Autonomy, Recognition, and Respect: Habermas, Benjamin, and Honneth
In his work on moral development, Jurgen Habermas focuses on the cognitive steps which make it possible for a child to move from a conventional understanding of right and wrong to a post-conventional stage where norms require discursive justification. His account, influenced by Lawrence Kohlberg’s, details the cognitive skills required in recognizing, raising, and redeeming moral claims. This child navigates from conventional to post-conventional morality by learning to problematize normative claims and generate and offer arguments in support of them in discourses with others. The child Habermas describes, is a child whose ego-identity is essentially intact even at the earliest moral stage charted, though its moral development may be far from complete. Habermas assumes the development of this identity, though he has never explored the process of its constitution and distinguishes sharply between the acquisition of ego-identity, the skills involved in social-role-taking, and those involved in moral reasoning. I will argue in what follows that Habermas’s focus on the cognitive aspect of moral development can be traced to this sharp distinction between cognitive development and the establishment of ego-identity, which like his “knife-sharp” distinction between norms and values, cannot be sustained. Because children establish their identities in relationships with others, the nature of these relationships structures the formation of their own identities and their projected construction of the other. These phenomena are captured to some extent in Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the habitus, which illuminates how self/other understanding, is embedded in a way of being with
others which is not added to our self-understanding, or to our understanding of others, but is instead constitutive of them. If the habitus in which one becomes a self is one where identity is valenced by disparate power relationships, then those social relationships inscribe themselves upon its inhabitants long before disputes about norms arise and skew those disputes in a way that remains opaque to some or even to all the participants in the discourse. While I believe this kind of skewing does occur and is seen in the politics of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, for example, I do not claim that we are so hopelessly embedded in our identities or lifeworld to the extent that it is useless to engage in the discursive negotiation and redemption of norms. I think Habermas is right to locate justice in the institutionalization of reflective, public discourse, but I argue that it is a goal made distressingly elusive when the full extent of the intersubjective constitution of ego-identity is recognized. Such a recognition also points to the significance of normatively guided relationships between caregivers and children and the social structuring of those relationships, and raises questions as to what constitutes recognition, what constitutes mutual recognition, and about the role recognition plays in social relationships.
Since the publication of Carol Gilligan’s, In A Different Voice, the identification of moral maturity with the achievement of ego independence by deontological theories like Habermas’s have been called into question. In her recent book, The Bonds of Love, Jessica Benjamin argues that this ideal of ego maturity arises from a psychoanalytic model which identifies autonomy with domination and associates maleness with autonomy and difference, and femaleness with dependence and sameness. Benjamin traces the psychosexual construct of gender in the context of patriarchy calling into question the model of autonomy that underlies current psychoanalytic and psychological models, including those used by moral development theorists. In condemning the notion of autonomy, Benjamin, by implication, dismisses Habermas’s moral theory. While agreeing that his account of moral development is incomplete, her dismissal of his position is wrongheaded and reflects her failure to recognize the significance of the norms which structure non-dominative relationships. Habermas’s move to redefine moral autonomy in terms of communicative rationality leads him to a conception of autonomy much closer to Benjamin’s own than to the more traditional psychoanalytic models she rejects. In actuality, their analyses complement each other, and Axel Honneth’s notion of respect, which describes the capacity to relate to one’s self and to others in relationships of mutual recognition, a capacity that originates in an ego constituted in the psychological context of such relationships, serves as at least an initial reflection on the psychologically and normatively structured conditions that make relationships of recognition possible. This concept of respect, or one like it, could thus provide a bridge between
Benjamin’s and Habermas’s positions by clarifying the structure and preconditions for realizing noncoercive relationships of mutual recognition in the inter-psychic, intersubjective, and social/political worlds.