Globalisation and its Impact on Universities

With the advent of online teaching, pay-per-module, distance learning and MOOCs, we are in danger of losing our scholarly community. These models of globalisation further endorse the idea of students as consumers and institutions as the producers. They run counter to the original intention of education, and betray the economic strategies that underpin the urge toward globalisation. We should be doing what we can to resist the urge, or to at least build institutions that are capable of being both local and global whilst upholding the mission of analysing what is given to us as a normative state of affairs.

I found the following article to be particularly helpful when thinking about the effects of globalisation on universities:

Globalisation and its discontents

17 JANUARY 2013

Scholarship has long been international but the current vision of a ‘worldwide’ academy of rootless student-consumers and national economic competition is as contradictory as it is immoral, argues Thomas Docherty


Globalisation and its discontents

What is the relation of the university to the polity, to “citizenship”? In the autumn of 2011, Kenneth Clark, who was then Secretary of State for Justice, described August’s rioters as a “feral underclass, cut off from everything in the mainstream but its materialism”. What he called their “criminality” was conditioned and explained by their fundamental divorcement from regular forms of participation in the polity or society. This led to their disengagement from “the values of mainstream society”.

Such disengagement, however, could by no means be construed as the exclusive prerogative of a group of supposedly “feral” rioters in August that year. After all, it is precisely what is routinely threatened by senior financiers and others in our allegedly “global jobs market” when they indicate that they are prepared to abandon any commitments to the nation if they are required to pay more UK tax or to forgo inflated bonuses-for-failures. Nor is this local to the UK or even simply a product of the post-2008 crisis. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch famously became a naturalised American, abandoning his Australian civic commitments in order to circumvent US laws that preclude foreign nationals from ownership of US TV stations.

The question of disengagement from, or engagement with, national culture or community – citizenship – is surely among the most pertinent when considering globalisation in the university sector. Globalisation is an “imperative”, said Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, when he opened a World Universities Network conference at Bristol in February last year. Looking through the “visions” (that Blakean replacement for “mission statements”) of many UK universities, one finds an almost routine claim that we are “producing/delivering” graduates who are going to be “global citizens”.

A current danger is that, through endlessly rehearsed but unargued assertion, the sector will find itself endorsing uncritically that which it should critique. Globalisation may establish normative – but problematic – economic practices, and we may find ourselves simply conforming to those norms and ignoring the attendant problems of globalisation and its occasional consequence of disengagement from community or the modern commons. Yet if the university is to maintain its intellectual credentials at all, it must be our responsibility to expose and confront conformity. Our place is to critique and to call conformities into question, not to endorse unexamined norms set by others.

Globalisation, of course, is not global. It is unevenly distributed; it is experienced differently in Adelaide and Accra; it feels different on the sofa of a World Bank office to on a Washington park bench. Moreover, globalisation is not new, even for the university: it has assumed variant forms for well over a thousand years. However, let’s start from the assertion that, in its current form, it is accelerating so rapidly that it must be embraced if we don’t want to be left behind the modernising rush.

The claim often made is that globalisation responds to student demand. Ben Wildavsky, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, breathlessly points out that the rates of global student movement are increasing rapidly. “There has been an increase of 57 per cent in the last ten years,” he wrote in a recent blog; and that looks undeniably huge. But to look at this another way, what it means is that over 10 years, among the roughly 140 million students worldwide, another 750,000 of them participate as “global”, international students. In fact, the total percentage of such global students is about 2 per cent of the total worldwide.

Furthermore, this 2 per cent includes students who remain in their home country while being registered for courses “delivered” from another country, so the numbers actually moving across borders radically decreases. And the fast-approaching deeply globalised future? Current estimations are that worldwide student numbers will roughly double by about 2025. The cohort of students newly entering higher education to make up that figure come predominantly from social groups that are among the least likely to leave even their home town, much less their home nation, for their university education. In fact, the “global citizen” students actually crossing borders are decreasing significantly in percentage terms.

Universities have always had massive international presence and reach. At the turn of the 15th century, about the time of the Great Schism in the Christian Church, with two popes fighting for power and control over Europe and its institutions, scholars sometimes found that their papal allegiance gave them local difficulty. Prior to the Schism – which ended the Avignon Papacy – it was commonplace for scholars to travel for education to one of a small number of institutions. Thus, people from this island attended universities in Bologna, Salerno, Paris, Orléans and Avignon itself. Those institutions were certainly international (if not yet global) in reach.

