Saturday, October 26, 2013


117. Habermas

Here I start a series of items on ethics

Jürgen Habermas is exceptional, among continental philosophers, in continuing to press for rational and just debate. Conditions for it are: no asymmetric power (‘herrschaftsfreie Discussion’, in German), truthfulness, in mutual striving for truth and justice, and sincerity, meaning what one says.

This is of course a perfect ideal and goal, but the conditions are hardly realistic. There is rarely if ever a balance of power in debate. It would, for example, preclude employer-employee debate, and teacher-pupil debate. And there inevitably is strategic behaviour, in dissimulation, half-truths or outright lies to protect interests or to promote a cause. To speak with Nietzsche, there is will to power and that is part of human flourishing as well as misconduct.

I noted before (in item 50 of this blog) that power could be positive, in providing new options or room for choice, and negative, in limiting them. To limit negative power, I pleaded for measures that ensure both voluntary access and exit from a relationship. That applies also to debate. In my discussion of trust I used the notion of exit and voice. When in disagreement with arguments or actions one should say so and give the other the benefit of the doubt, and an opportunity to explain and justify. But hidden behind the stage there is a way out, an exit, when persistent efforts at understanding and acceptance fail.

In my discussion of cognition I used the notions of absorptive capacity and cognitive distance (item 57): The ability to understand, and hence rational debate, depends on cognitive structures developed in life and thus differs between people to the extent that their life paths have been different. This is a problem but also an opportunity: precisely because others perceive and think differently, there is an opportunity to learn from them and broaden one’s horizon. Cognitive distance is a source of learning and innovation (item 58).

Third parties or go-betweens may help to achieve mutual understanding, to cross cognitive distance (item 74).

Power and lies being inevitable, and partly constructive, there must be countervailing measures against negative power, striving for, though never quite achieving, balance of power, under threat of exit, and an awareness that give and take and forbearance, not grasping every opportunity at negative power, is often to one’s own advantage, instrumentally, and rewarding for its intrinsic value, as part of virtue. I discussed this in a series on trust (items 68 – 75).

For both cognitive and ethical reasons go-betweens can help, and as I will argue in the following item on debatable ethics there may need to be a jury, or forum, or bystanders to help craft understanding and adjudicate justice. But that also can be biased or prejudiced, and ways of exit must be maintained. To be a voluntary outcast, paying a price of isolation for the sake of freedom.

In a discussion of freedom (item 49) I proposed that beyond negative freedom, in not being bound or constrained by others, the highest level of freedom is freedom also from one’s own prejudice. For the latter one needs others, but when those become oppressive one needs to escape even if it means getting buried in one’s own myopia and prejudice.