March 19, 2012

Might Makes Right

I have occasionally observed that the arguments of culture war ideologues often boil down to little more than various restatements of the basic conviction that "we're the good people, so whatever we feel must be right."

Stanley Fish demonstrates here, in acadamese, with mock (?) approval. It's satire, I believe, but really who can tell?

(via Instapundit.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 19, 2012 12:32 AM

Yeah, the last two paragraphs of that one are weird. Loved the analysis up to that point, but I think his argument would have been better served minus the satire.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at March 19, 2012 05:45 AM

Nate, what's your best guess as to what he's getting at?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at March 19, 2012 04:13 PM


Have you ever read Alinsky? This is pure Alinskyism. Basically, our enemies ("the nefarious force that threatens our democracy") will stop at nothing to destroy us, therefore we must lie, cheat, etc. Alinsky is a big fan of hypocrisy in particular. Rules for Radicals is a genuinely evil book, dedicated to Satan no less.

Personally, I find it refreshing when people make these frank confessions that their ideologies are simply about power for power's sake.

What's amazing to me is that these people are unable to see that they have won. They treat this woman as if she is a victim rather than aggressor (and they keep referring to her as a "college student", as if she is some innocent kid and not a 30 year old career political activist). You guys are the progressives, you are on offense by definition. Even among "corporations", how many people at Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan/Chase would ever publicly admit to liking Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh is for proles. Proles do not run the world.

Or Fish could just be lying, because apparently he is allowed to lie. I also can't point out the hypocrisy of the combination of moral relativism and realism in the article, but apparently, you are allowed to be a hypocrite. It's quite a system they've worked out. No wonder they are always winning.

Posted by: josh at March 19, 2012 04:57 PM

Stanley Fish is... odd.

Sometimes he's very, very clever (in the best sense of the term).

And sometimes he's completely out of left field bonkers.

I'd like to think it's satire, but... I can't tell.

Posted by: Sigivald at March 19, 2012 06:22 PM

Wow, so actually it seems like he wasn't being satirical at all. I sort of thought that anyone ending an article with "Might makes right, and that's okay" would be joking, but it doesn't seem like he was.

As far as I can see, he's setting up an opposition between fairness, or "enlightenment liberalism," and moral judgment, or "identity politics," where the former perspective is a position that would have Schultz and Maher treated the same for their coarse language as Rush has been for his, and the latter would just condemn Rush because of his general wrong-thinking. Ironic, since Schultz and Maher are the liberals in this particular fight, and according to Fish by their own philosophy they should be condemned, where by the opposition, they shouldn't, at least not by their own team.

(That irony, as he laid it out like that, was the part I really liked. But for the record, I don't think there's really an opposition between fairness and goodness at all, though it can appear so, like as between justice and mercy, etc.)

Fish also recognizes a third option, which was where I got tripped up in thinking that he was being satirical. I figured that the last two paragraphs were just a joke, and that the real point of the article was this third option. But no, after reading it a second time it seems like he's saying that, barring the third option, the "moral," non-liberal, tribe-defending choice is the better one, even though it reduces the argument to a question of who strikes first, gets the upper hand, and is thus "mightier." (I don't think this is necessarily worse than the alternative, where fairness is totally isolated from morality; they're both pretty unsatisfying.)

This third choice is the one described in terms of The Wild Bunch and Paradise Lost, where fairness is applied only toward those who are morally good, or right-thinking, or part of the right tribe.

So for Fish the hierarchy of these three choices goes: 1) behave fairly to the "good guys," 2) behave "morally," do whatever is necessary to judge the "bad" people and let the chips fall where they may 3) behave fairly toward everyone, regardless of their goodness or badness, or one's own relation to them.

The problem with his perspective about the third option is that whatever standards of fairness, as soon as they're applied only to people that one likes or are "good," cease to be fair and become reflections of one's own favoritism. It's a cheap fairness that costs nothing in the way of one's own preference.

By the same token, neither of his other choices satisfy, being: A) moral decisions that don't have a certain objective fairness, and B) so-called fairness that aren't rooted in a general desire to benefit the goodness of humanity, as well as recognizing that personal non-fair preferences are sometimes important.

I mean, it seems like setting up fairness and goodness as being opposed is itself the problem. Though they are (or can be) two sides of a hard paradox, this less resolved view seems nonetheless much healthier than either side left in isolation.

Fish doesn't mention Louis C.K., but he likely would be totally exculpated in his view, as LCK was speaking as an entertainer/artist, (and so might have been Maher, too, for that matter). There's a performative element to his words that put them in a separate aesthetic space, which I have a feeling Fish would recognize.

Anyway, that's my guess.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at March 20, 2012 07:28 AM

Whoops, just realized something that could've been clearer. In the 7th paragraph, speaking to the "third option," I'm referring to that from grafs 4 and 5, not the third option [or 3)] from graf 6.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at March 20, 2012 07:40 AM

If it really is a sincere suggestion that "liberals" forsake liberalism in order to win better and more often, or an approving description of the illiberal ways in which todays "liberals" typically do conduct themselves when it comes to cultural politics, then I suppose I'm with Josh: it's a bit of relief to hear someone come out and say it. The reason it seems like it must be satire is that this is something no one admits, a seeming paradox. Because this is a liberal polity and the ethos he's (apparently) endorsing can only be described as totalitarian. Also it could be described as stupid, strategically: "the mob" is just as likely to trample Fish's own rights, obviously, on the basis of similarly vacuous, amoral justifications, and how could he argue then? So how could he mean it, really?

But whether he does or not, most of the commenters in the NYT seem unaware of or untroubled by the paradox.

