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Ethics without OntologyReview - Ethics without Ontology
by Hilary Putnam
Harvard University Press, 2004
Review by Tony Milligan, Ph.D.
Feb 1st 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 5)

Realism in physics depends upon realism in mathematics. Any complex description of the world will call upon the latter. But mathematics itself is not descriptive. It doesn't tell us about some special class of objects lurking in or behind the fabric of the world. And if we have no reason to abandon realism in mathematics merely because it is not descriptive, then we have no reason to abandon realism in ethics on the grounds that a good deal of it is also not descriptive. (To say that it is wrong to do x does not tell us about any particular things that exist.) For Putnam, we need not appeal in either case to special accounts of what there is in order to underpin truth claims. We can have ethics without ontology.

What is explicitly assumed by Putnam is that it is essentially the same cluster of anti-realist arguments which resurface in area after area of philosophy, and that a response to anti-realism in one domain gives us good grounds for its rejection in the others. This is Putnam's big strategic assumption. However, by dispensing with ontology in order to defend realism in ethics, Putnam distances himself from a core feature of contemporary analytic philosophy, its determination to treat questions of ontology as a significant feature of ethics. His rejection of just such an assumption, might seem to place him in proximity with what he calls "chatter about 'postmodernism'" which also seeks to remove appeal to objects that sit beyond discourse, and which underpin its truth-claims.

Thence the second part of the book which moves on from the question of ontology and tries to distance his position from postmodernism by setting out a narrative of intellectual progress. Putnam writes of three enlightenments: the ancient Platonic enlightenment, the familiar 17th and 18th century Enlightenment; and a third pragmatist enlightenment exemplified by John Dewey. The latter is hoped for, still indecisively taking place and features a more fallibilistic humility and an anti-metaphysical approach. Excessive metaphysical and ontological commitments are to be pared away but commitment to progress is to be retained. This anti-postmodern narrative of enlightenment is supplemented by a final chapter appealing to the familiar charge that while some uses of language are indeterminate, every utterance does not put itself into an abyss of possible different interpretations in the way that postmodernists have suggested. (A view is cautiously attributed to enthusiasts for Derrida more than the man himself.)

Be that as it may, what is most original here is the attempt not just to pronounce 'an obituary' on ontology but to spell out the case of its demise in some detail. Other moral realists (such as Iris Murdoch, who is always an important background influence on Putnam) have flirted with a similar position, rejecting appeal to any special class of moral properties, but Putnam's is probably the best thought-out version of how to advance in this direction.

In brief, his argument takes the form of a criticism of Quine's concept of 'ontological commitment' in the paper "On What there Is". Quine claimed that by quantifying we commit ourselves to the existence of the range of objects that we are quantifying over. For example, in quantifying over numbers, by saying 'There are numbers greater than a million' we commit ourselves to the existence of numbers. In response Quine anticipated the charge that this is just a manner of speaking. However, unless some other replacement way of speaking is given, such a response amounts to unsubstantiated hand-waving. If, instead, one does provide a replacement (for example replacing talk of numbers with talk of sets) then it will, in turn, be committed to the existence of the range of objects over which it, in a less offhand manner, now quantifies. (Following Quine, we may call these objects them 'abstract entities'.) Given that mathematics carried such commitment, Quine accordingly but embraced a reluctant Platonism of a sort that Putnam views as suspect and highly uneconomical.

Against it, Putnam points out that there are alternative ways of formulating mathematics. Numbers can be identified with sets (Quine's move) but they can also be identified with functions. These are equivalent optional languages, equivalent in the sense that they allow us to do the same sorts of things. So what attitude should we take towards them? Which one is supposed to get the ontology right? This is a question over which Quine has vacillated. Put in these terms, unless we start off as Platonists, it is difficult to see that there is in fact an issue to resolve. Quine's problem becomes even greater once we take into account more recent work in mathematics which entirely avoids quantifying over abstract entities and instead formalizes in modal logical language. Quine rejected the latter, in part, because it made ontological commitments unclear even though it allows for everything else we want a formalization of mathematics to do. Ontological commitment appeared initially as a characteristic feature of mathematics but subsequently is seems to be an imposed normative requirement, a tail that starts to wag the dog.

Outside of mathematics, similar considerations apply, albeit with an important modification. Quine held that quantifications of everyday messy language had no ontological significance. (A move that looks suspiciously like the hand-waving he rejected for other domains of discourse.) Only our first-class conceptual system, science, (or at least some properly formalized version of it) really commits us to a view of what there is. But here again, we can point out the possibility of alternative equivalent formulations (equivalent, again, in terms of what they will allow us to do) but not in terms of Quineian ontological commitment.

Putnam's argument tries 'to inoculate some readers' against thinking that the resulting disputes do any useful work, that there is anything to be settled between such equivalent formulations. There is no single bounded and limited sense of 'exists' that is at issue in such disputes. Ontology in that sense 'has long since outlived its usefulness'. Perhaps Putnam is right about this in the case of mathematics. Indeed, it is a domain within which I am inclined to think that Putnam must be right on pain of an odd sort of Platonism. However, it does not strike me as obvious that all of the different domains that he wants to hold together can be held together, and that ontology can accordingly be banished from ethics by analogy with its redundancy in mathematics.

That is to say, there may be a role that a certain kind of ontological ambiguity (and disputes about ontology) can and does play within ethics that it does not play in other domains of discourse. (Although it would take some work to show just what this role happened to be.) My concern, my reservation about what is otherwise an appealing argument, is that any such ambiguity will be banished from Putnam's approach, every bit as much as it was previously banished by Quine. Both cherish a certain kind of hostility towards vagueness, a preference for the simplicity which Putnam has elsewhere recognized as a normative value. But it is not clear that the same kind of simplicity that is to be desired in mathematics, is transferable into the domain of the ethical, although some further argument not presented might be given to show that this is indeed the case.

 

2006 Tony Milligan

 

Tony Milligan completed his doctorate on Iris Murdoch at Glasgow University where he currently tutors in philosophy. He also teaches philosophy with the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Strathclyde.


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