Stanley Fish is at it again. Last week, I wrote a critique of Fish’s argument that philosophy does not matter (here). I point out that Fish demonstrates a lack of understanding of what relativism is–confusing it with a kind of moral agnosticism. I also gave some counter-examples for why I think philosophy matters. Apparently I was not the only one who took issue with Fish. He received enough negative comments that he felt the need to defend himself in the Opinionator this week. I’d like to address his rebuttal, in particular his comments on religion and philosophy. One of Fish’s commentators noted that religion is often inextricably linked with philosophical views and that such religious belies do travel into the everyday lives of those believes. Fish disagrees. The relevant section appears below.
Stanley Fish, Does Philosophy Matter? (Part 2), August 8, 2011
. . . Believers, Marie Burns (1) observes, do rely on their religion “to determine their views on a variety of subjects.” Many people, An Ordinary American (140) reminds us, when asked why do you do this, would reply, “This is what my religion teaches me to do.”
The question is whether religion should be considered philosophy. For a long time, of course, philosophy was included under religion’s umbrella, not in the modern sense that leads to courses like “The Philosophy of Religion,” but in the deeper sense in which religious doctrines are accepted as foundational and philosophy proceeds within them. But for contemporary philosophers religious doctrines are not part of the enterprise but a threat to it. The spirit is as Andrew Tyler (38) describes it: “to be skeptical, critical and independent so that you’re not so easily duped and frightened into submission by religious dogma.” Courses in the philosophy of religion tacitly subordinate religion to philosophy by subjecting religion to philosophy’s questions and standards. Strong religious believers will resist any such subordination because, for them, religious, not philosophical, imperatives trump. The reason religion can and does serve as a normative guide to behavior is that it is not a form of philosophy, but a system of belief that binds the believer. (Philosophy is something you can do occasionally, religion is not.)
But aren’t beliefs and philosophies the same things? No they’re not. Beliefs such as “I believe that life should not be taken” or “I believe in giving the other fellow the benefit of the doubt” or “I believe in the equality of men and women” or “I believe in turning the other cheek” are at least the partial springs of our actions and are often regarded by those who hold them as moral absolutes; no exceptions recognized. These, however, are particular beliefs which can be arrived at for any number of reasons, including things your mother told you, the reading of a powerful book, the authority of a respected teacher, an affecting experience that you have generalized into a maxim (“From now on I’ll speak ill of no one.”).
A belief in moral absolutes, as an abstract position, is quite another thing. It affirms no particular moral absolute (although it might lead down the road to naming some); rather, it asserts that the category of moral absolutes is full; and it does so against the arguments of those who assert that the category is empty, not with respect to any particular moral absolute, but generally. Wherever one stands at the end of a such a philosophical argument one will be committed not to any specific moral stance (like turning the other cheek) but either to the thesis, again abstract, that moral stances are anchored in and justified by an underlying truth about the nature of moral behavior or to the thesis that they are not.
There are a couple of points with which I take issue here. First, Fish tries to stipulate his way out of Marie Burns’ observation by creating a false dichotomy between religion and contemporary philosophy. But isn’t it true that contemporary philosophy, if it has anything to do with religion, subjugates it to a critical analysis? While it certainly is the case that some philosophers of religion are skeptical of religious doctrines, we cannot conclude from this that contemporary philosophy as a whole is antithetical to religiously based philosophical speculations. Many philosophers of religion start with metaphysical and religious presuppositions (gasp). I would like to assure Dr. Fish that Natural Theology is alive and well in the modern era. Also there are the Eastern philosophical systems, many of which are inextricable tied up with metaphysical theses originating in the Vedic religious systems, Taoism, and Confucianism. It should also be noted that many philosophers who are critical of religion are just as susceptible to having unproven metaphysical presuppositions in their writings. This can hardly be avoided. But, if a philosopher is open and honest that they are starting from those presuppositions, his or her arguments do not suffer for it. It is the philosopher who pretends to be absolutely skeptical of whom we should be skeptical. Take a careful look and you will find metaphysical naturalism, compatiblism, Platonism, nominalism, or some other exotic axiom lurking enthymematically between the lines.
Fish would like us to think that contemporary philosophy is nothing more than a meaningless chess-game, where the victor is the one who places her opponent’s cherished beliefs in checkmate. Sure, if one thinks philosophy is just about being skeptical, one might be led to the conclusion that philosophy doesn’t travel. But, at the end of the day we either move beyond skepticism or we won’t travel at all! The skeptic is stuck in the mud of doubt. But not every philosopher is a skeptical stick-in-the-mud. In fact, most aren’t. This is because philosophers are free to take any presuppositions they want for their starting points. There is no rule that says one must start with only those premises that one knows to be true without any doubt. Descartes tried it and has since become the philosophical whipping boy for his attempt. Rather than Descartes, we should follow the example of Kant– one of the undisputed greatest philosopher of all time who leaves skepticism behind in order to make significant contributions to moral theory. In order for him to do this, Kant had to move beyond what he thought he could prove with theoretical reason. So, what he could not prove, he postulates. Kant’s entire moral system is built on the presumption that God exists, there is freedom, and the soul is immortal. Without these three postulates of practical reasoning, Kant would not have been able to move much beyond his first critique. So, philosophy doesn’t subjugate every belief. Rather, it is a belief that is the touchstone for some insightful philosophical reflection. Obviously some of these touchstone beliefs are religious in nature.
The second issue I have with Fish’s response has to do with the way in which he tries to separate beliefs from philosophy. He admits that particular beliefs can be arrived at for many reasons, but it does not appear as though he is willing to explicitly admit the obvious: that particular beliefs can and often are deduced from higher and more abstract principles and that often these principles are based upon entire philosophical systems. Philosophy does travel. It travels up through induction, and down through deduction. It travels sideways by analogy. Sometimes philosophy even takes great leaps through abduction. All the while, general principles are distilled into particular beliefs and particular beliefs are promulgated into particular actions.
Sorry Fish, philosophy still matters.
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.