Stanley Fish, no stranger to controversy, has a piece on the New York Times online blog, Opinionator, Favoritism Is Good (January 9, 2013). Fish is known for such books as There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And a Good Thing Too, He vigorously responds to the critics of his March 2012 Two Cheers for Double Standards, published during the early phases of the presidential campaign when Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher both made colorful and offensive remarks. Many said that we had to condemn both the right and the left in order to be fair.
“Enlightenment liberalism!” cried Fish, and proceeded to explain why even-handed treatment of friend and foe was wrong. The classic liberal stance was “the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.” That is, “fairness is the great liberal virtue.” Dangerous, says Fish: “Limbaugh is the bad guy… why should he get an even break?” If you treat the good guys and the bad guys the same way, you are withdrawing from moral judgment.
That argument outraged more readers than any column he had written. An avalanche of comments asserted that merit and a single standard should rule. Fish responds by defending the double standard: “it’s not only O.K. but positively good to favor those on your side, members of your tribe. These are the people who look out for you, who have your back, who share your history, who stand for the same things you do. Why would you not prefer them to strangers?”
Giving preference is not prejudice but morally grounded, he continued. The classic liberal sees the individual as “what remains after race, gender, ethnicity and filial relationships have been discounted.” This is wrong: “personhood is the sum of all these, and it makes no sense to disregard everything that connects you to someone and to treat him or her as if the two of you had never met.”
Pop quiz: Does this remind you of anyone? Confucius called for “graded love.” You don’t treat your family the same way you treat a stranger. (more…)