Social Norms

Social norms are the unplanned, unexpected result of individuals’ interactions, a kind of grammar of social interaction which codifies what is and is not acceptable in a society or group. As with grammar, social norms are not the product of human design, and so the study of the conditions in which social norms arise is important to our understanding of their distinction from other types of injunction, for example hypothetical imperatives, moral codes or legal rules.

Though norms develop in smaller groups, they often spread beyond the narrow boundaries of the original group: how does this happen? This is a question to which an evolutionary model of social norms might attempt an answer, in terms of the dynamics of propagation from small groups to whole populations.

Norms can die out, but it is unclear how this happens, since corruption of social norms is not by itself powerful enough to generate an overhaul of the system. Thus, efficiency cannot be said to be a necessary and sufficient condition of social norms.

Maybe it’s because social norms, and normativity more generally, are groundless grounds?

Reasons for Action

In modern philosophical literature there are two types of reasons for action, explanatory and justifying. The necessity of the distinction becomes clearer when we consider that reasons that explain may fail to justify, and that reasons that justify may fail to explain. For example, I explain that my reason for shouting at my boss was that she made me angry but this reason does not justify my action. Similarly, I might be justified in pursuing a healthy lifestyle but actually am motivated by winning the affection of the girl I am in love with. Furthermore, justifying reasons can apply to actions that are not performed at all and for which explanatory questions fail to even arise.

In addition to contexts of explanation and justification, we have contexts of deliberation, in which we look for and evaluate candidate-justifying reasons for doing or refraining from various actions; deliberative contexts provide a framework from within which we can determine what to do without necessarily having to act upon reasons to help guide our overall decision about whether to do something or not. Thus, our concern in such contexts is always normative rather than explanatory, though the reasons we determine for action or otherwise may subsequently be cited in explanation of what we do.

Importantly, the distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons is distinct in turn from the distinction between subjective and objective reasons. The latter distinction is actually two kinds of justifying reasons, either the reasons that apply to my circumstances as I, perhaps incorrectly, understand them (subjective) or the justifying reasons that apply to my circumstances as they actually are (objective).

Externalists adhere to a strict distinction between justifying and explanatory reasons. Internalists are charged with conflating the two together. The charge might be unfair to contemporary internalists such as Bernard Williams, however, who can be read as appreciating the distinction but questioning whether, if justifying reasons has little to do with what explains and motivates action (as externalists suppose), we are able to talk meaningfully about reason giving at all. For internalists, then, to talk of reasons is to talk about considerations that speak to our desires, either as they are or subject to some idealising constraint.

Desire-based theories of reason are appealing because they promise to make naturalistic sense of normativity, and thus explain why reason is of such interest and importance to us. However, making reasons contingent on facts about our motivation can have negative consequences, such as, if my motivational system is unusual enough, I might have reason for doing very odd things, or if moral concerns failed to speak to my motivational system then I would have no reason to act morally.

For some contemporary theorists, motivating reasons explain our actions via psychological states of an agent that make it possible to give a rational explanation for why the agent behaves in the way that he does. Motivational reasons contrast with normative reasons, which are more connected with whether an action is justified. For Michael Smith, following Davidson, for example, motivating reasons are complexes of beliefs and desires that motivate action and which can be cited in explaining them where the explanation in question is taken to be causal. Normative reasons, however, can also play an explanatory role, for example where beliefs about normative reasons motivate people who are practically rational.

For others such as Richard Norman, the theory of reasons outlined above is simply a redundancy theory where the sentence ‘x is motivated to §’ can be reduced to ‘x believes he has a reason to §’. As such, the phenomenon of acting in accordance with beliefs does not require a philosophical account of motivation to explain it. Rather, we simply offer a dispositional explanation along the lines of ‘human beings tend to do this’ just as we explain trees losing their leaves in autumn as ‘trees tending to do this’. Thus, the reasons why we ‘tend’ to do something are a matter for the empirical sciences, not a philosophical theory of motivation.

Europe: The Faltering Project

Quote

I came across this quote from Habermas, written in the early 2000s, which seems now more prescient than ever. His analysis of Europe may not always be right – faith in the single currency, for example, prevented him from seeing that monetary union must be married with fiscal union – but his remarks about the democratic deficit provide us with stark analysis of the problems facing the European Union in the second decade of the twenty first century. Confidence in the EU is at an all time low according to polls of citizens in the six richest countries in the union. What is the solution? I wouldn’t dare to claim I could answer that, but the quote below provides fruitful avenues for continuing discussion.

