Whenever I think Stanley Fish can’t possibly find any more sharks to jump, he goes and jumps another one.

Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!!!!!

Let’s start with the title:

Are There Secular Reasons?

Well, gee, Stanley, I sure hope so. Because otherwise there aren’t any reasons at all. Is this a brief for nihilism he’s writing? Surely there are at least secular instrumental reasons, right? Right?

In the always-ongoing debate about the role of religion in public life, the argument most often made on the liberal side (by which I mean the side of Classical Liberalism, not the side of left politics) is that policy decisions should be made on the basis of secular reasons, reasons that, because they do not reflect the commitments or agendas of any religion, morality or ideology, can be accepted as reasons by all citizens no matter what their individual beliefs and affiliations. So it’s O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation will benefit the economy, or improve the nation’s health, or strengthen national security; but it’s not O.K. to argue that a proposed piece of legislation should be passed because it comports with a verse from the book of Genesis or corresponds to the will of God.

A somewhat less stringent version of the argument permits religious reasons to be voiced in contexts of public decision-making so long as they have a secular counterpart: thus, citing the prohibition against stealing in the Ten Commandments is all right because there is a secular version of the prohibition rooted in the law of property rights rather than in a biblical command. In a more severe version of the argument, on the other hand, you are not supposed even to have religious thoughts when reflecting on the wisdom or folly of a piece of policy. Not only should you act secularly when you enter the public sphere; you should also think secularly.

Ok, someone showed him a copy of Political Liberalism. Wait… why did some fool show him a copy of Political Liberalism?

Whether the argument appears in its softer or harder versions, behind it is a form of intellectual/political apartheid

“Apartheid?” Really? It’s a good think that Fish doesn’t actually have a physical dead skunk to throw into the offices of, well, liberals and rationalists.

known as the private/public distinction

: matters that pertain to the spirit and to salvation are the province of religion and are to be settled by religious reasons; matters that pertain to the good order and prosperity of civil society are the province of democratically elected representatives and are to be settled by secular reasons. As John Locke put it in 1689 (“A Letter Concerning Toleration”), the “care of men’s souls” is the responsibility of the church while to the civil magistrate belongs the care of “outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like”; it is his responsibility to secure for everyone, of whatever denomination or belief, “the just possession of these things belonging to this life.”

A neat division, to be sure, which has the effect (not, I think, intended by Locke) of honoring religion by kicking it upstairs and out of sight. If the business of everyday life — commerce, science, medicine, law, agriculture, education, foreign policy, etc. — can be assigned to secular institutions employing secular reasons to justify actions, what is left to religious institutions and religious reasons is a private area of contemplation and worship, an area that can be safely and properly ignored when there are “real” decisions to be made. Let those who remain captives of ancient superstitions and fairy tales have their churches, chapels, synagogues, mosques, rituals and liturgical mumbo-jumbo; just don’t confuse the (pseudo)knowledge they traffic in with the knowledge needed to solve the world’s problems.

Funny, that. Liberals since basically ever (by which I mean since Locke) have thought that they were respecting the fact that people have different religions, not condemning them as liturgical mumbo-jumbo (much as I personally might like to). And contemporary liberals include secular comprehensive doctrines in the category of nonpublic reasons (mugh as I personally might like not to).

Political liberal =/= comprehensive liberal. Savvy?

This picture is routinely challenged by those who contend that secular reasons and secular discourse in general don’t tell the whole story; they leave out too much of what we know to be important to human life.

No they don’t, is the reply; everything said to be left out can be accounted for by the vocabularies of science, empiricism and naturalism; secular reasons can do the whole job.

NO! That is just not what public reason liberals say! I’m not a public reason liberal, but the idea that public reason liberals come with a commitment to naturalism and all the rest is just ridiculous. (Hell, part of the reason that I’m a not public reason liberal is because I do think that the vocabularies of science, empiricism, and naturalism, plus secular ethics, can do the whole job — and because I think those clouded by religion can be made to see this by the patient application of reason.)

