Stanley Fish on “secular reasons:” Name the Fallacy

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?


15 thoughts on “Stanley Fish on “secular reasons:” Name the Fallacy

  1. Also just a detail, but the quote seems to be an interesting example of the telephone game; the claim “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question” is stated as if Hume actually said this, but he didn’t — it’s nowhere in the corpus. But I do find exactly that phrase when I look it up on Google Book — in Carl L. Becker’s 1932 work, _The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century_, in the context of talking about Philo and Demea in Hume’s Dialogues. It would be interesting to see whether it is Smith who makes the mistake, and Fish merely passes it along, or if Smith merely said things in a way that led Fish into the misconception of thinking that it’s a Humean declaration rather than an interpretation of what two characters in a Humean dialogue have in common.

  2. I’ll chime in, not to untie this knot or cut it or take sides, but just to say something obvious: there are metaphysical commitments on both sides. “Disinterested observation” isn’t any less metaphysical than the various faiths, teloi, and norms. But then what? Fish, wearing his Nietzschean hat, would probably say that it’s simply conflict all the way down.

  3. This may be a simplistic view of what he’s saying- but it seems like there’s (ironically) a problem with his induction: from empirical facts are secular, to everything secular is data void of interpretation and any sort of metaphysical commitment.

  4. Leaving aside religion/spirituality as a possible guide which Fish unfortunately emphasizes at times, what remains is that all secular/logical systems are grounded in assumptions that cannot be proven. His consideration of accumulating all the data in the world does not in the end give us anything unless it is enlivened w/ ideological assumptions is very good.

    E.g. this is a great fault of the social sciences esp. psychology, that think they are doing science when in fact there are many normative assumptions of what they think a normal person is and should be. All the data collecting, bell curves, standard deviations in the universe cannot elucidate what it means to be human or how we should act. Also in a way psychologist/psychiatrist act as modern day priestesses prescribing proper behavior- of course the language is very different than those of religions.

    So knowingly or unknowingly, secular disciplines appropriate reglious structural thinking and are laden w/ assumptions. Even the hard sciences have assumptions in how they will interpret data and these are not necessarily benign.

    And Fish’s point besides it’s clever deconstructionist maneuver reveals how a secularist trying to rid themselves of the baggage of “a priori” assumptions, assume much in their ways of thinking and acting. The hope is for more awareness and showing how limited we are, that even reason is far from any kind of savior, consider Godel’s incompleteness proof. Even logical systems have a ground, a first principle that cannot be proved. Math for god’s sake has no ground, there is as always a nothingness that huants our pursuits. We do things and for at least a few moments we forget about our mortality, the meaninglessness of things and this may not be a bad thing. I won’t however invoke religion either as some kind of savior and even though Fish brings up religion, I don’t think he advocates a simple return to religion eithr.

  5. Kathryn, I absolutely agree. i was thinking of it as a case of giving a false dilemma: Either you are securlar and have just facts or you are religious and have norms and values (in addition to facts). I think your way of seeing it is equivalent.

    There’s an alternative that’s left out: you can have secular norms and values.

  6. T, there have been immensely distinguished thinkers who have worked out normative systems that don’t appeal to religions. Hume, ironically, is one. His is deeply humanistic, grounding itself in our general and very natural ability to care about one another, which most of us seem to have.

    Recent science has explored what is this inborn social caring that most of us have, and we’re learning a great deal about what in the brain, e.g., makes most of us unhappy when we’ve hurt other people, to put it roughly.

    Unfortunately, it looks as though bringing out the best in each other is affected by our environments. Interestingly enough, the NY Times has an article this week about some of this. Some people have environements that are adverse to their caring about others, and some people don’t have all the biological bases for such caring. And almost all of us are deficient in caring about people who are very different from us, especially when they are far away.

    I’m inclined to think that all these considerations and ones like them, none of which invoke religious ideas, provide ample ground for working on how to improve our moral communitiess.

  7. T, I will think about your idea that Fish is looking at the question of foundations, but I don’t now agree. Perhaps he thinks the secular person thinks there has to be a foundation in facts, but if so, he’s talking about secular people who haven’t really thought deeply about it.

  8. T- I’m wondering about secular disciplines appropriating religious structure… I would tend to think that the structure itself is an outgrowth of human nature, our tendancy to form beliefs and make judgements based on experience; and that the structure of religious ideology is secondary.

  9. Kathryn, That’s a really interesting idea. You know that some anthropologists are looking at how religion seems to have survival benefits and what they might be. Certainly it looks as though some benefits are fairly independent of a belief in one or more deities, and might be counted as matters more of structure..

  10. Hi, jj. You write, “Recent science has explored what is this inborn social caring that most of us have, and we’re learning a great deal about what in the brain, e.g., makes most of us unhappy when we’ve hurt other people, to put it roughly.” Fish would reply that while a scientist could say a great deal about social caring and could perhaps demonstrate that it is adaptive for human animals, the following claim can’t be grounded without recourse to a metaphysical project: we should live in such a way that best aligns with our natural dispositions. I’m simply repeating what T writes above, affirming Fish: “all secular/logical systems are grounded in assumptions that cannot be proven.”

