Saturday, October 09, 2004

Habermas and Rawls

Habermas calls Rawls’ strategy that of avoidance (Habermas, 1998b: 99) and his own strategy a ‘straightforward Kantian strategy” (ibid.). Habermas is right to the extent that Rawls does not justify Liberal political conceptions with reference to Liberal comprehensive doctrines (at least not directly and exclusively). Rawls as we have seen tries to situate Liberal political conceptions in a wide variety of religious and philosophical comprehensive doctrines including the Liberal comprehensive doctrine. Obviously situating a conception and embedding it within a wider spectrum of possible reasons increases the probability of its truthfulness and not the other way round. Why does it bother Habermas then that Rawls’s strategy is not straightforward and is that of avoidance?

Perhaps Habermas thinks that by treating different comprehensive doctrines at par Rawls obliterates the distinction between different levels at which different comprehensive doctrines might be true or false. My impression is confirmed by Habermas’ insistence that “autonomy is not just one value alongside others” (Habermas, 1998b: 99) implying that Rawls does not treat autonomy as the prime value. This is strange given Rawls’ insistence on the priority of liberty or first principle of justice throughout. Habermas is right to the extent that in PL Rawls only endorses the political conception of autonomy and does not argue for the moral conception of autonomy (at least directly). However it should be kept in mind that the political conception of liberalism is treated by Rawls as intrinsically moral and it conditions each and every comprehensive doctrine from behind and establishes its reasonableness. In that sense political Liberalism indirectly maintains the priority of Liberal comprehensive doctrine at least by making all other comprehensive doctrines succumb to its core insight. So I do not think it is right to criticise Rawls for being neutral towards “practical reason” (Habermas, 1998b: 100). Rawls is not neutral towards the conception of “practical reason”, however he realises that today Kantian conceptions cannot be justified in straightforward terms.

The reason why Rawls finds it hard to defend Liberalism in a straightforward way lies in the distance that separates him from Kant and his times. Rawls implicitly realises that the belief in Enlightenment as a comprehensive doctrine has waned beyond any salvaging. When Rawls admits that reasonable pluralism is a fact of Liberal constitutional democracies he implicitly admits that constitutional democracy can only be defended in a roundabout way. It is impossible today to justify Liberalism on its own terms. It must take detours (long detours) to have a semblance of conviction (see Dombrowski, 2001: 3-11). I believe that this is what Rawls tries to do. However from a Ghazalian perspective Rawls’ strategy is very dangerous and effective. Rawls has the humbleness of a theorist and the cunningness of a strategist. He tries to turn the weakness of Liberalism into its strength. As we shall see on the theoretical level the strategy is contradictory and without any justification. However on the practical level it is very dangerous and can be very effective.

On the other hand Habermas still thinks that Enlightenment can be defended on its own terms. He claims that Enlightenment philosophers were unable to do this job adequately because they were caught in what Habermas calls the philosophy of consciousness and the philosophy of subject. In an amazing stroke of generalisation he punishes with this stick philosophers from Hegel to Foucault and beyond. Habermas believes that with his principle of intersubjectivity and linguistically mediated communication he can arrive at the universally valid principles of communication and rationality (Habermas, 1987).

According to Habermas’ straightforward Kantian strategy:

There seems to be no way around the explanation of the moral point of view in terms of a procedure that claims to be context independent. Such a procedure is by no means free of normative implications . . . for it is intertwined with a concept of autonomy that integrates “reason” and “free will;” to that extent it cannot be normatively neutral. Freedom in general consists in the capacity to choose in accordance with maxims; but autonomy is the self-binding of the will by maxims we adopt on the basis of insight. Because it is mediated by reason, autonomy is not just one value alongside others” (Habermas, 1998b: 99, emphases in original).