The democratic deficit is especially drastic in the European Union. Without a European public sphere, even a sufficient extension of the competences of the European Parliament would fail to enable the citizens to monitor the ever-denser and ever more invasive political decisions of the European Commission and of the European Council of Ministers. Because no European public sphere exists, the citizens elect the European Parliament on the basis of the wrong issues – that is, national ones. At the same time, the legitimacy of the governments of the member states is being undermined because now they can only ‘implement’ the insufficiently legitimate decisions taken in Brussels. Since the public spheres within the national societies do not accord sufficient prominence to European issues, citizens cannot intervene in a timely manner in European decision-making processes. When these decisions finally trickle down to the national level, the political opinion and will formation of the citizens is no longer consulted.

Habermas, ‘Political Communication in Media Society’, pp. 182 – 3

It’s an academic’s life for me…

I came across an article recently in the Guardian Professional Network for people working in HE. Note that’s administrators and academics. The article referenced a piece of ‘research’ in which it was claimed that, of all the professions, academia is the least stressful. The ‘research’ was published in Forbes magazine. Predictably, a lot of academics got quite cross about the assertion, but it got me thinking about why people might have a misperception of the profession.

We come into contact with teachers throughout our lives. It is easy enough to extrapolate from primary/secondary experiences of teaching to the teaching undertaken in HE. But that’s lazy and does a disservice, both to primary/secondary teachers (contrary to popular belief, most do not work only from 8 – 3 pm and take copious holidays throughout the year), and the academics. In HE over the past couple of decades (at least), the burden upon academic staff to take on more administrative responsibilities, to increase and enhance their research output, to be more accountable to the public by demonstrating ‘value for money’ through impact studies like the REF, has all contributed to a much increased workload. For the majority, teaching constitutes a small proportion of an academic’s workload. However, because of lazy conclusions like the above, the general public seem to believe that the academic’s life is one of relatively high freedoms and low levels of responsibility.

It’s true that the profession does have freedoms not open to other professions like law or medicine. That it, intellectual freedom is a basic part of what it is to be an academic: to choose the subject of one’s forthcoming publication, to spend time debating principled issues with fellow academics, to present oneself and one’s institution at conferences internationally and so on. But that intellectual freedom is nonetheless bounded by the responsibilities that are ‘unseen’ or the less glamourous parts of the job: the admin, seminar and lecture preparation, marking etc etc. Again, it is lazy to draw the conclusion that the intellectual freedom is necessarily conducive to a stress-free profession.

So why would anyone want to go into academia? Well, I can only speak from my own experiences, and my aspirations rest on the sense that academia is a vocation. To me, the opportunity to do what I love, what I would do anyway in my own time, and to get paid for it, is a real privilege and sometimes I think that academics can come off badly when they are perceived to be complaining about the additional responsibilities that the profession entails. So not only do I get to write and research about what I love, I know that, in time, I will also get to teach and come into contact with equally intellectually curious students. I will continually be enriching my experiences of the world and of other people, questioning what I take for granted and being open to change.

Maybe people who have been in the job for a number of years will smile or sneer at my naivete, but I don’t care: I think they should be reminded of their own reasons for entering the profession and to be thankful that they have such rewarding jobs. If they can’t see that, then maybe it’s time to look for something new.

Turning a Corner

Status

Happily, I seem to have turned a corner from the impasse that I had reached a couple of weeks ago. Having taken the courage to read through the four chapters I have so far written, I realised that a) it isn’t as bad as I thought and b) there is scope for the remainder to be good, given the ground work that I have laid over the past few months. With that in mind, I rather furiously typed up notes for the remaining two chapters and am hoping to meet with my supervisor by the end of the week so that I know if I am on the right track. The nature of the last two chapters will hopefully be along the lines of: if we give up on a normative concept of objective truth, how are we to justify continuing commitments to institutions like democratic governance, equal rights and solidarity not just with those in our immediate social group but beyond that, and beyond the bounds of sovereign states to encompass global considerations that will shape the future. So not too much then…

Is the EU democratic?

I have visited this area before, specifically looking at the concept of a democratic deficit, but I have found it necessary to return to it again in light of reading some essays in Habermas’s publication Europe: The Faltering Project. Is the EU democratic? Of course, its laws and legislation are founded on democratic principles such as freedom and equality in participation, universal suffrage and so on. But in practice, do the movements of the EU really project an obvious European democratic flavour?

