Monday, August 8, 2011

Stanley Fish and the hyperbole of moral absolutes


Update: As I finish this post, "Does Philosophy Matter" (Part Two) appears.
In the days following 9/11, during G.W. Bush's reign, moral absolutes became the lay of the land. All of a sudden, people with pluralistic (and relativistic) views became targets of a moral crusade (a matter of national policy along with mandatory use of flag-lapel-pins). Such is the context of this article by Stanley Fish. Here is a telling paragraph:
Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying our response to the attacks in universal terms that would be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our cause wouldn't be effective anyway because our adversaries lay claim to the same language. (No one declares himself to be an apostle of injustice.)
Philosopher Paul Boghossian takes issue with Fish's 2001 article. He zooms in on this fragment by Fish:
Is it plausible to respond to the rejection of absolute moral facts with a relativistic view of morality?  Why should our response not be a more extreme, nihilistic one, according to which we stop using normative terms like “right” and “wrong” altogether, be it in their absolutist or relativist guises?
Then, Fish responds to Boghossian's article:
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.
Boghossian takes Fish to be a moral relativist.* Not true: Fish's paragraph above suggests he is a pluralist. That is to say, he believes in a few moral absolutes, and uses "right" and "wrong" as valid normative moral tropes.**

On the other hand, I take issue with Fish's own presentation. What does it mean? There are certainly persuasive arguments in favor of at least a few moral absolutes, like unnecessary suffering is wrong, which I don't think Fish would disagree with. But it seems he needs -wants- more. Is a knock-down argument the kind of proof that suddenly plugs one right in the face?

But this takes away a crucial aspect of moral discussions (and I don't think this is exclusively circumscribed to an academic environment), i.e, the possibility of moral discussions entails the possibility of moral discovery,*** which is why I disagree with this paragraph:
But does any of this matter outside the esoteric arena of philosophical disputation? 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.
I'm surprised that a Professor of Law would say such a thing. Any confinement of issues to arenas or disciplines or professional communities should be resisted. There is really no esoteric arena (even if some philosophers could be as didactically embroiled as Boghossian). Only a relapse into this disciplinary idea of interpretive community can justify this kink by Fish:
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. But  philosophy is not the name of, or the site of, thought  generally; it is a special, insular form of thought and  its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game.
Boxing any discipline into a self-sufficient arena, as if there was no possibility of relevant communication between it and the outside doesn't make much sense. The slogan reads:  Philosophers think, which makes philosophy a thinking discipline alright, but not all thinking needs to be philosophical.

Frankly, I expected more from the author of Is There a Text in This Class.

*The pluralist doesn't deny absolutes, though he prefers to be a minimalist about them. The difference between the relativist and the pluralist is that the latter believes there is "right" and "wrong" and "better" and "worse." **Boghossian is a heavy-handed polemicist; his long-winded style an example of why philosophy is considered esoteric. Reading his NYTimes piece, I though of what Eli Hirsch refers to as Putnam's Constraint, i.e., that the relevant features of a situation should be brought out by an explanation and not buried in a mass of irrelevant information -which is what Boghossian does. He sounds so much like an academic philosopher that proves Fish's (understated) point that this is a problem of misunderstanding within different communities. Even if Boghossian was right, you feel there is no point. It's like you disagree with your father: He's the boss. ***My post follows this discussion @ Leiter Reports, where I left the following comment:
i sort of agree with sf. let's bring up the issue of epochal-normativity.
is slavery wrong? absolutely! but am saying this in 2011, in hindsight, after the argument on slavery has been tweaked by countless contributions, beginning with cicero, seneca, the medievalists, bartolome de las casas, luis de molina, kant, the abolitionists, etc, etc.). let's rewind the tape: how about someone like seneca? (one of the smartest man in his century) as he writes to lucilius, he is aware of the suffering of his own slaves, he sympathizes with them, he considers them "human" (an important term for his time), yet he cannot bring himself to move beyond his worldview. why? same happened with jefferson -an enlightened man in my book- centuries later. can we say that slavery is right in ancient rome and wrong now? i'd agree with the qualification that romans didn't have the benefit of our arguments. but this answer is epochally-circular. so, it seems that when i say (and absolutely believe) that slavery is wrong, this is just one of those instances when "absolutely" does very little. it packs more than it can actually deliver. 


Feminista said...

I don't agree with Fish's views. Boghossian should get a writing style first.

Tom said...

I actually like his second article better than the first.

Amida Frey said...

What a tricky discussion (and one I have had so many times before; not only with people I respect, but also with myself). I have come again to the same conclusions over and over again.
I have attempted to be as culturally relative as possible in my strongly held opinions and beliefs that there do in fact exist moral absolutes. I like the way Fish evades the problem of dealing with finding the "answer" to what those particular absolutes are. But that is precisely also what it seems to be... an evasion tactic.
Slavery is the quintessential example for something that is absolutely "wrong". And as naive and blind as it may seem (even at times to myself) I must believe that I would have come to the same conclusion had I lived hundreds of years ago, among people tolerating it as acceptable. Perhaps it would have taken a bit more introspection and self-awareness than was the common norm in those days, but I would like to think that the wrong existed as much then as it does now, irrespective of the general consensus on it.
If we took the Holocaust as an example of the same, it becomes clear to me that there is a distinct possibility that the vast majority of German Nationals were in line with the thinking of the ruling political party. And yet there were many who had major moral qualms about the atrocities being committed.
Eugenics; same story. Very famous people and intelligent people believed that there was a moral righteousness in culling out lesser genetic stock. Yet there were many more who understood there to be folly in condemning innocent life.
I do believe that the more forward thinkers of those times at least wrestled with their guilt or knowledge of right and wrong. I take an increasingly less tolerant perspective towards cultural relativism when it perpetuates involuntary suffering of any kind, regardless of a culture's acceptance of that suffering. I will strive to maintain my "insular" and "uncontentious" way of thinking as long as there continue to be cultural norms that impose the will of the many (or more powerful) upon the will of the weak, when that imposition causes direct and tangible harm and suffering.

Anonymous said...

Good point Amida.
Is there no slavery? But that's a different point. Any topic is hard to discuss. It is always easier to point fingers when we have the privilege of 20/20. If I read Triff correctly.

Now, if we can speak of philosophy outside the discipline what exactly is it? Is it Plato and Parmenides or Marx and Rousseau? fish is saying that we live in this environment of departments. That's the game. Mine, for example is anthropology. I know very little of other departments. I can go and mingle, but the departments don't present us with those opportunities.
Anyway, great discussion. Sorry, forgot my alias.
This is Ian.

Dissey said...

Boghossian is a professor philosophy, Fish is a professor of law. But they don't talk the same talk. Who is to blame?

Alfredo Triff said...

Thanks, Feminista.

The second article is a response to his readers.

But that is precisely also what it seems to be... an evasion tactic.

Amida: Thanks for your detailed

Sure, Ian, but obviously that is not the case. No communication breakdown.

Dissey: Boghossian proves Fish's point.

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