Ethics: Now without ontology!

Been a little slow here at the Soup, so I thought I’d let you know a little about what I’ve been reading, namely, Hilary Putnam’s Ethics Without Ontology. I’ll only be discussing the first half of the book, which are lectures that Putnam delivered in Perugia a few years back. Those familiar with Putnam’s previous work will find many of the same themes articulated and defended here: the interlocking of fact and value, wherein values are dependent on facts and what we take as facts is value-laden ; the rejection of industrial strength scientific realism; and the invocation of heroes such as Kant, Wittgenstein, and Dewey and of villains Plato, Hume, and positivists. (Quine plays both roles.) My reaction to Ethics Without Ontology is similar to my reaction to a good deal of Putnam’s work (though I’ll hardly claim expertise concerning his work in philosophical logic and other areas that are outside my own specializations): admiration of his willingness to carve out a novel position, appreciation of individual insights, and a good deal of confusion about how the various parts of his ethical theory hang together. Here I’ll only discuss the main confusion that arose as I read EWO; hope that all of you can help me clarify or dissolve it; invite you to discuss those aspects of EWO, or of Putnam’s ethical theory, you find most provocative; and ask what, if anything, will prove Putnam’s lasting contribution to philosopical ethics.

It’s easier to say what Putnam is against than what he’s for. He believes in the objectivity of moral judgments, but rejects three ways of cashing out such objectivity. To cash out moral objectivity as most moral realists do (in terms of moral statements referring to metaphysical properties) is what he terms an “inflationary” ontology and inevitably makes moral properties epistemically obscure, known only by Moorean intuition. (Putnam seems uninterested in, or unware of, the various forms of moral realism (e.g., Boyd’s) that have sought to answer the charge that moral realism entails dubious epistemic intuitionism). To cash out such objectivity by reducing ethical talk to other supposedly unproblematic discourses is also misguided, according to Putnam. Finally, Putnam argues that to cash out (and reject) the objectivity of ethics because of the apparent explanatory impotence of moral properties also imperils the objectivity of science (what was discussed in an earlier post as the ‘in the same boat’ defense of the objectivity of ethics).

What Putnam seeks is ethical objectivity without ontology. One of his arguments for this is an answer to Quine: Quineans hold that we should say ‘X exists’ just in case we ‘quantify over’ X’s in the statements that constitute our best science. So we read our existential commitments off our truth commitments. Such a view is incorrect, according to Putnam, because there is no single sense of ‘exist,’ and in many cases whether we must accept the existence of certain properties or objects is not written into our best theories or into nature. Putnam here appeals to conceptual relativity: In some instances, it is a matter of convention, rather than theoretical economy, power, etc.. whether we adopt a certain existential commitment or not. His example is mereology: Whether we wish to count my eyes as two objects (my left eye and my right eye) or three (my left, my right, and their sum) is not a matter to be determined by “the facts” or by some sort of theoretical consideration. Putnam seems to want to enlist conceptual relativity in the service of an ontology-free ethics by arguing that conceptual relativity proves that there is no single use of ‘exist’ to be drawn out of our truth commitments, and so we should feel free to speak of values existing even if they are not required by our best science.

I have many questions about this, but here are some: First, it’s not clear to me that this position amounts to ethics without ontology, as opposed to ethics with no particular ontology, or ethics without the ontology of natural science. Putnam appears to endorse the view that it’s prefectly respectable to say that values exist, just not in the same way that, e.g., protons do. If one took Quine’s position to be an analysis of the concept of ontology, then perhaps Putnam is rejecting ‘ontology’ in his defense of ethical objectivity. But he appears to endorse the claim that values have some sort of metaphysical status that is not wholly mind-dependent. (That he rejects the view that moral statements are necessarily descriptive of the world only deepens this mystery for me, but I won’t explore that here.)

Second, it’s hard to discern how the point about conceptual relativity and convention helps Putnam to defend the *objectivity* of ethics. If whether we opt to count values as ‘existing’ is a matter of convention, that seems like a rather tenuous basis for the objectivity of ethics.

Lastly, Putnam compares the ontology-free objectivity of ethics to the ontology-free objectivity of logic. There are not ‘objects’ that make modus ponens true, and yet such patterns of inference seem perfectly objective. Is that an apt comparison, or one helpful to Putnam’s position? Surely if there are objectively true ethical statements, they are not statements about the relations among statements, but statements about the world and the morally salient objects in it – human beings, their pleasures and pains, interests, rights, etc.?

Let ‘er rip.

