Notes on the contrast between Habermas and Rawls

From: Thomas McCarthy, "Kantian Constructivism and Reconstructivism: Rawls and Habermas in Dialogue," Ethics 105 (October 1994): 44-63 McCarthy's remarks follow on the publication of Habermas's Faktizitaet und Geltung, now available in English (Between Facts and Norms) and comparable to Rawls's A Theory of Justice "in architectonic complexity" (44), as well as the appearance of Rawls's Political Liberalism.

I: McCarthy's survey of Habermas

Ia) Habermas's roots in rationalism and traditional morality

McCarthy's section I provides an excellent introduction to Habermas's moral and political theory. He begins here by noting Habermas's roots in - and crucial differences from - Kant

Ib) Practical and ideal conditions of discourse in Habermas's discourse ethics

Like Aristotle and Kant before him, Habermas seeks to ground his discourse ethics in something more universal than given cultural norms (as varying from culture to culture): he does so by grounding discourse ethics in empirically-based understandings of the praxis and conditions of discourse. As a result of this ground, Habermas's discourse ethics, while charting out the necessary conditions of the ideal - and thereby, democratic - speech community, are at the same time overtly dependent "...on forms of socialization and social reproduction that can be counted upon to foster the requisite capacities and motivations" for engaging in ideal discourse (47-48).

This focus on praxis, of course, is characteristic of both the Frankfurt School in general and Habermas in particular. In fact, McCarthy observes that much of Habermas's writings can be understood "...as a protracted examination of, and barriers to, the implementation of practical discourses." (48) McCarthy finds here a "proceduralist conception of deliberative democracy" - i.e., the discourse ethics mark out the conditions of discourse as the procedure or form of discourse as the central praxis of democracy for Habermas.

More specifically, this proceduralist conception "...applies the idea of justification by appeal to generally acceptable reasons to the deliberations of free and equal citizens in a constitutional democracy." (48) The central focus and example of such deliberation is "...the institutionalization of political autonomy, that is, of the public use of reason in the legal-political domain." (48) In this domain, reasoned agreement involves three sorts of practical reasoning, "pragmatic discourse about how best to achieve our ends, ethical discourse concerned with goods, values, and identities, and moral discourse concerning what is just, fair, or equally in the interest of all." Such agreement will further require "negotiation and compromise which, if the agreements arrived at are to deserve to be called reasonable, will themselves have to be regulated so as to ensure a fair balancing of interests." (48) In summary,

Thus the normative conception of democratic deliberation that Habermas proposes weaves negotiations and pragmatic deliberations together with ethical and moral discourses, under conditions that warrant a presumption that procedurally correct outcomes will be ones with which free and equal citizens could reasonably agree. He conceives of the basic principles of the democratic constitutional state primarily as a response to the question of how such conditions of rational deliberation can be implemented both in official governmental arenas and in unofficial arenas of the political public sphere. (48-9)

Ic) Conceptions of "public reason" in Habermas and Rawls

McCarthy leads here to what will be the first major point of contrast between Rawls and Habermas: for Habermas, "public reason" includes the "unofficial arenas of the political public sphere." Indeed, these unofficial arenas,

Independent public forums, distinct from both the economic system and the state administration, having their locus rather in voluntary associations, social movements, and other networks and processes of communication in civil society - including the mass media - are for Habermas the basis of popular sovereignty. (49)

Ideally, not only are these unofficial forums "...translated via legally institutionalized decision-making procedures - for example, electoral and legislative procedures - into the administrative power of the state": in point of fact, "In this model of a deliberative decentering of political power, the multiple and multiform arenas for detecting, defining, and discussing society's problems, and the culturally and politically mobilized publics who use them, serve as the basis for democratic self-government and thus for political autonomy." (49, emphasis added - C.E.)

As we will see, however, Rawls's concept of "public reason" is more narrowly defined, so as to exclude such unofficial forums - i.e., the unofficial arenas of public discourse which for Habermas are the source of democratic self-rule and political autonomy. But before developing this contrast, McCarthy concludes by noting that Habermas's proceduralist conception of democracy, as rooted in the on-going processes of public reason, remains formal and empty of content. Stated more positively, such a formal conception remains open, flexible, and dynamic:

The constitution is viewed as a "project" that is always incomplete and subject to the ongoing exercise of political autonomy, as shifting historical circumstances demand. Because the public use of reason is ineluctably open and reflexive, our understanding of the principles of justice must remain so as well. It is for this reason that Habermas limits himself to reconstructing the conditions and presuppositions of democratic deliberation and leaves all substantive questions to the public use of reason itself. His discourse theory of deliberative democracy "focuses exclusively on the procedural aspects of the public use of reason and derives the system of rights from the idea of legally institutionalizing it [i.e., the public use of reason]. It can leave more questions open because it entrusts more to the process of rational opinion- and will-formation." [Juergen Habermas, "Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls's Political Liberalism" [Frankfurt, 1993, typescript), p. 24 -- the source of the Journal of Philosophy exchange with Rawls]; McCarthy, 49

II) Two points of contrast between Habermas and Rawls

IIa) the contrast between what each accepts as "public reason"

McCarthy writes:

