Hegel’s Critique of Kant’s Moral Theory and Habermas’ Discourse Ethics

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Rights remain with the author, James Gordon Finlayson as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Hegel’s Critique of Kant’s Moral Theory and Habermas’ Discourse Ethics.

by James Gordon Finlayson

And because we are born with the capacity to persuade

each other...not only have we escaped the life of beasts

but by coming together have founded cities, and made laws

and there is scarcely any institution devised by us which

speech has not helped us to establish.


The disjunction ‘Kant or Hegel’ captures a debate which in one form or another has preoccupied normative moral and political philosophy for most of the last two centuries.1 On the one hand, Kant and his followers defend a version of the moral standpoint, that consists in formal and universally valid principles, which have their basis in rationality. On the other, Hegel and his followers claim that formally valid moral principles are themselves historically and socially situated; that they only accrue validity within a set of distinctively ‘modern’ cultural practices and political institutions, which are the product of an historical evolution, and are not in need of any further justification.2 Discourse Ethics, devised in the eighties by Jürgen Habermas in conjunction with K-O Apel3 represents arguably the most explicit and thoroughgoing attempt to overcome this disjunction and to define and defend a position in normative ethics between Kant and Hegel. Habermas openly acknowledges that discourse ethics, whilst it remains a recognisably Kantian moral theory, pays heed to Hegel’s critique of Kant on certain points. (MCC 201) Roughly speaking, Habermas immunises the moral standpoint against Hegel’s critique by weakening Kant’s conception of normative moral theory, or, in Habermas’ eyes, liberating Kant’s moral theory from its metaphysical presuppositions. To this end, unlike Kant’s ethics, discourse ethics does not require us to consider ourselves, both from the empirical standpoint, as finite, rational beings in the everyday world of appearances, and from the transcendental standpoint, as merely rational beings who are members of some notional “supersensible” community. In other words, Habermas jettisons the “two-worlds” theory that underpins Kant’s metaphysical view of freedom as a spontaneous cause that originates outside spatio-temporal ‘appearances’.

Consequently discourse ethics no longer need burden practical reason with the task Kant sets it of establishing the “reality” of freedom, a reality which speculative reason could only demonstrate was theoretically possible.4 Practical reason no longer makes good this deficit of theoretical reason. Thus Habermas rejects not just Kant’s questionable attempts to ‘deduce’ the reality of the moral law or to establish it as a “fact of reason”, he rejects the underlying assumptions - Kant’s two-worlds thesis and metaphysics of freedom - that required the reality of the moral law to be demonstrated in the first place. Far from endorsing the primacy of practical reason, Habermas argues that theoretical and practical are isometric. They are different voices of one and the same reason.

The comparatively modest aim of discourse ethics, then, is to defend the moral standpoint by explicating and clarifying already existing moral intuitions. This approach reveals the moral standpoint to have a much more restrictive role than that which Kant assigned to it. For Habermas, it merely regulates moral conflicts by providing a procedure through which problematised moral norms can be justified; the moral standpoint no longer even claims to provide determinate answers to the question of practical reason, posed by Kant, “what ought I to do?”.5

In spite of these alterations I shall argue that, with certain minor modifications, Hegel’s criticism of the formalism of Kant’s moral standpoint still applies to discourse ethics. I shall for the most part ignore the question of the correctness of Habermas’ interpretation of Kant and Hegel and focus only on those objections to discourse ethics that are prefigured by Hegel’s criticisms of Kant. Section One, which deals with terminological and expository questions has three parts: (1.1) puts discourse ethics in the context of Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action; (1.2) provides a conspectus of the principles and the premises of discourse ethics; and (1.3) provides a brief comparison between the principles of discourse ethics and Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, the ‘Formula of the Universal Law’. Section Two also has three parts; (2.1) reviews two of Hegel’s objections and shows that they apply neither Kant’s nor to Habermas’ account of the moral standpoint; (2.2) reconstructs a more pertinent criticism of the will as a tester of maxims that Hegel advances in the Philosophy of Right:; (2.3) shows how this criticism applies to discourse ethics.

1.1 The Transcendental Pragmatic Presuppositions of Discourse Ethics

The project of discourse ethics, as conceived by Habermas, grows out of his major work on social theory The Theory of Communicative Action. The Theory of Communicative Action is an attempt to explain “the ideas of freedom and reconciliation”, by removing them from the “spell of Hegelian thought.” (TKH II, 9) It aims to salvage the insights of Hegel’s social theory from his metaphysics, by rationally reconstructing “a potential for reason encapsulated in the very forms of social reproduction.” This rational potential resides in communicative action. Communicative action is characterised by its aim of Verständigung, or reaching agreement. It is orientated towards reaching agreement because it is essentially linguistically mediated. 6 Habermas assumes as a fact of language that, “Verständigung inhabits human speech as its telos”. (TKH I 387).