I’m not sure that they do. Two referendums failed, and that failure seems to preclude us from having another one to determine the future course of the EU. Politicking by the British PM and the Conservative Party suggest that, in our domestic policies, we want out of the EU. At least all of the parts that annoy us, presumably not the parts that benefit us like trade agreements and political co-operation. Thus, at the national level, the EU is perceived to be undemocratic by both politicians and the media where there is a vested interest in promoting sovereign interests at home and abroad…when your government is struggling in the opinion polls, it is an easy tactic to strike where there appears to be collective public sentiment. We don’t have any proper conversation about what it means to be part of the EU and what would happen if we left because everything that is reported is biased and tends to leave out the other side of the issue altogether.

Moreover, the European political institutions seem remote, slow moving, inefficient. The International Court of Justice has failed to make an impact. The European Central Bank, with no aligned financial policies at a national level, appears equally powerless, except, that is, when it comes to doling out money to those profligate southern states like Spain and Greece (please note the sarcastic tone). The people have no direct impact within current decision making structures at the Union level, leading to feelings of isolation and alienation. Above all, there is a deep suspicion in the UK that all of these institutions are in collusion to benefit Germany and France more than the other members.

But this is not the time to pull back. Instead of resigning ourselves to the negative image portrayed above, the question posed at the start of this entry could be: not as much as it could be. After all, as Churchill said, democracy is the best of the bad options of political governance that we have. We can always strive to improve what we currently have and, equally, there is nothing wrong with commending what has already been achieved.

Sometimes, it might seem that we are going backwards. In truth, it is only possible to take steps forward if we strengthen the Union to which we pledged our support four decades ago. That means addressing questions like the extent to which members at a national and public level can influence and have a say in decisions made at a higher level, also the questions that nobody seems to want to address like the issue of greater fiscal alignment in domestic policies. Such questions might not be political gold dust at the moment, but they need to be urgently addressed if we are to consolidate the efforts that have brought us to this point in the history of the European Union.

I’ve been busy today…

Status

signs-473x473It is so difficult to arrange all of your thoughts sometimes, particularly when you have reached a junction where there appear to be multiple directions open to you. Which one to take?

I remember speaking to a friend of mine about how he proceeds when he is writing ‘academic stuff’. He said that he reads, thinks and then the words come to him so he tends to spend less time on the writing. I can only hope that the same will be true for me and that this period of apparent inactivity has actually been productive in the sense that thoughts will translate to words.

I should hopefully be meeting with my supervisor by the end of this week, so maybe then I’ll have a better sense of direction! On the other hand, I always seem to come away from those meetings with more questions than answers so perhaps wise to not hold one’s breath.

Liberalism: Some Key Definitions

All liberals start off from the principle that liberty is the primary political value. After this, liberalism fractures along a spectrum of views: positive, negative and republican liberty. These are fundamentally to do with differing conceptions of liberty.

i) Humans are in a perfect state of freedom to order their actions (Locke); the burden of proof is on those who are against liberty, the a priori assumption is in favour of freedom (Mill); contemporary liberal thinkers (Feinberg, Benn and Rawls) agree.

Basic normative assumption = those who would limit freedom are under the onus of justification, particularly if they would limit freedom through coercive means

§ Political authority, its laws and policies, must be justified because they limit human freedom

–       Social contract theory (Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant and Locke) is usually viewed as liberal even though the political prescriptions of each thinker have distinctly illiberal features. Nevertheless, all take as their starting point a state of nature in which humans are free and equal and so argue that the limitations imposed must be justified in terms of the social contract theory § expresses the fundamental liberal principle

ii) In addition to the fundamental liberal principle, paradigmatic liberals such as Locke argue that justified limitations on liberty are fairly modest i.e. only a limited amount of government can be justified because the basic task of the government is to protect the equal liberty of the citizens.

Negative Liberty

Disagreement about the concept of liberty has led to different conceptions of the task of government. Isaiah Berlin, for example, advocated for a negative conception of liberty:

‘If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability…Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act. You lack political liberty or freedom only if you are prevented from attaining a goal by other human beings’.

§ Liberty = the absence of coercion by other human beings. The government’s role is to ensure that citizens do not coerce each other without justification in order to protect liberty. Negative liberty is an opportunity concept: being free is a matter of what we can do, regardless of whether or not we actually do it.

