Thursday, February 25, 2010

Stanley Fish is a moron

Guest post by Jeffrey Shallitt

Jeffrey O. Shallitt is Professor of Mathematics in the School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, Ontario). He is the vice president and treasurer of Electronic Frontier Canada and the author of the blog Recursivity, where this post first appeared.

Ed. note: This is Jeffrey's first guest post at The Reaction. I first discovered his blog, and learned about him, when I recently tracked back a link to my post last December on the idiocy of Stanley Fish (for an appallingly bad review of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue). As his Wikipedia entry explains, he is "a noted advocate for civil liberties on the Internet." I recommend his blog highly. -- MJWS


Stanley Fish is a moron.

Yes, I know he's a "literary theorist" and "legal scholar" and has a Ph.D. and has written ten books and has a lecture series named after him. But he's still a moron.

Want proof? Read this column in The New York Times. There, Professor Fish, favorably quoting a book by Steven Smith, tells us that "secularism" is completely incapable of answering any "real" questions: "...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."

So what does Fish think provides these reasons? Why, religion of course.

This argument is so stupid that I find it hard to accept that Fish really believes it. So either he's dishonest (which wouldn't surprise me), or he's a moron. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the latter option is more palatable.

"Secular" analysis just means thinking about things without relying on religious dogma. When Muslims outlaw interest because their holy book forbids "usury," secular thinkers can point to economic analysis that is noncontroversial outside religious communities: that having money today has value over money ten years from now. When Jehovah's Witnesses prevent their children from having blood transfusions that would save their children's lives because of their interpretation of the Christian bible, secular thinkers can point to the safety of the procedure and the likelihood the child will die without it.

Social science research can reveal aspects of the human character that suggest some ways of structuring our society are better than others. By "better" I mean that they result in happier, prosperous, and freer people, and a more just society. Fish may answer that my devotion to these principles is not "secular." But it clearly is -- it is driven by my own self-interest and by principles that are generally accepted, without any reliance on religion or "notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature." And evolutionary psychology can help explain why people think and act they way they do.

"Secular" analysis doesn't mean all secularists will agree on everything. Some may think (as I do) that a woman's right to autonomy over her own body clearly trumps the right of an embryo to come to term, while others may disagree. But neither do all theists agree: Christians can't even agree on the most basic fact about Christianity, whether good works or faith alone gets you into their heaven. So advancing religion as the answer to ethical quandaries is not in the least helpful.

"Secular" analysis has one big advantage that religion doesn't have: it can appeal to people of all faiths (and of no faith). If I argue that repealing Sunday blue laws will help the economy, that argument has an appeal for everyone, an appeal that is quite different from one relying on a particular interpretation of a particular holy book that Sunday is "God's day." Similarly, if I argue that not repealing Sunday blue laws is better because it gives small business owners a respite from having to run their business seven days a week, that argument is accessible to everyone. But arguments that depend on one particular dogma and implicitly demand that I take the dogma seriously or at least "respect" it, fail by their very nature to have universal appeal.

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