England boasted two institutions at that time. When Scotland and England backed different sides in the Schism (Scots were for Avignon, the English for Rome), the movement of Scottish scholars to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge became fraught. Similar things were happening elsewhere across Europe. The consequence was the growth of domestic institutions within emergent nation-states, and the determination of those nation-states to use the universities essentially as institutions that would help to forge emergent national identities, cultures and committed affiliations. Universities, as seats of independent thinking, helped to forge the new nation-states, and national “citizens”, that would constitute modern Europe.

All this, of course, says nothing of what else was happening in the non-European world. In Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Karaouine (founded around AD859 by a woman, Fatima Al-Fihri) has some claim to be the first modern university. Alongside this, between about AD760 and AD820, Bayt al-Hikma (Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom”, essentially a library) was constructed. Its project was the gathering and translation of the great knowledge of the world as it was at that time, from all languages. This was, perhaps, the first exercise in what we might now think of as scholarly globalisation.

Yet the contemporary formulation of globalisation is very distinctive, and it is disturbingly marked by a fundamental self-contradiction. On one hand, it praises the idea of the post-national world in which we live; at the same time, globalisation is important if the UK is to “compete” against other nations worldwide. This latter view of globalisation is really an economic strategy of competition, designed to enhance one nation’s wealth over that of others, and is a matter for politicians and government. Should the university institution simply rehearse and endorse, uncritically, the pronouncements of our politicians – especially when those pronouncements lapse into self-contradiction? Our business is reasoning, and here is an example of false reasoning to be exposed.

When we fail to engage in constructive criticism of such arguments, we fall into that version of globalisation that involves us in self-contradiction and places economic competition at the heart of our system. This reduces the university to a brand name to be “traded” elsewhere, primarily to bring in tuition fees. In this way, the academy becomes explicitly politicised, essentially in favour of advancing a neoliberal economic agenda.

We become party to an exacerbation of the already troubling worldwide trend – the global trend – towards increased inequalities. A 2004 report by the International Labour Office in Geneva, A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All, found that the current processes of globalisation generate “unbalanced outcomes”. It agrees that “wealth is being generated” but adds immediately that “too many countries and people are not sharing in its benefits”, and concludes that the resulting “global imbalances” are “morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable”. Yet in 2010, the American Council on Education could issue a Blue Ribbon report on “Global Engagement” that reduced the issues around globalisation to two simple questions: a) the free international movement of staff, students and ideas; b) the question of US economic competitiveness and sustained dominance. The concerns expressed in 2004 are thus simply ignored.

The contradiction between national supremacy/economic competitiveness on one hand and “free” cross-border movement on the other is glaring. It can be explained in a simple formulation: globalisation requires the existence of national political boundaries in order to transgress those same boundaries economically.

Put this way, we can see who benefits from the very high stakes of the globalisation imperatives. The investor and philanthropist George Soros offers a “narrow definition” of post-1960 globalisation as “the free movement of capital and the increasing domination of national economies by global financial institutions and multinational corporations”. Soros is chilling as he explores the logic. He points out that the development of international institutions has not kept pace with the development of financial markets, with the result that political arrangements lag well behind the globalisation of economies. This provokes a crisis in democracy (which is perhaps all too apparent today). There is a visible crisis of legitimacy in our institutions. For Soros, the greatest threat to our democracy comes “from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business”. It is an arrangement of affairs that, as he points out, is not new: “It used to be called fascism…The outward appearances of the democratic process are observed, but the powers of the State are diverted to the benefit of private interests”.

Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel prizewinner, endorses these views. He and Soros (hardly regular bedfellows) agree on one fundamental point: we have not established the necessary international institutions to deal with the problems of globalisation. Instead, we have simply started to endorse the general tendency to accept it as a truistic imperative, as something with whose demands we must comply. But who is giving these orders? Where can we find the institutions adequate to our global predicaments?

The university is perfectly placed to be such an institution: a location of critique that can address inequalities and threats to democracy. Another name for this democracy is “widening participation”; such that our supposed “feral underclass” and our finance sectors start to find that they can share civic commitments, or that they can at least engage each other in democratic dialogue. Surely the university should be recalled to one of its central civilisational functions: to enable more people to engage in reasoned debate, in a polyglot House of Wisdom, democratically open. The contemporary version of university globalisation, however, does not seem to centre itself on widened participation in democratic politics, or even on the relation of the university to the civic polity.