And so the debate goes, as polemicists on both sides hurl accusations in an exchange that has become as predictable as it is over-heated.

But the debate takes another turn if one argues, as the professor of law Steven Smith does in his new book, “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse,” 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.

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.

While secular discourse, in the form of statistical analyses, controlled experiments and rational decision-trees, can yield banks of data that can then be subdivided and refined in more ways than we can count, it cannot tell us what that data means or what to do with it. No matter how much information you pile up and how sophisticated are the analytical operations you perform, you will never get one millimeter closer to the moment when you can move from the piled-up information to some lesson or imperative it points to; for it doesn’t point anywhere; it just sits there, inert and empty.

Once the world is no longer assumed to be informed by some presiding meaning or spirit (associated either with a theology or an undoubted philosophical first principle) and is instead thought of as being “composed of atomic particles randomly colliding and . . . sometimes evolving into more and more complicated systems and entities including ourselves” there is no way, says Smith, to look at it and answer normative questions, questions like “what are we supposed to do?” and “at the behest of who or what are we to do it?”

Smith is not in the business of denigrating science and rationalism or minimizing their great achievements. Secular reason — reason cut off from any a priori stipulations of what is good and valuable

Catch the move here? It’s a really clever one. In ordinary language, “secular reason” is opposed to “religious reason.” It’s possible to have secular reasons that include “a priori [analysis] of what is good and valuable.” (“Stipulations” is a whole ‘nother notion entirely. Read something like the Groundwork and tell me there’s no difference between a priori and brute stipulation.) But in Fish’s world, the “secular” excludes basically everything except empirical physical and social science, even other types of reason that align themselves with rationality rather than with faith. Hell, on Fish’s weird notion of the secular, his own editorial probably doesn’t count.

— can take us a long way. We’ll do fine as long as we only want to find out how many X’s or Y’s there are or investigate their internal structure or discover what happens when they are combined, and so forth.

Wait. Wait a second. Is he going to tell us that there’s a difference between facts and norms? That just can’t be. My world is on the verge of shattering!

But the next step, the step of going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible, says Smith, for the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” 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

Conceiving of the natural world as free-standing? Huh? There are at least two hillarious moves in here. First, the notion that a free-standing natural world can’t have a “normative dimension” totally begs the question against the secularist (“secularism can’t give normative reasons because the normative is supernatural!”). Second, it has nothing to do with public reason. Public reason does not come with a commitment to metaphysical naturalism. It would be nice if it did, since metaphysical naturalism is true. But it doesn’t.

, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?”

He did! He did tell us that there’s a difference between facts and norms! But wait, what does that entail? Hmm…

No way that is not a sleight of hand. This is the cul de sac Enlightenment philosophy traps itself in when it renounces metaphysical foundations in favor of the “pure” investigation of “observable facts.” It must somehow bootstrap or engineer itself back up to meaning and the possibility of justified judgment, but it has deliberately jettisoned the resources that would enable it do so.

Oh! The difference between facts and norms entails that the Enlightenment was a crock of shit! Got it. Wow. I’m really glad that someone came along and corrected those silly Enlightenment philosophers who didn’t realize that there’s a difference between facts and norms. Because, of course, all those Enlightenment guys like Kant and Hegel were concerned solely with the investigation of observable facts. Those idiots. Gosh. Good thing Fish and Smith were around to save us from that nasty little trap, isn’t it?

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers.

. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

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,”

Yep. You caught us. We liberals actually see the hand of god in everything. Smith and Fish found the hidden footnote in Theory of Justice where Rawls argues that the difference principle best expresses justice as fairness because it’s nature’s purpose for humanity.

all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction — to even get started — “we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations — to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation.

Has anyone told Fish that there are libraries full of books and papers by public reason liberals trying to give some content for things like fairness and equality?

And, anyway, how can religious reasons answer questions like “equality with respect to what measures?” Do Fish and Smith seriously expect us to believe that the bible offers us a distinction between, say, luck egalitarianism and democratic equality?