Positive Liberty

British neo-Hegelians such as Thomas Hill Green and Bernard Bosanquet developed a positive conception of liberty that acknowledges freedom as the exemption from compulsion by another. However, the other might not be human; someone can be unfree if he is subject to an impulse that cannot be controlled. Thus a person is only free if he is autonomous. In the sense that a free person’s actions are said to be his own, positive liberty is an exercise concept.

§ Freedom consists in the degree to which a subject has effectively determined and shaped his own life, apart from compulsions and unreflectively following customs, to the overall benefit of his short and long term interests.

As well as this concept of freedom as autonomy being present in Rousseau, Kant and Mill, contemporary theorists such as Benn, Dworkin and Raz also enshrine this liberal principle in their political theories.

Another concept of positive freedom is freedom understood as the ability to act on or pursue one’s own ends; freedom is ‘the ability act’ (Tawney). Positive freedom as effective power to act closely ties freedom to access to material resources: I cannot become a member of a Country Club because I am too poor to afford the membership though in principle I could become a member if this resource was available to me.

Republican Liberty

In the Roman, republican usage (Cicero and Machiavelli), the opposite of the liber was the servus and so the dominant connotation of freedom was not having to live in servitude to another § freedom is the opposite of domination. The ideal government ensures that no agent, including itself, has arbitrary power over any citizen, in order to ensure that every citizen’s liberty is protected. The method by which this principle is enacted is equal disbursement of power; by according each citizen power, this offsets the power of another citizen to arbitrarily interfere with his or her activities.

Unlike positive liberty, republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realising one’s true nature or becoming one’s higher self.

Unlike negative liberty, republican liberty traces the mere possibility of arbitrary interference to a limitation of liberty, rather than the actual occurrence of interference.

Classical Liberalism

As well as fracturing over the conception of liberty, a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order.

Classical liberals insist upon the close relation between liberty and private property for it is through the ownership of private property that a citizen is able to live her life as she sees fit. Thus, private property is consistent with individual liberty. Some people (Gaus, Steiner, Robbins) argue that liberty and property are the same thing thus a market order based on private property is the embodiment of freedom. A secondary argument from classical liberals claims that ownership of private property is the only effective means of protecting liberty, because the individual is protected from encroachments by the state.

Even within classical liberalism there is a spectrum of views on the relationship of private property to a free society, ranging from near anarchists to left leaning views that allow for a modest social minimum. Although today classical liberalism is portrayed as extreme libertarianism, the tradition’s central concern was bettering the lot of the working class. As Bentham put it, the aim was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer. As such, liberals reject redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

New Liberalism

New liberalism challenges the link between private property and individual freedom. New liberalism emerged out of a period in which the sustainability of a prosperous equilibrium was being questioned (c. late 19th/early 20th century). At the same time as losing faith in the old market order, faith was increasing in the government as a means of supervising economic life partly due to the First World War and partly due to more sophisticated democratisation in Western countries. For the first time, elected officials could truly be representatives of the community, or so it was thought. Thirdly, the growing conviction that property rights generated an unequal society to the detriment of the working class’ liberty. The first suggestion of this is found in Mill, later developed by Rawls, both of whom believed that it is an open question whether personal liberty can flourish without private property.

New liberalism is deeply concerned with developing a theory of social justice, a consequence of the impact of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Rawls’s ‘difference principle’ claims that a just basic structure of society arranges social and economic inequalities so that they are to the greatest advantage of the least well off group in a particular society. For Rawls, only inequalities that enhance the long term prospects for the least well off are just. The difference principle constitutes the principle of reciprocity, whereby no group of people is allowed to advance at the cost of another. In contemporary political thought, followers of Rawls are committed to cashing out the difference principle in terms of equality (Dworkin) hence the development from ‘welfare state’ liberalism to ‘egalitarian’ liberalism.

Discourse and the Development of the Individual

People who participate in democratic processes become more attuned to difference, more sensitive to reciprocity, better able to engage in moral discourse, more able to examine their own preference critically. This is the self-transformation thesis, in which the self is constituted buy interactions with its social context.

Calls for more democracy are often not taken seriously because of the threat of the
majority to minorities, privacy, rights etc; but, this line is based on an asocial (Hobbesian)
conception of the self. It reveals arguments such as: What is greater participation enabled
participants to pursue narrower, self-motivated or sectarian interests, instead of interests
in the social good? One cannot just assume that participation will make us better people.

