Putnam’s Ethics Without Ontology

Already this summer I’ve read a dozen or so books, most of them more or less academic. One of the books I read this weekend was Hilary Putnam’s (2004) Ethics Without Ontology.

The book consists of six lectures: four on “ethics without ontology” and two on “enlightenment and pragmatism.” Given my various research interests, I found the most profound and interesting parts of the book to be in essays 1, 4, and 5.

Essay 1: “Ethics Without Metaphysics.” This essay sets up Putnam’s next three essays.  On p. 24 he brings in Levinas: The foundation of ethics is my immediate recognition, when confronted with a suffering fellow human being, that I have an obligation to do something. No me, no ethics. No other, no ethics.  Thus, we can say that ethics is both personal and relational. To not feel the obligation is to not be ethical.

On p. 28, building on Dewey, he introduces the concept of “practical problems.” He interprets Dewey: Solving practical problems is the concern of ethics.

From here he turns to the issue of “controversiality” (pp 29-32). Solutions to practical problems are controversial — unless they are put into practice and succeed to the satisfaction of all those involved. In other words, problems cannot be solved in principle, only in practice, and even then, the solutions may “fail.” Indeed, even when a practical problem is successfully solved, there is still controversy as to whether the successful solution can be generalized to the next problem that seems similar. Even the “similarity” between problems is typically controversial!

Essay 4: “Ontology: An Obituary.” On p. 74 Putnam reprises quite quickly the “collapse of the fact/value dichotomy.” Valuings do not contrast with descriptions. There is an overlap between the class of valuings and the class of descriptions. As with solutions to practical problems (which are always ethical), ethical claims (i.e., valuings) are frequently controversial. But so are questions of fact (p. 75). In short, factual, descriptive and ethical valuings are controversial.

Some ethical questions are such that agreement is unlikely until such time as it can be demonstrated that we agree (p. 76). [Note the performative quality to ethical controversies.] And even in the case of success — i.e., cases where the problem is solved for now — questions may arise as to whether the same thing would work again the next time, or in the next case, etc.

If we try something in connection with a social problem and it works well, meaning to the satisfaction of those involved, those who object to such a solution in another situation are unlikely to concede that it will work again (pp. 76-77). In short, it is impossible to “verify” that something is the right thing to do, even when the success criteria are agreed upon, unless you have actually done it, and it has worked to everyone’s satisfaction. But even then, questions may remain about its ongoing applicability. This is a general feature of practical problems, that is to say, a general feature of ethical problems.

Essay 5: “The Three Enlightenments.” Lengthy quote from Dewey on the “common good” (p. 97). In short, the common good is only possible when it involves those whose benefits are intended. Again, more interpretation of Dewey as positing a kind of participatory democracy as integral to resolving social problems (pp. 99-100).

Although not invoked, recall Levinas’ ethics as implicating a me-other relationality. From this Putnam concludes that contra to Kant, Hobbes, etc., there can be no morality prior to sociality (p. 101). That is to say, moral beings do not confront the social world. Rather social beings confront the moral world, or perhaps, moral worlds. Although Putnam has supposedly done away with ontology, clearly he is saying there is a primacy of sociality over ethicality. But if that is the case, if I am social before I am ethical, then there are bound to be ethical lapses in social life. My capacity for ethical living grows out of my social life. The ethical response is a response to the confrontation of the other.

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