I was rushing the other day so my look at Stanley Fish was general; I’m still rushing today but I want to look at a couple of details. Fish starts off:

In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations.

That’s one of the tricksy items – the inclusion of morality and ideology along with religion. Secular reasons are supposed to be separate from religion, not from morality or ideology. Right in the first sentence Fish stacks the deck in favor of himself by pretending that secularists claim and want to have no morality and no ideology when it comes to policy decisions. That’s a ridiculous claim – and the whole piece relies on it.

Later, for instance, we get

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

Yes, but so does Fish’s claim, because in fact ‘secular discourse’ doesn’t confine itself to ‘statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees.’ Fish needs to pretend it does in order to end up where he does, with the lack of a leg for secularism to stand on, but his pretense is just that.

Once 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…” 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 ‘says Smith,’ as if Fish doesn’t quite want to own such a reactionary and silly claim. If he’d said something like ‘it is difficult to look at it and answer normative questions in such a way that no one will ever disagree,’ then he’d have a point, but he said something much more sweeping than that, and the leg he is standing on is made of marshmallow fluff.

12 Responses to “Pisces”

  • #3
    Michael Kingsford Gray


    Major Link-fail there, it seems.

    www dot antitheistdaily dot com/2010/02/28/large-scale-child-rape-by-catholic-priests-revealed-in-holland/

    I hope that you can hand decode that url.

    If not, google “antitheistdaily.com”. (I hope that won’t be filtered out!)

    My item is at the top of the list for the while.

  • #4

    “The role of religion in public life”

    Well, yes, and we have a General election coming up in the UK, and there are some deeply disturbing trends showing.

    As in:


    and, almost as bad:


    Whom then, would a rational, secular voter support?

  • #5

    No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

    Why does Fish include morality and ideology in the same category as religion? My guess is that it’s because he’s using a form of greedy reductionism, and flirting with substance duality: abstractions, values, consciousness, and other higher level phenomenon can’t be harshly and directly reduced to their physical substrate — so they must be spiritual.

    Rephrase his above quote as

    “No matter how much physical complexity you pile up and how sophisticated are the patterns which are formed, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from piled-up physical patterns to an immaterial existent like a thought or a value; because atoms do not think or care about things; they just sit there, inert and empty.”

    The Discontinuous Mind tackles the mind-brain relationship — and falls over itself.

  • #6
    Russell Blackford

    Actually, I do think that secular reasons should be partly or largely independent of morality and ideology. E.g. if the state applies the harm principle in the field of the criminal law, this does factor out enforcing not only religion but also a great deal in the way of ideology and morality. The state should not be allowed to say: “We’re not banning abortion for a religious reason; we’re merely banning it to enforce traditional morals.”

    The state does, of course, thereby follow a “thin” morality of its own. You could say that it has a moral reason to protect us from harm, and that it is morally compelled to do so. However, note that the term “moral” could be dropped out here: we could simply say that we all have reasons to want something like the state to continue to exist and to continue protect its citizens and others in the jurisdiction from harm. Our reasons are, in large part, self-serving, but surely they are also in large part based on such things as compassion for others. So they are not just prudential reasons and could be describes as partly “moral” reasons. In the end, though, there are just reasons, and the distinction between “moral” reasons and “prudential” reasons largely breaks down when we get to this fundamental level of why we want such institutions as morality, the state, etc., in the first place.

    In any event, the state’s connection to the things of this world will prevent it from adopting spooky reasons for its actions, whether they come from religion, from some kind of “thick” morality that claims to be independent of religion, from some sort of ideology, etc. I think that that’s an entirely good thing. The reasons for the state not getting into making religious judgments (its poor historical record, reasonable social pluralism, coercion being used against people on highly contentious grounds, the deeply contested nature of the judgments, and so on) also apply to a lot of moral and ideological judgments.

