Stanley Fish, wrong again.

 Stanley Fish, once again, gets it wrong.  He starts off alright by criticizing the urge to get potential candidates for the US presidency to let us know more about who they really are.  That seems good; there are large and important problems facing American citizens and it is far from clear that we should be paying much attention to candidates’ private lives.  But Fish goes much farther. Fish thinks that moral character is actually close to irrelevant to someone’s candidacy.  Moral goodness, he declares, is not going to solve the gigantic problems that a US president needs to address.  It is, of course, important that the  public respect the president and think their leader is a person of honour, but the way to achieve that is to fake it.  Thus Fish finds Machiavelli’s idea of the Prince very attractive.   Does anyone see a problem with this?   It sounds awful to me, but it is worth thinking about what is wrong. In fact it is hard to believe the article is serious.  One reason is that the current crew in the White House are very bright and they are presenting themselves as morally upright.  The problem is that they haven’t pulled it off, and they are widely reviled by huge segments of the US population, not to say of the world.  And this raises the question:  what more do you need to be a successful Machiavellian besides being very smart?  And that also raises the question:  Can a Machiavellian be successful?  Is “successful Machiavellian” psychologically realizable? For sure, you might be a Machiavellian and just be lucky, so you are never caught out.  Perhaps, for example, the lack of wit in those around you provides you protection.  But the cynicism in the United is very thick just because so many of these self-styled honorable people have been found out.  And there are many, many of them, from the Enron bright boys to the gay religious homophobes to the members of Congress who, like our Democratic leader, Pelosi, apparently knew about government torture and did nothing to stop it.  And a lot of them are very bright. One thing we might want to say is that the understanding one needs as a leader requires more than being very smart.  Perhaps, then, it just is not generally true that one can understand enough to be a good leader while being a bad person.    What might be of interest here is the fact that recent neuroscience delineates one important way in which the immoral person is set up for failure.  Let me simplify: Lying, deceiving and otherwise harming other people feels bad for most of us because we mirror others emotions.  If we imagine someone feeling very unhappy, we do not feel very happy, with some notable exceptions, including revenge.  That is because we mirror others emotions.  Have someone in front of you who is upset and angry and you’ll tend to pick up their feelings.  Those feeling are not fun to have. 

This effect is present in a number of species, and it is thought to be the reason why rodents typically get upset at signs of other rodents being upset.  In experiments, rats (not human rats) will not seek pleasure if it causes other rats pain.    This is one of the breaks most of us have on being really bad people.  Of course, not everyone is like this; at least many people with autism and people with alexithymia do not mirror emotions like this.  (This is not to say that they are in some sense morally lacking; there are other routes to a moral life.)  And perhaps one can block the feelings. But those without the feelings, we now see, will not be very good at attributing them to others.  And that means they move through a social world they fail to understand.  And that means they get found out. 

Alexithymics, who lack a conscious experience of much emotion, are the true Machiavellians, a recent article argues.  They find it hard to imagine anyone feeling hurt, themselves or others  Hence, while they can feel shame at a loss of power, they do not feel guilt at causing harm.  They may well be able to fake honour on a small scale, but we probably do not want one to be in charge of a large country during a time of crisis, to say the least.  (Wastell and Booth 2003)    

Wastell, Colin, and Alexandra Booth. 2003. Machiavellinism: An Alexithymic Perspective. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 22 (6):730-744.  

12 thoughts on “Stanley Fish, wrong again.

  1. Apprently, it is politically and morally permissible for Feminist Philosophers (upper- and lower-case) to use cutting-edge philosophical argumentation via cognitive science to discriminate against disabled people. Consider this claim: “*notoriously*, people with autism and people with alexithymia do not mirror emotions like this”. What motivates the desire to distance oneself from these people in this way? What drives the urge to delineate and define normality and abnormality in this way (or at all)? Not only are the people identified by this claim pathologized and rendered (“notoriously”) cognitively defective by it (and hence separated from “us”), the context in which reference to them is made suggests that they are also (“notoriously”) morally defective. While some feminists seem smitten with cognitive and neuro- science(for instance, because it is said to bridge a mind-body dichotomy and hence surpasses patriarchal structures of thought), I would like to urge them to take a more critical approach to the claims of cognitive science, as many philosophers of disability do, who refuse claims of the sort notoriously advanced in the post to which these remarks refer: What role does the field of cognitive science and its recent ascendancy play in the continued oppression and stigmatization of disabled people? To what extent has the oppression and stigmatization of disabled people in which philosophers have actively engaged found new, fertile ground in the claims of cognitive scientists? Incidentally, it is tremendously disappointing to this reader of the Feminist Philosophers blog that the only entry under the “disability” category of your blog is itself disabling in precisely the ways I have enumerated above.

