How should we decide issues about abortion, same sex marriage or the permissibility of abortion? Can we do it without appealing to religion or at least higher powers? Looking at a the recent book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by Steven Smith, Fish says in today’s NY Times:
It is not, Smith tells us, that secular reason can’t do the job (of identifying ultimate meanings and values) we need religion to do; it’s worse; secular reason can’t do its own self-assigned job — of describing the world in ways that allow us to move forward in our projects — without importing, but not acknowledging, the very perspectives it pushes away in disdain.
So it looks as though secular thought cannot provide us with any normative assessments. We need religion! Thus:
If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?”
So values apparently have to come from something higher or prior to oneself. And, Smith and Fish maintain, one person who clearly saw this was Hume:
Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new. He cites David Hume’s declaration that by itself “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question” …
Mind you, what Hume actually said – Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them – doesn’t exactly serve Fish’s purposes. Still, that’s a detail. And, of course, Hume also had very strong words for texts that weren’t truths of reason or matters of fact. Something about burning them. But no matter, we’ve got enough for the conclusion:
But no matter who delivers the lesson, its implication is clear. Insofar as modern liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
Anyone want to have a go at evaluating Fish’s argument here? I think I see one large fallacy, and perhaps there are more. What do you think?
And, wouldn’t it be nice if the higher powers that get invoked actually thought women’s decisions about their bodies are at least as sound as those groups of men want to make for them?