David R. Henderson  

Stanley Fish: "Might Makes Right"

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I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule "don't do it to them if you don't want it done to you" the rule "be sure to do it to them first and more effectively." It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.
This is the closing paragraph of a remarkable op/ed by noted literary critic Stanley Fish. The New York Times op/ed is titled "Two Cheers for Double Standards." I know from long experience that editors of newspapers almost never use the titles that the op/ed writers want and so I have no reason to think that Fish wanted this title. The title is inaccurate, but not in the way you might think. A more-accurate title would have been "Three Cheers for Double Standards."


In the piece, Fish weighs in on the current debate about whether it's wrong to have a double standard. The issue came up because of Rush Limbaugh's use of the word "slut" and "prostitute" to describe Sandra Fluke, a woman he disagreed with. Various people pointed out that Bill Maher had used the word "c**t" to describe Sarah Palin without receiving nearly the outrage that attended Limbaugh's words and Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized for calling Laura Ingraham a "slut." This does reek of a double standard.

Fish agrees--and says that that's just fine. What's his justification? He thinks he has found a weakness in the idea of applying the same standard. He writes:

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment -- is what has been said good and true? -- to a requirement of procedural reciprocity -- you must treat speakers equally even if you can't abide what some of them stand for.

Really? So is he saying that we should judge the statements by whether they're "good and true?" He seems to be.

But he isn't. How would you judge whether Sandra Fluke is a "slut" or a "prostitute?" You would have look at her behavior. I don't know the lady, but my guess is that she is neither. How would you judge whether Laura Ingraham is a "slut?" Again, by looking at her behavior. And again, although I don't know her, I bet she isn't. Or, finally, how would you judge whether Sarah Palin is a "c**t?" That's easy. No one person with complete body parts is just one of those parts. So that's clearly false.

Professor Fish is clearly not judging whether those statements are "good and true." So he must mean something else. What does he mean? He makes that clear. He writes:

Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they're basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair.

In other words, Fish is not saying that you should judge the various speakers by whether their particular statements at hand are good and true. Rather, you should judge the speakers by whether what they say more generally is good and true. In other words, Fish sees Limbaugh's use of the words "slut" and "prostitute" as excuses to bash Limbaugh when he, Fish, would have wanted to bash him anyway even if he hadn't said those things. But because Fish would have no general desire to bash Schultz or Maher, he shouldn't bash them for saying vile things.

I see why Fish ended the article with the final paragraph that I quoted at the top of this post. Those are exactly the consequences of his argument. Professor Fish may be able to "live with" the idea that "might makes right." I would suggest to him, though, that throughout history the idea that might makes right has caused many people to die.


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The author at Samizdata.net in a related article titled "Might is right" writes:
    Stanley Fish is rightly getting a lot of heat in the internet for his brazen assertion that it is okay to adopt double standards in terms of the kind of language used to describe women so long as the person using such terms holds the "right" views and ... [Tracked on March 19, 2012 9:20 AM]
COMMENTS (40 to date)

"Might makes right."
"The ends justify the means."
"Do unto others and then split."

Bah.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Fritzinger,
I just checked out your blog. Nice piece on anarchy and four-way stops.
http://2ndhandideas.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/anarchy-in-fairfax-county/
It fits many of my experiences with breakdowns of traffic lights and with the absence of traffic lights in the first place.

Todd Fletcher writes:

What a strange coincidence that he places himself on the "true" end of the argument.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Todd Fletcher,
Well put.

John David Galt writes:

Most times that the leftists complain about people like Limbaugh or Palin, the sin they're accusing him of is hypocrisy. It doesn't matter that the left doesn't share whatever moral principle their target is supposed to have violated -- what matters is that the target himself proclaimed it and then violated it. Indeed, hypocrisy is about the only thing that most leftists recognize as a sin!

Well, what we have here is nothing less than one of them coming out and saying that hypocrisy is OK if it's a leftist doing it. If that isn't a prime example of it, I don't know what is.

Let's hoist them by their own petards.

The arrogance of the political left appears to know no limits. Even when called out for applying blatant double-standards, they defend them as okay since they are the enlightened class.

