The most important social scientist since Keynes

Three validity claims

The German social scientist, Jürgen Habermas, has just turned ninety. It is an odd reflection on our times that he is not renowned. In an age of academic specialisation this may reflect on the breadth of his scholarship. No one else in social science commands deep knowledge of thinkers as diverse as Talcott Parsons (sociological theory), Lawrence Kohlberg (cognitive psychology), Keynesian economics, John Searle (philosophy of language), R M Hare (analytical philosophy), Karl Marx, John Rawls (political theory), and continental philosophers, including Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Habermas’s scholarship is vast, but more importantly, the depth of his understanding is peerless, as is his ability to synthesise. In that regard, he is similar to Marx, but ultimately more rewarding. The greatest asset in all thought is to be right.

Summarising Habermas’s entire work is too hard, but one of his most important conclusions can be explained quite clearly. The reason he is the most important social scientist since Keynes is that he resolves one of the central questions facing human society – can ethics be objective, and if so what is the basis of ethical judgement?

Keynes solved macroeconomics. Habermas solved moral philosophy. This is not an abstract or trivial matter. For some bizarre reason, secular society has abandoned ethical education, and as a result most academic and public debate regarding values and ethics confuses matters which Habermas has already clarified and resolved. The same is true of all discussion of values and ideology in the social sciences. In public discourse, ethics is frequently conflated with moralising – which is usually an arbitrary adherence to archaic and confused rules-of-thumb. Education on the universal structural of ethical reasoning would serve society better than simple reliance on an innate capacity for moral reasoning.

Let’s start with some basic observations from Habermas which are profoundly enlightening. It is worth noting that these are simultaneously empirical observations about how humans actually reason, and also philosophical claims about what we assume when we engage in discussions about the right thing to do. Habermas starts by identitifying three independent ‘validity claims’ which we raise in all interaction and are subject to disputes, resolution and contention: truth, rightness, and truthfulness. Empirical claims about the world – including all scientific hypotheses – raise claims of truth. ‘Humans evolved from apes’ is one such example, as is, ‘When unemployment falls below 4% inflation rises’, or ‘paracetemol relieves pain’. Resolving questions of truth requires hypothesis testing against empirical evidence and the application of logic and reason.

‘Truthfulness’ is a claim we raise relating to our sincerity or honesty over inner desires, thoughts, and behaviours. This usually pertains to a specific individual. An example of such a statement would be ‘I do not trust Donald Trump’s sincerity when he discusses his bible readings,’ or ‘Boris Johnson is a dishonest opportunist’, or ‘I don’t think you really believe that.’

The third validity claim we raise, which Habermas has had the most to say about, is the claim to ‘rightness’. Studying Habermas, it becomes clear that what is ‘ethical’, ‘fair’, ‘moral’, and ‘right‘ are in fact equivalents. Statements such as ‘driving a car while under the influence of alcohol, in any circumstance other than a serious emergency, is wrong (or immoral/unethical/unjust)’ raise the claim of ‘rightness’. These claims refer to the ethical appropriateness of actions or rules governing actions. In contrast, claims about how the world works – empirical claims – are questions of ‘truth’, and questions of honesty, authenticity and consistency of thought and action, are claims of ‘truthfulness’.

I will stay with the example of drinking and driving for illustrative purposes. Habermas’s genius is to reveal that the structure of reasoning that humans engage in when confronting a question such as ‘is it acceptable to drive a car under the influence of alcohol?’ is coherent, understandable, and universal. In other words, the standard we implicitly deploy when addressing the rightness of an action, rule, or procedure is assumed by coherent participants in the discussion, whether they are directly affected, operating as independent third parties, or considering the issue in the abstract. We assume a common standard and our reasons imply that we are applying a rule even though we may not be able to articulate explicitly the rule we are employing. This is perfectly analogous to the rules of logic, as assumed in any reasoned discussion or any empirical question, or the rules of grammar assumed in all speech. Of course, ethical reasoning is also subject to the rules of logic and empirical testing. It is the nature of the reasons provided to determine rightness that renders it a unique validity claim.

If correct, this is an extraordinarily powerful conclusion. Implicitly, common ground is a presupposition of any ethical debate. Confusion and disagreement lie elsewhere.

Before outlining the precise structure implicit in all ethical reasoning, which Habermas makes explicit, it is important to clarify the significance of this three-category distinction, because it already clarifies many issues, for example the issue of ‘value-bias’ or ‘ideology’ in science or social science. We can immediately see that there is a categorical distinction between hypotheses pertaining to how the world works and adocacy of policies, actions, rules or laws. ‘Rightness’ and ‘fairness’ pertain to acts. Of course it might be argued that a body of empirical knowledge or the pre-selection of an area of study – itself an act – carries implications for subsequent actions or policies, but already this introduces a greater clarity of thought. To claim that an area of science is ‘value-laden’ is to argue that it somehow affects actions pejoratively, something which Foucault for example attempts in his history of psychiatry.

It is also important to rebut some frequent errors of understanding. Recognising that all modern human societies in fact adopt the same structure in ethical argumentation does not imply that they all agree on what is ethical. In fact, it becomes very clear why they don’t, and it is important and helpful to identify why some ethical questions are in fact irresolvable. Secondly, it is critical to recognise that if an implicit structure of reasoning is raised in an ethical claim: a) there is such a thing as objectivity in ethical reasoning which does not reside in the physical world, but which is a ‘man-made’ semantic or logical standard (there is also compelling evidence that socialised humans have evolved to developing cognitive moral ‘stages’ consistent with these categories); b) all ethical claims are subject to justification.