Indeed, which is why Habermas’s discursive conception of democracy might go some
way to justifying our faith in the positive aspects of democracy, in terms of its impact
upon individual selves and society writ large.

Habermas does not equate democracy with any particular set of institutional
mechanisms, such as voting; rather, he understands democracy as an institutional order
that depends for its legitimacy on a process of discursive will formation. Habermas’s
democracy is the kind of politics that favours non-violent, non-coercive consensus, as
opposed to other ways of making collective decisions, through the authority of tradition,
for example, or the economic markets. Discourse, incidentally, is the forceless force
of the better argument; hence not all communication is discursive. It follows its own
immanent logic of validity claims.

The public sphere is the institutional embodiment of discourse in that it is separate from
the political realm and legitimates itself through the communicative action and rationality
that binds its judgements. This is a separation of judgement and power, analogous in
liberal constitutions to the legislative and executive branches of government. Habermas
is not saying that all institutions should conduct all their business via discourse, but that
they should be structured in such a way that discourse can flourish when conflicts arise
and understanding must be reached. The normative imperative is that it is efficacious
to resolve conflict in this way, rather than via coercion, markets, traditional authority or
blind consensus.

Discourse requires near perfect conditions, in that it won’t work if there is a strong
imbalance of power relations; even if the power imbalance is minimal, the burden on
communicative action to neutralise this is too great. Hence Habermas argues that it
requires an institutionalised public sphere, nominally free from power relations and
differentiated from the organisational requirements of collective action. This ideal,
embedded in the public sphere, is arrved at collectively and individually, thus discourse is
the medium in which collective and individual reason converges. As individuals express
their needs and interests publically, they are challenged, and the process of justification
both produces consensus whilst increasing the individual’s autonomy as she understands
her own needs better.

What is an autonomous self?

Autonomy for Habermas is not the Hobbesian and rational choice view that selves are
presocial monads. Rather, it refers to certain socially developed capacities of judgement.
Autonomy for Habermas is not a natural attribute of humans, but a fragile and relational
social achievement. Autonomy means self-identity, insofar as the continuous identity of

one’s life history is maintained by projecting goals into the future around which one’s
present identity is organised. Autonomy implies capacities for agency and a certain
amount of control over one’s life history. Autonomy is a kind of freedom in that it
involves the capacity to distance oneself from circumstances at the same time as locating
oneself in those circumstances. This includes, in the social world, distancing oneself
from traditions, prevailing opinion, and pressure to conform. Autonomy involves
critical judgement, and is developed though imagination insofar as we are all part of
the intersubjective framework of projecting ourselves and stepping into the position
of others i.e. thinking of alternatives. But it is also to do with giving reasons, as we are
forced to order our arguments logically in the process of public argumentation. As
such, autonomy implies communicative competencies. And in the process of engaging
in dialogue, autonomy also implies reciprocity in recognition of the other linguistic I.
Finally, autonomy implies a measure of responsibility insofar as discourse is a process of
justification: I must commit to my words and actions in giving reasons for them.

Moral Development of Autonomy

Habermas contends that social relations generally tend towards the development of
moral capacities; as such the ability to deal with political conflict is already latent in
social life. Habermas appropriates Kohlberg’s six-stage theory of moral development
as a developmental theory already present in social relations. In particular, Habermas
is interested in the idea that we progress towards autonomy in moral judgement as our
social and communicative competencies develop; thus, the capacities of autonomy
required by participatory democracy are always already present in the structures of
interaction i.e. in social life. Further, the definition of my identity – my autonomy –
arises out of recognition of the other. The dual movement of attaining higher moral
development and distancing myself in recognition of reciprocity is part of interactive
competence: in this, the moral and social converge.

Habermas argues that such development can only occur in a discursive context, so where
Kohlberg’s stages end at six with the formal (Kantian) ethics of universal principle,
Habermas adds a seventh – discourse ethics. In doing so he counters the line of critics
of formal ethics, which states that general principles of judgement abstracted from social
relations cannot be sufficiently attuned to the particulars that are always part of our
conceptions of right and wrong. For Habermas, it is discourse that is both aligned with
reason and attentive to the particularity of conflicts, thereby proposing a strong link
between democracy and the moral dimension of autonomy. On this model, individuals
are able to challenge their own interpretations, and the interpretations of others. In the
process, some interpretations will be discarded in favour of other, more appropriate
ones, as well as allowing for the most useful parts of a tradition to continue to be in play
as long as they too remain appropriate.

Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on Rawls’s Political Liberalism

Rawls is a proponent of practical philosophy and someone to whom moral questions are ‘serious objects of philosophical investigation’ (109). Against value scepticism and utilitarianism, Rawls follows Kant’s maxim that we ought to do what is good for all people and he extends this to formulate his vision of a just society. A just society is one in which every citizen is treated equally and freely. Kant’s principle of autonomy is made intersubjective, for ‘we act autonomously when we obey those laws which could be accepted by all concerned on the basis of a public use of their reason’ (109). Thus Rawls also refutes contextualist positions, which question the presupposition that reason is a common characteristic shared by all humans.

Rawls’s position aims at the justification of the principles upon which modern society should be constituted ‘if it is to ensure the fair co-operation of its citizens as free and equal persons’ (110). The position has three steps. The first is to identify a standpoint from which representatives of the people could answer questions impartially. Parties in the ‘original’ position agree on two principles: 1) the liberal principle that everyone is entitled to an equal system of basic liberties; 2) the principle of equal access to public offices; social inequalities are only acceptable if it is to the benefit of the underprivileged. The second step is to claim that this conception of justice will meet with agreement under the conditions of a pluralistic society which it itself promotes. The key assumption here is that political liberalism is generally neutral with regards to conflicting world-views. And thirdly, the outline of the basic rights and principles of the constitutional state are derived from these two principles of justice.

Habermas takes issue with ‘certain aspects of [the project’s] execution’, as he ‘fear[s] that Rawls makes concessions to opposed philosophical positions which impair the cogency of his own project’ (110). He does not object to the project per se but instead proceeds via an immanent and constructive critique. The key aspects of this critique are i) doubts about aspects of the original position in securing the ‘standpoint of impartial judgement about deontological principles of justice’ (110); the claim that Rawls should make a sharper distinction between principles of justification and of acceptance, for ‘he seems to want to purchase the neutrality of his conception of justice at the cost of forsaking its cognitive validity claim’ (110); and the criticism that Rawls fails in his goal of bringing the liberties of the moderns into harmony with the ancients, because the two theoretical decisions ‘result in a construction of the constitutional state that accords liberal basic rights primacy over the democratic principle of legitimation’ (110).

Design of the Original Position

The parties in the original position have a morally neutral character on the one hand, and are bound to choose principles of fair co-operation via morally substantive situational constraints on the other. Such normative constraints thereby permit the parties with a minimum of properties, in particular, “the capacity for a conception of the good (and thus to be rational)” (Rawls quoted on p. 111), or in other words, they are constrained by their own self-interest to reflect on what is equally good for all citizens. As Habermas notes, however, Rawls ‘soon realised that the reason of autonomous citizens cannot be reduced to rational choice conditioned by subjective preferences’ (112), though he maintains that the meaning of the moral point of view can be operationalised in this way. Habermas addressees three consequences of this approach:

(1) Can the parties in the original position comprehend the highest-order interests of their clients solely on the basis of rational egoism? (2) Can basic rights be assimilated to primary goods? (3) Does the veil of ignorance guarantee the impartiality of judgement? (112)

(1) Comprehension via rational egoism

Rawls cannot consistently hold this position when the parties representing citizens are denied the autonomy that the citizens fully have, because of ‘rational design’: ‘the parties are supposed both to understand and to take seriously the implications and consequences of an autonomy that they themselves are denied’ (112). They cannot take into account, for instance, the sense of loyalty and obligation citizens may feel towards each other. Rawls qualifies the rationality of the contracting partners: on the one hand, they take no interest in one another; on the other hand, they have a “purely formal” sense of justice, for they are supposed to know that they are bound to conform with the principles agreed upon in their future role as citizens in a well ordered society. Habermas questions whether this strays too far from the original position: ‘For as soon as the parties step outside the boundaries of their rational egoism and assume even a distant likeness to moral persons, the division of labour between the rationality of choice of subjects and appropriate objective constraints is destroyed, a division through which self-interested agents are nonetheless supposed to achieve morally sound decisions’ (113).

