Recognizing the shortcomings of Kant’s monological subject and incorporating both Hegel’s critique of Kant and Marx’s critique of modernity, Habermas offers a discursive theory of ethics predicated upon the intersub – jective constitution of identity, originating in and mediated by communication. It includes a developmental account of rationality and a critical assessment of its institutionalization in modernity’s social and political institutions.
Modernity, Habermas argues, brings with it the increased rationalization of social life, or of what Habermas calls the life-world; multiple spheres of discourse, previously unified in mythological world views, are separated and made the subject of reflective elaboration. For Max Weber and the earlier members of the Frankfurt School, this disenchantment of the world was an unmitigated disaster marked by the stealthy encroachments of strategic rationality. This identification of rationality with means – end rationality undercuts normative claims by making strategic success the only appropriate criteria for the assessment of choices. Habermas counters this view and argues that in restricting their account to purposive rationality they defined rationality too narrowly. And thus, though they accurately described the progressive disenchantment of the lifeworld, they are unable to recognize or explain either the normative character of modern institutions and behaviors, or gains in the spheres of theoretical, practical, and aesthetic rationality.
Habermas replaces their account with a theoretical framework that integrates Jean Piaget’s genetic structuralism with a communicative model of action. From this perspective, the differentiation of the world into the multiple spheres of the scientific, the aesthetic, and the moral, can be viewed in a positive light, making possible the increased reflexivity of social and political norms and a decentered and reflective moral point of view, expressed and embodied in a communicative form of reason.
Only a subject that has acquired the specific cognitive and communicative skills needed to recognize and redeem normative claims can take up this point of view. Habermas’s account of the structure and genesis of this
moral identity is, in part, the result of his critical appropriation of George Herbert Mead’s account of the intersubjective constitution of self-identity and of Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral stage theory. Like Mead, Habermas contends that we are not first individuals and then social agents; personal identity is essentially socially mediated, and the constitution of the self is concomitant with the establishment of relationships. Language functions as the medium in which identity is constituted, in which we understand and define ourselves, and for the coordination of social activity. Identities are formed in webs of social relationships through the taking up of myriad social roles, but most especially by taking up the role of the generalized other. This can be accomplished only when subjects can distance themselves from particular roles and recognize that all roles are structured by shared social norms. Thus the vantage of the generalized other is the vantage of a neutral observer, who can objectively survey the reciprocal expectations and interactions constitutive of these roles. Only then can the intersubjectively grounded character of norms which shape expectations and actions be grasped. For it is only when the force of the group and tradition loosens its grip, that individuals can reflectively question the legitimacy of norms and move beyond merely conventionally justified beliefs and values.
In formulating the cognitive stages of a post-conventional moral identity, Habermas turns from Mead to Kohlberg, arguing that one of the most compelling features of Kohlberg’s moral stage theory derives from the cross-cultural analyses that led to his conclusion that while the content of moral problems varies from culture to culture, the forms of moral judgment are universal and can be described by analyzing the logical structure of moral thinking at different stages of development. Habermas marshalls Kohlberg’s empirical studies in support of an ethical universalism that can challenge the claims of cultural and moral relativism prevalent in contemporary ethics. Habermas’s relationship to Kohlberg’s work is not limited to his drawing upon the latter’s empirical data; his theoretical project resembles Kohlberg’s insofar as the ethical universalism they defend arises from the Kantian character they share. Like Kant’s, both Habermas’s and Kohlberg’s accounts share three philosophical features of cognitivism, universalism, and formalism, which make it possible to identify the structure of moral thought in abstraction from any particular aim or conception of the good life. This kind of moral thinking is formal because it shifts the burden of the moral from the content of judgment to the form of judgment (the cognitive structures involved in the process of reasoning). It is cognitivist because it holds that moral conflicts can be resolved through argument, which is viewed as a cognitive and interactive skill acquired through a developmental process marked by successive levels of competence. It is universalistic insofar as it
claims that the form of moral reasoning at the same stage in any culture is identical, that there are criteria for moral reasoning which hold universally. Like Kohlberg, Habermas argues that the achievement of principled morality entails recognizing that normative claims must be supported by reasons and principles, but unlike Kohlberg, he insists that having recognized the essentially social and linguistic constitution of the subject, monological reflection must be rejected as inadequate for the identification and justification of norms. Instead, the universalizability of normative claims and the interpretations and legitimacy of needs must be taken up in public discourses where interests and need-interpretations are debated, identities defined, and their legitimacy contested.
While rejecting the Kantian view of moral subjects as those who through reflection give the moral law to themselves, Habermas is not proposing a neo-Aristotelian or communitarian ethics. Though he argues that even the very possibility of social action rests on the intersubjectively constituted and recognized norms which originate in communication, the rationalization of the modern lifeworld entails the demand that all claims be justified by an appeal for valid criteria when challenged, and the validity of the criteria does not derive in any simple way from the shared values of the community.
