Fishy Moral Relativism and the Importance of Philosophy

In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Does Philosophy Matter? (8/1/2011), Stanley Fish  argues that philosophical debate over moral absolutism and moral relativism is of little import to the non-philosopher.  There are a couple of issues that I think are worth addressing.  The first has to do with the way Fish distinguishes the kinds of moral relativism. But also, I would like to consider his primary contention, that philosophical concerns, at least in the case of ethical theories, have little to no consequence in everyday life.

First, Fish distinguishes between two kinds of moral relativists:

. . .[T]here are (at least) two ways of denying moral absolutes. You can say “I don’t believe there are any” or you can say “I believe there are moral absolutes, but  (a) there are too many candidates for membership in that category and (b) there is no device, mechanical test,  algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.”

It is the second sort of relativism to which Fish subscribes.  But is that really a form of relativism at all?  He is NOT denying moral absolutes.  He is denying our ability to know which “candidates” for moral absolutes are the true ones.  Fish goes on to say that one might call such a person an epistemological relativist rather than a moral relativist.  But that doesn’t make much sense either.  After all, he is not saying that the epistemological justification for deciding absolute moral truth is relative to a person, culture, etc. Rather, he is taking an agnostic position about moral absolutes.  This position is quite different from any variety of moral relativism.  Some might say that Fish would like to stipulate that agnosticism about moral absolutes is a variety of moral relativism, that it is his prerogative.   However, I’m a bit perplexed that he accepts the definition of moral relativism as the denial of moral absolutes while his variety of agnosticism cannot deny that such absolutes exist.  In fact, agnosticism stands starkly at odds with relativism, as the agnostic cannot know if  there are only relative conditions by which moral truths are determined.  The agnostic about moral absolutes only shrugs and asks, “Maybe?”

As for his main contention, we have little more than a bald assertion. Fish writes:

Let’s suppose that either of  two acts of persuasion has occurred in that arena: a former moral absolutist is now a relativist of some kind, or a former relativist is now a confirmed believer in moral absolutes. What exactly will have changed  when one set of philosophical views has been swapped for another? Almost nothing. To be sure you will now give different answers than you once would have when you are asked about moral facts, objective truths, irrefutable evidence and so on; but when you are engaged in trying to decide what is  the right thing to do in a particular situation, none of the answers you might give to these deep questions  will have any bearing on your decision.

How does he know that this is so?   Sure, it is possible that no change would occur.  The relativist might go on believing the same values are true as when she was an absolutist.  She would just have a different justification for why she thinks some moral principle is the case.  But the relativist is generally much more open to the possibility that there are contrary values to her own, which are also morally right relative to some other set of conditions.  What’s more, she must accept that her values will change if whatever it is her values are based upon changes.  The absolutist is far more rigid, only changing her moral values so as to refine and perfect it.  So even if the absolutist and relativist can possibly behave in the same manner, it seems much more likely that they won’t always coincide, especially over time.

Fish goes on:

You won’t say, “Because I  believe in moral absolutes, I’ll take this new job or divorce my husband or vote for the Democrat.” Nor will you say, “Because I deny moral absolutes I have no basis for deciding since any decision I make is as good or bad as any other.” What you will say, if only to yourself, is “Given what is at stake, and  the likely outcomes of taking this or that action, I think I’ll do this.”  Neither “I believe in moral absolutes” nor “I don’t”  will be a reason in the course of  ordinary, non-philosophical, deliberation. . .

In short, the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical (as seminars, academic journals, and conferences are), and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them. . .

What’s lacking in Fish’s argument is. . . well. . . an argument.  It doesn’t seem like Fish has any evidence that his conclusion is true. So he gives us no reason to think that high philosophical reflection is not at least sometimes necessary when making certain moral decisions.  Sure, one can go about one’s day without thinking about the categorical imperative, the greatest happiness principle, or some other such standard and still make moral choices as if one was thinking of them.  Even a blind squirrel will occasionally find a nut.  But I think moral education is essential for living a consistent and stable moral life.  A person who is aware of moral theory can reflect on a situation, strive toward moral improvement, and develop her virtues.  Furthermore, most people do operate with moral principles ingrained within them, at least in my experience.  Let me explain.  On the first day of an ethics class, whenever I teach the subject, I am assured of two things.  1) Most of my students will avow moral relativism, and 2) Most of them are not really moral relativists at all.  The vast majority are “tolerantists,” believing tolerance and respect for autonomy to be among the highest absolute values that exist.  Many of these students live by high ideals that they think are true no matter what.  They tell me that they volunteer their time to serve the community, they are concern with issues of social justice, poverty, political equality, and the environment.  When I ask why, they give me reasons.  They reflect on why they ought to take action.  Their moral choices are not haphazard in any way.  The point is that many of these students come into class with clear conceptions of moral principles and duties.  Sure, they can’t give me all three formulations of the categorical imperative.  But they already have something like it in their hearts.  They pick up utilitarianism so quickly because they’ve already been applying the principle of utility without even knowing its name.  They understand virtue ethics, because they’ve been affected by virtuous people in significant ways.  My job is to clarify the principles and discuss implications that may not be readily apparent to them–to push them into uncomfortable areas.  By the end, I think my students will think twice before telling a white lie (perhaps first to Kant, and then to Mill).  The animal lover reconsiders whether it is moral to eat that juicy hamburger.  The theist might consider whether “Because God says so” is an adequate response to a moral quandary. Learning abstract moral theories affects moral behavior, I’ve seen it in action.

