Lauener Foundation for Analytical Philosophy


Friday 22 June 2012
Bern, Switzerland

5th International Lauener Symposium on Analytical Philosophy
In Honour of Professor Hilary Putnam

Prof. Dr David Wiggins

(University of Oxford)

Hilary Putnam and the Philosophy of Morality

Putnam's conception of ethics is not best understood as a form of 'moral realism', but as a position implied or suggested by the pragmatist understanding of the relation between truth and rational acceptability – ideas that Putnam argues are not confined to laboratory science. Just as our conception of the visible world is founded in reason as informed by sense perception, cannot our moral notions appear to reason itself as shaped or informed by our situation and our nature, our vital needs and our capacity to respond to those needs through the invention and refinement of ethical notions? Putnam writes 'we invent moral words for morally relevant features of situations, which lead to further refinements of our moral notions'. Enlarging on this claim, the paper reconstructs some of the ways in which human beings can arrive through practical reason at an ethos – a shared way of living – and at what Putnam calls 'a moral image of the world'. The paper then sets out some of Putnam's conclusions concerning agreement and disagreement, the supposed dichotomy of fact and value, the supposed problem of the perception of value, and the implausibility of Lionel Robbins's claim that economics and ethics can have no closer relation than mere juxtaposition. Against this Putnam champions Amartya Sen's theory of 'capabilities'. In conclusion, the paper touches upon the merits and demerits -- for Putnam's philosophy of morality -- of the very idea of a 'moral reality'.

Prof. Dr David  Wiggins

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