Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Fishy Relativism

Paul Boghossian recently wrote a great piece for the NYT on moral relativism (though the general inability of commentators to understand even such a clearly argued article as this makes me pessimistic about the educational prospects of public philosophy). He argues that those who reject moral "absolutes" (or objective facts) should naturally be led to nihilism rather than relativism, so that maintaining our normative practices commits us to accepting moral objectivity. (Non-cognitivist options seem to be bracketed for purposes of this argument, though I suspect that many self-identified "relativists" would really endorse some form of expressivism on informed reflection.)

Stanley Fish has now responded with a post which reveals that he has completely misunderstood the argument.

Here I'll just point out one particularly egregious misunderstanding. Boghossian wrote:
Pinning a precise philosophical position on someone, especially a non-philosopher, is always tricky, because people tend to give non-equivalent formulations of what they take to be the same view. Fish, for example, after saying that his view is that “there can be no independent standards for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one,” which sounds appropriately relativistic, ends up claiming that all he means to defend is “the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them.” The latter, though, is just the recommendation of empathetic understanding and is, of course, both good counsel and perfectly consistent with the endorsement of moral absolutes.

Fish merely responds that his two claims are not "contradictory", and so totally misses the point that he has been caught in the classic pomo bait-and-switch of oscillating between a radical-sounding claim and an utterly uncontroversial platitude. We can all agree to the platitude, without any need for the more radical claim.

Fish now clarifies that he "denies nothing except the possibility (short of force or torture and they don’t count) of securing universal assent". But who does he imagine himself to be arguing against here? This isn't "relativism", unless the impossibility of reasoning with convinced counterinductivists likewise qualifies us as "epistemic relativists" about whether the sun will rise tomorrow. (What is it with non-philosophers and their bizarre attributions of magical beliefs about the causal powers of arguments?)

Contra Fish, acknowledging the limited causal powers of moral argument is not "a way of denying moral absolutes", any more than acknowledging the limited causal powers of scientific argument (when faced with, e.g., committed creationists) is a way of denying the theory of evolution. I suppose he could just stipulate that he's going to start using these words differently from the rest of us, but nothing is gained by such needlessly obscurantist behaviour. (Or nothing of intellectual merit, at least; I guess Fish has shown that one can make a career out of redefining provocative-sounding phrases to express trivial platitudes.)


  1. I should add: The general thrust of Fish's article seems to be that it "wouldn't matter" (practically speaking) if relativists were committed to nihilism, because we can always behave in a way that's inconsistent with our avowed theoretical commitments. Which may be true enough, but hardly seems germane to Boghossian's argument...

  2. Fish seems to be implying that the factual status of a moral statement depends on universal agreement, am I misreading him? He seems to think because we don't, and cannot, all freely assent to some set of moral facts that we cannot make any epistemic ground.

    He says he is part of the group that "believes there are moral absolutes", but if he believes that moral absolutes are facts that necessarily cause universal agreement, he clearly rejects their existence. This of course is no argument against moral absolutes as you pointed out, but it is a weird thing to imply.

  3. I don't think that Fish "believes that moral absolutes are facts that necessarily cause universal agreement". If I understand him correctly he says that there are absolute moral facts, but we can't know which facts exactly are moral absolutes. ("there is no device, mechanical test, algorithm or knock-down argument for determining which candidates are the true ones.") But I wonder how Fish knows that there are absolute moral facts if they are unknowable.


  4. derblindehund,

    But then Fish goes on to say that those who accept the "no device" position reject nothing but "the possibility of securing universal assent." So if he rejects the idea that there is a possible device through which we come to know moral facts, and he says he rejects nothing but the possibility of securing universal assent, it seems to imply that universal assent is the device through which moral absolutes could come to be known.

    I think you're probably right in that he didn't mean to imply that; it would require a lot more (most likely convoluted) argumentation to explain how the factual status of some moral statement rests on agreement.

  5. We should also remember the flip side of this coin, that relativism may lead in the opposite direction from nihilism. Everyone can be equally right, and individuals (instead of believing that absolutes cannot be known) may accept the existence of absolutes which diverse viewpoints each catch a small glimpse of. Absolutes should not necessarily be thrown out ex post our inability to discern them above the fray of culture, etc.


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