In the picture of language that Habermas paints, agreement has two dimensions: the dimension of the propositional content of utterances, i.e., the plane of the objects and experiences about which subjects communicate and the performative dimension of utterances, i.e., the plane of intersubjectivity, on which subjects attempt to reach understanding with one another. Habermas conceives the performative dimension of speech as follows: it is a feature of every speech act that it implicitly raise three different claims to validity, with respect to the truth of the proposition, the rightness of the utterance, and the truthfulness of the speaker.7Habermas contends that the interpreter of an utterance is always in principle free to take up a “yes” or “no” stance to the validity claims raised by it, and thus to accept or reject it. Concomitantly, every utterance carries with it the “guarantee” that the speaker could, if asked, redeem the validity claims it raises by providing the sufficient grounds of its truth or rightness. Just as speakers always implicitly raise validity claims to the truth and rightness of their utterances, so the addressees of their utterances cannot but assume that such claims have been raised.

Habermas’ thesis on the validity basis of meaning is designed to complement truth-conditional semantics, according to which I understand the meaning of a proposition p, when I know what would count as the conditions under which p, would be true. Habermas extends what truth conditional semantics holds to be the single validity dimension of truth to the performative dimension of reaching agreement in general, which includes rightness and truthfulness. On his view I understand the meaning of a speech act , when I know what would make it acceptable, i.e. when I know the conditions under which the hearer could affirm with a “yes” the validity claim it raises. Knowledge of the acceptability conditions of a speech act, is not a priori. It is empirical; it can be anticipated but not be known in advance of the actual acceptance of my utterance by my interlocutor. Consequently, unlike Humpty Dumpty, I do not enjoy the privilege of being able to fix the meaning of my utterances. The establishing of meaning devolves upon the performative dimension of speech and the process of reaching understanding.

Most of the time the implicit “guarantee” offered by the speaker for her utterance is accepted by the hearer and suffices to co-ordinate their interactions. This represents the everyday level of communicative action. To take a simple example, if I refrain from smoking in your office because you have threatened me with a fire extinguisher if I do not, the success of your action is purely strategic and depends on my fear of your threat and not on my acceptance of the legitimacy of your demand. But, say you ask me not to smoke, and I comply with your request, because I accept it as reasonable, this would be an example of communicative action or action oriented towards reaching agreement.

On occasions, however, a validity claim of an utterance will appear problematic to the hearer and he will question its truth, or, as in the above example, its rightness. This challenge transposes the participants from the “context of action” to the “context of discourse”, a higher plane of communication in which the speaker will attempt to justify the disputed validity claim by adducing grounds or reasons for its rightness (or truth). “Discourse”, in this sense, is not a synonym for language or speech. “Discourse” is nothing else than the attempt in speech to reach a rationally motivated consensus over disputed validity claims.8A rationally motivated consensus is the consensus that would be reached by participants, under ideal conditions, if they argued long enough and well-enough, and were constrained only by the unforced force of the better argument. Discourses are a “reflective form of agreement-oriented action that, so to speak, sit on top of the latter” that is, they form a higher plane of communicative action whit the aim of renewing or replacing a problematised consensus. To continue our example: say, I demur at your demand, for you yourself smoke. I ask you for the reasons behind your request. You may reply that you have recently given up smoking and do not wish to be tempted back into the habit once broken. At this point I might accept your reasons, and satisfy the acceptability conditions of your utterance by putting my cigarettes away. By Habermas lights we have, in this simple interaction, reached a discursive consensus. Habermas is, of course alive to the objection that the semantics of imperatives or requests is different to that of assertoric sentences. Habermas’ point is that, despite the differences, in neither case is the meaning of the utterance cannot be ferreted out from the propositional content of the sentence. To understand the meaning even of a simple assertoric sentence we need to know not just what would count as the fulfilment of its truth conditions, we need also to know why this is so; we need, that is, to be able to recognise the reasons on the basis of which a speaker can justifiably claim something to be true.

It is not my aim here to analyse the discourse theory of truth, nor even to criticise it. I just want to show that, and roughly speaking why, Habermas claims that to understand the meaning of any true statement I must be able to recognise the reasons which would ‘redeem’ the validity claim that its truth condition was fulfilled. For it is this aspect of his theory of truth that forms a bridge to his ‘weak’ ethical cognitivism. Habermas is not a ‘strong’ cognitivist, insofar as he does not think that normative statements are capable of being true or false, in the same way that descriptive statements are. However he does claim that validity claims to normative rightness are redeemed by good reasons in discourse, in just the same way that validity claims to truth are. Habermas weakens his cognitivism to the claim that “for normative statements a claim to validity is only analogous to a truth claim.” (MCC 76, 68 & 56) Habermas thus a salvages the cognitivist intuition, that normative statements can be wrong or right, but not at the price of any kind of moral realism.

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