Letter to Stanley Fish

To Stanley Fish
cc: Columbia Law Review

12 May 1999

Dear Mr. Fish,

Thank you very much for your Columbia Law Review article “Mission Impossible…”. I enjoyed it immensely, as I do most of your work. (I have read many articles, including those in “Is There a Text in This Class?,” “Doing What Comes Naturally,” and most of those in “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech,” which I am currently reading.) I am not sure, however, whether the article does what you suggested, that is whether it clarifies the relationship between your views and mine.

An article that can in the space of fifty pages make this sentence:

“Every discourse, even one filled with words like ‘fair’ and ‘impartial,’ is an engine of exclusion and therefore a means of coercion.”

sound obvious is worth paying attention to. It is suggesting a way of thinking not often, if ever, recognized by most people.

This novelty and something else attract me to your view, namely your honest agreement with a position I had thought myself rather lonely in holding, the position that says that a belief in the supreme goodness of proselytization cannot be reconciled with making toleration the highest good.

Beyond that I have several quibbles with your view and confusions over what your view can be.

You seem to believe that a religious person “should” (p. 2331) insist on practicing his religion in so far as it affects politics, rather than being silenced by confused liberal theories. You seem to think also that this will be substantively consequential. Yet you also seem to think that losing religion (another phrase for becoming a pragmatist) has no substantive consequences.

I will grant you that it need not. A pragmatist (that is, an atheist) like myself – or, rather, one unlike myself – could conceivably advocate any political policy whatsoever, as well as believing that all nonpragmatists always have acted and always will act pragmatically.

But in our time and place it seems clear that losing religion is often a good way to lose market-faith, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, and other beliefs that I deem undesirable. This is neither to suggest an inevitable connection between theism and these other beliefs nor to forget that many people see themselves as using theism to promote the opposites of these beliefs. It is to say that, although this fact is not theoretical, theory today has consequences.

I associate theory (in your sense of the word) so closely with theism that I have typed the one word above where I might have typed the other. Your work is in debunking (what Rorty would call dedivinizing) theory. Yet at times this work seems to be done on behalf of theism, or at least quite clearly not AGAINST theism. You seem to believe not only that becoming a pragmatist needn’t change your politics, but also that it probably won’t. If one has become a pragmatist, then by definition one accepts the first claim. But to accept the second is to claim something about how Americans today tend to lump their various attitudes together, and I think it is to make such a claim mistakenly. I think losing religion and all of its derivatives here and now has a beneficial net effect on politics. By making pragmatism inconsequential, you seem to me to reduce religion to something even less than what Locke and the liberal tradition would have it. And, although at times you seem to be defending religion against empty talk of “fairness,” you repeatedly state that in pointing out liberalism’s unfairness or illiberalism (words that now lose meaning) you are NOT criticizing liberalism’s performance, only its self-description.

Nonetheless, you conclude the article saying:

“Immorality resides in the mantras of liberal theory – fairness, impartiality, and mutual respect – all devices for painting the world various shades of gray.”

To these might be added “desert,” “human nature,” “free will,” and any of a thousand other religio-philosophical concepts, as well as religious concepts: God, Truth, Judgment, Sin, Heaven, etc.

I’ve never encountered a religious doctrine that wouldn’t fall to the kind of arguments you routinely use against religio-philosophical notions. But you don’t say much about religious doctrines other than how you think they relate to toleration.

And I believe that the author you criticize on p. 2329 has a point. You do too. Your excellent point is that describing the way things have always been and how this fails to fit with a certain philosophical dream is not a good reason to alter anything except philosophy texts. His point is that one can be humble, one can be more or less open to considering abandoning certain beliefs; there is such a thing as Rortian ironism. Just because no one has ever had a belief that was strictly and theoretically unalterable is no reason why we shouldn’t recognize that people vary in their willingness to consider new ideas.

I believe that one of the few general comments one can make in the field of ethics is that one should not do something that one actually believes to be harmful. Perhaps the theoretical pinnacle of this perversity is “Rule Utilitarianism,” which places a value on well-being and another, superior value on following rules (even when harmful). Beyond this, theoretical ethics doesn’t do much. But this is significant, and it is a matter of retaining or rejecting theistic obedience to imaginary and quite real authorities.

I agree with your critique of the private-public distinction, and find it illuminating. I disagree with what I see as your distinction between types of talk that have consequences and types that don’t. On p. 2260 you summarize such a position in Locke:

“…even if he were to declare an official doctrine and compel its profession, that profession would neither produce nor alter the INWARD persuasion that is the mark of true faith.”

