Suppose we take our interpretive and evaluative differences seriously with regard to the question of the normative legitimacy of contract pregnancy or surrogate motherhood. Might we look, then, for a resolution of the issue not by relying on the force of the better argument but rather by looking towards the sorts of discussions in which we consider and explore our interpretive and evaluative differences? In particular, might we not look to the domain of art and literature in which interpretive and evaluative differences seem to be at home? The first important point to be made about these differences in aesthetic discussions is that we expect them. We expect that different interpreters will understand and evaluate the same text or work of art in different ways and even that the same interpreter will understand and evaluate the same text or art work in different ways at different times and in different contexts. Indeed, such differences are a large part of the vitality of literary and artistic criticism. We dismiss certain interpretations of a text or work of art as unworkable because they ignore significant parts of the text, fail to translate its language correctly, or make a shambles of its plot lines or characterizations. Yet, even if certain interpretations of a text or work of art can be wrong, we do not assume that only one interpretation of a text can be right.
A second point to be made about our interpretive differences in the realm of art and literature is that they are not ones that we simply tolerate. We take them seriously, though not as differences we must necessarily resolve. We read alternative interpretations of the texts and works in which we are interested as a way of checking and expanding our own interpretations, as a way of discovering whether we have overlooked important aspects of the texts or works or whether looking at them in a different way, with a different set of concerns and interests or within a different context, might reveal new dimensions of them. In discussing a text or work of art we can be convinced of the general adequacy and intelligence of our own interpretation, yet open both to the adequacy and intelligence of different interpretations and to the way we might use them to develop and enrich our own. This sort of openness to the interpretations and evaluations of others is less interested in their faults than in what they may see in the text or work that we have not and how we might integrate into our own interpretation the insights we find in it.
How are these two features of interpretive discussion relevant to the moral domain with which discourse ethics is concerned? In my view, they suggest the possibility of a similar sort of openness. If our normative differences are not always ones that can be resolved through the force of the better argument and if even what counts for us as the better argument involves our values, sensibilities, cultural traditions, and conceptions of the good, then we acknowledge that our moral and political differences are not always differences over right and wrong. Rather, they are simply differences in the way we understand our norms and integrate them with one another, differences, moreover, from which we can learn. Habermas admits the “one-to-one relationship” that he establishes between “the prescriptive validity of a norm” and the normative validity claim raised by a speech act offer is “not a proper model for the relation between the potential for truth of works of art and the transformed relations between self and world stimulated by aesthetic experience.” Instead, an aesthetic experience can reach into and transform “the totality in which these moments are related to each other.”25 Habermas does not draw all the possible consequences from this situation. If we assume that our normative differences are connected to evaluative and interpretive ones, then, only by discussing and comparing our different interpretations can we provide a balance to our possible moral and political insensitivities or blindnesses. Moreover, we can check, expand, and improve our own conceptions of the principles we share. As in the aesthetic domain, the fruitfulness of our discussions are less dependent on the force of the better argument than on the insights into meaning we gain from one another.
Nor do our discussions lead necessarily to consensus. Because our normative assessments remain linked to our evaluative and interpretive ones, more than one set of such assessments can be “right.” As in the domain of art and literature, we dismiss certain normative interpretations as simply unsustainable. Racist evaluations based on untenable empirical assumptions serve as an example. Still, the point of discussion remains that of examining, enriching, and developing our own evaluative and interpretive views, and not necessarily learning to agree with one another.
The idea of this sort of interpretive pluralism, a pluralism not only with regard to our differing values and conceptions of the good, but a pluralism with regard to the way we understand moral and political norms of action and principles of justice is suggested by some recent developments in political philosophy.26 These developments reject the notion that moral or political philosophy begins from neutral premises in such conditions as those of ideal speech. Rather, they claim that it must begin with an ongoing form of life and its pre-existing moral and ethical content. The task of moral and political philosophy cannot be to take a god’s-eye view of this content and evaluate it according to standards independent of it because as moral and political philosophers we are already immersed in it. But this circumstance means that political philosophy must make an interpretive turn. We cannot simply suspend or reformulate the ethical content of an ongoing form of life because it already forms the substance of the history of which we are a part and the context of the norms through which we suspend or reformulate it. The norms of our moral and political life are ones we must interpret rather than create. If we can interpret them differently given different hermeneutic perspectives, we are involved in a pluralistic logic in the moral and political domain similar to that which we expect in the domain of art and literature.
This conception of normative pluralism presupposes the non-exclusive and non-discriminatory character of our moral and political discussions. If we are to develop our own interpretations by engaging those that differ, we need to assure universal participation in our discussions without obstacles deriving from power, wealth, race, or gender. To this extent, the parameters of our discussions remain those of ideal speech. If we are to learn from our interpretive and evaluative differences, then we must encourage those differences. We must question any interpretation or evaluation that restricts in advance, whether through racist or sexist ideologies, or direct intimidation, the voices that can be part of our discussions. Still, such discussions no longer depend on the separation of norms and values nor do they necessarily end in rational consensus. Having excluded direct or implicit force, the effects of relations of power, fear, or the threat of sanctions, we might still have as many interpretations of the meaning of our norms of action and principles of justice as we have of our art and literature.