It was the study of moral theories that led to men like Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton to formulate an entirely different form of government based upon a social contract and natural rights.  So how could it be that the deeper underlying theories are irrelevant?  Could a moral relativist have written the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?I have my doubts.

The next question is whether studying moral theories changes us for the better.  The moral relativist doesn’t believe in moral progress, only moral change.  Likewise, the AMA, e.g. Fish, doesn’t know whether there is moral progress, so he can’t say for certain if learning and embracing a moral system  improves a person’s morality in any significant way.  For Fish, you just make choices. . . they are correct for you, but who knows if they are correct full-stop.

Fish is clearly confused about what relativism is.  And he certainly gives us no reason to think philosophy doesn’t matter. So yes Virginia, philosophy does matter.  More specifically, studying ethical theories matters.

Posted on August 3, 2011, in News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Dan, I think you’re right on the money with your challenge of Fish’s understanding of relativism. Here is what I wrote to the person who sent me Fish’s article:

    The primary argument of his rebuttal to the criticism of his relativism is scattered and incomplete, but I get the basic gist of it: Fish is claiming that absolutes do exist, but we as human beings can’t know those absolutes, hence his adherence to epistemic relativism.

    Okay, I get the problem that Fish is pointing to, but how is this relativism given the definition of relativism that he accepts? It’s not a new problem, and it’s been addressed numerous times. What’s problematic is that he is showing skepticism that we can actually know truths, but at the same time asserting that these truths exist. If he were to simply respond to the discussion with “we can’t know one way or the other,” that would be a defensible position, but then he would necessarily be neither an absolutist or a relativist. He could outright deny absolutes (relativism), but he seems to want to both affirm and deny them. It’s nonsensical. You’ve heard the term “ought implies can” and it applies here. An ethical absolute can be thought of as an ought (e.g, “one ought not lie”), but if we are epistemically cut off, how can oughts be affirmed or denied? How can oughts be imposed upon us if we cannot know them? Are we to be moral and immoral by sheer chance? At best, if we take Fish’s position, we must concede to not knowing one way or the other, but this is neither an absolute nor a relative position. Problematically, Fish wants to posit the existence of oughts that cannot impose upon human beings. If a would-be ought cannot be imposed upon us, it’s not an ought. If the ought applies to us, than we can in fact approach it as something we can have knowledge of, even if said knowledge cannot be given in experience. (For example, Kant argues that reason can show us these truths a priori.) So, if Fish wants to remain philosophically consistent, it seems he’d need to give up on claiming to be both a relativist and a moral absolutist. Fish’s strategy however, is to differentiate between a philosophical position and a way of life. He writes,

    “Absolutely” is there to insist that the answer you arrive at and consider correct must be backed up by the conviction that it is underwritten by the structure of Truth and by the universe. This is a demand that makes sense if you are doing philosophy, but if you are doing anything else, it is a demand you can safely, and without contradiction, ignore.”

    It’s rather ironic then, that his “philosophical position” about philosophy’s lack of relevance is itself felled by the problem of self-refutation. Relativistic claims are subject to their own relativism. Of course, Fish might claim that his philosophy about philosophy isn’t philosophical, but then he’d also have to argue that basic logic doesn’t apply to his “way of life” anymore than philosophy does.

    Fish’s true ire, however, seems to be aimed at what he (I would argue correctly) perceives to be the arrogant, exclusive, and esoteric world of professional philosophy. Fish writes,

    “Now it could be said (and some philosophers will say it) that the person who deliberates without self-conscious recourse to deep philosophical views is nevertheless relying on or resting in such views even though he is not aware of doing so. To say this is to assert that doing philosophy is an activity that underlies our thinking at every point, and to imply that if we want to think clearly about anything we should either become philosophers or sit at the feet of philosophers.”

    Too often philosophy as a profession exists apart from the world, as opposed to a part of it, though I truly believe things are beginning to change for the better. Still, because of this real and perceived isolation, many, including Fish, have conflated the modern academic profession of philosophy, with philosophy itself.


  2. Epic, Jake. Thanks for sharing this here! You are absolutely right about the conflation too. I have been humbled by the wisdom of too many non-professional philosophers to think that philosophy is only done by those who get paid to do it. . . Wouldn’t Socrates have called those professional philosophers Sophists?


  1. Pingback: Fish at it again « vexing questions

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