Rawls and Habermas: Reason, Pluralism, and the Claims of Political Philosophy

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Rawls Habermas

Hedrick offers a careful analysis of Habermas's political philosophy and does a superb job of developing immanently some of the tensions and difficulties in Rawls's evolving account of constructivism. The result is a lively engagement with the ideas of these two important theorists and one that is sure to invite a response, especially from those who are more sympathetic to Rawls's political constructivism than Habermas's reconstructive project.

But more than that, it celebrates the power of political philosophy. Hedrick defends political philosophy as a thoroughly normative enterprise in search of big answers to big questions. This refreshing embrace of the meta-narrative is tempered by a sensitive understanding of some of the dangers facing grand theory building in an age of pluralism.

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This legal identity is constituted by a core of rights that secure the status and private autonomy of individuals such that they can not only live their individual lives but also genuinely deliberate on equal footing, free from coercion, and so forth about the terms of shared life together. Yet, these individual rights cannot be effective unless they presuppose other rights to participation and basic material provision—rights that secure public autonomy.

The claim is that the legal manifestations of private and public autonomy, often expressed in the idioms of human rights and popular sovereignty, mutually presuppose one another. What results is an abstract system of rights made up of five core types. What are these right types? First, in order to discursively engage one another people need to be reasonably secure.

Therefore, rights that guarantee the status of individual persons are required. Three types of rights jointly achieve such protection: i. These rights secure the individual private autonomy prioritized by classical liberalism. But any community engaged in specifically democratic self-determination must also safeguard the ability to actively use the freedom afforded by this secure status to deliberate, disagree, and come to mutual understandings in concert with others.

John Rawls

If individual rights are to be effectively used iv. These rights secure the collective public autonomy prioritized by classical republicanism. They enable discourses in the public sphere as well as equal access to channels of political say and influence; they enable democratic popular sovereignty by making sure everyone can participate on fair and equal terms, and that information, innovative ideas and arguments about how to structure common life are kept freely circulating and scrutinized. Lastly, these four right types are insufficient if basic needs are threatened or go unmet.

Formal guarantees of freedom and participation mean little if they amount to the freedom to starve.

Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

So, as a final step, Habermas proposes some measure of v. Democratic states have often done a poor job fully realizing these rights, but the claim is simply that these general right types are conceptually required if self-determination through law is to achieve the dual sense of legitimacy noted above. In this same spirit of clarification, it is also important to note that the abstract system only identifies certain right types , not some list of concrete rights. Communities have incredibly wide interpretive latitude when it comes to how these rights show up.

The expectation of a non-hierarchal harmonization of morality and legality may now seem less puzzling. Ideally, lawmaking discourses approximate L against the backdrop of an abstract system of rights inscribed in the political structures of a democratic community. This places some broad constraints on how deliberations unfold and the type of norms they can produce. Moreover, apart from these structural background constraints political discourses are also themselves unique.

The basic idea is that for any provisional policy conclusion there is an obligation to respond to objections stemming from more abstract aspects of an issue or levels of discourse; discursive processes cannot be arbitrarily limited.

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Any moral aspects need to be explicitly discussed, and they filter or check more particularistic issue-aspects and discourses Cf. BFN and the emendation at on whether to refer to the structured interplay as between discourses or aspects of a case.

The abstract system of rights and the process model mean that, within political deliberations about how to structure common life together, it will in principle always be possible for more abstract moral discourses to weakly check pragmatic and ethical-political discourses.

And, this checking will be endogenous to structures of democratic self-determination. So far the focus has been on the relation between law and democracy without much reference to the public sphere. However, it is hard to overstate the importance Habermas places on democratic deliberation rooted in the public sphere. None of the formal or structural mechanisms mentioned so far guarantee that public political discourses or laws will be specified in a given way.

There is assurance neither that the abstract system of rights or L will be meaningfully realized, nor that the interplay of various types of concerns in political discourses will unfold along the process model. Everything hangs on the quality and institutional structuring of deliberation in the public sphere. Indeed, the primary reason why democracy confers legitimacy upon legislative outcomes is that it is rooted in a model of distinctly procedural popular sovereignty that simultaneously expresses the will of the community and that leads to more rational outcomes.

