my table, my iPhone… So now the question is whether I’m the kind of thing that could be, or exist, without living. That’s a delicate question.
Many philosophers would think that the answer is that I can’t be without living, that I wouldn't be here having ceased to live. My body would be here, but my body isn’t me. Others might think that I am just my body. In that case, until my body disintegrates I’m still in existence after my death. Another kind of view would be one in which my being or existence is something like the existence of my substantial soul or my intellect. Some philosophers in history have thought that the soul, or intellect was independent of the body and that one could continue to exist, in some circumstances, after the death of one’s body.
- Aristotle: He knows you got soul (but he’s not sure where it is)
So Hamlet’s question connects up with at least two central philosophical issues. First, What does it take for me to be or to exist? Does it require that I or my body live? Does it require that my intellect is preserved in some way, or is it enough that the matter that constitutes me now should retain some kind of organised integrity, so that my body stays as an individual thing. What it is for me to be the same person, the same animal or human being that I was a week or ten years ago. Is this a matter of something like bodily integrity or rather something more psychological? Is it something to do with having memories of being that individual a week ago or ten years ago, or being somehow psychologically connected with what I was then? Second, given what it is for me to exist, is it better for me to go on existing, or to have existed at all?
Focusing on the first set of issues, we can pursue further aspects of the question about what it takes for me to exist. Suppose one thinks that one is fundamentally intellect, or a soul? There’ll be questions about what those things are. What’s an intellect? What’s a soul? Some philosophers will think that those things are independent substances, independent of body, whereas other philosophers will think that those are aspects of body, or powers of body. So, different decisions there will make a difference to what one thinks about what it would take for one to survive, to continue existence. Therefore that would make a difference to an aspect of the question “To be or not to be?” which we touched on earlier, which is the extent to which one has power to settle an answer to that question – the extent to which one has power to keep oneself alive or end one’s life.
“The most orthodox view nowadays is that the intellect dies when the body dies, but that probably wasn't the general view when Shakespeare was writing.”
If I’m a living animal then I have an idea of what to do in order to stop existing: kill the animal. But if I’m not that, if I am, say, an intellect that could, in principle, withstand the end of my body, then that would make a difference to what could count as suicide and what it would take to commit suicide.
By far the most orthodox view nowadays is that the intellect dies when the body dies, but that probably wasn't the general view when Shakespeare was writing. Perhaps it’s hard for us now to think our way into views on which minds or souls can be completely disembodied. But perhaps we can find other ways of thinking about the possibility of our minds surviving the deaths of our bodies.
Suppose we develop computational systems able broadly to replicate the kind of intellectual powers that we have, and imagine that we use bits of that kind of machinery to replace bits of human brain, as those bits of human brain degrade. Eventually, one could imagine replacing more and more of the matter and one eventually get the case where one would of course still have a kind of physical underpinning for an intellect, whether or not it’s one’s own intellect, one would seem to have an embodied intellect but no longer embodied in the organism that it was once embodied in.
That might be one thin way in which one could conceive of partly disembodied intellectual powers. In that way, we might be conceiving of a way in which something like one's intellectual powers might survive the death of one’s body.
Perhaps the deepest question in this area is about immortality. There are distinctive concerns there that connect with questions about whether it’s good to live, per se, and whether it’s bad to die, per se. There’s a famous case that philosophers have discussed, the so-called Makropulos Case. There you have someone who’s given the elixir of life and lives until she’s about 342, and by that stage has completely lost interest in living any longer. At that stage, she refuses a further dose of the elixir. It’s worth trying to make sense of why she might refuse, and how that might feed into questions about the value of surviving.
Imagine a simple case. You’ve got a book you really want to read, Should you read it now or should you leave reading it until later. Such questions aren’t easy to answer, but I'd ordinarily assume a critical consideration: I’ve probably got an absolute maximum of forty years to read the thing if I’m ever going to. But if we imagine that consideration gone, since I can in principle live forever, then it can become hard to see why I’d read the book now rather than waiting. And we might worry that the same would go for anything I might consider doing now rather than later.
We can see that our mortality figures importantly in many ordinary cases of decision making or motivation. That might suggest that death per se—mortality—is no bad thing. But then we might wonder whether it is ever bad to die, and so whether it might be bad to die now. Here, there are very old arguments, given in some forms by Lucretius, to the effect that death isn’t bad. One thought here is driven by the question, who is it bad for? Having died, you’re not going to suffer, you’re no longer in existence, so why is it bad for you to die? I think of that kind of argument as representing parts of a puzzle, because obviously, something has gone wrong with that line of thought. It’s obvious that, at least, in certain circumstances, dying can be a bad thing, and indeed can be a bad thing for the individual who dies. So the question is how to understand that, given the that individual won’t be around to suffer.
I think “to be or not to be” is kind of a good philosophical question but as Bernard Williams has suggested, it’s a question that typically doesn't arise. It’s not that when one wakes up every morning one’s first thought is, should I be today, or should I kill myself. Rather, one’s ordinary questions are which of one’s ongoing projects should one pursue or not pursue, or whether one should find new projects.
We have to remember that that question arises, for Hamlet, under significant and unusual pressure and unusual circumstances. Normally, it’s already settled for us that we should go on living, given our concerns. It’s almost an assumption, but an assumption grounded in the things that we care about. So in order to be in a position where suicide, or the ending of one’s existence, seemed like the right thing to do, there would have to be something going on that prevented us from doing the things we would ordinarily want to do, or something that took away from us any kind of patina of interest or concern with further activities. From that perspective, prior questions would be, What should I do? What do I hope to accomplish? As long as we can answer those questions for ourselves, the answer to Hamlet’s question is routine.