Joseph K writes:

Stanley Fish I think falls into that all too common smart-person foible of post hoc rationalization, where he comes to a conclusion for largely emotional reasons (in this case tribal loyalty, it seems) and then, after the fact, tries to give it the appearance of rationality by justifying it through careful argument. It's an impressive intellectual feat to justify your conclusions (and the more so, the more absurd the conclusions) and Fish does it intelligently and creatively. But if we ask "is he right?" or "would he really come to this conclusion if he reasoned bottom-up?" (starting with established assumptions and seeing what conclusions they led to), we would have to conclude: no. We're all liable to make such arguments and we should always call each other out when we do.

Mark Brady writes:

Three initial thoughts.

1. I'd like to know what Deirdre McCloskey would say about this article by her former colleague.

2. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Stanley Fish's defense of "double standards," he doesn't discuss the wisdom of using this approach as a rhetorical device to reach out to other people.

3. Fish concludes that "It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that." But is he really saying that "Might makes right"?

Two points:
1 ) I believe each of us, living and deciding beings, is overloaded from an information processing standpoint. We cannot pay adequate attention to all arguments from all sides. We need to choose: positively to select some options; negatively to turn away from other options. In making negative choices it helps to have stereotypes with which we categorize and dismiss. We need to dismiss either people or ideas which we could never fully examine given our time constraints.

2) While the idea that might-makes-right strikes us as wrong on the surface, notice what may follow an indignant observation that "might makes right". Morally outraged people may combine and overpower the "right" which they think has been wrongly established. These morally outraged people may reestablished their favored idea of right and then settle again into relatively peaceful life within their preferred regime. But I would hope that these morally outraged people would perceive that their success, overpowering the wrong, provides an example of might making right.

I have written more which may be of interest to a few libertarians.

John S. writes:

@Richard O. Hammer,

You're definitely right that we need prejudices and stereotypes to dismiss people or ideas which we don't have the time to evaluate fully.

But you seem to believe that people, as a group, are too willing to listen to the opposition. We spend too much time listening to the other side and evaluating their positions rather than just dismissing them. If only we too-rational masses would adopt the Stanley Fisher heuristic, we'd make much better decisions in the end.

That doesn't really click with my own experiences. I've met very, very, very few people who listen to the opposition so much that they're paralyzed by the information overload and uncertainty. I've met a lot of people who are so confident in their own righteousness that they dismiss as a fool or worse anyone who isn't an ally.

James writes:

Richard:

You say "I would hope that these morally outraged people would perceive that their success, overpowering the wrong, provides an example of might making right."

But this mistakenly confuses what is right with what is implemented. When e.g. people topple a dictator, it's not their success that makes them right. It's the worthiness of their cause, even if they fail.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Chris Meisenzahl,
I think you need to distinguish between Stanley Fish and other leftists. I’m not as convinced as you seem to be that most other leftists would say what Fish said.
@Joseph K,
I think what I found most striking, though, is that he didn’t really make an argument, unless you call “They’re on my side; therefore anything they say is fine” an argument.
@Richard O. Hammer,
You make a good point, and I haven’t read your piece yet. But my experience, whether with leftists, conservatives, or libertarians, accords more with John S.’s.
@Mark Brady,
Now that you mention it, I guess, like you, that I don’t exactly see how his reasoning implies that “might makes right.” It just says, “If I agree with someone on a set of issues, what he says about someone on the other side, however nasty or untrue, is alright.” So it’s more the statement of a bigoted bully than of someone who believes per se that might makes right. A quick counterexample: if Rush Limbaugh has a lot of power (might), Fish would probably not say that therefore what he says is right.

bmcburney writes:

DRH,

You are probably correct that "most other leftists" would not say what Fish said. I would not conclude from that, however, that most other leftists would not act according to his instructions. They obviously have and do. The Limbaugh/Fluke/Maher controversey shows it but this is not the first time, nor the last time we will see something similar. Has Gitmo been closed? What is the NY Times position on the fillibuster this year?

It seems to me that Fish is simply the first to articulate what will inevitiably become the official progressive position. In the past, the NY Times could have ignored Maher's comments while pretending outrage at Limbaugh's. Very few would have noticed inconsistency and they would not have been given the attention to point it out. The internet has changed that and progressives are left with the sour choice of either treating their political opponents fairly (in rhetorical terms at least) or adopting "might makes right" as a "liberal" value.