In Political Liberalism Rawls distinguishes public from nonpublic uses of reason in a somewhat unusual way. "Public" uses are connected with governmental and quasi-governmental venues and functions - for example, with parliamentary debates, administrative acts and pronouncements, and the workings of the judiciary, but also with political campaigns, party politics, and even the act of voting (pp. 215-16). "Nonpublic" reason, on the other hand, is connected with nongovernmental venues and functions - for example, with churches, universities, professional groups, and voluntary associations in civil society (pp. 213, 220) - that is, largely with the unofficial networks of private people communicating about public matters that Habermas considers to be the nervous system of the political public sphere. (50)

As McCarthy continues here, Rawls's conception of public reason and its limits, includes a

duty of civility, by which citizens see themselves as obligated to a public use of reason in publicly discussing fundamental issues of justice (pp. 217-18). Being thus "reasonable," in Rawls's sense of the term, they "don't appeal to the whole truth as [they] see it," (p. 218) but seek to show how their positions can be supported by political values. (51)

As McCarthy so nicely notes, "The picture of public reason adumbrated in these limits and duties is likely to give pause to theorists with a more robust conception of democratic discourse. It would, in particular, be unacceptable to Habermas, who is no less interested in public criticism than in public justification." (51)

In sum: Rawls seems committed to a more restricted notion of public reason - one which, for the sake of achieving agreement in a pluralistic society, apparently restricts the critical function of reason in public venues. This comparative limitation, moreover, parallels the still larger limitation we saw above: Habermas's conception of public reason, not only includes the unofficial venues excluded by Rawls - for Habermas, these unofficial domains of rational discourse in fact ground democratic self-government and political autonomy (see above).

2) the primacy of the observer's perspective (Rawls) vs. the participant's perspective (Habermas)

McCarthy criticizes Habermas (in section III) along the familiar lines that Habermas seems overly optimistic regarding the possibility of achieving consensus regarding important norms. In fact, McCarthy sees Habermas as needing to move in Rawls's direction - in a move McCarthy characterizes as "greater abstraction," and which I would characterize as a move to meta-values, "for example, from different preferences to freedom of choice, from opposed beliefs to liberty of conscience, from conflicting values to rights of privacy, and the like." (56) For that, McCarthy returns (in section IV) to his initial critique of Rawls for enjoining an overly limited conception of public reason. Here he invokes a distinction between two perspectives:

Stylizing somewhat, we might regard the two basic aspects of the reasonable as standing in a tension .... As "participants," to use Habermas's terminology, we want to justify our actions to others on grounds that all could rationally accept. As "observers," however, we note the fact of reasonable pluralism and anticipate that some of the reasons acceptable to us will be unacceptable to others. How are we to combine these two points of view? As we saw in Section II, Rawls's strategy is to discount the pluralism in advance, so to speak, by restricting public reason to the ambit of an overlapping consensus. There I argued, in effect, that this deprives the participant's perspective of its proper weight, and I suggested that the imbalance results from the way Rawls now builds the problem of stability into his normative-theoretical approach. (58)

For a number of reasons, McCarthy argues that in Political Liberalism

...Rawls in effect cedes a certain primacy to the observer's perspective: the concern with stability in light of the fact of reasonable pluralism limits the scope of what may count as good reasons in matters of public justification. His understanding of the principle of moral motivation - a principle that could serve as the motto of Habermas's discourse ethics - supports this reading. The desire to be able to justify our actions to others on grounds that they could not reasonably reject is said to entail the restrictions on public reason we examined in Section II. "Since many doctrines are seen to be reasonable, those who insist, when fundamental political questions are at stake, on what they take as true but others do not, seem to others simply to insist on their own beliefs.... They impose their beliefs because, they say, their beliefs are true, and not because they are their beliefs. But this is a claim all equally could make; it is also a claim that cannot be made by anyone to citizens generally. So when we make such claims, others, who are themselves reasonable, must count us unreasonable" (p. 61), or even "sectarian" (p. 129) Rawls is specifically concerned here with the use of political power to repress comprehensive views. But the same general structure of argument underlies his restrictions on public reason: since many doctrines "are seen to be" reasonable, participants who "insist" in the public form on what they "take as true" but others do not are being "unreasonable." The political participant's desire to act on publicly justifiable grounds is refracted through the political observer's recognition of the fact of reasonable pluralism and emerges as a desire to avoid ideological controversy on fundamental matters, that is, to avoid being "unreasonable." In political discourse, this concept of the reasonable then displaces that of moral truth (or of validity in Habermas's sense): "Within a political conception of justice, we cannot define truth as given by the beliefs that would stand up even in an idealized consensus, however far extended.... Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification" (p. 129).

Just in case anyone doesn't get it, McCarthy concludes: By contrast, the primacy of the participant's perspective for Habermas is signaled through his tying justification to rational acceptability and the latter precisely to what could "stand up even in an idealized consensus." (60-1)

The primacy of the participant's perspective in Habermas, over against the observer's perspective in Rawls, thus coheres with Habermas's more robust notion of public reason - i.e., one which apparently makes more room for critique than does Rawls, and which is grounded in the unofficial venues of rational discourse (venue which, again, are excluded from Rawls's notion of public reason).

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