Oh. Wait…

That content, however, will always come from the suspect realm of contested substantive values. Is fairness to be extended to everyone or only to those with certain credentials (of citizenship, education, longevity, etc.)? Is it equality of opportunity or equality of results (the distinction on which affirmative action debates turn)?

I see. He wants to include those libraries full of books and articles under the head of non-secular reason. Why? Uh, because he says so. Because he seems to think that “contested substantive value” means the same thing as “non-public reason.” From which I guess we’re licensed to infer that any debate actually conducted on the terms of public reasons would be one in which disagreement was impossible. (Or, at least, disagreement that couldn’t be solved by appeal to empirical data.) We’re back to the basic dichotomy of this terrible, terrible screed, namely the dichotomy between empirical data and non-secular “a priori stipulations.” The entire stupid argument depends on refusing to acknowledge that there might be logical space for something else.

A lovely chap named Adam from Paris made this point nicely in the comments on the NYT page:

This article — and, it seems, the book it is advertising — rests entirely on a bizarre assimilation of (I would venture to say “confusion between”) the secular/religious dichotomy and the fact/value dichotomy. But hardly anyone who identifies as a secularist will concede all values to religionists. Unfortunately, the article offers no reason to believe that the secularist is mistaken in his belief that he can engage in values-talk without, by that very fact, engaging in religion-talk. And for good reason, too, since it’s only by conceptual gerrymandering that one could ever arrive at the conclusion that all values are necessarily religious values, and that the ideal of a secular public sphere is necessarily the ideal of valueless discourse “on the facts only” (an impossibility, even as an ideal).

Hear, hear. Also see Norman Geras’s response, which makes the same point — because it’s so obvious that even a three-year-old could see it. Also Russell Blackford’s, which betrays actual engagement with the liberal literature (of which Fish is evidently innocent).

Only when these matters have been settled can the abstractions do any work, and the abstractions, in and of themselves, cannot settle them. Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn.

Wait, secular reason has forsworn ideology? I’m not even sure which of the many uses of “ideology” Fish means to invoke here.

Therefore, Smith concludes, “conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling.”

Smith does not claim to be saying something wholly new.

Really? No shit?

He cites David Hume’s declaration that by itself “reason is incompetent to answer any fundamental question,” and Alasdair MacIntyre’s description in “After Virtue” of modern secular discourse as consisting “of the now incoherent fragments of a kind of reasoning that made sense on older metaphysical assumptions.”

And he might have added Augustine’s observation in “De Trinitate” that the entailments of reason cannot unfold in the absence of a substantive proposition they did not and could not generate; or Roberto Unger’s insistence in “Knowledge and Politics” that “as long as formal neutrality is strictly maintained, the standards it produces will be . . . empty shells . . . incapable of determining precisely what is commanded or prohibited in particular situations of choice.” (In “The Trouble With Principle” I myself argue that “there are no neutral principles, only principles that are already informed by the substantive content to which they are rhetorically opposed.”)

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.

But since modern liberal discourse rests on no such distinction, I don’t think we have anything to fear. Sorry Stanley.

Is “Are There Secular Reasons” Fish’s lowest point since this? This is so irresponsible. Fish is convincing a bunch of NYT readers whose only exposure to contemporary analytic liberalism is through his columns that there is nothing to the whole enterprise when it’s doubtful that he has even read the literature — if on the off chance he has, he certainly hasn’t understood any of it.

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3 Responses to “Whenever I think Stanley Fish can’t possibly find any more sharks to jump, he goes and jumps another one.”

  1. Fish Guts « Cruel Mistress Says:

    [...] a Harsh Planet « Plane Geometry Fish Guts March 11, 2010 Paul Gowder offers this nice evisceration of Stanley Fish’s recent tragedy on secular [...]

  2. Pugh Blic Reason Says:

    Paul,
    Great blog. I’m not a public-reason liberal either. Still, I think Rawls makes a darned impressive case, and I can’t quite poke the holes in it that I’d like to.

    Who’s done a good job of poking some holes?

  3. Jimmy Jon Says:

    Yet another blog hosted by an average person

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