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
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.