Typically we imagine morality as a set of universal rules. For the faithful, the ten commandments apply equally to all humans in all contexts. Sometimes we equate ethics with morality. Elsewhere, as in the concept of professional ethics, ethical rules are social and coded. In fact, with both morality and ethics we speak in code. So whether morality and ethics are divinely or socially composed, they exist first and foremost in language.
So what are the implications of an ethics embedded in a realist ontology?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, ethics become relational, withdrawn, and incommensurable. That is, ethics only pertain in contexts where objects have relations, and since relations are not universal (no object has relations with all other objects; some objects have relations with no other objects), ethics are not universal. Second, since objects withdrawn from one another and can never be fully known, one cannot know the full extent of one's ethical relation to another object. As such, ethics are incommensurable. One cannot know their full extent ahead of time. Ethics can never be fully encoded, and, of course, ethics do not require code to operate. Instead, ethics pertain to relations among objects that develop thought/agency. Thought/agency emerge through relations. Ethics, fundamentally, are objects' recognition of their interdependence for the possibility and sustainability of thought/agency.
Obviously though, ethical codes do exist. And basically they exist for the same purpose. That is, they exist to sustain particular kinds of relations. In some instances, particularly when we think in more moral terms, we might say that they reflect some natural condition; other times they exist to inhibit a natural condition. So, for example, we might say that capitalist values reflect human nature, while on the other hand some professional ethics discourage sexual relations that we would otherwise deem natural. That said, from a critical theory perspective, we tend to think of all moral/ethical codes as the product of historical-ideological forces. Culture rather than nature. Not surprisingly, a realist ontology, a la Latour would reject that modernizing move.
Instead, we are left with two related issues. The first is to study the development and operation of ethical codes from the perspective of a realist ontology. The second is to investigate real ethical relations. One of the things that struck me and motivated me to compose this post is thinking about the disconnection between these two. What happens when ethical codes deeply mistake the real obligations we bear to other objects? The short answer is that the relation among those objects becomes less sustainable, perhaps unsustainable.