Consensus and Pluralism
The women at Seneca were trying to create a “communal life of nonviolence”—an “alternative world.” Another way to put this is that they were trying to create an ideal way of life. This is not a realistic or even desirable goal for society at large. Many if not most citizens would find Seneca communal life unbearable and an infringement on their right to choose their own way of life. Some critics have suggested that this is precisely the problem with discourse ethics: it projects an ideal society that would look something like the ideal communication community. We would strive in all spheres of life to achieve consensus, to resolve disagreement, to find a commonly grounded way of life.21 This is a misreading of the social and political ideal contained in discourse ethics.22
The rules of practical discourse are not guidelines for all social interaction; they are guidelines for collective deliberation regarding disputed norms—not rules of action but rules of argumentation. Discourse ethics might contain the ideal of a consensually steered society but not the ideal of a fully rational and entirely consensual society.23 The women at Seneca chose a peace camp as their form of protest; that is, they chose to set up a microcosmic “way of life.” Nowhere does discourse ethics imply that such a choice is right for everyone or that any one way of life is “uniquely capable of rational justification.”24 Indeed, discourse ethics implies that “ways of life” are not the sort of things we will, as members of large modern democracies, ever agree on.
There is, however, a slightly different version of this criticism that is more plausible. Even if we admit that practical discourse is a model of argumentation only and not a model way of life, there still appears to be a questionable and utopian privileging of agreement over disagreement.25 This privileging of consensus (the reaching of full understanding between actors) puts into question the place of pluralism, diversity, and difference within discourse ethics. Are these pathologies to be overcome? If the Seneca peace camp is taken as the model for society-wide discourse, then this appears to be the correct conclusion. Again, some critics have thought this to be the implication of Habermas’s position.
The most extreme criticisms equate consensus-formation with an updated but still dangerous collectivism. The worry of some liberal plural – ists, for example, is that the search for consensus and generalizable interests
has authoritarian or, at least, paternalistic implications: it implies that a great many people in our competitive, market-oriented societies who continue to disagree with each other are laboring under a form of falseconsciousness.26 Talk of false-consciousness is anathema to many liberal pluralists wed to the idea that an individual’s true interests are simply what that individual believes her true interests to be. From the postmodern perspective the criticism is sometimes no less extreme as, for example, when consensus is equated with a collective subjectivity that is inherently totalitarian.27 Less extreme is the argument, put forward most notably by Foucault, that the search for consensus through discourse is a type of disciplinary action (“consensual disciplines”) aimed at taming and bringing order to a world of unruly differences.28 The suspicious harbor a fear that rational consensus represents a dangerous homogenization of differences. The experiment at Seneca does support some of this: a number of antinuclear feminists left the camp after a short stay complaining that they could not deal with the communal orientation of the camp.
Does the cooperative search for agreement devalue heterogeneity, difference, and nonconformity? This way of construing the search for agreement ignores the fact that disagreement, conflict, dispute, argumentation, opposition—in short, nay-saying—is an essential aspect of the discourse process. Pluralism, diversity, and difference, far from being antithetical to discourse ethics, furnish the very conditions which make universalized norms possible. Habermas, for example, notes that:
as interests and value orientations become more differentiated in modern societies, the morally justified norms that control the individual’s scope of action in the interest of the whole become ever more general and abstract.29
Norms become more general and abstract because their justification must satisfy a wider and more profound set of criticisms and objections in a pluralistic, democratic society. Points of agreement within a highly homogeneous and conventional society will not be subjected to the same range and depth of scrutiny. And as society moves from a conventional to a post – conventional stage, those norms which cannot withstand the critical force of pluralism, diversity, and difference will pass away. Only those norms that represent principles generalizable within pluralism, that is, which can generate the support of all, will survive.
But even if there is no conflict in principle between consensual will – formation and pluralism, is there a practical conflict? We may agree in theory that the more varied our private interests and conceptions of the good, the more general and impartial will be those points upon which we do agree. But it might also be that, as a practical matter, the more pluralistic
our society becomes, the fewer points there are upon which we can agree. It is the case, as Habermas acknowledges, that the area has grown in which private conceptions, and not consensually based general norms prevail.30 Does this mean that the area where consensus is possible has correspondingly shrunk and will continue to shrink as we explore new lifestyles and develop ever more divergent visions of the good? According to Habermas, one can assume that the expanding diversity of particular lifestyles and conceptions of the good decrease the chances of finding anything to agree on only if one believes that there is a zero-sum relationship between these two aspects of collective life:
But there are enough counter-examples—from traffic rules to basic institutional norms—to make it intuitively clear that increasing scope for individual options does not decrease the chances for agreement concerning presumptively common interests. The discourse ethical way of reading the universalization principle does not rest—even implicitly—on assumptions about the quantitative relation between general and particular interests.31
As Rawls points out, pluralism is simply a fact about us, and pluralism is characterized by irreconcilable disputes and differences of opinion on a plethora of deep issues. However, it is important to remember that “irreconcilable” does not necessarily describe each particular dispute, but a general state of affairs: there will always be things that people disagree about; they will not always be the same things. What is disputed and contested today may not be disputed and contested tomorrow. And what is uncontroversial today may tomorrow give rise to bitter dispute.
Discourse ethics does not project the ideal of a dispute-free world nor does it devalue contestation. Not only is such a world unattainable, it is also undesirable. Diversity and difference lead to criticism and criticism is our avenue to well-founded general norms. But, while discourse ethics does not devalue contestation—indeed, it points to the critical and productive force of contestation—it does not “valorize” contestation either.32 Contestation, nay-saying, and struggle are not ends in themselves. Practical discourse is not an agonistic forum, but a dialectical forum where the clash of opposing forces can move participants forward.