Saturday 10 May 2014

Excerpts from Communicative Ethics

 ~By Jurgen Habermas

With the devaluation of the epistemic authority of the God’s eye view, moral commands lose their religious as well as their metaphysical foundation. This development also has implications for discourse ethics; it can neither defend the full moral contents of religious intuitions  nor can it represent the validity of moral norms in realist terms.

The fact that moral practice is no longer tied to the individual’s expectation of salvation and an exemplary conduct of life through the person of a redemptive God and the divine plan for salvation has two unwelcome consequences. On the one hand, moral knowledge becomes detached from moral motivation, and on the other, the concept of morally right action becomes differentiated from the conception of a good or godly life.
Discourse ethics correlates ethical and moral questions with different forms of argumentation, namely, with discourses of self-clarification and discourses of normative justification (and application), respectively. But it does not thereby reduce morality to equal treatment; rather, it takes account of both the aspects of justice and that of solidarity. A discursive agreement depends simultaneously on the nonsubstitutable “yes” or “no” responses of each individual and on overcoming the egocentric perspective, something that all participants are constrained to do by an argumentative practice designed to produce agreement of an epistemic kind. If the pragmatic features of discourse make possible an insightful process of opinion- and will-formation that guarantees both of these conditions, then the rationally motivated “yes” or “no” responses can take the interests of each individual into consideration without breaking the prior social bond that joins all those who are oriented toward reaching understanding in a transsubjective attitude.

However, uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a motivational deficit. Because there is no profane substitute for the hope of personal salvation, we lose the strongest motive for obeying moral commands. Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse. There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action. Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that “plagues” us when we act against our better judgment. But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail.

With the loss of its foundation in the religious promise of salvation, the meaning of normative obligation also changes. The differentiation between strict duties and less binding values, between what is morally right and what is ethically worth striving for, already sharpens moral validity into a normativity to which impartial judgment alone is adequate. The shift in perspective from God to human beings has a further consequence. “Validity” now signifies that moral norms could win the agreement of all concerned, on the condition that they jointly examine in practical discourse whether a corresponding practice is in the equal interest of all. This agreement expresses two things: the fallible reason of deliberating subjects who convince one another that a hypothetically introduced norm is worthy of being recognized, and the freedom of legislating subjects who understand themselves as the authors of the norms to which they subject themselves as addressees. The mode of validity of moral norms now bears the traces both of the fallibility of the discovering mind and of the creativity of the constructing mind.

The problem of in which sense moral judgments and attitudes can claim validity reveals another aspect when we reflect on the essentialist statements through which moral commands were previously justified in a metaphysical fashion as elements of a rationally ordered world. As long as the cognitive content of morality could be expressed in assertoric statements, moral judgments could be viewed as true or false. But if moral realism can no longer be defended by appealing to a creationist metaphysics and to natural law (or their surrogates), the validity of moral statements can no longer be assimilated to the truth of assertoric statements. The latter state how things are in the world; the former state what we should do.

If one assumes that, in general, sentences can be valid only in the sense of being “true” or “false” and further that “truth” is to be understood as correspondence between sentences and facts, then every validity claim that is raised for a nondescriptive sentence necessarily appears problematic. In fact, modern moral scepticism is based on the thesis that normative statements cannot be true or false, and hence cannot be justified, because there is no moral order, no such things as moral objects or facts. On this received account, the concept of the world as the totality of facts is connected with a correspondence notion of truth and a semantic conception of justification. I will very briefly discuss these questionable premises in reverse order.
A sentence or proposition is justified on the semantic conception if it can be derived from basic sentences according to valid rules of inference, where a class of basic sentences is distinguished by specific (logical, epistemological, or psychological) criteria. But the foundationalist assumption that there exists such a class of basic sentences whose truth is immediately accessible to perception or to intuition has not withstood linguistic arguments for the holistic character of language and interpretation: every justification must at least proceed from a pre-understood context or background understanding. This failure of foundationalism recommends a pragmatic conception of justification as a public practice in which criticizable validity claims can be defended with good reasons. Of course, the criteria of rationality that determine which reasons count as good reasons can themselves be made a matter for discussion. Hence procedural characteristics of the process of argumentation itself must ultimately bear the burden of explaining why results achieved in a procedurally correct manner enjoy the presumption of validity. For example, the communicative structure of rational discourse can ensure that all relevant contributions are heard and that the unforced force of the better argument alone determines the “yes” or “no” responses of the participants.

The pragmatic conception of justification opens the way for an epistemic concept of truth that overcomes the well-known problems with the correspondence theory. The truth predicate refers to the language game of justification, that is, to the public redemption of validity claims. On the other hand, truth cannot be identified with justifiability or warranted assertability. The “cautionary” use of the truth predicate — regardless of how well “p” is justified, it still may not be true — highlights the difference in meaning between “truth” as an irreducible property of statements and “rational acceptability” as a context-dependent property of utterances. This difference can be understood within the horizon of possible justifications in terms of the distinction between “justified in our context” and “justified in every context.” This difference can be cashed out in turn through a weak idealization of our processes of argumentation, understood as capable of being extended indefinitely over time. When we assert “p” and thereby claim truth for “p” we accept the obligation to defend “p” in argumentation — in full awareness of its fallibility — against all future objections.
In the present context I am less interested in the complex relation between truth and justification than in the possibility of conceiving truth, purified of all connotations of correspondence, as a special case of validity, where this general concept of validity is introduced in connection with the discursive redemption of validity claims. In this way we open up a conceptual space in which the concept of normative, and in particular moral, validity can be situated. The rightness of moral norms (or of general normative statements) and of particular normative injunctions based on them can then be understood as analogous to the truth of descriptive statements. What unites these two concepts of validity is the procedure of discursively redeeming the corresponding validity claims. What separates them is the fact that they refer, respectively, to the social and the objective worlds.

The social world, as the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relations, is accessible only from the participant’s perspective; it is intrinsically historical and hence has, if you will, an ontological constitution different from that of the objective world which can be described from the observer’s perspective. The social world is inextricably interwoven with the intentions and beliefs, the practices and languages of its members. This holds in a similar way for descriptions of the objective world but not for this world itself. Hence the discursive redemption of truth claims has a different meaning from that of moral validity claims: in the former case, discursive agreement signifies that the truth conditions of an assertoric proposition, interpreted in terms of assertability conditions, are fulfilled; in the latter case, discursive agreement justifies the claim that a norm is worthy of recognition and thereby itself contributes to the fulfillment of its conditions of validity. Whereas rational acceptability merely points to the truth of assertoric propositions, it makes a constructive contribution to the validity of moral norms. The moments of construction and discovery are interwoven in moral insight differently than they are in theoretical knowledge.

What is not at our disposal here is the moral point of view that imposes itself upon us, not an objective moral order assumed to exist independently of our descriptions. It is not the social world as such that is not at our disposal but the structure and procedure of a process of argumentation that facilitates both the production and the discovery of the norms of well-ordered interpersonal relations.

The constructivist meaning of moral judgments, understood on the model of self-legislation, must not be forgotten; but it must not obliterate the epistemic meaning of moral justifications either.

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