Of course, it might or might not alter “persuasion.”

Your writing seems at times to adopt the position of the religious person. You write (pp. 2266-2277) that forbidding some activity to a religious person can be more significant than forbidding it to someone else because it “may go to the question of his salvation.” But from my point of view this is only so in his or her delusional way of thinking and – although I don’t “believe in” salvation – I believe that activities of mine can be as important as those of others.

On p. 2268 you write that “you no more choose what persuades you in the way of belief than you choose your own eye or skin color.” There are two ways in which this seems wrong. First, we choose what books we read and who we talk to with an idea of what sorts of beliefs we will be led to. Second, “wishful thinking” is a common phrase in part because it is a common activity. Religion presents the most obvious example. I will try below to explain “wishful thinking” as something more than a put-down for beliefs I do not share.

You quote Locke saying “Suppose this business of religion were let alone.” Well, what better way to rid us of religion than by pretending to honor it? Perhaps now we are at a stage where honesty will work better for the remover of religion. It may also work better for the promoter of religion. Now and then I suspect you of being the latter.

Another distinction I see as unworkable is the one you make on pp. 2290-2291 between new beliefs that “come within the structure of” beliefs you already have, and ones that don’t. I think that any belief can fit either category for any person. The idea that this isn’t true suggests to me some sort of layering of beliefs, where first we have religion or theory and then we have “particular” beliefs. But this doesn’t sound very Fishian.

A liberal, you say (p. 2292), cannot acknowledge dislike of a point of view as a reason for keeping it out of a conversation. But I can. I want to keep religion out of conversations, not just because I see it “as conversation stopper” (see a Rorty article of that title; I think anything could be a conversation stopper), but because I see it as on balance harmful. However, I’m not sure religion has been kept out of much in America, except for, perhaps, some types of (anti-)theory. It’s atheists who cannot legally conscientiously object to wars or easily get elected to public offices. There are on the books old and new laws promoting anti-gay, anti-poor, anti-sex, and anti-abortion policies. Our political bodies routinely pray.

I agree that liberal talk does nothing to comfort everyone. But I question whether we should “comfort” those who hold harmful beliefs (beliefs that I deem harmful). The following is on p. 2295:

“Suppose that you believe (as I in fact do) that policies favoring racial discrimination have no place on the political agenda, and believe too that if a state or nation should turn in the direction of theocracy, it would be a bad thing.”

Why does “(as I in fact do)” not appear twice above? Might a theocracy not be a bad thing?

On p. 2300 you describe silly theorizing about fairness as less palatable and attractive than “the frank mean-spiritedness of Stephen Macedo,” who openly opposes certain views. But, after having shown that Macedo’s position is unavoidable and engaged in by even those who denounce it, aren’t you condemning all humanity when you call him mean-spirited? Why do you never apply such labels to the views of the theists whose interests you seem to be looking out for? Isn’t the whole reason they are under discussion supposed to be that they (like everyone else only more so, or something like that) have views that they want to impose on others?

But perhaps it’s worth asking why you single out religion as the only ethical stance one might wish to advance – or at least the only one worthy of any lengthy discussion. (On p. 2330 you mention the “strong claims of religion.” Does nothing else make strong claims?) Is religion singled out because it rejects tolerance? Your point is, or should be, that any view rejects tolerance. If tolerance is impossible, then it is not possible for all ethical views that aren’t religious any more than it is for religious ones. If people believe their beliefs, they do so even when (I would say – as I’ll explain shortly – ESPECIALLY when) those beliefs are not religious. I don’t want to tolerate communities that use harsh child labor, or for that matter corporations that pay poverty wages. Why am *I* not being discussed here? Is it because my views have not been dismissed from public discussion the way religious views have? I believe the truth is closer to the reverse. Public prayer is far more common than are Living Wage rallies. Is it not, in fact, the ubiquity of religion (and not some uniquely intolerant characteristic of it) that makes it the topic of this discussion and something like kindness or social justice not? An advocate of a Living Wage is dismissed as not listening to Reason, where “Reason” takes on the decidedly religious connotation of respecting the Natural Right to Work and the Universal Freedom to engage in polite cruelty.

You may not accept the distinction between secular and religious ways of knowing discussed on p. 2306, but you seem to accept some such distinction, because for some reason you pick out religion as the only important way of knowing that is in conflict with tolerance. Or does it just seem this way because you are replying to what you see as a habit of using tolerance-talk to dismiss religion?

