The Intersection Between Public and Private: Rorty and Habermas

How do we deal with situations in which our conception of ourselves as individuals does not overlap with collectively held norms and values?

In the history of contemporary moral philosophy, Habermas argues that practical reason takes on three different tasks: pragmatic (purposive), ethical (good) and moral (just). He finds himself facing two important questions: 1) Does it makes sense to think of practical reason as a unified faculty when it encompasses these three divisions; 2) If it is not unified, how do we deal with the relationship between them ad properly mediate the point at which public and private intersect? Habermas concludes that ‘the unity of practical reason can be realised in an unequivocal manner only within a network of public forms of communication and practices in which the conditions of rational collective will formation have taken on concrete institutional forms’ (On the Moral Employment of Practical Reason, 17).

Habermas follows the Kantian conception of liberal society, in that the political and legal sphere is crucial to social harmony. He tends to emphasise public issues such as social justice, public discourse and community, over private issues such as identity, authenticity and fulfilment of individual goals. Rorty, also a liberal and also interested in the relationship between public and private, draws on thinkers like Nietzsche to claim that the private and public are subject to a division that cannot be closed. This is because he sees an inherent opposition between private interests and public needs. As such, Rorty argues that private (ethical) thinking must be set aside in order to participate in dialogue about public issues.

Moral reasoning for Habermas is fundamentally communicative and public, grounding its own standards and procedures in the collective agreement of the community. Private conceptions of the good do not have to be entirely sacrificed to the wider interest of the people, as it is a communicative practice. Habermas draws upon Kant’s negative liberal right, for, in giving up some of our individual freedom in a collective agreement, we avoid doing violence to others and therefore ensure that everyone has some measure of freedom. Whilst Habermas agrees with Kant’s call for a civil society based on reason, he posits reason against the Kantian definition as communicative, historical and rooted in social realities. In this way, he hopes to avoid having to say that reason is a priori transcendental.

For each function of practical reason, a sense of ‘should’ is involved in making claims. In the pragmatic sense, one ‘should’ do something in a given set of circumstances, for example, I should take my bicycle to be fixed if it is in need of repair. In the ethical sense, one ‘ought’ to do something, where there is room to question whether the ‘ought’ should be fulfilled, for example, I ought to make it up with my Aunt. In the moral sense, one ‘must’ do something, where there is no room for questioning whether one may or may not do it, for example, one must treat every person as his or her equal. Habermas distinguishes between the moral and the ethical thus: ‘in the first case, what is being asked is whether a maxim is good for me, or appropriate in the given situation, and in the second, whether I can will that a maxim should be followed by everyone as a general law’ (Ibid., 7).

In moving between the ethical and the moral, the identity of the individual is overcome by an orientation toward what is in the wider interests of the community/society/collective. Authenticity too is left behind as it is dealt with solely on ethical concerns, not moral ones. In fact, the only time we may live by our individual maxims is if ‘my identity and my life project reflected a universally valid form of life’ thus ‘what from my perspective would be equally good for all [would] in fact be equally in the interest of all’ (Ibid., 8). The complexity demands compromise in order that private interests are not unreasonably subordinated to collective will: herein lies the importance of public institutions based on the spirit of communicative reasoning. Communicative action is therefore the unifying force that keeps the ethical, moral and pragmatic aspects of practical reason together.

Does Habermas give enough weight to the force of aesthetic feeling – as well as practical reason – on the part of the individual? Could such a non-rational way of living be compatible with his project? Rorty, following Nietzsche, argues for a poeticised and stylised private sphere whilst claiming that the ethical and moral aspects of practical reason are incommensurable. He argues that his ‘poeticised culture is one which has given up the attempt to unite one’s private ways of dealing with one’s finitude and one’s sense of obligation to other human beings’ (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, 68). If we give up on a point of mediation, what do we stand to lose?

Rorty argues that our identities, beliefs and institutions are a matter of historical contingency; that is not to say that we cannot commit to individual or social projects with any less passion than when we laboured under the spell of metaphysics. Instead, we commit to such projects because of a common belief in enlarging the conditions in which human beings live, to make things less cruel. In removing reason and philosophy from public discourse and moral consensus, and replacing these with ‘a historical narrative about the rise of liberal institutions and customs’ (Ibid.), Rorty gives up on the notion of universal validity. This is in sharp contrast to Habermas, who maintains that universal consensus (and validity) can be achieved through communicative action. Nonetheless, it is Habermas’s particular deployment of universal reason that is problematic here, for, though he acknowledge that concepts like community and identity are historically contingent, he nonetheless wants to claim transcendence for reason, even though that transcendence has been brought about by contingent communicative action.

Against Habermas, Rorty proposes that solidarity is the basic unit of our social engagement, and, further, that this does not always rely on rational justification nor completely submitting to social institutions. Art and literature, for instance, can awaken the same sense of obligation and responsibility towards others. Rorty argues in this way to support his claim that reason is just another vocabulary, with no more or less priority than the other vocabularies in our toolbox. Does Rorty minimise the potential for private ethical considerations to impact on public moral concerns by drawing too sharp a distinction between public and private? One is left with the image of practical reason producing a schizophrenic citizen who cannot always make the right call when laying down his individual projects out of obligation to a wider cause. Compared with Habermas, who attempts to link the ethical with the moral by showing how it plays a role in communicative action, Rorty’s position seems less worked out and, paradoxically, reliant upon the political theorism of Habermas in order to save the idea of a fully functioning liberal society. Where would we be without the social institutions and rationality that binds their maxims? Nonetheless, Rorty does seem to be right in point out that reason is only one of the ways in which we can engage in the politicised public sphere, whilst Habermas’s account leaves little or no room at all for aesthetic self-determination.