File spoon-archives/habermas.archive/habermas_1997/habermas.9710, message 5

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 1997 00:58:46 -0800
Subject: HAB: Being exemplary in the neighborhood.II

I’m now willing to continue working with Habermas, relative to the
“...Employments...” essay. 


In episode I, Gary (now facing my text as another), sought to exhibit,
in Habermas’ words, “the clarification of one’s
self-understanding...[as] an *appropriative* form of understanding”(5),
through discursive reading. This is more than--and, ironically perhaps,
also less than--the clarification of *Gary’s* self understanding in
public, since the clarification of “my” self understanding involves
particulars of a life that very few others might care to tolerate
reviewing, except inasmuch as it may exemplify the clarification of
*one’s* self-understanding (or be entertaining--or, at best, appealing
in a literary sense). 

One’s self-understanding can advance in various ways, one of which is
discursive reading. But this is not a very common way to advance self
understanding, outside academia. Nonetheless, discursive reading can be
an important means of self formation and *especially* a good means of
self-reflection, particularly when it's applied to one’s own writing. 

So, Gary aspires to “be directly constructive for educational theory”
(HAB: On the difference... 10/7). “...I will show that an educational
interest in advancing the ‘autonomy of the will’ in *ethical*
truer to the historical reality of political deliberation than a Kantian
legislator...”(HAB: Is Kantian morality... 10/5). He wishes....

This effort began with a confused sense of the difference between
“ethical life” and “moral interaction” (9/22) that gained further
clarity thanks to postings in late September by Arto L., Steve C., Ken
M., Scott J., Michael S., Rob S., and Antti K.; and relative to a return
to reading Habermas, after four years (almost exactly, I realize) away
from his project. 

Over the years, I’ve been so influenced by Habermas’ project that I’m
prey to the “anxiety of influence” that Harold Bloom finds in “strong
poets,” but which can apply to any creative apprenticeship (not to
assert myself as a strong writer, in Bloom’s retrospective sense). In
thinking differently from Habermas, I’m coming from him, I feel, working
*with* him in my own way, thanks to his work and longstanding influence.
But, to a reader just entering into engagement with his project, my
critical disposition--which will get more overt below (and in future
postings)--could seem to tacitly recommend against an extended effort to
understand his project. 

In postings of the past month, I’ve posed questions I want to resolve
through continuing engagement with Habermas’ work, expansive questions
mostly that can’t have much merit for others maybe, apart from
expressing my own interest in discursive reading (questions I intend to
re-articulate at some later date of self rapproachment in this
electronic neighborhood). Some of my questions seem silly to me the day
after posting (so I’ll revise them, eventually, articulating differences
between proximal formulation and real interest, if you will). Often,
though, I’ve presumed a cogency of moral sense (September) that I don’t
seem to find tenable (early October), which undermines any pretense of
genuineness in asking about ethical-moral differences or asserting that
“the difference between ethical and moral understanding can be almost
endlessly generative” (10/7).

Rather, relative to the communitarian-universalism debate of the early
90s, I may be apparently siding with the communitarians, though in my
own way (i.e., outside of an overt occupation with that debate). But no;
I support Habermas’ endeavor to bridge both ethical-communitarian and
moral-universalist approaches, while  disputing the way he bridges them.
I don’t wish to deny there is an importance to “moral” sense (apart from
an ethical reading of things) that is *equal* to “ethical” sense, let
alone read Habermas as communitarians seem to tend to do (confusing
Habermas’ lineage in the Kantian tradition with a basically Kantian
intuition of “Reason”), against “universalism”. 

I think that one can witness in Habermas’ development a transformation
of ethical-moral understanding that reflects evolutionary processes of
differentiation and specialization--*differentiation* of ethics
(classically conceived) into modern kinds of understanding or epistemic
practices: educational, developmental (scientific), existential,
clinical, axiological (valuational), and discursive (i.e.,
“philosophical” in a formal sense of inquiry into problems traditionally
called “ethical” and/or “moral”, which differentiates itself in
practice, according with other kinds of understanding); and generalized
*specialization* of ethical/moral practices into pragmatic forms of
procedural problem solving (ethical mediation) and good governance
(ethical legislability, ethical adjudication, and ethical
administration). Morality, traditionally conceived, dissolves with me
into modern kinds of endeavors, modern kinds of problems, and conflicts
between religious and modern thinking.

The place of universalizability in all of this is most problematic for
me, granting that universalizability has an essential place, maybe even
an epochal place in democratic social evolution; but the locus of that
place, to my mind, is not practically “universalist” in any substantive
sense of striving to legislate universally or to institutionalize “moral
universals,” and I want to argue against such tendencies in Habermas’
work and in readings of Habermas. The pretext of universalistic
*practice* can be more fruitfully and appropriately understood as an
*ethical pragmatic* (which could be a name for the “moral” view I will
advocate below and in the near future) stance toward consequential Acts
(especially intergenerational ones) that can always be revised or
halted. But, by simply asserting this, I don’t expect to be making
plausible sense yet.