This even applies to any ethical claims which are asserted as being ‘religious beliefs’. As a matter of empirical fact the very existence of theology and religious scholarship suggests that religious tenets are in fact contested and subjected to consistency. From direct personal experience growing up in a religious society, I recognise that statements such as ‘catholics believe X’ are simply false. Religious texts have hierarchal ethical structures and inconsistencies, which provide the basis for theological dispute and argument. Again, there is nothing at odds with this framework in people holding dumb ethical views, in the way that some people also believe that the earth is flat. Those with silly ethical views (for example, that homosexuality is immoral), simply cannot provide coherent or convincing defences of their beliefs, and inconstencies with higher order ethical claims they usually hold are easily identifiable.

Rather bizarrely some recent, naive, criticisms of Habermas, seem to assume that because ethical discourse has a universal structure somehow everyone is ethical and all discourse is positive. As a critique this is risible. That’s as silly as saying that mathematics is false because most people struggle with calculus. Ethical reasoning is hard, and we often have reasons to obfuscate or deny its conclusions. Tribalism, for example, is a deep human instinct which when it takes a violent turn involves the suspension of morals.

Because Habermas shows that moral reasoning raises a claim to ‘rightness’ which is universal in structure, his work is also a synthesis of much of preceding moral philosophy. He proposes that the following rule is in fact implicit in all moral discussions: that the right thing to do is that which weights the interests of all those affected equally.

Anyone schooled in moral philosophy will recognise the principle of weighting the interests of all affected equally as Kantian, but Habermas also argues convincingly that Hare’s Kantian/utilitarian synthesis renders the Kantian/consequentialist distinction pretty much redundant. Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ is a similar attempt to summarise the presupposition of ethical reasoning, by engaging in a thought experiment. Habermas, in contrast to Rawls and Kant, says we argue and provide reasons which reveal that we are attempting to provide equal weight to the interest of all affected. This is what utilitarianism claims to do – the contention is in clarifying ‘interests’ – and Rawls proposes imagining that you should reason as if you don’t know which of those affected you will be. In Christianity, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ is the same dictum, as is the everyday dictum of putting yourself in the shoes of others. The unique power of Habermas’s formulation is the emphasis on the nature of reasons people actually provide revealing the principle they are deploying. Listen carefully to any ethical debate, discussion of what is fair, and operation of Habermas’s rule becomes apparent. We all deploy it implicitly, as we do logic, or grammar. In this way, Habermas is not proposing his principle and then defending it. He reveals that you have already assumed it when you engage in claims of ‘rightness’. The strength of his case is revealed in the fact that most of the recently published articles criticising him, in fact assume he is right Interestingly, Chomsky uses the same approach in his famous debate with Foucault. He shows that Foucault needs a concept of justice in order to criticise international law. Communication and critique require presuppositions.

Habermas also identifies an additional aspect of moral reasoning which is often neglected, or simply treated separately – voice and consent. Ideally – and of course this is often practically impossible – we have a moral expectation that all those affected by a rule or action are consulted and consent. It is a feature of ethical interaction that we seek the consent of those affected, so ideally – and this is an implicit ideal – all affected also agree to it. This observation is very relevant, for example, to the ethics of Brexit referendum. In practice, of course, this rarely occurs. So often, pragmatically, we agree to operate with other rules of decision-making.

It is finally worth pre-empting a typical criticism of universalism in ethics, which Habermas brilliantly resolves: how do we square objectivity and reasoned discussion with the apparent diversity of views and beliefs about what is right? And why are certain ethical issues so intractable? Ironically, if we are all operating with a standard of weighting the interests of all those affected there will be consistent controversy. There are conflicts of interest which we will try to disguise. We will exploit the inherent uncertainty in the estimation of consequences and measurement of interests, to suit our self-interest. This is why we need an independent judiciary, and why we need constant critical analysis of the structures of power. At the same time many so-called moral dilemmas are really cases of inherent conflict of interest, for example what should one do if one person’s survival is contingent on another’s death? It’s becomes immediately clear that there is no ‘right’ thing to do. This is simply a terrible situation. That in fact defines most ethical dilemmas, and areas of great controversy. It is an error to assume that despite the profound seriousness of many moral questions, all are resolvable. Some are irresolvable. But this is no reason to abandon hope. Quite the reverse. What Habermas convincingly proves is that reasoned debate between humans on ethical questions is not just always possible but always present. This does not imply some naive victory – self-interest, violence, and amorality often prevail. But there is a universal resilient glimmer of hope.

Further reading
Contradicting the act of writing this piece, don’t waste time reading others on Habermas. Most of it is less clear than the original and often wrong. The pinnacle of his intellectual achievement is ‘Moral Consciouness and Communicative Action’, available here. Like Keynes, greatness is not always easy to read. But it’s worth persevering.

This subsequent short book is also excellent.

About The Author

Eric Lonergan is a macro fund manager, economist, and writer. His most recent book is Money (2nd ed) published by Routledge. He is also a supporter of Big Issue Invest (BII), the investment arm of The Big Issue, and is one of the initial limited partners in BII’s Social Enterprise Investment Fund LP. In a personal capacity, he makes direct investments in social enterprises. He also supports and advises The Empathy Museum.

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