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.