Student Columnist Criticizes Stanley Fish

by Stephen Beale on March 15, 2010

It isn’t every day that you read lucid criticisms of moral relativism and postmodernism at Brown University, but this scathing column that recently ran in the Brown Daily Herald was a notable exception:

The Creeping Nihilism of Stanley Fish

Brian Judge, Opinions Columnist

Published: Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A few days ago, Providence native and New York Times opinionator Stanley Fish penned the most mind-bogglingly stupid opinion column I have ever read (“Are There Secular Reasons?”, Feb. 22). In fact, this column was so stupid that Professor Fish managed to edge out Miss Teen South Carolina for “stupidest thing I have ever heard,” even though he uses complete sentences and references 17th century philosophers.

Professor Fish attempts to argue that the answer to his titular question is no: secular reasoning can’t answer any normative questions — questions that ask what qualities the world should have, rather than what qualities the world actually does have. Fish regurgitates the argument found in “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse”, a book whose thesis is that “there are no secular reasons, at least not reasons of the kind that could justify a decision to take one course of action rather than another.” What exactly Professor Fish means by “secular reasons” is never spelled out explicitly, but I take it to mean something along the lines of the impossibility of secular political discourse to divorce itself from the normative religious beliefs of its participants.

The only reason that this is worth mentioning is that this answer is both the harbinger of the end of reasonable political discourse and seems to be in vogue among some people here. In effect, Professor Fish is arguing that there isn’t a single, universal, comprehensive way of valuing courses of action. Since we all have our own religious beliefs, it is foolish to try to legislate on the basis of “secular reasons” which necessarily lack substance: “how can one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice [...] out of brute empirical facts?” In other words, it’s not possible to answer normative questions on the basis of reason and universally accepted facts. This is the unholy broth out of with Professor Fish and postmodernism emerged.

What happens when you deny the possibility of speaking in a common language towards common goals? People splinter off into groups that are based on an intuitive appeal that is immune from criticism precisely because they plug their ears and deny the possibility of being criticized.

Nihilism is the emptying of purpose, truth, essential value and meaning from human life. You can spot a nihilist by his insistence that “it’s all relative” or “all beliefs are created equally.” Stanley Fish is a nihilist. People who deny the existence of a universal means to evaluate universal ends are nihilists. It is in fact not “all relative” because of the common biology that we all share. In other words, you don’t need to enter the domain of “prior metaphysical commitments” in order to discover answers. Our prior biological commitments take us far enough. We all need to eat. There are limited resources. Thus, we are going to prefer courses of action that put food on our tables. This is a normative framework. It begins to answer the question “how we should live” in a universally accessible way.

Living in a globalized world where everyone is connected requires that we be able to address normative questions like “how should we live?” in a universally accessible manner. Such is the domain of “secular reason.” It’s not ‘secular’ because it denies the importance or relevance of people’s metaphysical beliefs. Rather, it is secular because it doesn’t demand that one come to the table with anything other than a willingness to accept empirical facts. Universal values exist (e.g. that the earth should continue to be habitable) so there needs to be a way to talk about them universally. The very fact that I can disagree with Professor Fish and think that he is wrong suggests a common basis on which to disagree.

I find it baffling that the stereotypical Brown student somehow emerges from a reconciliation of an affinity towards postmodernism and an affinity towards social justice. If you are one of the self-proclaimed post-modernists at Brown, take a good look at the LaRouchians who hand out pamphlets on Thayer Street and really consider whether or not they are a legitimate political faction. If you blow past them in an indignant huff, then you aren’t a postmodernist. If you think that political activism, social justice or environmental sustainability are important, then you aren’t a postmodernist. If someone tries to hand you a copy of Lyotard’s “The Postmodern Condition” on Thayer Street, tell him or her to do something useful.

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