  2. Shelley, I removed “notoriously” and put back in an explanation/qualification that got lost in the many edits I had to do of this post.

    I appreciate your efforts to educate us on the use of language, but I’m concerned with your inferring anything about anyone’s motives from their use of language that employs clinical terms, particularly when the language is deeply entrenched in public discourse. One of the fallacious ways of reasoning that gets mentioned in the comments on “fallacies for feminist philosophers” below is just this assumption that people’s actions should be explained in terms of abiding (and usually disreputable) desires and traits. Not only do such modes of interpretation involve fallacious assumptions, but they are antithetical to the sort of constructive discourse we should be attempting to have here.

    In short, I think I can understand why you want to label us bad characters for the flaws you find, but I think the matter is much more complication, as indeed human beings are.

    For the record, I do not intend to continue a discussion that is not constructive. I don’t know if many people have such smooth lives that they can easily absorb these attacks, but right now I emphatically do not. A very beloved friend and member of my family died today, and I have really had it.

  3. JJ,
    I regret that I used rather psychoanalytic terms in my post. I was certainly not implying that there is some deep, metaphysical sense to the language used here. However, as Anscombe argued, intentional actions happen under a description; and descriptions and ideas are always embedded in a complex and complicated network of intersubjective relations and practices, power relations, and so on. To describe people in certain ways has social impact, and can produce and reproduce pervasive relations of inequality (as I’m sure you know). I find the new edition of your post an improvement. I’m sorry about your loved one, and that my remarks came at an unfortunate time for you. They may have been untimely for you; however, I do not approach these matters carelessly, work very earnestly to produce my analyses of disability, and therefore do not accept you disqualification of them as an “attack”.

  4. Shelley, I appreciate your response. Speaking as someone whose life has been made at time very difficult by a mental disability that is in my family (I would like to refrain from sayiing whether it has directly involved me or not), I find the imputation of motives to others difficult to deal with on the best of days. I think understanding others is often enough exceptionally difficult.

    I have learned a lot from your responses, and it might be that we could discover common cause here.

    For all I have said, I think you speak for people who have had many more problems than I with the ways they are described, and I am really anxious not to contribute to this. So, as I indicated, I do really appreciate your drawing our attention to language that causes pain that some or many of us do not appreciate fully yet.

  5. I think Bush and co ARE morally upright in some senses – probably the same sense that would win an election. Maybe they don’t care about feminism or welfare, but they probably care about their friends and think about obey the standard rules of society.
    it seems to be common around the world that the left wins the debate on ideas and the right wins it on individuals and morality.

    Also I doubt there is a choice between Machiavellian and not Machiavellian. I expect they are all Machiavellian, the choice is just between those who are very good at hiding it and those that are just good.

    Any person who makes it to a presidential debate has been trained long ago how to dodge questions, and like with almost every action that they make. They have probably also been trained how to put morality to the back of their minds when getting campaign funds. Anyone who does that would soon find they cannot help but do it. So such interview would be a massive string of half truths. Some of us might be able to outsmart the politicians and read what they realy think – but those people would be the tiny minority.

    Ok I am cynical – but it just doesn’t seem plausible any other way.

  6. Interesting, CNZ. I’m wondering if you have a different way of reading Fish – i.e., that he’s talking about private morality? Or are you thinking of private morality here as following the conventions of one’s class and religion?

    I’m not sure about the relation of private and public morality, but I’d be very reluctant to think that they are really separatable. Can someone who misleads the country into supporting a war and who does support torture really be a great dad? Of course, it may be logically possible, but I’m wondering about psychologically possible.

  7. opps – a qualification. One does hear about people who seem morally great on a public scale and really awful privately. That makes more sense to me than the reverse, but I better say I’m not sure I have any grounds for thinking that!

  8. I don’t know anything about what Stanley Fish said in this instance besides what is in your column, but I heard him speak once on free speech and he is frightening in his ideas, and I would put no stock into what he says. Big Dumbo.

  9. Well, I think if you took a normal street gang and found the head gang member it is likely that they make a rather good friend – as long as you overlook the anti-social behaviors their gang gets up to. A lot of people join gangs for that sort of friendship. They probably aren’t the best parents of course but my point is that it is reasonably common for people are willing to sacrifice nameless others (like bush might be willing to bomb or torture people) in order to protect ‘named people’ like their family, friends or colleagues.

    I don’t personally know any gang leaders but I do know people who’s logic seems to be that they would be willing to do some bad things to others in order to build a good life for their family and those people are generally thought to be good partners/parents (I guess that could be just image).

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