    But so what? The consequences of this insight are what exactly? If norms aren’t discovered but made (and with what more or less durable tools and materials) then how do we justify our commitments? Do we need to justify them? If I think wealth inequality pernicious and if I find allies then are we less powerful, forceful, and convincing for lack of a transcendental authority? Or is it better to think of these appeals, to God or to Class Struggle or Nature, as part of a norm building?

  11. What I think is interesting is that the claim that reasons that come from a prior metaphysical commitment are inherently religious is itself a claim that seems to come out of a prior metaphysical commitment… On his view, can one only make religious arguments for religious reasoning?

  12. jj- I forgot to mention- I hadn’t heard that, but it reminds me of Viktor Frankle’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Interesting stuff.

  13. The ironies go much further than just Fish’s appeal to Hume’s fact-value distinction while ignoring his ethics. His `secular reasons’ sounds like Rawls’ requirement of public reason in Political liberalism — the reasons citizens give each other for public policy positions must be based on principles that all reasonable comprehensive conceptions (roughly, all reasonable ethico-religious views) can accept. And Thomists like MacIntyre have something similar — the principles of natural law are `natural’ precisely because they’re discovered by empirical, scientific investigation, not the supernatural revelation of any one faith. Fish — or Smith — appears to be straight-up cherry-picking here.

    I agree with some of the other commentators that Fish is trying to make an argument about foundations. Anti-foundationalism is quite popular among philosophers these days. The thought is that we neither have nor need a robust bedrock of absolute certainty, when it comes to either facts or values, and instead progress comes in the form of sorting out the tensions in our claims. On the most responsible versions, this doesn’t mean that there are absolutely no solid, certain, or universal standards; it just means that the standards we haven’t don’t completely determine what to do. Believing a contradiction — both that p is true and that p is false — is no good, but that doesn’t tell us which one to go with. So we adopt some provisional or local strategies — we, in this country, are going to go with p for a while and see how things go, but you, in some other country, are free to try out not-p. We’ll check in with each other later. We don’t need a deep or profound account of human nature (either religious or otherwise) for this; just some platitudes about consistency and how unnecessary suffering is bad and a willingness to experiment with unknowns and potentially get things wrong for a while.

    Fish’ — or Smith’s — complaint against anti-foundationalism is that they don’t give us that robust bedrock of absolute certainty. But it’s not clear why that’s a *complaint*. There’s no argument that we *need* foundations, just the assertion, followed by the assertion that religion is the only way to give us that foundation.

  14. Let me first of all admit that when I started to read the defenses of the anti-foundationalist interpretation, my first reaction was to agree and then to remind myself that moral philosophy is an area I haven’t worked in for decades, so I should not try to say much. A lot of really good points were made by you all.

    However, after that first reaction and then rereading the article, I came back to a modified version of my first interpretation. I don’t think the point of the article is that secular reason does not have a foundation. His readers, he must know, are not all that interested in that, and this is not a philosophy paper, not is the NY Times a French newspaper. Nor is the main point that everything has to have assumptions at its basis. That’s a claim alright, but I’m not sure it’s even an essential premise.

    Rather, the essential premise is that only certain assumptions can do the job we need. On this interpretation, the crucial point is still that we’re offered a false dichotomy.
    The anti-foundationalist point plus a claim about only certain sorts of assumptions can do the job are are offered together to support the false dichotomy.

    On such an interpretation , moreover, I think the role of anti-foundationalism may become much less important. That is, the crucial claim is that only values appealing to transcendence of some sort can be adequate action-guiding values.

    Well, perhaps this is wrong. But the article claims not that secular assumptions go outside their own game, but rather that secular assumption don’t work. As he says

    The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design “…

    He then launches into the anti-foundationalist point, but that doesn’t cut against non-religious assumptions, it just cuts against the secularists’ suppose claim they don’t need assumptions.

    Is Smith’s or Fish’s claim about what good action-guiding values look like at all plausible? Is it just arbitrary for Hume to assume that morality should be concerned with what humans value? Of course, that’s a huge question, but certainly it seems to me strange to suggest that morality might have nothing to do with what humans value. But that’s a huge topic, and having just been involved in a discussion with the moral philosopher Michael Smith on Foot vs. Hare, I’m not optimistic about settling it in any short time.

    Finally, it may be that the main fault of the article is not the false dichotomy, but rather the unsupported assertion that only one sort of value can work.

  15. Isn’t the elephant in the room the fact that there is no such thing as “Religion(tm)”? Whether you make the point that all ethical values must have a foundation *or* you make the point that only certain types of foundations are valid, you need to be more careful with your category definitions. “Religion” is potentially just as unstable a moral platform as any other, because there are so many of them and they all have different axioms and different modes of analysis. To examine the validity of Reason vs. all religions (or the Platonic idea of religion, heh) is a one-to-many fallacy. I’ll admit to not understanding a lot of the more technical philosophical stuff in the comments here, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, but this seems like such a glaring flaw to me.

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