31 July 2006

Ethics - Ontology + Hilary Putnam

[Hilary Putnam]

Hoping to get a better idea of the ethical tradition surrounding Wittgenstein, I read Hilary Putnam's Ethics without Ontology this weekend. Rather, I read Part I. I'd never before read anything by Putnam, and I found this piece a little difficult. It wasn't conceptually difficult (although, if I had found it impenetrable, indefatigable or idiotic, such an opinion would be accounted for by his notion of conceptual relativity); rather, I found his writing style a little unbecoming. It might be because the book was adapted from a lecture series and was, therefore, modeled more on how one speaks (parenthetically, that is), with lots of stops, and starts and, heretofore unmissed, and, for good reason, generally omitted by one's editors, commas were inserted all around. The man must breathe a lot.

Ignoring for now his anti-ontological thesis, let's look at his ethical one: That ethical propositions are part of a language game to which no object corresponds (anti-ontological), yet they still are objective. The lack of agreement about ethical propositions has to do with their being generally about practical, concrete problems about which people rarely agree anyway. Which is to say, even in the sciences people don't necessarily agree about practical problems. If math is motley, then ethics is, so to speak, motley squared. (What a corny line [that preceding one is {a paraphrase of} Putnam's].)

The anti-ontological thesis was attendant to this ethical thesis. It stated roughly, I think, that there is not one reality to which things must fit and about which we just have different ways of speaking. No. Rather, looking at things from the lens of 'conceptual relativity' Putnam says that the concepts which we use to speak about reality determine what actually exists. (After making this strong claim, Putnam seems to back off and says, rather, that conceptual relativity is a relativity in terms of what we say exists--a big difference.) This idea is supposed to obviate the need for inflationary and reductive metaphysics. It explains everything in a Wittgenstinian way, where we work with what's before us and look for what's really going on in language. I agree. This thesis doesn't necessarily explain why we disagree in ethical matters. But as Putnam points out, philosophers seem rather blind to the fact that we disagree in a whole lot more than ethical matters. It seems as if some consider ethics and aesthetics to be the only areas in which humans disagree. These philosophers have obviously never tried to pick out a restaurant with their girl or boyfriends--only to be stymied by silence, exasperation or the eventual defeat of making TV dinners at home and eating them in separate rooms because you'd just had a huge argument about where to go and why don't you ever pay the check. It's not like I make more money than you; I don't care if I'm the guy. And so on. Disagreements come up in other places than philosophy.

Is this the way for the fly to escape the bottle, though? That there is conceptual relativity--i.e., for me a terrorist is Mohammed, here, who is strapping on some dynamite and for you America is a terrorist and Mohammed is doing the right thing--and that ethical problems are more like practical problems rather than metaphysical problems of trying to find some actions that accord with the Good. Is it just a superstition, or am I partaking in a myth, if I feel that there should be more to ethics? Why does Wittgenstein seem to always appeal to law courts in his writing? It seems like Putnam is almost describing a legal setting rather than an ethical setting when he talks about ethics being composed of practical problems. The civic status of a dispute? The jury is still out on Putnam's take. I'm going to read the second Part of his book tonight.