Which is ok as far as it goes but requires that very careful judgments be made regarding who has the "might" and how long they can keep it.

Bob Murphy writes:

Oh my gosh, I can't believe he wrote that. I have to confess, David, when I first read your post (without having read Fish's op ed), I assumed you must have been misrepresenting him. I was certain that Fish was saying, "Objectively, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann really are worthy of ridicule, while Fluke is not, and so that's why it was OK for Maher to call them names but it wasn't OK for Rush to call Fluke a name."

But you're right, Fish isn't even saying *that*. No, he is saying we can throw any objection to Rush we want, even if it's admittedly unfair, because "fair" is for wussy enlightened liberals. Simply shocking.

Last thing: David and Mark Brady, I think Fish says it implies might makes right for this reason: If you throw procedural rules out the window, and just exact punishment on people based on whether you like them or not--i.e. not if they've actually broken some well-defined rule--then in practice it means the people in the majority run the show and everybody else better hide.

English Professor writes:

I think this whole discussion misses one important aspect of Fish's way of looking at things. Fish (and most of those who share his views) simply KNOW that people like Limbaugh and Palin aren't just wrong, they are EVIL. It goes back to Thomas Sowell's idea of "The Vision of the Annointed." These people have the true vision. And it is not at all hypocritical or unacceptable to use excessive force against what one knows to be truly evil. If Fish believed that these were good people who simply saw the worldly differently, he wouldn't say that might makes right. But a double standard (or any other underhanded policy) is a legitimate tool in the war against the GREAT RIGHT-WING EVIL. As Fish knows, right wingers live their lives in the hope of oppressing women, the poor, and minorities. When your opponent is as low as this, all weapons are legitimate.

--Paging Jonathan Haidt, paging Jonathan Haidt.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Bob Murphy,
I think you’ve put your finger on why Fish thinks that his way of thinking leads to “might makes right.” Thank you.
@English Professor,
Yes, I think this is Sowell’s point in “The Vision of the Anointed."

Foobarista writes:

Welcome to the world of postmodernism. It isn't surprising that a literary critic said this, since the point of the deconstructionist game is to tear down the whole idea of objective truth in favor of "context".

The problem is once you do that, "might makes right" is all that remains.

Mark Brady writes:

On the face of it, Stanley Fish does seem to be asserting something that strikes most of us as rather outrageous, even as it confirms the views that many people already hold of him. He's a smart guy and I do wonder if we are missing something in his argument. So let me ask: What is the most charitable reading of his column that people can come up with?

SWH writes:

One can choose whatever standard one desires. But others will treat you by your standard, and your effectiveness in life will depend on your standard. Democracy cannot survive the standard Fish chooses, and our government will be stalled until our representatives (any their constituents) forgo that standard.

Mark Bahner writes:
It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.

My guess is that Stanley Fish is...not the mightiest guy on the block. So if he gets his wish, I think he'll regret it.

Chris Koresko writes:

I can't seem to find the transcript of the Rush Limbaugh show that contains the "slut" comment, so I'm doing a little guessing here, but there's a fair chance this is right:

I think the common use of the word "slut" is something like, "promiscuous, dissolute woman," and the common definition of "prostitute" is "person who exchanges sexual favors for money." Limbaugh observed that Ms. Fluke is an unmarried woman who says she spends $1000/year on contraceptives. So his first accusation is based on a natural inference.

Ms. Fluke is also asking for money -- to pay for her contraceptives, or more precisely to have them bought for her -- presumably so she can have sex. It's a stretch to say that makes her a prostitute. But it's not beyond the realm of talk-show hyperbole.

Contrast that with the Maher and Schultz comments. To the best of my knowledge, they are completely gratuitous, in that neither of the women they accused has publicly indicated any degree of promiscuousness or demanded money from strangers in connection to her sexual activity.

Based on those observations, I am fairly sure that the comments of Maher and Shultz are not comparable to those of Limbaugh: they are worse.

Yancey Ward writes:

Rare is the hypocrite who doesn't try to rationalize or justify his behavior, at least to himself. However, OpEds doing so are a public defense by definition. I don't find Fish's defense surprising- I have encountered it in many forms throughout my life, from the mighty to the lowliest amongst us.

