today's secret word is "ethics"

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While ostensibly reviewing Stephen Smith's upcoming book The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, Stanley Fish claimed in "Are There Secular Reasons?" that, while secular methods of discovery and discourse are very effective at "piling up" information, all that knowledge "just sits there, inert and empty" because "the step of going from observation to evaluation and judgment, proves difficult, indeed impossible:"

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 [meaning religion] that would enable it do so.

Fish continues by asserting, as does Smith, that "secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary" only by "smuggling" religious conceptions of value and purpose:

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. [...] 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.

Interestingly, there's an entire branch of philosophy called Ethics that addresses Fish's myopia about secular morality. Developing a system of ethics is a more difficult endeavor than merely following a list of commandments that have (allegedly) been handed down from on high, but morality is neither unique to religion nor borrowed from it.

For a full takedown of Fish's argument, see philosopher Russell Blackford, who notes that "Fish is antagonistic to the classical liberal tradition based on the work of philosophers such as Locke, Mill, and Rawls. Like Steven D. Smith, the author of the forthcoming book that he's reviewing, Fish thinks that it leads to an impoverishment of politics:"

I disagree strongly. This tradition is worth defending. That's why I'm writing a book about it: specifically about what it offer[s] on freedom of religion. [...]

What Fish really needs is not an argument that slanders liberals for an imagined meta-ethical naivety. He needs something more gritty and practical, an argument as to why we now live in an era when it is wise to trust the state to decide which religion is correct, and then legislate accordingly. I'd love to see that argument.

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6 Comments

The opinion that the Enlightenment is a cul de sac as to fundamental philosphical questions is perfectly legitimate. The opinion that religion is a cul de sac is also perfectly legitimate. The thing about philosophy is there are no answers.

I don't disagree that religions often provide conflicting or irrelevant moral guidance. I think it is fairly indisputable that science cannot be a basis for morality. That leaves the argument at a stalemate (or cul de sac perhaps), as is the case of most philosophical arguments. But it also leaves religion in a position with as much a claim to base morality as science. I personally don't see the difference between reading a 3,000 year old book for guidance and looking to evolutionary psychology, which is speculation at best as to what may have be appropriate 50,000 years ago, and which is just a new form of arbitrary mythology at worst. In the end (IMO), morality is in practice nothing more or less than tradition.

Thanks for the link to the articles. The articles, and some of the comments to Fish's article, are fascinating.

Blackford misses the point. No where does Fish or Smith denigrate the Englightenment traditions, or seek to revive the Inquisition. He is dealing with a dliemna in ethics that has no easy solution, that an "is" cannot imply an "ought." Blackford ends up arguing that religion cannot provide that ought either, which of course doesn't Fish's objection.

Thanks for the link to the articles. The articles, and some of the comments to Fish's article, are fascinating.

Blackford misses the point. No where does Fish or Smith denigrate the Englightenment traditions, or seek to revive the Inquisition. He is dealing with a dliemna in ethics that has no easy solution, that an "is" cannot imply an "ought." Blackford ends up arguing that religion cannot provide that ought either, which of course doesn't Fish's objection.

i read fish's essay, and i will probably get this guys book.
jean baudrillard covered some of this same ground in "seduction"
modern man (and women) have not yet come to terms with where we are moving to,
ethics will be of utmost importance, as we jettison past prejudices, we must take care we do not create new ones.

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