In fact, Habermas argues, claims raised in the context of modernity arise in three differentiated spheres of values: the cognitive, the normative, and the expressive. These parallel the formal conceptual distinctions between the objective, the social, and the subjective world. Successful communication requires that we associate the appropriate claim with each sphere: we must distinguish objective claims about the natural world from normative claims about the intersubjectively constituted social world, and both from expressive claims about inner nature. When any claim is challenged it must be defended appropriately; claims about the external world on the basis of their truth, paradigmatically achieved in scientific discourse; claims about social norms on the basis of their rightness, the validity of which are negotiated in social and moral discourse; and claims about the inner self on the basis of their sincerity, as demonstrated in narratives of character and selfreflection.
Habermas is most interested in normative, social, and moral claims and argues that while they are not identical to the claims of science, they are nonetheless analogous to them, insofar as they are defensible only by appeals to reasons accepted as legitimate by the community of modern subjects. Thus at the heart of his project is the clarification of the reasons and procedures employed in producing justifications for normative claims.
Engaging in what he calls reconstructive theory, a theorizing that makes explicit the intuitive knowledge of a socially and linguistically competent subject, Habermas elaborates what is entailed in raising and redeeming different kinds of claims and develops a framework for understanding the normative structures of communication and the competencies it involves. Among the skills he identifies as necessary to successful communication are the abilities to assimilate norms that regulate behavior, delineate the obligations of social roles, and stipulate what can be legitimately expected and demanded. Language not only serves as the medium through which these normative obligations are conveyed and justified, but it is in learning how to exchange speaker and hearer perspectives in order to justify claims of truth, truthfulness, or authenticity, raised in the context of social interaction, that we learn what norms are and what makes them valid. It is possible, Habermas claims, to reconstruct the norms embedded in and regulative of all social interaction and thus to ground a universalist ethical theory. Raising and redeeming validity claims, he argues, involves competencies that can be measured and cognitive achievements that can be ranked regardless of particular cultural values. Thus the focus of his theory is on the formal elements of normative discourse, and it rests on a firm distinction between norms that can be rationally adjudicated and justified, and values, which in his view, are too integral to our identities to permit the distancing necessary for their moral justification. In drawing this distinction Habermas seeks to preserve the deontological character of his discourse ethic, and insure that it retains its universalism and its impartiality vis-a-vis any particular version of the good life. Such a move is necessary he claims, since any truly post-conventional morality must ground the legitimacy of norms in justifiable, universalizable principles, and not in claims that they bring about a desired way of life. Taking up a post-conventional perspective makes hypothetical the taken-for-granted assumptions of the lifeworld, dissolving them into so many conventions, all in need of justification. It is in ideally constructed discourses where only the unforced force of the better argument is decisive, that Habermas believes such justifications can be provided.
Because discourse ethics excludes recognizing any specific version of the good life as normative, it sets up a purely formal testing procedure that cannot produce norms but can only test the validity of hypothetically proposed ones. While Habermas holds that the ideal criteria which structure discourses are universally valid, actual discourses themselves are always historically located, and it is this feature that distinguishes discourse ethics from other cognitivist, universalist, and formalist ethical theories and lends it its distinctive political twist. Because discourses are actual, historical, and particular, norms justified in an initial round of discursive consideration are not thereby inviolate from reconsideration, for their validation is always contingent upon the outcome of the next round of arguments.
Habermas locates the emancipatory moment of modernity, which Weber and the earlier members of the Frankfurt School missed, in the increasing reflexivity made possible by advances in communicative rationality and in its institutionalization in law and in political and moral discourses. Arguing against their reductivism, Habermas answers Hegel’s question of how reason can be made practical, locating in social and political institutions the actualization of the rationality which is the intrinsic telos of communicative interaction. In distinguishing strategic rationality from communicative rationality, he distinguishes the increased rationalization of the sphere of production from the increased rationalization of other aspects of the life- world, arguing that while the former issues in increased repression, the increasing rationalization of communicative action makes possible, “a decreasing degree of repressiveness and rigidity, increasing role distance and the flexible application of norms—socialization without repression.”1 Habermas is not however wholly sanguine about the emancipatory potential the differentiation of these sphere makes possible. For while he argues that the media-steered mechanisms of money and power can be distinguished from communicative action, he also recognizes that in actuality they are closely linked and believes that realizing the emancipatory potential of rationalized forms of communicative interaction depends on effective resistance to the colonization of the lifeworld by these systems. Habermas is also well aware that the potency of political resistance is undermined by the imperatives of the very systems it seeks to check. And although Habermas distances himself from Weber and the early Frankfurt School in embracing the Enlightenment conviction that rationality is potentially liberatory, his is an optimism born not from naivete, but from an ideal of decency that forecloses an adolescent retreat into cynicism.