Friday, February 26, 2010

The Fish Who Baits

I couldn't begin to improve upon the cogent criticisms of Stanley Fish's latest deconstructionist pout already made by Russell Blackford*, Ophelia Benson, Norm Geras, LarryNiven, and surely others to come. I would be particularly interested in seeing a response from Austin Dacey, who refuted Fish's nonsense at book length in The Secular Conscience, the very title of which becomes an oxymoron under Fish's silly elisions. Agreeing with the book he's reviewing, Fish claims

[o]nce the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”
Note the blithe equation of "a theology" with "an undoubted philosophical first principle." These are not the same. Not every first principle is as defensible as every other -- neither pragmatically, as the foundation of a functional political economy or a flourishing human life; nor epistemologically, as the foundation of a way to understand the world. Some "prior commitments" prove out significantly better than others in their repeatable, observable effects. Even if not strictly decidable, the denial of some foundational postulates requires a level of philosophical perversity rarely -- no, never -- seen outside the groves of the academy or the cloisters of the faithful (I realize I beg the question there).

Still: concretely, "the needless infliction of pain is wrong" and "Joseph Smith transcribed the book of Mormon from golden plates he dug up in his yard" are not equals among sane human beings.

Rather than presuming to add anything novel, I hope to wedge in a contribution on grounds of its brevity (notoriously a strength of mine, as this very post more and more attests): Fish's argument depends on eliding "religion" with "that which produces, represents, promotes, or otherwise upholds moral values," but this is wrong -- it is wrong as a factual description of the behavior of secular states, and it is wrong as a definition of secularism advanced by any (non-bullshit) theory I've encountered. To embrace and defend moral values is not necessarily to cross a line that secularism, properly understood, cares to draw -- secular states cross this line regularly without any harm done to the idea of secularism.

Secularism is not concerned with placing all moral distinctions beyond the province of state power. Rather, secularism is concerned with placing all theological, religious, and "spiritual" judgments beyond the province of state power. A properly secular state is neutral vis-a-vis religious claims and counterclaims -- it takes no side on whether god exists, or if so, which of the candidate gods is the real one; a secular state is not neutral vis-a-vis questions of value -- it makes and enforces laws imbued with moral distinctions constantly, e.g., whether to legalize same-sex marriage, whether and how much to tax people, whether to wage war, how to deal with the allocation and funding of health care, whether to permit abortion, and so on.

I see now that my attempt at brevity was a miserable failure, but it pales next to the analytical shortfalls of Stanley Fish.


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* Ahem. I have decided to expand this former footnote to its own post. Who said footnotes can't make it big?

1 comment:

larryniven said...

Yeah, this one has really been making the rounds, hasn't it? I thought I had found something under-the-radar when Shallit talked about it - guess not.