Instead, some institutions are determinedly growing branded campuses abroad. Others strive to implant the voices of their academic community through the massive open online course, or Mooc. The New York University academic Andrew Ross has pointed out that, despite the growth in foreign campuses worldwide – a development that is fundamentally intended to deal with domestic economic shortfalls – the real globalisers are organisations such as the Laureate Education group. Laureate now has well in excess of 600,000 customers in more than 20 countries. Everything is 100 per cent online and everything, including teaching, is done on a pay-per-module basis. Instructors need no previous experience of online teaching but will get a four-week course that “qualifies” them; contractually, they must be prepared to be on call and ready to respond to customers who can be in any time zone worldwide, on a 24/7 basis. Is this the globalised university system that we want? Without students, without scholarly communities at all?

These models of globalisation require us to think of ourselves as commercial producers of human capital or human resources who will fit neatly into a world that is organised around the primacy of competition for private financial greed. Indeed, one major UK university – in a statement typical of many – describes its graduates as a “product”, to be “delivered” to the waiting world as recognisable “global citizens”. Such a position is entirely inadequate to our situations and it represents a fundamental betrayal of the sector, its students and citizenship.

Vice-chancellors seem to be obsessed with global visions. It might serve us better if, instead of having grand visions of this kind, they really just opened their eyes to see what is happening locally as a result of the too-easy acceptance of the globalisation agenda. Globalisation has many discontents: is it not more properly the task of the university to be the international institution that can analyse those discontents and that can offer people the means of engaging more democratically in our social being and welfare?

Global citizens? Just citizens might do for the moment, to replace the primacy of conformist consumers of an ill-assorted world order.



Thomas Docherty is professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick.



Some thoughts on the idea of a truth commission

Even a cursory glance across the history of the twentieth century will reveal plentiful transitional periods precipitated by regime change. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the nationalist Serbian rule under Milosovic and, of course, the fall of German National Socialism: all of these represent regime changes that seem to demand an answer from the newly emerging democratic nation state to the question: should we forget or remember?

Transitional periods face many systematic challenges, but perhaps the most essential question is whether a nation can really face the present reality and future possibilities without confronting the past, however painful that process may be? On the other hand, what are the benefits of turning over the past? Or, more importantly, who are we trying to benefit?

The sense of delivering justice to those who were victimised is what constitutes the justification for bodies like a truth commission. The form that justice takes, however, is likely to far from conventional. In the cases of war crimes, genocides, mass rape and so on, criminal justice is deemed to be inappropriate or insufficient. Such is the gravity of the crime, that the parameters of justification must be enlarged from our everyday criminal proceedings, to capture additional senses: the political, compensatory, restorative, and transformative.

The entity of the truth commission itself has a specific set up. First, it is focused on the past. Second, instead of documenting individual cases, it aims to document the greatest number of human rights violations possible. Third, it is an extraordinary body, existing for a limited period of time and with the expectation that the final report submitted constitutes the closing of that particular body. Finally, it would appear to have a certain amount of authority, nonetheless this is granted by the political body that establishes it.

We cannot lose sight of the fact that there is no guarantee that facing up to the past ensures future stability in the emerging democracy. On the other hand, there is a stronger sense that best way a nation has a shot at moving forward is by creating a whole new moral foundation for the community. Regimes pervert a sense of right and wrong by appealing to their own ethical framework. Thus, it isn’t as simple, post regime change, as replacing the governing elites and instituting a new political framework, since the ethics of the nation – people’s hearts and minds – have become distorted. Hence the requirement for a new moral foundation.

It is not the role of the truth commission to come up with a new set of moral standards, by measuring what has passed before against a vision of the newly democratic nation in question. Rather, the commission facilitates a population’s ability to reflect, introspect, and ultimately come to terms with history rather than burying it deep down. In effect, the truth commission enables a mastering of history. Establishing the truths about a state’s past wrongs can help lay the foundations for the new order, but it is not up to the commission to say what that new order is.

Might a truth commission be bound to deliver an ‘official’ truth? How do we know for sure that it won’t be influenced by strategic interventions on the part of the new political order? In a sense, we can’t say with certainty that this won’t happen. Aside from the threat of strategic intervention, these are are real people and as such bring a set of real lived experiences to the table. It wouldn’t be possible to segregate those experiences, to look at the facts of the matter, because the process and the end result would be meaningless to practice. No, better to accept the limitations that bound the commission and the people who make it up, than to seek a purely objective insight into historical matters.

In sum, the objective of a truth commission is not to produce a new set of moral standards, but, in calling attention to the conditions in which violence etc can arise, to try to make sure  that such events can’t happen again.

Europe: The Faltering Project


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

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]