The Observer Perspective and Moral Development
Turning to Habermas’s account of moral development, I want to look at his effort to clarify some of the conceptual problems in Kohlberg’s theory. Drawing from Selman’s stages of perspective taking, Habermas endeavors to provide a more plausible grounding for the logic of moral development and to show how the demanding process of ideal role-taking which underpins practical discourse is possible at the post-conventional level. While the post – conventional stage cannot be understood as a natural stage like the first two stages,26 Habermas tries to show how the reconstruction of moral development in action-theoretic terms lends support to discourse ethics as the most convincing account of the universal core of our moral intuitions.
Beginning with the complex structure of perspectives which characterizes a decentered understanding of the world, Habermas distinguishes between world perspectives and speaker perspectives.27 With regard to world perspectives, he presents the ways in which participants in communicative action can refer to three different worlds and the different sorts of attitudes they can take toward these worlds. First, they can present facts with reference to conditions and events in the objective world. Second, they can establish and renew interpersonal relationships with reference to the social world of legitimately ordered interactions. Third, speakers can represent themselves and their experiences by referring to the subjective world to which they as individuals have privileged access.28 Additionally, competent speakers have the capacity to adopt three different attitudes toward the world. They are able to take an objectivating attitude toward existing states of affairs, a norm-conformative attitude toward legitimately ordered personal relations and an expressive attitude toward their own subjective experiences. Moreover; they are also able to vary these attitudes with respect to each of the three worlds.29 Turning to the speaker perspectives, when participants in communicative action want to come to an understanding with one another over something in one of these three worlds, they must also be able to take the attitudes which are connected with the communicative roles of the first, second and third person (that is, speaker, hearer, and observer).30 The crux of Habermas’s argument is that the development of this complex structure of perspectives provides the necessary key for justifying the developmental logic of Kohlberg’s moral stages.
Habermas claims that this perspective structure stems from two roots: the observer perspective, which the child develops through engagement with the physical environment, and the reciprocally interconnected “I-you” perspectives which arise in the course of symbolically mediated interaction with reference-persons. Moreover, he tries to explain how the shift from the pre-conventional to the conventional level is occasioned by the introduction of the observer perspective in a way that makes possible the completion of
both the system of speaker and the system of world perspectives. The basic idea is that although children at the preconventional level may be capable of correctly using third-person pronouns, extending the reciprocal connection between speaker and hearer to the reversible action perspectives of ego and alter and taking an objectivating attitude toward the external world, it is not until early adolescence that they become able to apply the objectivating attitude of a third person to an interpersonal relationship with another participant in interaction. At this point, then, they conjoin the performative attitude of the “І-you” perspective “with the neutral attitude of a person who is present but remains uninvolved, in other words, the attitude of a person who witnesses an interactive event in the role of a listener or viewer.”31 This thus permits the shift to the conventional level to be understood in terms of the completion of the system of speaker perspectives as it is actualized as a system of action perspectives. Not only can the young adolescent take the reciprocal roles of a speaker and hearer in communicative action, but he can now also interchange the participant perspectives with the third-person perspective of an observer.
While the introduction of the observer perspective enables the young adolescent to perceive his relationship with another as an element of the objective world, this is not the same thing as understanding it as part of the social world of legitimately ordered interactions. In other words, a bit more is involved in the completion of the system of world perspectives. To explain this, Habermas first distinguishes between two forms of reciprocity capable of embodying the “I-you” perspective structure. Nonsymmetrical reciprocity refers to the complementarity of different behavioral expectations, as seen the unequal and authority-governed relations in the family. Symmetrical or interest-governed reciprocity applies to egalitarian friendships where behavioral expectations are of the same kind. Accordingly, in actions coordinated under conditions of authority-governed complementarity, one person controls or sets the terms of the interaction. When conditions of interest-governed reciprocity hold, participants mutually control the interaction.
Next, Habermas introduces two types of action available at the preconventional level which must be coordinated at the conventional level: cooperation-oriented action and conflict-oriented action. In cases of conflict in symmetrical relationships, children can behave either cooperatively or competitively; that is, either by trying to come to an understanding or by engaging in strategic action and, possibly, using deception in order to realize their interests. In instances of conflict in authority-governed interactions, children do not have this option. Unable to use deception, they are left with trying to avoid threatened sanctions (being punished).32 Accordingly, this implies a polarization between actions oriented toward success and actions oriented toward understanding which simultaneously compels and normalizes the choice between an action orientation with and one without the possibility of deception. Since strategic action thus already exists as an option in the competitive realm (because the child can see the reciprocity of action perspectives in both the speaker and hearer positions), the problem with the transition to the conventional level becomes one of developing the capacity to coordinate one’s interactions in ways which are neither governed by authority nor by immediate self-interests. Or, to put it somewhat differently, the child has to develop the capacity to see why he should choose a type of action which does not include the option of deception.
Again, this developmental move results from the insertion of the observer perspective. Habermas claims that at the preconventional level the child understands both friendships and relations with authority figures as relationships of exchange. At the conventional level, however, the child is able to see beyond the simple reciprocity of immediate relations. As Habermas explains:
Only when A in his interaction with В adopts the attitude of an impartial member of their social group toward them both can he become aware of the interchangeability of his and B’s positions. A realizes that what he thought was a special behavior pattern applicable only to this particular child and these particular parents has always been for В the result of an intuitive understanding of the norms that govern relations between children and parents in general.33
As the child internalizes concrete behavioral expectations, then, he comes to understand that his interaction with a parent is part of general pattern of behavior shared by members of their social group: both parent and child are, generally speaking, acting in accordance with social roles. Since the child realizes that any member of their social group could take the position of either A or B, he understands the interchangeability of these positions as stemming from the collective will, the norms and expectations, of their social group.34 At this point, having internalized the authority of the group, the adolescent understands that he is expected and obliged to observe his social role and that he is entitled to expect the same from others. The group’s sanctions become his own standards of behavior which he applies against himself. Thus, with the emergence of the social world in this stage, the system of world perspectives becomes complete.
Having explicated the logic of development underlying the move from the preconventional to the conventional stage, Habermas addresses the shift to the post-conventional stage. This shift has three key components. First, when compared to the quasi-naturalness with which social agents accept the legitimacy of the norms and institutions into which they have been socialized, the hypothetical attitude toward the world necessary for argumentation appears as a dramatic break. While they had previously taken the validity of the social norms of their group for granted, actors now look at them critically, questioning their worthiness to be recognized.35 Second, Habermas argues that the systems of world and speaker perspectives completed at the conventional level become conjoined at the post-conventional stage. Thus, the reversible system of speaker perspectives establishes the conditions for agreement in argumentation—a valid norm must be acceptable from the perspective of each of the three positions. Likewise, the various attitudes toward the world are available as themes for argumentation and offered up as claims to be criticized and defended. Third, and finally, the split between normatively regulated and strategically regulated action which occurred at the conventional stage is overcome. Of course, this does not mean that social agents no longer have the option of behaving strategically toward one another or that persons at a post- conventional level always coordinate their actions communicatively. Rather, the overcoming of this split refers to the idea that in argumentation the success-orientation of competitors is included in a form of communication which continues action oriented toward reaching understanding with other means. As Habermas writes: “In argumentation, proponents and opponents engage in a competition with arguments in order to convince one another, that is, in order to reach a consensus.”36 So long as arguments are not reduced to means of mere influence as opposed to reasons offered in an effort to convince, discourse can be used to coordinate action.