    None of this rules out rights – negative rights, at least, emerge from this analysis, because it reveals a whole lot of things that the state should not do, leaving us free to make our own decisions. A very basic kind of equality is already built in – it’s assumed that the state is to protect the things of this world for all of its citizens (etc.) not just some of them. But some questions, such as what economic benefits should be provided to those who lose out in the capitalist marketplace, how much wealth should be redistributed, how much substantive equality should be sought, and so on, are left for democratic debate (and many positive rights can arise here, e.g. a right to some kind of safety net of healthcare, social security, education to a certain level, etc). Still, it’s always a debate about protecting or providing things of this world, and it’s ultimately based on values to do with ordinary human flourishing, not on values to do with spiritual transformation, obtaining salvation, pleasing God, escaping the cycle of samsara, and so on.

    I agree that Fish presents political debate about things of this world as far sparser than it actually need be. Within these boundaries, there can be very complex, morally and intellectually rich debates. But he’s right that at least some, perhaps many, purportedly non-religious moral and ideological claims would be excluded as considerations that the state should act on (e.g. banning abortion or homosexual conduct because, irrespective of religion, it’s “immoral”). On the gripping hand, that’s a good thing.

  • #7

    Hmmm. Yes but.

    I meant to say something about thin as opposed to thick morality, but didn’t get around to it. But anyway –

    “A very basic kind of equality is already built in”

    But arguably equality itself is very thick morality indeed. It was a downright absurdity when it popped up its head in 1776 – those zany colonials, talking about basing a state on equality! (And of course as Johnson pointed out, not really meaning it, what with the whole slavery thing.) In many places the idea is still not accepted, to put it mildly. So…either you accept what Fish reports Smith as claiming, that ideas like equality are “smuggled in,” or you say no they’re not, they’re right out in the open: yes, we start with some (secular) moral commitments, including a thick one like equality.

  • #8
    Russell Blackford

    Although, it seems to me that you need a fair bit of spooky stuff to deny the basic sort of equality that you find in Hobbes – i.e. the state at least give equal protection of the law to all able-bodied adults. The religious used to rationalise this in crazy ways. You do need something a bit thicker to protect children, the disabled, the frail elderly, and so on … though maybe not much than family connections and natural human sympathy. And I guess you need more if you’re going to provide more than just equal protection of the laws, such as trying to produce economic equality between various groups in society.

    I actually think, though. that the biggest difficulty for both sides is one that seldom gets mentioned except by utilitarians: why we should care about, and even enact laws to protect, non-human animals? Is it just that our evolved sympathies kind of overflow to other things that we can imagine suffering? I guess it is.

  • #9

    That, and that we have decided to think that suffering matters.

    I’m not sure about needing spooky stuff to deny basic equality – I think it starts from the other direction. You don’t think all those other kinds of people have it in the first place, and the spooky stuff is just top dressing.

    But yes, more than just equal protection of the laws is one of the things I was thinking of – arguments about affirmative action are about moral issues. In fact arguably that’s where a lot of people get their training in thinking about moral issues.

  • #10

    The problems Fish points to aren’t just problems for secular reasons. They’re problems for all reasons, secular or religious.

    After all, it’s not like adding God into the mix makes normativity easy. There’s still the Euthyphro dilemma, blocking any attempt to pull normativity out of a religious hat. And when Hume questioned the derivation of oughts from ises, it wasn’t just secular or empirical ises he worried about, it was also such ises as “the being of a God”.

    But then Fish’s essay does nothing to favor religion, nothing to cause trouble for the secular world. He only thinks it does, because he thinks religion somehow gives us a metaethical free lunch.

  • #11

    At the risk of being very stupid (again), isn’t ‘not having any morals’ a psychological disorder i.e. isn’t that generally considered to be what’s wrong with psychopaths? I must be missing something, because Dr Fishy can’t be asserting that atheists are psychopaths. Or can he?

  • #12

    I think what’s considered to be wrong with psychopaths is lack of empathy rather than lack of morals – or maybe it’s both – anyway of course the basic idea is that morals depend on empathy, which is a widely-held view that Fish weirdly ignores. As far as I know, cognitive science and ev psych converge on the view that empathy is innate (children develop it surprisingly early) and crucial to morality, along with notions of reciprocity. Fish grandly rises above all that, the putz.