In any case, this isn’t the kind of way in which Habermas understands
the difference, i.e., as differential specialization of classical ethics
into modern self-formativity and, so to speak, ethical pragmatics. Is
Habermas’ reading of the difference more appropriate to “his”--really
*our*--general project of modernity? Or can a different reading of
morality be derived that is really truer to his own apparent aims:
contribution to the advancement of *actively* democratic social


Habermas writes, in “...Employments...,” that “we approach the moral
outlook once we begin to examine our maxims as to their compatibility
with the maxims of others” (6). I, for one, have never thought of
anything in my life as a maxim and never hear the term outside of
discussions of Kant, but clearly each person’s month has countless
rationales attributable to it which can be validly called maxims.
However, I don’t think we approach an especially “moral” outlook when we
examine the compatibility of rationales or heuristics or what have you,
except in a tautological sense in which this is what is *meant* by
approaching the moral outlook, particularly in regard to Kant. 

But I believe that Kant’s understanding, at this point in modernity, is
not useful. First of all, everything that Habermas says about Kantian
maxims (pp. 6-7) fits well with an ethical outlook, in the
tradition-bound sense of ethics that *Habermas* counterposes to a moral
outlook, especially relative to the goal-given pragmatic sense that
Habermas counterposes to the moral outlook. In other words, Kant’s
maxims are typical of a pragmatically biased ethical outlook, in the
narrowest sense, with no “categorical” overtones. Therefore, how it is
that “we approach the moral outlook” seems to mean nothing more than:
how it is that Kant does so--which is interesting, but, again, not
useful, as “we” shall see--and Kant's outlook is not necessary for
Habermas’ project, given a deeper and broader sense of “ethical” life
than Habermas finds plausible (an ethical sense that it is my burden,
relative to him, to *make* not only plausible, but compellingly

It’s important to recognize that maxims can have variable scales,
depending upon the neighborhood in which one is acting. Though it’s
asserted that “maxims constitute in general the smallest units in a
network of operative customs” (7), one can easily surmise that maxims
cover the entire domain of pragmatic interests, since “they regulate the
course of daily life, modes of interaction, the ways in which problems
are addressed and conflicts resolved, and so forth” (7). This is a far
cry from “more or less trivial, situational rules” (6). Maxims work in a
“network of operative customs in which the identity and life projects of
an individual (or group) are concretized”(7); that is, maxims primarily
belong in, and normally serve, ethical life. 

It is abnormal, then, to tacitly separate maxims from our [ethical]
life, as if they are ethically unemployed or normally employed in
non-ethically interested (basically egoistic?) ways, by asserting that
“maxims are the plane [plane?] in which ethics and morality
intersect....” Properly speaking, maxims compose the pragmatic “plane”
of ethical life that is also of interest to the moral outlook. Indeed,
it seems that maxims--or the [in]compatibility of maxims--are what
*primarily* educes the “moral” outlook. 

“Maxims are the plane in which ethics and morality intersect because
they can be judged alternately from ethical and moral points of view.”
Such a possibility doesn’t in itself require impartiality, only a
cognitive capability to judge rationales from both points of
view--which, of course, presumes the capability to comprehend a moral
point of view, but doesn’t itself require any particular level of moral
consideration (in the Kohlbergian sense).

The example Habermas offers dramatizes the abnormality of the “plane”
that can be judged, one the one hand, from an ethical point of view.
“The maxim to allow myself just one trivial deception....” is arguably
no maxim at all, but an aberation from maximed life: “...just one
trivial deception.” The desire to allow myself--actually, the
willingness to act on the desire to allow myself--“one trivial deception
may not be *good* for me,” but it’s also not an important ethical
situation, if it’s trivial. If it’s not trivial, it’s significantly
susceptible to questions of one’s maturity (development), good sense
(education), mental health (clinical), and values, relative to one's
identity (as Habermas appreciates). 

The same willingness to act nontrivially “may also be *unjust* if its
general observance is not equally good for all.” But under what
conditions is this an *alternative* way to judge my act, if not in a
situation where deception is judged good for me and my sense of what’s
good for me doesn’t take into account the example it displays to others?
In other words, only a sense of the ethical that is cut off from the
intimacies, kinships, and solidarities of its life could consider a
deception that is unjust to be nonetheless good for oneself. In
Habermas’ example, at least, it is a *clinically problematic* sense of
the ethical that gives standing to a non-ethical “moral” point of view,
which is to say that the moral point of view appears invalid. 