Your argument shows, however, that religion is no less tolerant than anything else. This leaves the reader wanting an explanation for why there should have been, if indeed there has been, this long tradition of treating religious beliefs differently, of assuming that they can be set aside. Why should it be necessary (as I believe it is) for you to point out to intelligent people that we actually believe our beliefs to be true and cannot therefore (at least as a general rule) simply choose to put them on hold? Is this not because people do sometimes choose to believe things? Isn’t belief a matter of degree, a hodgepodge of contradictions and associations? Can’t people sort-of believe things and sort-of be aware that they are fooling themselves? And isn’t it especially in religion that many people often choose to “believe in” (different from just “believe”) things? Isn’t “belief that isn’t open to argument” redescribable as “belief that the believer WANTS to hold”? Again, let me stress that such beliefs are by no means unique to religion or absent from any area of thought that I can think of.

Is saying that someone WANTS to believe their belief just a prejudiced way of saying that they do not share certain assumptions with me? I don’t think so. I think it does better than saying that they will not listen to reason. It avoids derogation, and it avoids having to explain what “reason” is. And it describes a common phenomenon. People often begin or resume or strengthen their “believing in” things following hardships. These Believe-ins seem to satisfy certain wants.

So, who gets to decide what is wishful thinking? Well, for my purposes, I do, but I don’t decide this on the basis of disagreement with me. Often people themselves admit to wishful thinking. Christianity is full of promises of comfort as a reward for belief, and many Christians will actually tell you that they believe in order to have that comfort. This fact presents a problem for your across-the-board notion that we do not choose our beliefs.

Often I judge a belief to be wishful on the basis of its ill fit with its holders other beliefs/actions. There is a paper on this topic on my website at http://www.cstone.net/~dcswan.

And people can agree with me and do so in a way I perceive as being wishful. Sometimes the motive seems to be, in fact, a desire to agree with me. (This is nothing special about me, needless to say. I’ve observed it with others, too.)

Now, when I describe a huge conglomeration of beliefs, like “religion,” as generally wishful, I am to some degree just condemning beliefs that I do not share. At least, I am condemning them if we take “wishful” to necessarily be a put-down. I’m not sure it always is. If a belief helps someone, I may see value AND wishfulness in it. As I mention below, I do not always want to persuade others.

If religion is wishful, this may explain its peculiar prominence in this discussion. This fact will not, however, do much for liberal theories of fairness. I do not have a knock-down test for what is wishful. And I have no argument that wishfulness is always undesirable.

Religion is something that I can only imagine taking all or nothing of. If I were religious, I would devote my every moment to it. But most religious people do not do this, and because they do not it seems natural to ask them to place particular limits on their religion. The same happens with vegetarians, utilitarians, pacifists, and libertarians. When someone makes exceptions to their rules, it seems permissible to ask them to make certain exceptions that will help others. The lives of most religious people today appear to be mostly huge piles of exceptions. (The loudest promoters of the name “Jesus” are the fiercest advocates of hating one’s enemies.) So, it’s not surprising that they are asked to make certain ones.

At the top of p. 2312 you seem to say that a person will always want to correct an error, even one that seems to comfort someone. This is not the case. I sometimes prefer to leave someone in error if I foresee too much suffering from correcting or trying to correct them.

That said, I do suspect myself of wanting to teach better thinking more than make better lives, and I try to avoid that emphasis.

I also try to remain open to the possibility that I am mistaken in my formulation of the category of wishful thinking, that is to say that I can find a preferable way to think about this sort of thing. I even try to remain open to the notion that there is no such thing as remaining more or less open.

Sincerely,
David Swanson

Note added, and not sent to Mr. Fish, on 4 July, 1999:

Pascal’s wager is an influential instance of Christian choosing to believe or professing to choose to believe. Fish would have to say that it is only the latter, that it is utter nonsense. And it is nonsense, but I don’t think it’s quite utter. To some degree people do try to choose to believe, and to some degree they succeed. Of course they may have the least success while they remain aware of what they are doing.

5 July 1999:

I think I might also stress that Fish cannot ask religious believers to stop being silenced, to stop setting their beliefs aside (assuming for the moment that this is really happening), without admitting that they currently ARE setting their beliefs aside. He cannot say “Do what I advise because it is impossible to do otherwise,” without being superfluous. People very often hold contradictory beliefs and must therefore be setting beliefs aside. In this case people may be in various circumstances, setting religious beliefs aside in favor of secular beliefs and, at other times, setting secular beliefs aside in favor of religious beliefs. Fish clearly has a preference as to which of these should be more consistently adhered to. But it is not a preference for something “stronger” or more honest. It’s a preference for, among other things, cowardice and self-deception.

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