He divides the political public sphere into informal and formal parts. The informal public sphere includes all the various voluntary associations of civil society: religious and charitable organizations, political associations, the media, and public interest advocacy groups of all varieties BFN In this sphere public political deliberation is free and unorganized. Through this open clash of views and arguments individuals and collectivities can both persuade and be persuaded, thereby contributing to the emergence of considered public opinions.

In contrast, the formal public sphere includes institutionalized forums of discourse and deliberation like congress, parliament, and the judiciary as well as more peripheral administrative and bureaucratic agencies associated with state structures. This sphere is supposed to be organized in such a way that it renders decisions reflecting the considered public opinions of the informal public sphere.

Formal institutionalized decision making bodies must be porous to results of the informal public sphere.

Habermas, Jürgen | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The informal public sphere is the key forum for generating a type of normative power that can integrate society through mutual understandings and solidarity rather than through money or administrative-bureaucratic power. Communicative power arises from jointly authored norm expectations that are cognitively grounded in the force of better reasons and motivationally grounded albeit weakly in mutual recognition and collective ethical discourses.

Moreover, because this mutual understanding was presumably reached through persuasive discourse where reasoned dissent was and remains a real possibility, norm acceptance can also motivate in a spirit of anti-paternalistic empowerment: parties recognize each other as accountable and responsible for their actions in accord with a norm until new counter-reasons are discovered. Yet, because the motivation accompanying cognitive insight is fragile and weak, communicative power must also be rooted in a community with a shared ethical-political identity and legitimate law so that motivational deficits can be met with supplemental resources of a shared life and law.

Communicative power can only arise if the informal public sphere has certain characteristics. First and foremost, it must be relatively free of distortions, coercion, and silencing social pressures so that communication can work as a filter for fostering more rational individual and collective will formation BFN Moreover, civil society must be animated by a political culture so that members actively participate in voluntary associations and public discourse about the terms of common life together BFN Normative power potentials cannot be generated if members largely retreat into private concerns or a society is internally segmented and riven with special interests Flynn ; Bohman and Rehg The political institutions of the formal public sphere are arranged so as to be porous to the inputs of the informal public sphere, to further refine and focus public opinion, and to make decisions.

If the state or other powerful actors reverse this flow by simply positing new laws or rules and either demanding compliance or inducing it in some other way, then this exercise of non-communicative administrative-bureaucratic power would be neither legitimate nor stable. Only communicative power has the legitimating force needed so that a community can both author and rationally abide by the law. Democratically generated law ensures normative power potentials flow in the right direction and that they are maintained when implemented by institutions of the administrative state. This account of procedural-democratic collective self-determination should not be confused with traditional national self-determination.

Insofar as we can speak about the will of a community it is an anonymous and subjectless public opinion emerging out of the discursive structures of communication themselves BFN , , , , In early writing Habermas claimed that as the rationality and pluralism of enlightenment ideals slowly took hold in modern societies the mythic explanations of religion would be less important. But, he slowly came to revise his view on religion in modern societies.

At present, the way he sees religion fitting into the public sphere of a liberal democracy is what is important. In liberal democracies, untrammeled populism is held in check by not only individual rights but also the very nature of public debate: citizens collectively self-determine through persuasion and rational argumentation. To do this amidst the pluralism of modernity, the laws they make must be grounded in public reasons accessible to all.

The question is what this means for religious citizens. There have been a variety of answers.

Public Reason and Bioethics

For instance, in Political Liberalism John Rawls held that liberal democratic citizens should ultimately only endorse policies that they can support on the basis of secular reasons. Habermas is sympathetic to the vision of liberal democracy animating this view of how religious citizens should act. Indeed, he criticizes thinkers like Wolterstorff who insist that religious citizens ought to be allowed to try to base coercive law on their own particularistic values and conception of the good.

But when it comes to the institutions of the formal public sphere concerning coercive lawmaking, justifications should only be based in reasons that all can accept. For present purposes, the most charitable reading is that Habermas assumes all democratic citizens have an obligation to adopt a thoroughly self-reflective attitude.

But, this also means non-religious citizens must move beyond a dogmatic secularist understanding wherein it is impossible for religious claims to have any cognitive value whatsoever. Indeed, given that some fundamental moral notions—such as equal human dignity—have been inextricably tied to the history of world religions, he claims it is not always clear where the boundaries of the religious and secular are.