But isn’t this a misunderstanding of Habermas’ point? What Habermas
means is that an action may be contrary to what is *legislable*, i.e.,
contrary to a generalizable sense of what’s equally good for all. The
weight of the moral point of view rests *not* with the neighborhood in
which *my* action is consequential; that’s readily ascribable to an
ethical point of view. What’s moral is that my *kind* of action may be
implicated in the public interest that actions conform to generalizable
forms of behavioral expectation--or *regulations*. But what kinds of
actions actually *are* relevant for the legislative process? What is the
occasion in which I might feel compelled to evaluate my actions relative
to their prospects for generalization into regulations? Only actions
pretending to political standing, only occasions of political action,
are relevant to regulative evaluation. So, is the “moral” outlook just
the *systemically* political outlook?

In “...Employments...”--in _J&A_ generally--indeed, in all of Habermas’
work up to this point (circa 1990), he has not yet made the distinction
between a facticity of legislation (compliance with presumably
legitimate regulations, that enter one’s life as par for the course) and
legislative action (participation in or contributing to the process of
the formation of legitimate regulations). The weight of the moral point
of view, against ethical life is simply that one’s action *can* have
political import or may *marginalize* one’s opportunity (if not destroy
one’s opportunity altogether) to affect the processes of governance
in-and-over one’s neighborhoods of interests. 

But most persons are not interested in being politically implicative,
though they arguably should be (on ethical grounds, as I will show
later). The “moral” outlook is just not very compelling. Many persons
have a very ethically provincial life, one which is politically passive
(voting, if at all, with a dim sense of all but the most marketed
issues), and that  can be changed (aggregately, perhaps over
generations) through education, remediation, commitment to
organizations, etc. *This* can make the “moral” outlook compelling, from
*within* a deepened and broadened sense of identity in the world; but
the “moral” outlook cannot itself compel appreciation of the democratic
interest, apart from the lifeworld. 

It seems fair (hermeneutically speaking) to say that the “Kantian” point
of view is essentially a general notion of the *democratic* interest of
social self-determination. In the moral outlook, “what is being asked
is...whether I can will that a [rationale] should be followed by
everyone as a general law” (7). But very few situations--only especially
exemplary circumstances--are relevant to legislable evaluation, and
possibly none are relevant outside of deliberate efforts to shape
general regulations or to generalize from problem solutions that are
determined to be exemplary.

For several years, I’ve suspected that the historical ambiguity of
ethical-moral understanding has produced a confusion between normative
and regulative meaning. I believe that normative validity only makes
compelling sense relative to ethical life, and that a normative basis
for regulatives--valid pragmatic rationales (whose validity is
procedurally determinable by objectively evaluable means)--in ethical
life is, in turn, the basis for the legitimacy of law. The legitimacy of
law derives indirectly (but definitely) from the foundation of
legislation in ethical life (whose validity is intersubjectively
determinable by communicative and deliberative occasions). (I know I'm
writing too densely, so, well....)

So--anticipating future episodes in Gary's self-clarification--I ask of
Habermas’ text: Is ethically-conceived life essentially averse to the
democratic interest? It seems that, to Habermas, the answer is yes. I,
on the other hand, know that ethical life is not inherently

Can ethical life *not* be conceived to *entail* democratic values? It
appears that Habermas would not agree that such a conception of life
remains basically “ethical” (without metaphysics) but rather becomes
“moral” in a sense (non-tautological?) that is more than pragmatically
legislable, while being (apparently) deontological without essentialism
(jumping *way* ahead in my story). I believe that one can clarify
essential, constitutive values without metaphysics, and Kantian motives
would of course be no help in such a clarification (as Habermas would

Can the democratic interest be justified apart from ethically conceived
life? Habermas apparently believes that it *must* be, in order to avoid
metaphysics. I believe that the democratic interest *can’t* be
justified, so as to motivate support for the democratic interest within
ethical life, without basing the democratic interest in a sense
of--gulp-- essential aspects of ethical life, that is (implausibly at
this point, to be sure) natural aspects of human development (expressed
in ontogeny), natural aspects of human potential (expressed in the love
of learning), self-determinative aspects of idealization (expressed in
imaginative self-identification), and other aspects of “ethical” life. 

In the past couple of decades, naturalism without metaphysics has become
possible, due to advances in cognitive science, naturalistic
epistemology, evolutionary ethics, and other interdisciplinary fields.
If Kant were alive today--having been a genius who was never himself a
*Kantian*, you must recognize--he would be doing philosophy motivated by
cognitive science. Not that I suggest deriving an ethics from cognitive
science, but the *actual* Kantian situation and risk of metaphysics
(that seems decisive for Habermas) is not the problem it was several
decades ago. *Internal* reasons (a notion taken from Bernard Williams)
can be educed within ethical life that show how the democratic interest
belongs to one's own nature, so to speak. 

My attention has wandered into incredibly premature assertions. 

I’m disappointed that I haven’t gotten any further through Habermas’
essay than I have. 

How might one go about advancing Habermas’ project without unduly
imposing the moral outlook on an unduly constrained sense of ethical

To be continued.

           Your friend and mine,


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