Discourse in Different Voices
A twofold claim underlies Habermas’s assertion that discourse ethics provides a procedural reconstruction of the moral intuitions of competent subjects; namely, that discourse ethics presents a theory of morality and that this theory is situated at the post-conventional level. First, moral intuitions are those that tell us “how best to behave in situations where it is in our power to counteract the extreme vulnerability of others by being thoughtful and considerate.”1 This idea of extreme vulnerability refers to the notion of the person or subject of discourse ethics. Emerging out of a communicative engagement with many voices, the subject of discourse ethics “exists in relation.” It depends for its very being on the lives and experiences of those around it. The fragility and insecurity of the self results from the fact that our very identities require relationships of mutual recognition for sustenance. Moralities protect both of these-the dignity of fragile individuals and the mutual ties and relationships in which individual identities are constructed and situated. Second, the claim for post-conventionality refers to the idea that the ethics of traditional and religious communities can no longer tell us what we should do and how we should live. Traditional beliefs no longer have the binding capacity to anchor us within a given social world. In a disenchanted and pluralized age, considerations of duty and obligation, of virtue and the good life, present themselves as so many unanswered questions always in need of justification. So, if our moral intuitions are not merely remnants of an earlier age, the rationality of norms must itself be proven. We have to understand if and why norms deserve
respect, why we should follow them. Arising from the presuppositions which competent speakers have to make when they engage in action oriented toward reaching understanding, discourse ethics provides a way to answer these questions via a procedure for the testing of normative validity claims. As such, it endeavors to break beyond the boundaries of the substantive ethics of particular communities to suggest a formal and universal theory of morality. In so doing, it retreats from the ethical concern with the good life, confining itself to issues of justice as those moral questions answerable on the basis of good reasons. Post-conventionality, then, involves an acceptance of the limits of morality understood in terms of the conditions under which norms can be said to deserve recognition.
To be sure, as a post-conventional account of morality, discourse ethics cannot say why we should act in accordance with rationally valid norms, nor can it itself fulfill the conditions necessary to guarantee that each affected by a norm is able to participate in practical discourse.2 These motivational questions become issues of socialization and personality formation on the one hand, and the appropriate social and democratic institutions on the other. From the standpoint of personality formation, Habermas has drawn from Lawrence Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development, using it as indirect confirmation of discourse ethics insofar as it provides an empirical test of discourse ethics’ status as a rational reconstruction of the moral judgment of competent subjects.3 Rational reconstructions—ethics, logic, philosophy of language—attempt to give an account of the “know-how” of competent subjects, the pretheoretical knowledge of how to form a sentence, say, or make a moral judgment. Always hypothetical, the coherence of rational reconstructions with empirical findings counts only as indirect corroboration. Failure to cohere disproves the rational reconstruction, but coherence itself does not guarantee validity. In fact, Habermas emphasizes the hypothetical status of all rational reconstructions, writing: “There is always the possibility that they rest on a false choice or example, that they are obscuring and distorting correct intuitions, or, even more frequently, that they are overgeneralizing individual cases. For these reasons, they require further corroboration.”4
Now, Habermas’s attempt to draw out the action-theoretic underpinnings of the Kohlberg stage sequence and use them as support for discourse ethics seems to falter in precisely these dimensions. Indeed, it calls discourse ethics’ ability to include the concerns of women into doubt: the work of Carol Gilligan calls Kohlberg’s theory into question in terms of the issue of sexual difference.5 In other words, her research suggests that Kohlberg’s model provides a false example for discourse ethics, one which obscures and distorts some correct intuitions and overgeneralizes individual cases, the cases of men.
Gilligan’s discovery of a moral voice that expresses the feelings and concerns of women has been heavily discussed, generating new research and becoming an important element in feminist theory construction.6 Although some feminist critics have warned against accepting a difference long used to exclude women from the moral domain and others have stressed the restricted domestic origins of women’s morality, many feminists have embraced Gilligan’s discussion of the moral strengths of care and responsibility as an ethic which reinforces their experiences as women.7 Gilligan’s supporters have emphasized her depiction of women’s type of moral reasoning as relational and contextual. Further, they have often employed it as a critique against formal and abstract moral theories. They argue that since women stress the context in which a moral dilemma is situated, theories which depict morality in exclusively principled terms bar women from the moral domain—or misconstrue the moral domain entirely—by discounting their type of judgment.8 Presumably, then, if Gilligan were right, her conclusions would undermine discourse ethics’ claim to present a rational reconstruction of our post-conventional moral intuitions.
However, since the publication of In a Different Voice Gilligan’s subsequent research has led her to reconsider her earlier findings, dropping those elements which suggested a feminine contextualist morality in contrast to a masculine universalist one. In light of this reevaluation, I want to emphasize three ways in which Gilligan’s work still suggests the need for a revised conception of moral development if discourse ethics is to be capable of including women and of providing a justification of moral principles which protect vulnerable identities. My use of Gilligan, however, should not be taken to mean that I endorse a version of feminine difference and specificity that is somehow essential to all women. Rather, in confronting Habermas’s account of moral development with their research, I am seeking to expose the limits and biases hidden in his account. This strategy is what Mary Joe Frug terms “a progressive Gilligan reading.” Frug writes:
a progressive reading would interpret Gilligan’s use of sex differences as a methodology for challenging gender, as an example of how contingently formed gender identity can be strategically deployed to unsettle existing inequities between the sexes. Sex differences, pursuant to a progressive reading, are context-bound. They are associated with language, more than individual identity, so that to the extent that language can be transformed, gender identity also can be transformed.9
Using this strategy, I argue, first, that Gilligan’s insight into the problems facing women at the conventional level reveals the blind spot in Habermas’s use of the neutral, third-person, or observer perspective. Habermas’s assumption that the observer perspective is “neutral” causes him to conflate it with the perspective of the generalized other, a move which prevents him from noting the different meanings of the conventional level for men and for women. Second, I emphasize the gendered nature of authority which remains obscured in Habermas’s account. Drawing from the research of Lyn Mikel Brown, I examine the ways in which girls are diminished and devalued at the conventional level. Third, I show how Gilligan’s research suggests the need for a more differentiated account of moral development that includes the capacity to recognize the other as a subject deserving of equal respect. In taking over Kohlberg’s stage sequence, Habermas falls into a gendered and dualistic treatment of action in terms of competition or cooperation. This causes him to push empathy outside of the structure of moral development and ignore the possibility of learning in the dimension of recognition. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Habermas’s account of moral development is the way in which the absence of women occasions a description of moral argumentation at odds with the discourse ethics ideal. I try to fill in this gap by introducing the category of connection. Finally, I conclude by offering a suggestion as to how the transition to the post-conventional level is possible and what sort of interpretation of discourse ethics it entails. In so doing, I hope to strengthen the plausibility of discourse ethics as a rational reconstruction of the post-conventional morality of women as well as men.