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29.2.04

Habermas On Birth Control

Matthew Yglesias has a post up in praise of sex and describing birth control as a rational risk-reduction plan for people who want to have some. The conservative response is often that risk reduction is all fine and dandy, but the available birth control is still too risky. But I wonder whether conservatives might want sex to remain risky. It got me thinking about how Habermas (oh no! groans the audience, more Habermas!) might think about conservative opposition to birth control.

It seems potentially fruitful to think of opposition to birth control as a response to modernity. Habermas says that there are basically two types of action: communicative and strategic. Strategic action is action oriented toward achieving a goal. Communicative action is action oriented toward reaching a shared understanding. For example, if I write a post arguing for gay marriage, using logical arguments and linking my case into our American ideals, I'm engaging in communicative action, proposing and defending a proposition that I think is worth of being accepted as our shared understanding of the issue. If, however, I engage in name-calling and emotional blackmail in order to get you to acquiesce to my stance on gay marriage, I would be engaging in strategic action. Rather than respecting my readers as subjects capable of making rational agreements, I treat them as things in the objectiv world to be manipulated for my ends (much as I might use Pavlovian conditioning to train my dog). This is not to cast aspersions on all strategic action -- as we'll see, there are contexts designed for it, and if nothing else it may be necessary in our imperfect world -- its merely to illustrate the relation of the actor to others in each type of action.

Communicative action is rooted in a shared set of beliefs -- what Habermas calls the lifeworld. Much of the lifeworld is accepted out of habit, due to socialization or not thinking to question certain things. Communicative action works backward from a proposed idea to the shared lifeworld of the people involved, justifying it by showing how it arises out of claims they agree are valid by inferential processes they agree are valid. If agreement is achieved, this new idea becomes part of their shared lifeworld, a part accepted due to reason rather than habit.

Modernity, according to Habermas, is a breakdown in this naively shared part of the lifeworld. People question tradition. Lifeworlds have to be consciously built up through communicative action.

Communicative action can be hard work, especially when people's shared lifeworlds are small. So modern society has developed "media-steered subsystems" which allow people to act strategically in contexts defined so that a "steering medium" channels that strategic action in socially useful ways. The two important subsystems in existence today are the market economy, steered by money, and bureaucracy, steered by authority.*

There is no subsystem for sex. Sexual morality requires communicative agreement. Given the breakdown of the naively given lifeworld, the right answers can no longer simply be drawn from tradition. Some conservatives, I think, have lost hope that a communicative agreement about the morality of non-procreative and extramarital sex can be reached due to the fragmenting of lifeworlds (or at least, they've lost hope that the agreement that would be reached in the absense of a shared Judeo-Christian lifeworld would condemn the "right" behaviors). In part this discouragement may arise from a recognition that their justfications don't reach deeper than "that's the way it's always been" or "because the Bible says so," and thus they are unable to persuade those who don't share those assumptions. It may also arise from a pessimistic view of the spread of relativism. Extreme relativism can come off as a refusal to engage in communicative action, a rejection of the idea that an agreement on moral issues (or on factual ones) is either possible or desirable.

This loss of communicative action leaves only strategic action. To get people to behave, they have to appeal to the strategic utility of chastity, rather than to an agreement about its rightness. This is where the riskiness of sex comes into play. If kids won't accept that sex is wrong, perhaps they'll keep it in their pants out of fear of contracting STDs or of starting an unwanted pregnancy. Effective and available birth control reduces the usefulness of this strategic motive, allowing people to have sex while remaining healthy.

This strategic motive for chastity is promoted in two ways. Well, three, but I won't go into the straightforward option of passing a law against non-procreative sex and throwing violators in jail. One is through abstinence-focused sex education. Conservative educators remove the possibility of risk reduction through birth control by shaping kids' perceptions of the context in which they engage in sex, promoting -- through skewed emphasis or sometimes outright falsehoods -- an interpretation of the action context in which chastity is obviously prudent. This tactic does, of course, rely on communicative action -- you have to get the kids to agree that condoms don't work. But it's communicative action as a means to a strategic end. (Habermas argues that nearly all strategic action between people is parasitic on communicative action.**)

The other way to create a strategic motive for chastity is to reduce access to birth control. This can be done in a mild fashion, for example by opposing programs that hand out condoms. Some would like to take the extreme step of banning the manufacture, sale, or distribution of birth control (Edward Winkleman points to the (probably hyperbolic) view of one lawyer that the Federal Marriage Amendment may be designed to subtly undermine the Supreme Court decision that struck down bans on birth control).

*Adam Smith captured this idea in the case of the market with his comment that "Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

**This brings up a point that's somewhat tangential, but potentially relevant to my dissertation. The relation of the actual world to the agreement achieved through communicative action is weakly theorized by Habermas. It's true that believing in something can be greatly efficacious -- just because it's socially constructed doesn't mean it's not real. But there are things that are real beyond the agreement, and they can come back to hurt you, or at least confuse you, if they're too far out of whack with the agreement. Habermas admits a form of world-connection in describing how one justifies subjective claims -- i.e., claims to sincerely describe your inner world. He says that unlike objective claims (about facts) and intersubjective claims (about norms), which can be justified through giving reasons, subjective claims can only be justified by demonstrating consistency in your actions. This claim is too strong with regard to subjective claims -- you can offer reasons for believing in your sincerity -- but it is an option, and validtion by demonstration extends to objective claims as well. Perhaps Habermas's view of facts is influenced by his focus on and interest in norms, which have an inverse relationship to reality -- if the facts that you believe turn out not to agree with how the world is, you have to change what facts you believe. But if the norms you believe in disagree with how the world is, you change the world to conform to your norms (e.g., if you believe murder is wrong, then see someone being murdered, you would want to stop the act of murder, not reconsider your belief that murder is wrong in light of the fact that some people go ahead and murder anyway).

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