4 Replies to “Ethics: Now without ontology!

  1. Michael,
    I have not had the opportunity to read Putnam’s new book, so I am sort of shooting from the hip here. Anyway, I think the first point you raise is interesting. From what you say, it does sound like Putnam is doing some kind of reasoning about ontology in his book, and so his ethics is not free of ontology. Perhaps a better example of someone who reasons about ethics without ontology is Dworkin in his “Objectivity and Truth: You’d Better Believe It”. In this article he argues that if anyone questions whether an argument against, say, the morality of ethnic cleansing, is objective, all we can do is to present the argument again. We do not need to present a theory of ethical “facts”, but rather need to support ethical statements with first-order moral arguments.

  2. “Surely if there are objectively true ethical statements, they are…statements about the world and the morally salient objects in it….”
    Perhaps ethical truths are objective given nonobjective, normative assumptions about human flourishing.
    Of course, whether such ethical facts are practically decideable propositions would remain an open question. (Compare the goal of human fluourishing to the goal of winning a chess game. I suppose there might be a single best grand strategy for winning at chess; but that doesn’t such a strategy can be discovered or agreed upon by multiple human minds.)

  3. (this is a messy brain dump, but I have to get back to my homework (and FYI, I’m a lowly (non philosophy, non humanities) undergrad), so):
    I’m not in a position to answer decisively, but in response to your “But he appears to endorse the claim that values have some sort of metaphysical status that is not wholly mind-dependent” question, I think it might be useful to go back to his 1997 Gavin David Young Lecture at the University of Adelaide, titled “Non Scientific knowledge” (I’ve mirrored it in audio here, but it also appears in U. Zeglen, J. Conant Eds. Hilary Putnam : Pragmatism & Realism)
    If memory serves, in that lecture he reads from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, to argue from analogy for what I would construe as a human universal argument (see also Steven Pinker for similarities and contrasts), and at the same time leans on Dewey and Habermas to suggest both the limits of reason and reasoners (one support for conceptual relativity, one other being, I think, pluralism, another interest relativity, etc, but Putnam might conceive of this differently), but instead of mind independent, I believe (again, not being an expert on Putnam, but browsing through an essay in his Words and Life entitled “Pragmatism and Moral Objectivity”) that rather than “mind independence”, one should think along the lines of the dependence on norms of rationality, not only norms that satisfy practical goal directed activity, but norms coeval with our interest in knowledge when choosing a better theory, interpretation, course of action.
    The Pluralism aspect, you can read about in a much older essay of his, “How not to Solve Ethical Problems” which I think is the influence of not just Dewey, but pluralists like Hampshire and Berlin. Also see the book “Hilary Putnam: Pragmatism and Realism” where there is new detail about his current ideas about epistemology.
    Also see his “The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy” (available here; Ethics without Ontology is there too — I read both years ago, one reason why I can only be very vague) I think it’s a very flawed book, but it’s obvious reading it that Amartya Sen is a big influence, and it might be that he’s convinced of the Davidsonian argument Sen makes in his Nobel Lecture “The Possibility of Social Choice” and an argument in his Inequality Reexamined, which formalizes the conflict of values, something like “equality of one variable is inegalitarian with respect to others” replace “equality” and “egalitarian” with x, then substitute in something like freedom and you run into the same dilemma (a kind of impossibility theorem), which partially motivates, I think, Putnam’s aversion to mechanical decision procedures, at the same time arguing that there are partial orderings of outcomes, some on the balance of facts about the world and ourselves that are better than others, even if there is some relativity in who is better off, what direction we want to go, etc. (see his discussion in the Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy Book)
    But I think you’re quite right to be frustrated with the incompleteness of the Putnam’s arguments in isolation. My own reading of him is more instrumental than concerned with interpretation (which requires closely reading at least 3 of his recent works). My metaethics is also influenced by Sen, Pinker, Blackburn (some positive, some negative), work in anthropology and evolutionary biology/psychology on cooperation and cheater detection, and to a lesser extent, Railton, Sharon Street, Carla Bagnoli — and I think Putnam fits in here rather well (his reading of the pragmatists especially, a more optimistic view in contrast to Pinker and Blackburn, although Pinker does embrace Singer’s expanding circle which is somewhat optimistic about reason and its history)

  4. realizing this was a past post, 2004 in fact… i am working on the possibility of ethics without foundations at
    approaching it as a move almost parallel to rousseau’s social contract formation: we daily decide to act as if something were grounded, founded and otherwise… i call this the move from the is/ought derivation to something that looks more like is/want. looking forward to your feedback.
    take care

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