But how, then, does this notion of a critical pluralism allow for either a feminist perspective on social and political issues or for a feminist political practice? The discussion of surrogacy in feminist circles highlights differences
among different groups of women who may understand the norms of equality and liberty differently and have different ideas ofthe meaning of motherhood and parental responsibility. As such, these differences support feminist worries about the false universalism implied by the attempt to specify a common feminist program or political orientation. At the same time, however; they emphasize the dilemmas of difference with which we began. If we emphasize our normative-evaluative differences as women, must we not give up on a coherent and unified feminist theory and practice? Conversely, if we give up on a specifically feminist normative perspective, do we not give up one of the vantage points from which difference becomes visible? The dilemma is that if we allow for a critical pluralism, for a pluralism that allows for different interpretations of our norms and principles, we acknowledge possible differences in our understanding of feminist norms and principles, and we must reject any undifferentiated feminist theory. But, if we allow for differences within feminism, we undermine the possibility of feminism itself as a coherent standpoint from which insight into difference is available. Is there a way out of this impasse?
In my view, normative and evaluative differences between different groups of women lead to the self-destruction of feminism only if they are assessed in terms of a practical discourse in which consensus is the goal and the point of articulating differences is to overcome or transcend them. But it remains one of the major contributions of feminism to have allowed us to recognize new and different normative perspectives, first those of women in opposition to those of men and subsequently those of different groups of women. If we attend to and allow for these differences within the limits set by the attention to pluralism itself, then we also require a new political ideal to that of consensus: namely that of differentiation in which we recognize the legitimacy of many different voices. This sort of pluralistic feminism relies on Habermasian standards to the extent that it precludes those differences that themselves preclude difference. If we are to recognize the legitimacy of different voices, then we cannot allow any to retain a monopoly on the discussion or to exclude the possibility of listening to others. These standards arise out of a critical pluralism itself, for if we are to learn from interpretations and evaluations other than our own, we must provide the conditions under which they can flourish in the communities to which we belong. This project also requires that as feminists we look for programs, policies, and solutions to our controversies that embody differentiation without cutting off possibilities for change.
Suppose we look again at the issues raised by contract pregnancy and try to allow for the plausibility of, at minimum, two different interpretations of the meaning of the principles of freedom and equality. According to one of those interpretations, freedom and equality mean the freedom of women to enter into contracts on an equal basis with men, with the same supposition of their rationality as contracting parties, of their understanding of their own interests and of their responsibilities under contract. According to the other interpretation, freedom and equality are the freedom and equality of different groups of women and children who must be assured of the social and economic conditions under which the possibilities of their exploitation can be eliminated.
As we have seen, each of these interpretations of the principles at issue is entwined with evaluative assessments of the importance of contract, the significance of motherhood, and even the good of social association. Hence, neither interpretation can be dismissed under the constraints of consensus without elevating one set of values or conceptions of the good above others. We allow for the validity of each interpretation as a plausible and illuminating understanding of principles we share, and look for solutions to our controversy over the enforceability of surrogacy contracts that are differentiated in the sense that they attempt to accommodate both or all the non-exclusionary interpretations of the principles we think are involved. Hence, we allow for the enforceability of surrogacy contracts under certain conditions. We work for the social and economic conditions that ensure that surrogate mothers and contractual parents enter into contracts on equal footing; we also try to establish grounds upon which the sanctity of the infant-mother bond can be recognized—and therefore develop new and more flexible forms of adoption and family relations. Whatever specific solutions we decide most adequately reflect the diversity of our legitimate normative difference, we can work for those solutions in a united and consensual way.
What allows for the unity of a feminist perspective under this conception is that we simply compromise our real views for the lowest common denominator in our diverse opinions. We agree to disagree on certain interpretations of the meaning of our norms and principles and focus on those concrete policies on which we can agree. Still, if we adopt this view of what a pluralist feminism is, we need to acknowledge that our compromises are a result neither of giving in to one another nor of trading off various interests for the sake of those to which we are more committed. Rather, our common work arises out of a recognition of the legitimacy of our differences. We acknowledge the adequacy of each others’ interpretations and work together to develop a differentiated solution in which the diversity of our interpretive concerns can, as far as possible, be represented. The areas on which we do agree, then, issue from our recognition of our differences which in turn changes the goals towards which we work together.
Moreover, where the legitimate, non-exclusionary views of some groups cannot be represented, we at least work together to keep the discussion, reevaluations, and development of our perspectives open. In this way, we can follow through on both sides of the dilemmas of feminism; we can remain committed to criticizing the false universalism of traditional political and moral theories while insisting on the legitimacy of a unified feminist practice, the fundamental assumption of which is the possible legitimacy of a diversity of interpretive and evaluative-normative perspectives within the limits Habermas specifies with the notion of an ideal speech situation.