My critique of Habermas on rationality

I’m thrilled that the European Journal of Political Theory has accepted my constructive critique of the great German philosopher and social theorist, Jürgen Habermas. The final paper is now online.

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I challenge Habermas’s caricatures of means-ends rationality (the ability to choose good means to ends), and argue that properly understood, it changes how we think of communicative rationality, his mind-blowingly important idea about the rationality of genuine communication.

Habermas never explains what he means when he says that means-ends rationality is ‘egocentric’, and none of five plausible understandings of egocentrism fit the claim that means-ends rationality is egocentric.

I suggest that sincerity and autonomy, not non-egocentrism, are the key distinguishing features of communicative rationality.

Communicative rationality thus overlaps with means-ends rationality – completely against what Habermas and most of his followers say.

Moreover, Habermas and his followers actually need means-ends rationality. I exemplify this by showing the use of means-ends rationality in deliberative democracy, to work out how to implement it, and even in Habermas’s ‘discourse ethics’, using the example of gay marriage.

My article thus challenges decades of what Habermas and critical theorists have written on means-ends and communicative rationality.

But I stay broadly true to – and hopefully improve – Habermas’s account of rationality.

The article was a very long time in the making. I started thinking about this in about 2006, and drafted a very different version of this paper in 2011. If I remember rightly, it got rejected by 5 or 6 journals without a single reviewer from those journals saying that the article should be accepted! Then I significantly rewrote it, and went back up the journal chain to a high-ranking journal, where an angry reviewer angrily told me that I needed to read Uwe Steinhoff’s angry book about Habermas.  😛

I submitted another version to the European Journal of Political Theory, where I got a big ‘revise and resubmit’ (i.e. I had to make certain changes, then the revised article would be sent back to the reviewers to see if they thought it was now good enough). It took me two years to find the time to address this, and even then I still needed a few months to work out what to do. Thanks to my perceptive referees, the final version is much better at justifying my position and explaining why it matters.

So, I’ve amassed many debts over this time, not only to the people I specifically acknowledge in the article, but also to my anonymous referees – and not just the excellent ones chosen by the European Journal of Political Theory, but also the anonymous referees of previous versions of the paper who helped me gradually get this paper into publishable shape.

Corruption of and by democracy

My article “Cognitive Corruption and Deliberative Democracy” has now been published in the journal Social Philosophy and Policy, in an issue dedicated to corruption.

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the first thing to defend deliberative democracy with the argument that citizens “take off their party hats”. In other words, if we have a random cross-section of (say) 200 or so citizens, debating the pros and cons of a policy, they are more likely to try to argue the merits of the case, rather than being driven by what their party would like, what would put opposing parties in a difficult position, and so on.

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Picture (unrelated): Sándor Molnár, “Dragon Slayer” (1966), in the Hungarian National Gallery (from my recent trip to Budapest)

When he read this paper, Mike Munger – a classical liberal/libertarian opposed to deliberative democracy – said “I don’t like this paper, because it makes me think positively about deliberative democracy”. Praise indeed!

The article also redefines corruption, not as “misuse of public office for private gain”, the standard definition, but “neglect of public duty for non-public gain” – a broader idea which also includes many historical understandings which the standard definition excludes. (“Office” comes from the Latin officium, meaning duty.)

The article is partly historical, looking at ideas of what I call “cognitive corruption” (corruption of judgement) in the work of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill. They have some really juicy insights.

 

A key idea is that many commitments – including commitments to parties – can corrupt our impartiality. Parties are probably inevitable in modern democracies, at least for the time being, but in some respects they seriously weaken democracy and rationality.

Here’s eight key ideas from the paper:

1) cognitive corruption—the corruption of judgment;
2) auto-corruption, and impartiality potentially being corrupted by having a
stake in something;
3) corruption not as misuse of public office for private gain, but neglect of public
duty for non-public gain;
4) corruption for party gain;
5) a system of party corruption;
6) the arbitrariness of party policy positions, with decisions often made on inauthentic
grounds rather than being driven by the force of the better argument;
7) deliberative democracy as a non-hierarchical method of making decisions
where citizens remove their party hats; and
8) the importance of getting the right dispositions, not just the right institutions/
procedures.

The paper is in the Winter 2018 issue of Social Philosophy and Policy, but was only published recently.