Stanley Fish says Identity Politics can be rational (+ addition)

and his supporting point is important enough that I’m not going to argue about details (unlike here and here and here), though we’ll see that his conclusion leaves us with some questions.

Fish distinguishes between a thin and a thick invocation of race or gender to support one’s vote.  The thin reason says you will vote for someone because they are like you.  But a thick reason appeals to interests, ones that – to judge from his examples – have a place in the political sphere.  His example of an African-American’s thick reason for voting for an African-American:

Yet every African American – conservative or liberal, rich or poor, barely educated or highly educated – meets with obstacles to his or success and mobility that are all the more frustrating because they are structural (built into the culture’s ways of perceiving) rather than official. To the non- African American these obstacles will be more or less invisible, especially in a country where access to opportunity is guaranteed by law. It makes sense, therefore, that an African American voter could come to the conclusion that an African American candidate would be likely to fight for changes that could remove barriers a white candidate might not even see. A vote given for that reason would be a vote based on identity, but it would be more than a mere affirmation of fellowship (he’s one of mine and I have to support him); it would be a considered political judgment as to which candidate will move the country in a preferred direction.

In addition to the relief to see someone in such a visible arena actually describe one of the problems keeping racism in place – that the inequities are not even always visible to others – he provides a contrast that has seemed to me to be lacking in the discussion. And that is the contrast between voting for someone just because they are of one’s group, race or gender, and voting because they will represent one’s interests in a way the others seem less likely to.

But should we vote on interests that are the product of one’s ‘identity’? Women are now over 50% of the US population, but still you might feel that if you are voting in a US primary, you should have more impersonal interests at heart. (And of course I hope that elections in other countries will simlarly reflect their population’s diversity, as some definitely have led the way in doing.) Fish’s response is that there is no alternative to voting on interests:

What this means is that the ritual deprecation of “special interests” makes no sense. All interests are special interests – proceed from some contestable point of view – and none is “generally human.” And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological [thick]and not merely tribal [thin], constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

Fish’s claim is not obviously true. The 18th century philosophy Hume argued that we need to have a more general point of view toward humanity in order to act morally, and it seems true that we might want a candidate who will take action to stop the murders in Darfur even though that is perhaps not in our special interests in any intuitive sense. At the same time, his point that all interests proceed from some contestable point of view appears plausible, despite the efforts of some philosophers to find a point of view that isn’t contestable.

So Fish leaves us with some questions. My own view of Fish’s arguments is that voting on identity might be imperfect, but it might well be the best one can do. Certainly, feminist thought has made me (and surely many others) wary of assuming one has found an impersonal point of view. At least in many people’s hands, the impersonal point of view is what leaves the inequities invisible.

Addition:  Since writing this, I’ve wished I had paid more attention to the word “interests.”  I’m very inclined to the Humean (and others’) view that we are interested in others’ welfare and that it is a basic interest, not to be explained in terms of other interests.  The interest might be limited; we may need to work on expanding it to all human beings, but it is not a self-regarding interest.  Fish’s idea of interest might be quite different; he might really think that all reasons are really self-regarding.  That puts a quite different take on his arguments.

There’s recent research that suggests even young infants care about others’ welfare; have a look at: “Social evaluation by pre-verbal infants” by Kiley Hamlin et al in Nature, 2007, p. 557.

11 thoughts on “Stanley Fish says Identity Politics can be rational (+ addition)

  1. linda alcoff’s first two chapters in Visible Identities makes a nice counterpoint to this, b/c there she argues against the idea that identity and rationality are mutually exclusive committments…which is precisely the assumption that fish maintains throughout his article (the “thick” claim seems to be primarily about interests, not identity).

  2. doctaj – I probably should look again at Alcoff to understand better what you’re saying, but I don’t think that Fish thinks they are at all mutually exclusive commitments. The interests he talks about are ones that acrue because of one’s identity. He or I might wonder if you see identity and interests as opposed in some way that he doesn’t.

