In a recent Philosopher’s Stone essay, Paul Boghossian corrects Stanley Fish on the subject of moral relativism: there is no morally relativistic ground between nihilism and the embrace of moral absolutes — one must choose. Saying “x is wrong” is a normative statement, while saying “x is wrong relative to moral code y” is a descriptive statement without normative force; believing the second statement doesn’t require believing the first. (Note that the attempt to naturalize morality — as in the projects of Harris and possibly Churchland — run into problems for precisely this reason; there seems to be no alchemy that turns descriptive statements (including scientific observations) into normative ones).
Fish’s response? It amounts (after a bizarre conflation of skepticism and relativism) to something like the following syllogism:
- Paul Boghossian corrected me on a philosophical matter, and I have no rebuttal.
- But: Nothing concerning which I have been corrected can actually matter.
- Therefore: Philosophy doesn’t matter.
Quid erat demonstrandum. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the chutzpah of someone who’s way out of an argument is to say “well, all arguments of this sort don’t matter anyway.” It takes picking up one’s toys and going home to a whole new level. One tries to pick up everyone else’s toys as well.
To be fair, Fish actually argues for the conclusion, whatever his face-saving motivations. The argument is that whether I believe there are such a thing as moral absolutes — and more generally, how I answer philosophical questions in general — don’t matter in the real world; which is to say, they don’t affect my decisions or my behavior.
Fish conveniently defines “matter” in the narrowest possible terms, a typical gambit for critiques of philosophy as an impractical waste of time. When playing this game, making a decision about whether to take a job (the example Fish actually uses without irony) are suddenly the only sorts of things that “matter.” Apparently if I can’t use philosophy to get rich, chop vegetables, mop up the occasional spill, and keep my beer cold at Red Sox games, then I must have succumbed to the wrong vocational infomercial.
But then, do theoretical beliefs about the status of moral absolutes affect our behavior? Of course they do. In his crushing rebuttal to Fish’s piece, Boghossian quotes comment 93 by David Velleman:
Fish’s examples of “real life” are not the ones to which relativism would matter. Consider instead how we (Westerners) deal with cultures that practice female genital mutilation. We could say, “Well, what’s right for us isn’t necessarily right for them, and it’s meaningless to ask which of us is ‘really’ right.” Or we could say, “If we’re right (as we think), then they must be wrong, and we should try to convince them.” Or we can say, “Both of us are right in the context of our own cultures, but some cultures are superior to others.” And so on. In the first case, we don’t even try to talk to them. In the second case, we try to engage them in moral argument. In the third, we expose them to our way of life and count on them to change. These are real-life alternatives, and in today’s world, the choice among them matters a great deal.
It is rationally inconceivable that one’s meta-ethical attitudes about moral correctness and truth won’t influence one’s first-order views about how to deal with cultures that practice female genital mutilation. Indeed, it is precisely because they were expected to have such influence — because they were expected to foster greater tolerance for those with whom one might disagree — that people were attracted to moral relativism in the first place.
Bizarrely, this discussion leaves out entirely the Philosophy 101 idea that philosophy not only matters to living, but matters a lot! As in, “the un-partially-examined life is not worth living.” Which is to say, theoretical wisdom is important both a) as an end in itself (perfect happiness, according to Aristotle, consists in contemplation); and b) because of its relationship to practical wisdom (as in, being prone to and good at reasoning about things might lead to better moral decisions and different behaviors). Shouldn’t someone arguing the thesis “philosophy doesn’t matter” take on this opposing, inaugural view?
Whether or not one thinks that the life of the mind is the best sort of life, certainly it’s inconceivable that philosophizing doesn’t have profound impacts — for better or worse — on character, and so on subsequent choices and behaviors. In fact, we are modified but absolutely every activity in which we engage (whether philosophical reflection leads to privileged sorts of modifications is a further question). And the set of all such accrued modifications (what I’m calling “character”) plays a critical role in determining future behaviors.
Perhaps Fish would say that he means strictly that one’s philosophical beliefs don’t directly affect one’s behavior and decisions by entering directly into some chain of reasoning (and would grant that philosophical activity affects character and so, indirectly, behavior). But then “philosophy doesn’t matter” is a poor way to state such a thesis, and these would be arbitrarily narrow requirements for a belief’s mattering.
As for the relevance of philosophical beliefs, are we really to believe that the guy who became enamored of Derrida (and affiliated positions) isn’t living a different sort of life — outside and inside the classroom — than if he’d become obsessed with Bertrand Russell? (Granting the choice had something to do with character in the first place, it will reinforce character in turn). Certainly our beliefs — no matter how theoretical — belong to, reflect, and shape a large set of conditions that determine our behaviors.
(See also Boghossian’s unfortunately titled but well-argued book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism).