It is precisely Habermas’s recognition of the fundamentally intersubjective nature of subjectivity, coupled with his normative ideal of noncoercive discourse, that makes his work attractive, and I would argue that his position remains attractive even if we accept Benjamin’s critique of patriarchy and autonomy. Habermas’s appreciation for the intersubjective constitution of identity is expressed in his belief that we become selves through social interaction; we are not first individuals and then social agents who relate to each other; personal identity essentially involves social identity and the constitution of the self is concomitant with the establishment of relationships in the context of a shared lifeworld. This requires us not only to take up the perspective of the other participants in interaction, but also to recognize the norms which shape these relationships.
While Habermas’s work for the last twenty years has been to reclaim the normative structures of practical reason which structure identity formation and social roles, he has never really offered a reflective reconstruction of self/other identity formation though he has acknowledged that becoming a moral subject requires relationships of the sort Benjamin describes. In a recent essay for instance, Habermas argues that the moral intuitions reconstructed in his discourse ethics, are available to “anyone who has grown up in a reasonably functional family, who has formed his identity in relations of mutual recognition.”17 While Habermas recognizes that the ability to adopt the perspective of the generalized other can only arise in the context of an ego developed in affective relationships of mutual recognition he does not examine the connection of that affective ability to the developmentally later ability to construct a non-dominated other. He shares with George Herbert Mead a notion of a self constituted intersubjectively all the way down, both
focus on the child’s ability to rationally construct itself relationally to others. They assume that the ego-development Benjamin describes is a distinct prior stage necessary to, but not essentially tied up in, the abilities required for adopting “the moral point of view.” Indeed, Habermas, in the earlier context of the Gilligan/Kohlberg debate, argued that ego development should not be confused with moral development, thus splitting off the formation of self- identity from the acquisition of the abilities to recognize and use moral concepts.18 But the force of Benjamin’s argument, lies precisely in her contention that one becomes a subject only through relations where one is encountered as a subject, where one learns to construct self and other in relationships free from domination. This suggests that the individual and the other it generalizes can be constructed in a dialectic of domination long before its ability to decipher, offer, and defend the norms which structure moral arguments and social practices. I would argue that our construction of certain social others—women, specific racial groups, homosexuals, and others—involve a dynamic of dominative affective identity formation which precedes and determine, the normative considerations relevant to these others.
Clearly, the psychic construction of one’s own subjectivity and that of others points to the inherent vulnerability of the social interactions in which we constitute our identity and that of others, a vulnerability which Habermas has argued motivates and sustains the moral character of our social engagements. This vulnerability extends deeper than the relationships between different subjects, for not only am I vulnerable to the mistreatment of others, but my very identity as a subject and my continued sense of self – worth rests on my being recognized as such—and on my recognizing others as I am recognized. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and personal relations of failed recognition are to be decried first because they threaten the conditions for mutual recognition necessary to the constitution of our identities as subjects, and then because they violate social and moral norms.
Benjamin’s concept of mutual recognition suggests the need for an account of the psychological conditions necessary for the constitution of a subject capable of a truly moral rational construction of the other. The political thrust of her argument is directed at revealing the degree to which the patriarchal sex/gender system makes dominative relationships the rule rather than the exception. She describes an alternatively structured relationship where the normatively structured psychological relationship of infant and caregiver constitutes a child able to escape the self/other construction of Hegel’s master and slave. Similar critiques of domination can and have been made vis-a-vis racial groups. While the need for such critiques might suggest that Habermas’s confidence in the postmodern intuition of the claims of practical reason might be misplaced, I wish to make a different point here.
In his essay “Justice and Solidarity,” Habermas made the following distinction:
Justice concerns the equal freedoms of unique and self-determining individuals, while solidarity concerns the welfare of consociates who are intimately linked in an intersubjectively shared form of life—and thus also to the maintenance of the integrity of this form of life itself. Moral norms cannot protect one without the other: they cannot protect the welfare of one’s fellow man and of the community to which the individuals belong.19
I take Habermas to be acknowledging that justice is only possible in the context of the social bonds constituted in my recognition of myself and all others as members of my community as equally worthy of respect. But in order to experience this solidarity, I must be able to constitute the identity of all others in developmentally significant relationships of mutual recognition. The importance of these early relational experiences for individuals’ later recognition of moral norms requires that much greater attention be paid to the dynamics of this development than Habermas or most other moral theorists, with the exception of Axel Honneth, have done.
In a recent article Honneth recognizes this need, and in the course of reflecting on the origins and nature of respect, implies that its roots must be traced back to infant/caregiver relationships. Respect, he argues, is a precondition for moral subjectivity. But if respect is a precondition for moral subjectivity, which I believe it is, then primary attachments marked by mutual recognition are the preconditions for respect. Honneth’s account of respect can function as a preliminary bridge between an account of the constitution of a non-dominative subjectivity and Habermas’s account of the ability to recognize and justify moral claims.
