I’ve been having a lengthy discussion with a very good friend about normativity and how we go about determining values. One of the things that keeps coming up is the question of what ethical implications my version of object-oriented ontology. In particular, they ask whether my flat ontology is making the claim that all things are equally valuable or have equal worth. This question isn’t unique to my friend. It’s something that has come up since I first proposed flat ontology years ago. When I first started receiving this question I was completely caught off guard. Flat ontology is a thesis about what is and how things are, not a thesis about values and worth. It is not making the claim that a flea is as valuable as a human being. It is the thesis that fleas are real and so are human beings. Given the curious tendency of people to convert ontological claims into value claims, I’ve come to suspect that there’s some feature of our psychology that leads us to do this. I’m not sure why, but I encounter it so frequently that I find it difficult to escape this conclusion.
None of this is to say that I don’t think there aren’t political and ethical implications of my work, just not how one might think. When I reflect on my articles, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography, I think the entire aim of my work is to help people ask better questions. I’ve said this for years, but now that I think about it, I’ve seldom explained what I mean by a better question. There’s a very real sense in which my work isn’t aimed at philosophers. I get very impatient with debates in philosophy about who interpreted a philosopher better, or whether we should be Kantians or Hegelians or speculative realists, or whether Heidegger got it right or Badiou got it right. These all have merit and value, but they’re not what I’m after.
If I were to sum up the spirit of my work, I would say that it is a philosophy of design. When I say I want my work to help people to ask better questions, I’m talking about better questions with respect to the world we live in and how it is put together. I see design problems everywhere and I see a lot of cruelty in our world because we don’t reflect on design and how it enhances or detracts from our lives. Take education reform. A feature of both Bush and Obama’s education reform was to link federal funding of schools to student performance. The idea was that if a school is performing poorly we should withdraw funding to get the teachers and the school to get their act together. I think this is a terrible design solution. The idea is that the schools are failing because teachers aren’t doing their job (notice also that at a certain point we began demanding teachers get more training– at least a master’s degree –so they would be competent at their jobs). These sorts of design solutions are profoundly superficial in their analysis of the problem.
read on!