One of my favourite philosophers: Hilary Putnam – on how not to solve ethical problems

My work on collaboration has in part been inspired by how society faces a conceptual and practical test in tackling “wicked problems” (see Chapter 5 of my report, “The Enabling State: Collaborating for Success” ). Wicked problems are problems that do not lend themselves easily to a solution.
We will not make practical progress unless we reframe and refresh the way we collectively think and act on social challenges. If we only use a hammer, we treat everything as a nail. Hammers do have uses, but so do many other tools. Prime Minister’s Questions is a typical example of political discourse at its best and its very worst. It has its use in holding a Prime Minister to account on a regular basis, in a way that is usually good entertainment (not something to be sniffed at!). But if it is the only way to hold government to account, and to work through challenges together in a creative and constructive way, it fails miserably. The media colludes in perpetuating an adversarial understanding of politics if it largely reports PMQs, when there is so much other political discourse to explore and reflect. 
Hilary Putnam’s 1983 article is more relevant today than when it was written, partly because in the 1980s many people thought that the way to deal with complexity is to avoid it and find simplicity. Unless one is a fundamentalist, or too lazy or afraid to challenge fundamentalism, today’s preference is to acknowledge complexity, even if one then finds it difficult to emerge from it. Collaboration provides one of the ways to work through complexity and arrive at resolution. Collaborative resolution does not only tackle the arguments but also recognises that participants can and do find a point at which an agreement can be reached, if the will and generosity of spirit/fear of something worse are there. Putnam’s focus on “adjudication’ I now interpret as any legal or social device that we can use to settle disputes. Mediation also provides another way to settle “wicked problems”. A key test is whether the parties themselves see a deal as good enough.
All such approaches require what I would call “strategic or principled pragmatism”: working with shared values with a bigger goal in sight, and demonstrating leadership and imagination in appreciating what is “good enough”.             
Long live Hilary Putnam!
Taken from Lance Hickey, Athenaeum Library of Philosophy  



From Hilary Putnam, Realism With a Human Face,



Hilary Putnam, one of the most important American philosophers of the Post-World War II generation, has also been one of the most prolific. His corpus includes five volumes of collected works, seven books, and over 200 articles, on an astonishing variety of topics ranging over philosophy of science, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, philosophy of logic and mathematics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. In many of these areas, he has proved to be not only an active participant, but a foundational thinker.

How Not to Solve Ethical Problems Hilary Putnam

… We should reflect on principles-not only our own, but those of the persons with whom we disagree. But the way not to solve an ethical problem is to find a nice sweeping principle that “proves too much,” and to accuse those who refuse to “buy” one’s absolute principle of immorality. The very words solution and problem may be leading us astray-ethical “problems” are not like scientific problems, and they do not often have “solutions” in the sense that scientific problems do. The extreme deductivism of much contemporary analytic philosophy may reflect the grip of the problem/solution metaphor. I suggest that our thought might be better guided by a different metaphor-a metaphor from the law, instead of a metaphor from science-the metaphor of adjudication.

I shall give an example-one that is bound to be controversial. (But it is part of the metaphor of adjudication that a good example must be controversial) My favorite example of a wise adjudication of a difficult dispute is the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion. Since I regard it as wise, I am obviously not a partisan of one of the strong views we have all heard in the dispute-we may have souls, but they are not invisible objects which join our cells at the moment of conception (we become ensouled, rather than being souls-plus-bodies); and we may have rights over our own bodies, but they do not extend to an absolute privilege. In calling the Supreme Court decision “wise,” I am not saying that it is the “last word” on the abortion issue. If it were the last word, it would be a solution and not an adjudication. What I say is that reasonable men and women should agree that it would have been decidedly unwise for the Court either to (1) read Roman Catholic theology into the Constitution; or (2) grant that persons have the right to receive and perform abortions even in the ninth month of pregnancy.

That we cannot “solve” the abortion problem should not be surprising. The issues most discussed in connection with the problem, the issue of when personhood begins and the issue of the extent of rights to privacy as they affect the termination of one’s own pregnancy, are ones we cannot see to the bottom of. We do not have clear criteria of personhood; and this is connected with our lack of even the faintest shadow of a genuine theory of such things as intentionality and value. … The Supreme Court decision

– that a first-trimester fetus does not have legal protection; that abortion of a second-trimester fetus is something to be regulated, primarily in the interest of the mother’s health, though not forbidden; and that a third- trimester fetus must be amply legally protected-is not a “theory,” but a reasonable stance in the absence of a theory. Even if we could settle the issue of “when one becomes a person,” there are other issues connected with when a person’s life may be taken (or allowed to be lost) which are also controversial…. We need adjudications precisely in cases such as this-cases in which we cannot find a noncontroversial principle or application of a principle which settles what we should do.

A very different metaphor may be of help here-the metaphor of reading. Consider the following two interpretations of Hamlet (they are not meant to be exhaustive): (1) an interpretation-an unsophisticated reader might give this-in which Hamlet’s “uncertainty” is merely epistemic, merely a belief that there is not enough evidence on which to act against the King, and on which Hamlet feigns madness merely to buy time to find out what the facts are; (2) an interpretation in which Hamlet’s hesitation reveals a “conflict.” One need not go as far in this direction as to “buy” a psychoanalytic interpretation of the p
lay to contrast Hamlet’s ability to act decisively when he brings about the deaths of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, or when he struggles with pirates, with his inability to act in the case of greatest concern to him; nor is it implausible that the phenomenon of finding oneself to be unable to act (for reasons one cannot understand) would be one with which a dramatic genius would be acquainted, without having read Freud, and would find rending, and thus of great potential interest. A sensitive reader will see that the second interpretation is better than the first. (A still better reading might include both perspectives.) Yet very few readers today think there is such a thing as the “final” interpretation of Hamlet, the one that contains all the perspectives on the play in all its dimensions. We do think that there are such things as better and worse interpretations-otherwise what is the point of discussing at all? What we have given up is the belief that the existence of better and worse interpretations commits us to the existence of an “absolute perspective” on the work of art.

