What Did Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Disagree About?

I had an opportunity a while back, in the course of answering a Quora question, to revisit the legendary Foucault-Chomsky debate.

Their fundamental disagreement stemmed from the fact that at the time of the debate Foucault was something between a moral relativist and a nihilist, whereas Chomsky was (and is) a moral realist. The question is: What motivated Foucault to adopt such an extreme and untenable position? I don’t believe he would have expressed such nihilistic views in the last several years leading up to his death.

I’ll have something to say about motivation towards the end of the post.

Much of what Foucault says in the debate could be taken as a defense of moral relativism, which of course is a perfectly respectable position. The moral relativist believes that moral principles are relative to some group, such as a society or a class. In some past societies,  apparently, it was true and right that a widow should be burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, but in other societies it was true and right that this should not be done. There are no universal or objective moral principles such that it could be true to say of everyone, everywhere that widows shouldn’t (or should) be burned.

As a corollary to the thesis that morality is relative to a group, the moral relativist denies that there are moral facts. There are only social expectations, values, practices, and facts about them. So it would not be true to say of Betty, who promised Sue that she would meet her for lunch today, that she is obligated to do so in the sense that she should keep her promise because that is the right thing to do. Betty’s belief that she should keep her promise is a fact about her and her society, not about morality.

I doubt Foucault ever entertained such thoughts about moral relativism in this form, but some of what he says in the conversation sounds as if he did. For example, Foucault argues that the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” each has its own distinctive morality and that what is true and right for one isn’t necessarily true and right for the other. Continue reading