Honneth argues that moral theory ought to include a normative ideal of respect because:
… the experience of disrespect poses the risk of an injury that can cause the identity of the entire person to collapse.20
His analysis of respect derives from a consideration of the nature of disrespect. In our everyday language, he argues, we use the term “disrespect,” to describe roughly three kinds of violations to the integrity of other persons, two of which are significant for this discussion. One involves violations to the physical integrity of others; the paradigms instances of such violations are torture and rape. The other involves exclusions of subjects from membership in a social or moral community. Violations of the first sort deprive a person of their bodily integrity by infringing on the right to relate autonomously to their own body. Violations of the second sort affect a person’s normative understanding of self because they are “structurally excluded from the possession of certain rights within a given society”21 and thus are denied the “ability to relate to (themselves) as a partner to interaction in possession of equal rights on par with all other individuals.”22
One learns to recognize, to offer, and to demand respect in the context of emotional attachments to primary caretakers. Infants bring the possibility of a subjectivity to the world that can be “confirmed,” that is, recognized or in some sense supported through emotional approval or encouragement—what Sara Rudick calls a preservative love, which cares for a child’s body as well as a child’s developing self.23 This kind of recognition makes possible a kind of confidence in being a relational self:
I am referring to the underlaying layer of an emotional, body-related sense of security in expressing one’s own needs and feelings, a layer which forms the psychological prerequisite for the development of all further attitudes of self-respect.24
Torture and rape constitute violations to the body that tear at this confidence in self, constructed from the loving interactions of a caregiver who fosters and preserves the body by administering to its needs and recognizing its vulnerability and its sovereignty. As attacks on this core sense of the physical integrity of self, they attack bodily boundaries, the most primary of self- other boundaries and necessary for the establishment of the self. One can establish these boundaries and maintain them only if those who care for the child’s body establish and maintain them in relationships of trust. Recent literature on incest survivors indicates that these (for the most part) women, share two somewhat common experiences. One is the sense that they lack a self— these women report difficulty in feeling that they have a continuous underlying personal identity and experience their subjectivity as disturbingly discontinuous and empty. They also report a deep sense of a split between self and body such that their own bodies seem no more related to them that the body of any one else. There is also evidence that such childhood sexual abuse can lead to a pattern of promiscuous adolescent sexuality that could in this context be seen, at least in part, as springing from a sense that one’s own body is not worthy of respect.25 These experiences of violation to bodily integrity can produce an adult whose relational capacities are potentially impaired in two ways: first, insofar as she may be unable to develop a trust in an other which normally arises from the other’s recognition and respect for the infant’s body, and second, insofar as she is unable to construct her subjectivity as equally worthy of the respect accorded to others.
The second form of disrespect Honneth identifies arises when some people are excluded from the legal and moral community. It has the effect of depriving these individuals “the status of full-fledged partners to interaction who
possess the same moral rights (as others).” Such a person is simultaneously denied rights and denied the respect of others, and, in being denied this respect, and to the extent that respect is an intersubjectively realized project, is denied the grounds to self-respect. The other’s failure to respect me denies me the socially constituted grounds for finding myself worthy of esteem. In his book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell suggests that this is one of the most vicious costs of racism.26 In The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Patricia Williams describes how her sense of herself was radically thrown into question by her childhood discovery that her black skin meant that she was included in a group whose full subjectivity was radically limited by the racist construction of African-American identity.
The capacity to respect others which leads to an ability to conceive of all people as fully equal members of the moral and social community is in part rooted in childhood. For while the child’s subjectivity needs to be recognized in order to be realized, the child must also be taught to accord the same recognition to other subjects. When the fabric of a child’s relationship to self and to other is woven in threads of domination, the seeds of disrespect and domination are sown, and children may grow to be adults whose very construction of others undercuts the possibility of respect. Racism is one instance of this kind of moral failure; sexism is another. Williams and Bell describe the social and psychological dynamics of the former, and Benjamin describes the dynamic between the child and a mother whose subjectivity is limited by distorted and inegalitarian gender relations as an instance of the latter kind of failure.
Seyla Benhabib also traces the capacities necessary for instantiating a discursive ethical theory for reciprocal moral relations and for raising and redeeming claims to recognition which arise through the moral lessons of childhood:
Discourse ethics projects such moral conversations, in which reciprocal recognition is exercised, onto a utopian community of humankind. But the ability and the willingness of individuals to do so begins with the admonition of the parent to the child: “What if others threw sand in your face or pushed you into the pool, how would you feel then?”27
Only when I am a subject, and only with those whose otherness I identify as properly that of a subject, can I join in relations of solidarity.
The violations which threaten subjectivity all involve denying some a subjectivity claimed by others. This denial can produce emancipatory movements which reflect the demands of the morally and politically disenfranchised. Political movements are, as Honneth puts it, “born in the struggle for recognition.”28 The need and ability to achieve recognition involves not only the ability to rationally construct and defend norms, but in addition a conception of self and of the other constituted in relationships marked by respect.
Moral progress may be motivated by the demands for recognition, but the ability to recognize the other is a precondition for this progress.
Ultimately the real force of Benjamin’s argument lies in her understanding that patriarchally structured gender relationships which idealize autonomy— the construction of self and other as subject and non-subject—are built into the very identity of the participants in that relationship. Thus, not only does the ideal of emancipation require, as Habermas has claimed, the normative reconstruction of our notions of justice and the good life, but of the very constitution of psychic identity as well. While Benjamin fails to acknowledge the extent to which relationships marked by recognition are structured by abstract moral norms of reciprocity and symmetry, Habermas fails to explore the extent to which social norms depend on a relationally and affectively constituted ego. Ego-identity formation cannot be decisively separated from moral development as cognitive and affective development are entwined in the process of the constitution of the infant’s subjectivity. Respect entails constructing the other as a subject worthy of the recognition accorded to all subjects; it precedes the normative consideration of the forms that recognition should take. Thus, I would argue not only is respect a precondition for normative engagement with others not identical to the norms that guide that engagement, but in addition it can only arise in the context of non – dominative relationships of primary attachment, or perhaps through radical reflection and self-reconstruction.