Discourse Theory and Ethics
The next three essays in the collection, Seyla Benhabib’s, Jodi Dean’s, and mine, reflect attempts to use Habermas’s discourse theory to bridge the gap that arises from significant feminist critiques of deontological ethics, ranging from the issues of the universal and the particular, to criticisms of
Habermas’s account of the generalized other, and to discussions of autonomy and of social and moral recognition.
Seyla Benhabib lays out the challenges that Carol Gilligan’s work poses for deontological theories of the sort offered by Rawls, Kohlberg, and Habermas. She argues that while there are conflicting interpretations of exactly what Gilligan’s claims are, it is most fruitful to read her work as a correction of universalistic moral theories rather than as a rejection of them, as a “contribution to the development of a non-formalist, contextually sensitive, and post-conventional understanding of ethical life.” If one pursues this reading of Gilligan, Benhabib argues, her work cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the universalist project as Habermas did at one point in the Kohlberg/Gilligan debate, claiming that Gilligan had merely confused issues of moral motivation with cognitive problems of the application of norms. While Gilligan had identified an interesting set of questions about applying abstract principles in concrete situations, from the deontologist’s perspective, these problems had little bearing on the nature of those principles in the first place. Habermas, like Kohlberg, claimed that Gilligan confused issues of justice with evaluative issues of the good life, and issues of self-determination with issues of self-realization. In defending Gilligan, Benhabib counters Habermas’s easy distinction between evaluative concerns and issues of justice, arguing that a consideration of concrete moral actions and choices quickly reveal the degree to which these issues are unalterably entwined. Gilligan is right, she contends, to see issues of relational obligation and care as genuinely moral ones, “belonging to the center and not at the margins of morality,” and claims that her reading of Habermas’s discourse ethics is a call, not just for a formal proceduralism, but for “a conversational model of a kind of enlarged mentality,” that makes it possible for a universalist ethical perspective to incorporate Gilligan’s insight, while retaining its desirable universalism. In this account the domain of the moral is extended to include the domain of care, but considerations of universalist morality set parameters within which an ethic of care can function, and in situations of conflict, universalist norms “trump” other moral considerations. As a discourse theorist Benhabib is committed to the values of justice and impartiality; as a feminist she is committed to recognizing the needs and well-being of the concrete other. In her view, modern moral philosophy has too often recognized only the dignity and worth of an abstract moral subject while failing to recognize our vulnerabilities and dependencies as bodily selves. While acknowledging the importance of postmodernist critiques of both metaphysically grounded accounts of a unitary subject and of post – Enlightenment morality, she defends a notion of the subject as a unitary narrative perspective, and of ethical norms as discursively negotiable and universalistic.
Jodi Dean’s essay, “Discourse in Different Voices,” argues that Gilligan’s work on the moral development of girls, and Jessica Benjamin’s work on autonomy and domination, provide necessary feminist correctives to Habermas’s discourse ethics. In Habermas’s account of the formation of social and moral identity, the subject’s ability to take up the “objective” stance of the generalized other is crucial, and in Dean’s view, involves the conflation of two notions eliding a crucial distinction between the perspective of the third person observer and the structuring of the generalized other.
The significance of this elision becomes apparent when viewed from the perspective of sexual difference. While a child’s ability to adopt the observer perspective is essential to achieving a post-conventional moral consciousness and entails generalizing from particular interactions to larger, normatively defined social roles, Dean argues, the neutrality that Habermas ascribes to this observer perspective fails to take into account the content entrenched in social positionality. Insofar as identity is negotiated in a world of differently valenced gender relations, the perspective of the subject, of the third person, and the structuring content of the generalized other, cannot be conceived apart from those hierarchically ordered gender relations.
Dean turns to Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of an identity formation thoroughly structured by gender, to underscore her claim that Habermas fails to recognize that the child’s awareness of authority-governed complementarity is fundamentally gendered. This involves not only an awareness of male and female parent and child roles and expectations, but also of the differentiated construction of the authority of men and women. In a culture which values men and male roles and devalues women and female roles, a boy’s self-identity is reinforced while a girl’s sense of self is diminished. Using the work of Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown on adolescent girls, Dean identifies the fragility, the tenuousness, and the contradictions that accompany negotiations of female identity and lead it towards a telos generally different from that of male identity.
Dean concludes her paper with the argument that if we are to recognize and struggle beyond socially restrictive interpretations of the generalized other, Habermas’s concept of the generalized other must be reconciled with a notion of a mutual recognition, necessary for both the possibility and the realization of moral subjectivity.
It is precisely with this notion of mutual recognition that I am concerned in my essay on Habermas, Benjamin, and Honneth. I argue that Habermas’s sharp distinction between ego-identity and moral identity cannot be sustained. Because identity is intersubjectively constituted, the nature of these constitutive social relationships is taken up in identity and in our projected construction of the other. The disparate power relationships of one’s social
world inscribe themselves in these constructed identities and skew disputes about social norm in ways that remain opaque in discussion about universal rights and equality. I do not claim that we are so embedded in our identities or lifeworld that Habermas’s discourse ethic is irrelevant. Habermas is right to define a certain aspect of morality in these terms, but I suggest that ideal discourse must be seen as an even more elusive goal when the full extent of the social constitution of identity is recognized. This recognition is also important insofar as it makes clear the significance of relationships between caregivers and children, and raises questions about the nature of mutual recognition which I argue is crucial for normative social relationships. I open my essay with a discussion of Jessica Benjamin’s critique of traditional notions of autonomy which she argues associates maleness with autonomy and difference, and femaleness with dependence and sameness. While Benjamin dismisses Habermas’s moral theory tout court, as reproducing a typical gendered account of morality, I argue that in fact, Habermas’s redefinition of morality in terms of communicative rationality, leads him to a conception of autonomy much closer to Benjamin’s own than to the more traditional psychoanalytic model she rejects. I see Benjamin’s and Habermas’s analyses as complementing each other and suggest that Axel Honneth’s notion of respect which is articulated in terms of an account of mutual recognition, is an interesting starting place for reflections on the nor – matively structured psychological relationships which make this recognition possible. Honneth’s clarification of the structure and preconditions for realizing non-coercive relationships of mutual recognition in the inter-psychic, intersubjective, and social/political world provides a corrective to and bridge between Benjamin’s and Habermas’s accounts of autonomy.