Seeing that an adjudication of an ethical dispute is reasonable (at a given time, for a given purpose, for a given group of people) and that another is unreasonable is like seeing that one reading is better than another. We are not committed to the existence of an unimaginable “absolute perspective” in ethics, an ethical theory that contains and reconcile all the possible perspectives on ethical problems in all their dimensions; we are committed to the idea of “better and worse opinions.” Reading great works of art and reading life are different but not unrelated activities.

A common feature of both metaphors – the metaphor of adjudication and the metaphor of reading – is openness or nonfinality. Accepting the Supreme Court’s adjudication of the abortion issue, its “reading” of the situation, is accepting something that is by its very nature provisional-not in the sense that there must be a better perspective a “true” reading (or a truer reading) which we will someday get to if we are lucky, but in the sense that (for all we know) there may be some things which were once problematic are now issues for condemnation or approbation and not adjudication. Human slavery is no longer problematic; it is just plain wrong. Racism and male chauvinism are simply wrong. Someday there may be a better perspective on the abortion issue-things may come into better focus. Both metaphors leave this open.

The second metaphor-the metaphor of reading-also has a place for the special role of philosophical imagination. New perspectives on moral issues, new readings of moral situations, have often come from philosophy. One thinks of the role that Locke’s combination of moral vision and argument played in defeating the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, or of the origin of the great idea of the French revolution-the Rights of Man-in the writing of the philosophies. Like the readings of a literary text, philosophical perspectives may be rich or impoverished, sophisticated or naive, broad or one-sided, inspired or pedestrian, reasonable or perverse (and if the latter, brilliantly perverse or merely perverse). Like the readings of a great novel, philosophical perspectives never succeed in capturing their “text” in all its dimensions; and (as the deconstructionists claim is the case with literary works) they are always to some extent “subverted” by the very “text” they are reading, defeated by the complexity of life itself.

If the essay thus far were to be reviewed in a professional journal, I can predict exactly what the reviewer would say. He would mention my metaphors, and then say, “But the author himself admits that all this is just metaphor. Does he believe that there are objective ethical facts or doesn’t he? And if he does, what account does he have of their nature?”

The question assumes what is not the case-that there is a workable philosophical notion of an “objective fact.” In my recent series of books, I argue that the philosophical subjective/objective distinction is today in total collapse. Philosophy has tried to draw this distinction in two quite different ways: ontologically, by making an inventory of the Furniture of the Universe, and banishing from the realm of the “objective” whatever cannot be reduced to what the philosopher takes to be the basic building blocks of Reality
(material objects and sense data being the two favorite candidates in recent philosophy); epistemologically, by making an inventory of the possible modes of verification, and banishing from the realm of the “objective” whatever cannot be “verified” by what the philosopher takes to be the “scientific” means of verification. The ontological approach has ended up in a precritical materialism which has no account of such epistemological properties as confirmation, of such semantic relations as synonymy and paraphrase, of such intentional relations as reference, or even of its own favorite notions of explanation and causation, while the epistemological approach is immediately self-refuting: the criteria of “objectivity” proposed by the epistemologists are self-violating. It is not that I have better criteria of objectivity and subjectivity to offer, let me add: it is the whole conception of philosophy as a Master Science, a discipline which surveys the special activities of natural science, law, literature, morality, and so forth, and explains them all in terms of a privileged ontology or epistemology, that has proved to be an empty dream. The “scientific realists” are right about this much: if there were such a discipline, it would be natural science itself and not philosophy. The days when philosophy had a right to such grand pretensions are long past. But they are wrong in thinking that natural science can play this role. In this epoch, at least, we are left without a Master Science.

In addition to the philosophical distinction, there is an “ordinary” or vernacular distinction between objective and subjective. In the vernacular, to call something “objective” is to say that it is uncontroversial, or to suggest that it would be if folks weren’t so dumb; while to call something “subjective” is to dismiss it as mere affect. In these terms, as they stand when they are not infected (as they often are) by the projects of the ontologists and the epistemologists, most of the facts that are important for our lives, including most of the important ethical facts, are neither “objective” nor “subjective.” They are facts concerning which there are relative truths even if we don’t know what an “absolute” truth would be; and among these relative truths there are, as has been said, better and worse.

… To adjudicate ethical problems successfully, as opposed to “solving” them, it is necessary that the members of the society have a sense of community. A compromise that cannot pretend to be the last word on an ethical question, that cannot pretend to derive from binding principles in an unmistakably constraining way, can only derive its force from a shared sense of what is and is not reasonable, from people’s loyalties to one another, and a commitment to “muddling through” together. When the sense of community is absent or weak, when individuals feel contempt or resentment for one another, when the attitude becomes that any consensus that isn’t the one an individual would have chosen himself isn’t binding on him, then fantasy and desperation have free reign.

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