  3. i tend toward a humean perspective, too, but recently i’ve been thinking a lot on t.m. scanlon’s contractualism. on this view, an acceptable ethical principle is one that no one could reasonably object to, and a reasonable objection is one that doesn’t ask more of anyone else than what one is asking to be spared– so that no other individual suffers more by our failing to adopt a policy than the objector would suffer by our adopting it. a reasonable objection must be raised from the first person perspective (not on behalf another, or on behalf of a group– although the objection may and often will be related to some harm that will befall the individual because of some characteristic that they share with others).

    this theory obviously caters to some deeply kantian intuitions, but i think it has some advantages– namely, a way of weighing harms without incurring all of the creepy dehumanizing implications of relying on aggregate utility. reasonableness is central to this theory, and scanlon explains that he thinks this word is so appropriate largely because of it’s implication that we must be sensitive to the interests of others (which is often what we mean when we ask someone to “please, be reasonable”). his idea is a moral system where all interests are taken seriously, but the lynch-pin of the theory is that objections must be raised in the first person.

    i’m still thinking on just how (and if) i can reconcile this to hume’s moral theory, or if i even want to. but the point it may be true that we can best ensure that everyone’s interests are respected and considered from within systems that take seriously individual and unaggregated perspectives and identities.

  4. Thanks, g. I agree that Scanlan’s thought is attractive, but I’ve started to have real qualms about Kantian ethics, for reasons related to those described by John Doris and by S. Nichols. That is, the ethical principles aren’t the sort of things people can or do reason about normally, and when we do have the time and energy to do so, we tend not to do it well.

    Such a response comes, of course, from experimental or empirical psychology.

  5. PS: Perhaps I should say I’m working on a paper in action theory that is very commpatible with Doris’ work. It’s based on Read Montague’s recent book on the neuroscience of decision making. Anyway, that’s just to see I am not purely a tourist in the area, though it is hard not to feel like an amateur.

  6. the cool thing about scanlon, and something that makes his philosophical ties to kant tangled at best, is that the foundation of his theory is the notion that human beings just are concerned to behave in ways that they can justify to others– most particularly others who are near enough to be effected by their behavior. so, first off, the starting point for the theory is a fact about the given motivational set of human beings– which is pretty humean. second, from all that i’ve read, this particular claim (that people are particularly motivated to justify their behavior to those in their immediate community) actually lines up pretty nicely with the sorts of things that i’ve read in experimental philosophy, evolutionary psychology, etc. more nicely, i imagine, than some of hume’s own ideas about the sorts of general love for one’s fellow man, etc., that are suppose to among man’s underived passions.

  7. My concern is really about the amount of cognitive processing his theory MAY require. Human social interactions are very rapid; we react to one another without much thought, much of the time.

  8. PS to g, and then there’s the John Doris sort of point: how one acts, it turns out, is extremely heavily influenced by pretty accidental situational factors. Have a look at Doris and Nichols.

  9. i take it that scanlon intend his work to be largely descriptive, and inasmuch as the work is prescriptive, it aims to clarify our (largely intuitive) framework for considering what sorts of behaviors we can endorse on reflection.

    do you take the implication of recent work in psychology and experimetal philosophy to be that any prescriptive ethical theory is beside the point? and i wonder, particularly, what you think the role reflective endorsement plays or should play or might play in the lived lives of people. i’m sincerely interested in these questions and open to different conclusions.

    it’s totally clear to me that human behavior is not guided by systematic thought (logical, ethical, whatever)– and that it is largely guided by impulses, both inborn and culturally manufactured. But if one is interested in thinking more systematically about things, it seems to me that one can have some limited success, and that some programs for doing this will be more successful, interesting, useful, or justifiable than others. if that’s not true, then analytic ethics should be abandoned entirely. but if it is, then i guess all i’m claiming is that scanlon’s view might be particularly (if modestly) successful, interesting, useful, etc.

    i’m totally going to take a look at those suggested readings the first chance i get. i love this topic.

  10. g, you’re really asking great questions. I think you/we have issues regarding the role of reflection in developing a moral theory and about its role in moral action. I’m afraid I’ve come to think that, in the absense of special evidence to the contrary, there’s no good reason to believe what philosophers say about people’s motivations and practices. We’re really talking about our views of ourselves, which are the product of a very a-social tradition.

    None of that means we can’t debate moral issues about what to do, or develop views of what we should be like that we try to meet.

    I’m not sure I have much more to say!

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