Habermas rightly differentiates between freedom as a capacity and autonomy. Freedom is a capacity to choose. However autonomy is a particular choice and as any meaningful and controversial choice needs to be defended and cannot be presumed. The claim that since autonomy is mediated by reason it cannot be just one value among others is a claim without any proof. Again consider the following claim “A procedure that operationalises the moral point of view of impartial judgment is neutral with respect to arbitrary constellations of values but not with respect to practical reason itself” (ibid; 100). This is typical Habermas. We ask whether the notion of ‘practical reason’ already contains the notion of autonomy (presuppose it) or not? If ‘practical reason’ implies the notion of autonomy then defending autonomy through practical reason is tautological. It is no defence at all. If however ‘practical reason’ does not contain (imply) the notion of autonomy then ‘practical reason’ must be neutral towards it as well. But if autonomy defines practical reason in the first place as it seems it does here, then defending autonomy on the basis of practical reason is obviously circular. It is due to these reasons that Rawls leaves aside the notion of practical reason and turns back to a much diluted notion of public reason. To be sure Rawls still defends the notion of autonomy but in a roundabout way, which at least indicates a realisation on his part of the difficulty of defending Enlightenment and Kantian notions under postmodern conditions.

Habermas does not seem to realise this. He thinks that he can defend Enlightenment in a straightforward Kantian way! This involves him in the sort of bogus argumentation I have mentioned above. As Cynthia Kaufman perceptively writes, “(t)he notion of the force of better argument must always rely on the interpretive framework out of which a person is operating and there is no way to bridge the gap separating different positions using nothing but argumentation” (Kaufman, 1999:357). Thus the cogency of Habermas’ argument depends on the ‘interpretive framework’, which is presupposed by his argument. This is how minimum neutral rationality works. Habermas assumes that the interpretive framework of Enlightenment is universal. However as many commentators have noted, Habermas has not demonstrated that the Enlightenment interpretative framework is a universal framework. Habermas’ argument for the rationalisation of lifeworld is based on the key notion of ‘decentration’, a term which he borrows from Piaget and applies to understanding society. Roughly speaking ‘decentration’ is an ‘ability’ through which a child begins to differentiate between himself and his surroundings. It happens when children grow up. It is the symbol of expansion of and maturation of a child. Habermas applies this to society. But even if we give Habermas all his moves (which is a very charitable act anyway), it does not prove anything. The fact that a society is more capable of learning and differentiating does not prove that it is normatively superior. It is a simple category mistake on the part of Habermas. As Kaufman again writes perceptively, “It is not clear why we should interpret the fact that people in the so called modern world have more of a tendency to separate themselves off from the world than members of some other cultures as a sign of progress, rather than as a sign of how our worldview organizes experience”(Kaufman, 1999: 358, cf. Rizvi, 2003a).

In sum Habermas as against Rawls does not really appreciate the odds which one faces today in defending Enlightenment on its own terms. This is the reason he is more straightforward than Rawls and more blunt. Thus what he says on religion is not much different from Rawls but much more bombastic and less effective (Habermas, 2003a: 6ff, cf. Habermas, 2002, also see comments on Rushdie in Habermas, 1998: 224).
Cynthia Kaufman (1999) “The Unforced Force of the More Familiar Argument: A Critique of Habermas' Theory of Communicative Rationality” Philosophy Today 43(4): 348-360.

Daniel A. Dombrowski (2001) Rawls and religion: the case for political liberalism Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press.

Jürgen Habermas (2002) “Das Bild von einer verstummten Gesellschaft passt nicht: Eindrücke von einer Reise nach Iran” [interview]. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung June 2002, English translation entitled “The Unrest is growing” is available at [ accessed May 9, 2003).

Jürgen Habermas (2003) “Letter to America” The Nation [, accessed May 5, 2003].

Jürgen Habermas (2003a) “Intolerance and Discrimination” International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 1, Issue 1, January 2003: 2-12.

Jürgen Habermas (1998) The inclusion of the other : studies in political theory ; edited by Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greif, Cambridge, Mass. : MIT PRess.

Jürgen Habermas (1998a) “Reconciliation through the public use of Reason” in Habermas, 1998: 47-73.

Jürgen Habermas (1998b) “Reasonable versus “True”, or the Morality of Worldviews” in Habermas, 1998: 75-101.

Jürgen Habermas (1987) The philosophical discourse of modernity : twelve lectures translated by Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge : Polity in association with Basil Blackwell.

Ali M Rizvi (2003a) “Reading Owen’s Between Reason and History, Habermas and the idea of Progress” (forthcoming).

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