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18.2.04

A Kantian View Of Habermas

Longtime readers may recall that I take a generally utilitarian perspective on ethical issues. A recent Crooked Timber post by Jon Mandle has me wondering how compatible utilitarianism is with my social-theoretic interest in Jürgen Habermas's sociology and the feminist critique of objectivity. More precisely, it seems that Habermas and the critique of objectivity fit nicely with a Kantian view of ethics. The nugget of Mandle's explanation of Kant's ethics -- the most comprehensible I've encountered, though I haven't been looking very hard -- is this:

... Agents give themselves ends. That means they take one state of affairs to be better than another and commit themselves to bringing it about, i.e., they will an end. When they do this rationally and reasonably, those states of affairs become valuable.

... So, when is a maxim (and therefore its action) rational? Suppose we thought that a maxim needed to have features A, B, and C in order to be rational. This would imply that the end specified by a maxim that has those features ? the goal of the rational action ? would be objectively valuable. If so, this would also imply that the end that a rational maxim specifies, and the reason for that end, must be such that everyone could act on them as well. If it were impossible for everyone to act on that maxim, it couldn?t specify an objectively valuable end. That means, in addition to properties A, B, and C, a rational maxim also has property U ? universalizability. The maxim must be such that everyone could act on it without undermining the attainment of the end it specifies.

Now what are A, B, and C? How do we distinguish the rational maxims from the unreasonable and irrational ones? The obvious answer would be that the rational maxims are the ones that aim at the states of affairs that are objectively good and valuable. Utilitarianism, as we have seen, specifies that we aim at the state of affairs that maximizes utility since that is what is objectively valuable. But ? and here is the key ? Kant denies that there is any common end that all rational actions aim at. More precisely: the only way to specify what is in common among all rational ends is to invoke moral vocabulary. In other words, there is no pre-moral good at which all moral actions aim. So, there is no A, B, or C. All that we have left to distinguish the rational maxims is that they have property U ? we can adopt them and act on them, while at the same time willing that everyone adopt and act on them, as well, without those two acts of willing interfering with one another.


The description of the conditions of a rational maxim resemble Habermas's description of the conditions of rational discourse. Rationality is not based on adherence to some objective calculus of logic. Rather, it's rooted in the giving of reasons. In Habermas's framework, a statement is rational if the person saying it is willing to back it up (or at least try) with regard to any of three lines of challenge -- the objective ("you're misrepresenting the world"), the intersubjective ("you have no right to say that"), or the subjective ("that's not what you really think"). The point of this willingness-to-back-up is that rational claims are made not in isolation, but to a hearer, with the expectation that the hearer can be convinced to accept them. Similarly, Mandle explains the criterion of an ethical maxim according to Kant as being based in the agent's willingness to recommend it as a course of action to anyone else. Habermas's conception is richer, as he delves into the question of how such agreement can be brought about through digging back to prior agreements and the construction of shared interpretations of the world, whereas for Kant it's merely the willingness and ability to universalize (Mandle refutes the view that Kantian ethics require you to actually try to universalize your maxims).

This form of rationality is apparent as well in the feminist critique of objectivity (I'm here thinking mostly of Donna Harraway's essay on "The science question in feminism") -- except that here it's called responsibility. The first element of the feminist critique is to argue that objectivity as classically understood is impossible because of how our perceptual apparatus is socially constructed. The second is to point to the consequences of the objective "god trick" -- by declaring objectivity, the scientist absolves himself of responsibility for his theory because "that's just the way things are." Rather, Harraway and others argue, we should take responsibility for our claims by situating them in our own positionality and experience. We stand behind it and offer our own experience as a reason for accepting it.

It may be possible to construct a responsibility-based utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill himself claimed that the principle of utility was not an analytic logical truth, but an unproveable axiom of the type that any ethical system must be built on. His famously failed attempt to show that utility was the only desirable thing was, seen through a responsibility-rationality lens, his shot at offering reasons why he, and anyone, would stand behind his claim.

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