Evan writes:

Another thing that Fish doesn't seem to understand is that this "requirement of procedural reciprocity" hasn't just been put in place because humans really really like fairness (although that is an important secondary reason). It's also to make things better off for both sides.

The obvious comparison is to treaties that establish international rules for warfare. The purpose of those treaties is to make both sides better off by mutually refraining from certain highly destructive behaviors. The fact that the Allied and Axis powers refrained from using chemical weapons in the European theater does not mean either side did not see each other as "morally different."

Rules for civil discourse improve the quality of the discourse for all the participants. This is something all parties can value regardless of how vile they think their opponents are.

@Chris Koresko
You are correct that Limbaugh may have been slightly more semantically accurate in his usage of "slut" than Schultz was, though I still think neither should have done so due to its extreme rudeness.

However, c**t is not a term for a promiscuous woman, it is a term for a woman with an unpleasant and abrasive personality. I personally never found Palin abrasive, but I understand that many people do, so Maher's statement might have had some level of semantic accuracy, at least from his point of view. It was still unacceptably rude, of course.

Nat writes:

@Chris Koresko
It is not a "natural inference" that Ms. Fluke is promiscuous or a "slut" because she spends $1,000 a year on contraceptives. If a single guy is spending that much on contraceptives, assuming they're condoms, and knowing the price of condoms, and assuming he's buying that many because he's using them all, then, yeah, he's a "slut."1, 000 buys a lot of condoms. That's the cost of his controlling his own reproduction.

How much does it cost for a woman to similarly control hers? For her to be the one in control of her reproduction costs a lot more. All that $1,000 says is that female birth control is expensive. Not how much sex she's having.

@Evan
Well put, on all points.

steve writes:

"Various people pointed out that Bill Maher had used the word "c**t" to describe Sarah Palin without receiving nearly the outrage that attended Limbaugh's words and Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized for calling Laura Ingraham a "slut." This does reek of a double standard."

Schultz was suspended for what he said. Maher has been fired for things he said. The double standard could be that Rush is still on the air. If he were a lefty, he would have been at least suspended.

Anyway, here is an economist question. Rush has 15-20 times as many listeners as Maher (when was the last time he was mentioned before the Limbaugh fiasco?). Should the public outrage be proportional to the number of listeners or to what is actually said?

Steve

Ken B writes:

The most important word in Fish's essay is 'move'. It occurs here in the bit David quoted:
"The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment ... to a requirement of procedural reciprocity."

For those not familiar with lit-crit, calling this a 'move' really does imply that the decision is made for tactical reasons. That is, the reason you shift is because promoting reciprocity is a cool trick to baffle your opponents with, NOT because you value procedural fairness or open-mindedness (blah blah). "Your rules of debate are really only expressions and weapons of the power structures you belong to. You ask for reciprocity only because that serves your power structures."

David R. Henderson writes:

@Evan,
Another thing that Fish doesn't seem to understand is that this "requirement of procedural reciprocity" hasn't just been put in place because humans really really like fairness (although that is an important secondary reason). It's also to make things better off for both sides.
Good point, Evan.
@steve,
Schultz was suspended for what he said. Maher has been fired for things he said. The double standard could be that Rush is still on the air. If he were a lefty, he would have been at least suspended.
Three things:
1. The outrage against Schultz was much less.
2 Maher wasn’t fired for his language about Palin but for his comments about U.S. bomber pilots.
3. Limbaugh can’t be fired or suspended. He’s not an employee. At least that is my understanding.
@Ken B.,
Really good point. When you make “moves” and that is how you think, it’s only natural to see those you argue against making “moves” rather than trying to be fair or reach the truth.

Malcolm writes:

More simply, henceforth we can boil everything Mr Fish says down to "I like this person" / "I don't like that person".

Which will save time reading his drivel.

Ken B writes:

I confess to a little amusement at Bob Murphy and others who are surprised -- I was young and naive once too. This is actually pretty standard stuff for Fish and the 'lit crit pond scum' who have dominated English departments and many related humanities for a long while now. They are usually quite Left, but they are not the whole of the Left. Google Sokal Hoax.