(2) Rights and Goods

Primary goods are defined as the means we need to realise our plans for life. For the parties in the original position, primary goods can be rights, but these are only recognised as one category of goods amongst others, thus ‘the issue of principles of justice can only arise in the guise of the question of the just distribution of primary goods’ (114). As such, Rawls would seem to adopt an approach that is more consistent with Aristotelian ethics or utilitarianism that his own theory of rights which is supposed to proceed via the concept of autonomy. In interpreting rights as primary goods, Rawls ‘assimilate[s] the deontological meaning of obligatory norms to the teleological meaning of preferred values’ (114).[1]

Rawls has to compensate for the levelling of the deontological dimension; he does so by according the first principle priority over the second, and adding a further qualification that secures primary goods a relation to basic liberties as basic rights, i.e. primary goods are ‘only those which are expedient for the life plans and the development of the moral faculties of citizens as free and equal persons’ (114), but, as Habermas argues, this step distinguishes between rights and goods in contradiction to the first classification of rights as goods.

(3) Veil of Ignorance & Impartiality

There is a problem of how to go from individual isolated perspectives to a universal, transcendental consciousness. Rawls tries to neutralise different viewpoints by withholding information, thereby keeping representative parties under a veil of ignorance. Habermas argues that there is an alternative: discourse ethics,[2] which ‘views the moral point of view as embodied in an intersubjective practice of argumentation which enjoins those involved to an idealising enlargement of their interpretive perspectives’ (117). Discourse ethics would lighten the burden of proof generated by Rawls’s position, namely a) ‘the veil of ignorance must extend to all particular viewpoints and interests that could impair an impartial judgement’ (118); and b) gradual removal of the veil might lead to discrepancies arising, so if we are to ensure that this does not happen, ‘we must construct the original position already with knowledge, and even foresight, of all the normative contents that could potentially nourish the shared self-understanding of free and equal citizens in the future. In other words, the theoretician himself would have to shoulder the burden of anticipating at least parts of the information of which he previously relieved the parties in the original position!’ (118). Instead, Habermas has in mind ‘the more open procedure of an argumentative practice that proceeds under the demanding presuppositions of the “public use of reason” and does not bracket the pluralism of convictions and worldviews from the outset’ (118-9).


[1] Norms inform decisions as to what one ought to do, values inform decisions as to what conduct is most desirable. Recognised norms impose equal and exceptionless obligations on their addressees, while values express the preferability of goods that are striven for by particular groups. Whereas norms are observed in the sense of a fulfillment of generalized behavioural expectations, values or goods can be realized or acquired only by purposive action. Furthermore, norms raise a binary validity claim in virtue of which they are said to be either valid or invalid: to ought statements, as to assertoric statements, we can respond only with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – or refrain from judgement. Values, by contrast, fix relations of preference that signify that certain goods are more attractive than others: hence, we can assent to evaluative statements to a greater or lesser degree. The obligatory force of norms has the absolute meaning of an unconditional and universal duty: what one ought to do it what is equally good for all (that is, for all addressees). The attractiveness of values reflects an evaluation and a transitive ordering of goods that has become established in particular cultures or has been adopted by particular groups: important evaluative decisions or higher-order preferences express what is good for us (or for me), all things considered. Finally, different norms must not contradict each other when they claim validity for the same domain of addressees; they must stand in coherent relations to one another – in other words, they must constitute a system. Different values, by contrast, compete for priority; insofar as they meet with intersubjective recognition within a culture or group, they constitute shifting configurations fraught with tension. To sum up, norms differ from values, first, in their relation to rule-governed as opposed to purposive action; second, in a binary as opposed to a gradual coding of the respective validity claims; third, in their absolute as opposed to relative bindingness; and, last, in the criteria that systems of norms as opposed to systems of values must satisfy. [114-5]

[2] Discourse ethics rests on the intuition that the application of the principle of universalisation, properly understood, calls for a joint process of “ideal role taking”. It interprets this idea of G. H. Mead in terms of a pragmatic theory of argumentation. Under the pragmatic presuppositions of an inclusive and noncoercive rational discourse among free and equal participants, everyone is required to take the perspective of everyone else, and thus project herself into the understandings of self and world of all others; from this interlocking of perspectives there emerges an ideally extended we-perspective from which all can test in common whether they wish to make a controversial norm the basis of their shared practice; and this should include mutual criticism of the appropriateness of the languages in terms of which situations and needs are interpreted. In the course of successively undertaken abstractions, the core of generalisable interests can then emerge step by step. [117-8]