In a bout of insomnia (fuck! I have to be up in 5 hours and I’ve not slept yet, and the baby will surely wake me up at least twice before that 5 hours is up!) I read this. It’s call for conversation among folk who read things I’ve not read and haven’t understood in my brief attempts to read them. I think I’m being a bit rude here and jumping the gun, I apologize if so (more power to all involved, honestly – calls for conversation are great, and this is the one of the funnest things about blogs), but like I say, insomnia and all… Anyhow some of the questions in it, the ones least specific to that stuff I haven’t read, set some wheels a turning, hopefully that will burn off some of my excess energy and let me sleep.

The call for discussion asks among other things “what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real?”

“what is the relation between ethics and ontology?”

I read this as being really about prescriptions, what should the relationship be. Perhaps that’s not fair. If it’s not implicitly about prescriptions, well, then it seems to me that the only sensible answer is “it depends and is complicated.” I could also imagine someone saying “ethics is, and so is arguably under the purview of (in the sense of being an appropriate object of investigation for) ontology, though that itself is not interesting; what is interesting is to get into the details of its ontological status.” It’s also hard to tell if this is about types of inquiry, or propositions within modes of inquiry. I’d want to say that even this is about implied prescriptions then the answer still should be “it depends and is complicated,” and a lot will depend on what the values are that inform where one’s coming from.

“Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives?”
No. Two or three things. It doesn’t require in a hard sense of logical contradiction (as in, visualizing an object as a square requires not visualizing it simultaneously as round and vice versa – these are literally impossible thoughts). That’s not what the question is asking, though; the question is asking about prescription. (The impossibility of “round square” is not prescriptive.)

Second, it doesn’t require it in a different sense of logical consistency – of agreeing to pass from premises to conclusion. I don’t have time to get into it now, but folk should read “What The Tortoise Said To Achilles” by the inimitable Lewis Carroll, I’m drawing on that here.

A requirement to suspend ethical imperatives would require some value. A realist ontology would only require the suspension of ethical imperatives if it meant that ethical imperatives were not real *and* that we were at the same time *still* subject to an obligation to not hold to ethical imperatives due to their unreality. If that were the case, then why would be so obliged? Why wouldn’t the obligation short circuit? Why would it have some force that ethical imperatives don’t? It wouldn’t, of course, at least not an intrinsic force (though people might mistakenly think it did). I’ve distinguished “obligation” and “imperative” here just to avoid repetition, but really they’re synonymous, just as is ‘requirement’ in anything but a hard logical sense: realist ontology can not require the suspension of imperatives because if it did so then it would require the imperative to suspend imperatives, and the requirement to suspend requirements, and …. etc.

Implied here, I think, is a meta- something, in which we have an imperative to be logical. While I do think there are logical bounds we can’t violate – round squares, as I said – and while I of course think we should be logical, these are two different things: someone can be illogical, but they still can’t visualize round squares. Our being bounded by logic is in one sense a requirement, an imperative, but it’s in a different sense from the requirement to be logical in the sense in which it’s … um, sensible … to say sometimes people are illogical. That is, in one sense we simply can’t be illogical (no round squares). In another sense, we can. It’s in this sense that I see this issue of the requirements and imperatives and so on that the question asks about. In that second sense, the question is asking I think something like “if we’re logical then ought we to….”, as I said it’s prescriptive.

I’m meandering. What I want to get to: if realist ontology suspends ethical imperatives then, unless someone shows me otherwise, it also suspends what I’ll call the imperative not to Tortoise, or the imperative to Achilles: the imperative to proceed, when faced with a correct syllogism, from premises to conclusion. That is, if it suspends ethical imperatives then it frees us to be Tortoises, which allows us to re-introduce ethical imperatives.

Implied here (assumed on my part) is the notion that the imperative not to Tortoise/the imperative to Achilles (the imperative to proceed from premises to conclusion when faced with correct syllogism) is in one sense an ethical imperative. Refuting that might change things.

“Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real?”
It depends on what “grounded” means and why one needs grounding. I don’t feel much need for grounds, personally, beyond reasonable arguments tied to values I agree with (including meta-values like the imperative not to Tortoise/the imperative to Achilles; at least sometimes – there are on occasions moments when this imperative is suspendable, moments when one says “this conclusion is unacceptable, we must renew inquiry so as to avoid it!”). In one sense, as I said above, ethics and norms *are* real. (Levi could say this better than me.) If realist ontology required suspension of other imperatives (it doesn’t) then that requirement would be grounded in something real.