Simon Jester writes:

If Stanley Fish thinks that "might makes right", he might want to remember which side has more guns.

William Bruce writes:

It does make one wonder if, despite Fish's knowledge of the classics, he managed to skip the Melian Dialogue or Plato's Gorgias.

David P writes:

I am confused. I am having a hard time finding what "might" he is talking about that gives him the authority of this double standard.

Louise writes:

Stanley Fish is still alive? Who knew????

Chris Koresko writes:

If a single guy is spending that much on contraceptives, assuming they're condoms, and knowing the price of condoms, and assuming he's buying that many because he's using them all, then, yeah, he's a "slut." 1,000 buys a lot of condoms... All that $1,000 says is that female birth control is expensive.

Wait, that doesn't make sense. How can a woman be spending more than the cost of condoms if she's struggling for money? After all, she can just buy the condoms, right?

james west writes:

Isn't Stanley Fish sort of the American equivalent of Germaine Greer? You know, compelled to remind everyone of their existence, and hopefully reaffirm their status as a profound thinker, by occasionally popping up and saying something which is so outrageously stupid that the lumpen intelligencia can only interpret it as provacative genius.

ajb writes:

Actually this is the culmination of a long Leninist march by leftists. In general the tactic has been -- invoke classical liberal proceduralism where it favors you (common in early periods when leftists were threatened). However, use media and the academy to demonize the right and traditional values thus shifting the terms of the debate regularly. Occasionally play both sides off by having extremists (whether on the environment or race) change the terms of the debate while "centrists" concede the foolishness of the extremes while agreeing with radicals' basic premise. (e.g. Ivy League professors praising OWS good intentions). When the terms of the debate have shifted so that the cultural zeitgeist is on your side, go with full force to deny equal treatment to those on the right (e.g. treatment of Tea Party vs OWS or Rush vs Maher).

Conservatives whine about unfair treatment. Worst case -- return to parity. Best case -- unequal treatment of right. Rinse and repeat.

dmal writes:

Might does make right.

If the lawyers, judges, and guns of the left are in power, then their political ideas are enforced.

If the lawyers, judges, and guns of the right are in power, then their political ideas are enforced.

"Fairness" is a faulty instinct originally purposed to strengthen your own tribe, but in modern times, it serves to weaken the individual, and helps the ruling powers ensure better control.

Every attempt at making a society more "fair" has ended in catastrophy. Fairness is always the false flag waived by the vicotrs.

Attempts at economic equality simply ensure a vast supply of ignorant people who can be drafted into servitude for those in power.

Might does make right. It always has, and always will.

Do Fish, Henderson, or Bernanke have any example where might does not make right? No.

Does anybody? No.

"Fairness and equality increase the unequaled power of government, exponentially." sayeth me.


dmal writes:

Might does make right.

If the lawyers, judges, and guns of the left are in power, then their political ideas are enforced.

If the lawyers, judges, and guns of the right are in power, then their political ideas are enforced.

"Fairness" is a faulty instinct originally purposed to strengthen your own tribe, but in modern times, it serves to weaken the individual, and helps the ruling powers ensure better control.

Every attempt at making a society more "fair" has ended in a cancer government the cripples and mames the individual by various means. For example, consider France, Greece, and USA. Fairness is always the false flag waived by the victors.

Attempts at economic equality simply ensure a vast supply of ignorant people who can be drafted into servitude for those in power.

Might does make right. It always has, and always will.

Do Fish, Henderson, or Bernanke have any example where might does not make right? No.

Does anybody? No.

"Fairness and equality increase the unequaled power of government, exponentially." sayeth me.


Greg James writes:

I don't think it's so much that Fish is arguing, "might makes right," as "self-righteousness makes right." In short, it's a defense of generalized Internet asshat behaviour. And the House of Representatives.

mark writes:

I don't have any idea who Stanley Fish is and I gave up reading the NYT editorial pages long ago. But the passages you quote sound like something that would have been right at home in Nazi Germany or any totalitarian environment. What aspect of this leads one who subscribes to it to stop at verbal insults? What aspect of it walls off anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia? I guess I should acknowledge his intellectual honesty (as long as he wins, he believes that any means are permitted) but otherwise I find him repugnant. That the NYT publishes this confirms my low impression of that once-august organization.

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