And I have to admit, if I'm honest, that I do tend to that view myself. That is, I (think I) believe that most of the hifalutin rhetoric that adorns contemporary popular arguments concerning rights and morals etc. tends to be not much more than rationalizations that mask true motivations that are mindless, instinctive, tribal, inarticulable, vicious, robotic. And of course, this occurs on all "sides." (Though there is a particular grim irony when it is done by people who flatter themselves that they are "liberal" while they're doing it; that is worthy of note.)

So I'm with Fish on the description to that extent. Where I differ, and where I find it hard to believe he does not differ as well, is that I don't find this at all desirable. Cheering it on is madness, the act of a sociopath. In my darker, more misanthropic moments, which are many and increasingly lengthy, I suspect that it is inescapable, and that the best that can indeed be done is to disguise as best we can our base impulses with pretty lies. Nevertheless, it is a terrible state of affairs. We used to be able to rely on the (albeit often abused) wisdom of traditional spiritual teachings and on philosophy and liberal education to mitigate the phenomenon, but they've been largely dismantled.

The thing to do after publicly acknowledging that a mindless, amoral, vicious ideology has replaced your soul is to hang your head in shame, not trumpet it in the New York Times. But whatever. I just was not made for these times.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at March 20, 2012 04:31 PM

I guess I don't see it as grimly as all that, probably naively so. I agree that his conclusion is flawed, but it also seems that he's operating based on a true conviction of what is good and right, rather than base selfishness or desire to be with those who are in power. I find that almost any sincerely held ethos whatsoever, while certainly more dangerous if flawed like this one, tends to make for a better philosophy in terms of the individuals involved than the blatant tribalism he is describing. So, my thinking is that, while he's trumpeting "morality" and his own ability to determine what that is apart from any independently working system of fairness, such a system would so quickly degenerate to immorality that it could not hold for long. (Perhaps it has already done so? But I'm guessing when the transition is complete, it will be hard to mistake it for anything other than what it is.) Anyway, i think his way of looking at stuff is better than he's actually describing it, else he probably wouldn't even be able to articulate it so well.

I really have no idea how to apply the morality/fairness paradox in the public sphere, which is one of the many reasons that most political theory kind of eludes me. It's hard enough to conduct one's own self with this paradox in mind, without thinking how to make it law.

The closest I could get would be to think that, if I truly believed in both fairness and morality, than I could never wish that I would somehow "defeat" the opposing party in questions like this. The whole point of the multi-party system (I don't know if that's what it's called) is to have a dialectic model, where the argument between opposing factions yields a greater solution than any one of them could determine alone. And so, in voicing one's own moral opinion, one would have to hope that those parts of its morality that are flawed would be met fairly by other people who disagree, but who like oneself want the best good possible. That's the thing we're supposed to want to happen, right? Not: A) "I am right, and we should do it my way," but B) "This is how I see it. I could be wrong, so let's hear what you have to say and try to agree on whatever we think is best, because getting different perspectives shows a more complete picture." Like I said, that's probably pretty naive/idealistic.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at March 20, 2012 07:02 PM

I'm not sure which angle Fish is really taking. He seems serious, but he throws a curveball in those last few paragraphs.

Nate's option (B) would be fantastic, but I agree that it's probably pretty unrealistic to expect that. It would require a level of self-objectivity that I don't believe exists on a large scale. This example is in the extreme, but do evil people truly realize that they are evil?

I might be overly pessimistic in this regard, but I think people find it much too easy to toe the party line no matter the cost. After all, if something goes wrong in the "I'm right, we should do it my way model," it's the other side's fault. Rather than a person or a group whose different ideas that could perhaps be complementary, the other side is the enemy. And if the other side is considered to be an enemy, I'm sure it becomes easier to seek "victory" through sometimes vicious and amoral means.

With each passing year, I feel like altruism is slowly being replaced with social entropy. I'll keep hoping for option (B), though.

Posted by: ben at March 20, 2012 08:01 PM

"the mob" is just as likely to trample Fish's own rights, obviously, on the basis of similarly vacuous, amoral justifications, and how could he argue then?"

Except it isn't. That's the important part. In fact, that's the whole appeal of "liberalism" it always wins, and it always wins because it is simply more willing to be evil.

Intellectuals have always served the important function of legitimizing power. The left controls all of the important institutions to influence the future of the world (ie they have all the power) so intellectuals flock to it. They compete in a competitive apologetics market and we end up with the official history and philosophy of our society.

"This example is in the extreme, but do evil people truly realize that they are evil?"

People don't even understand what evil is anymore. It has essentially been redefined in such a way that, as your comment demonstrates, would be impossible. In the modern materialist/radical subjectivist world we live in the human will is the standard, and equal freedom to pursue the desires of the will the highest good. In this world the only "evil" is defying ones own will which is a paradox.

This makes is perfectly plausible for people dedicate books to Lucifer without feeling their book is evil. Both Dr. Johnson and Saul Alinksy agree that the first whig was the devil; the modern man, however, believes this means we should rethink our stance toward the devil rather than whiggism! After all, wasn't Satan merely an advocate of personal freedom from the arbitrary constraints of God's cosmos? Modern America is in a very real sense, a nation of Satan worshipers, even as a mere metaphor, this should probably still shock people.

Unfortunately, the constraints of God are the constraints of nature and violation of them tends to lead to less "freedom" even in the crass utilitarian understanding of the term. Hence we actually observe in the world a phenomena that has always been described as evil, but we no longer understand where it comes from.

Posted by: josh at March 21, 2012 05:41 PM