1) Introduction

The problem of reconciling an individual’s private life with public or societal needs is a pressing one for social and political philosophy. At what point does a person’s conception of whom he is and where his life is going coincide with the requirements of living in a community? There can be many cases in which an individual’s dispositions and inclinations easily overlap with collectively held norms and imperatives, but how do we deal with this relationship when that compatibility is not so easily obtained? Jürgen Habermas argues in “On The Moral Employment of Practical Reason” that practical reason is employed in trying to work out the complexities of this relationship; by looking at the history of contemporary moral philosophy, he argues that practical reason takes on three different tasks depending upon the contexts in which people find themselves. Practical reason applies itself to matters of pragmatics (or the “purposive”), the ethical (or the “good”), and the moral (or the “just”). What these things mean will be fleshed out later in this essay, but Habermas’ formulation leaves him with a couple of serious questions. First, he wonders if this three-way division of practical reason even allows us to talk about it as a unified faculty anymore. Second, he wonders how, if this unity has indeed been fragmented, we are to deal with the relationship between each of them and properly mediate the point at which the private and the public intersect. Specifically, he is interested in the relationship between the ethical and the moral (that is, the private and the public), although the question of pragmatics does play into the essay as well. At the end of the essay, Habermas concludes that “the unity of practical reason can be realized in an unequivocal manner only within a network of public forms of communication and practices in which the conditions of rational collective will formation have taken on concrete institutional form” {OE 17}. So, ontologically we cannot really answer the question of practical reason’s unity: Habermas essentially puts this question to one side and leaves it up to communicatively oriented procedures and institutions to practically create such a unity.

Habermas, then, follows the Kantian conception of a liberal society in which the political and legal sphere is crucial to social harmony. This, of course, points to the fact that he is more concerned with issues of social justice than he is with issues of private fulfillment (this is not to say, of course, that he completely neglects the former in favour of the latter, but he most certainly chooses to focus on the demands of public discourse and community life). In this paper, I would like to juxtapose Habermas’ approach with that of another, namely Richard Rorty. Like Habermas, Rorty considers himself a liberal, and like Habermas, he wants to investigate the relationship between the private and public and the requirements that come with each. Moreover, like Habermas, Rorty wonders about the nature (although not in a metaphysical sense, of course) of the ethical will and the moral will. What kinds of identity claims are bound up in each of these? How do we describe ourselves privately; how do we do so when communicating and living with others in society? Drawing on thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Rorty argues that the private and the public are subject to a division that cannot be closed. He says in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that the kind of thinking bound up in the private (or the ethical, in Habermas’ terms) is not suitable for participation in a liberal society, and that it must be more or less entirely put aside when coming to the table to discuss and work to satisfy social needs. This is because, as an inheritor of the Nietzschean tradition, Rorty sees an opposition between private interests and public needs. Between Rorty and Habermas, there is much to find useful; however, there are also problems that I would like to examine in this paper. On the part of Habermas, I am somewhat troubled by his suggestion that the ethical and the moral be mediated in their relationship by public institutions and procedures. Since it seems to be in favour of the moral that this is insisted upon, I would like to ask whether this does some kind of violence to the private or ethical that could be downplayed1 . As for Rorty, I am inclined to agree with his argument that one’s private life should be treated as a matter of self-creation, something aesthetic or poetic; however, I find it equally troubling that he appears at times to believe it possible to split an aesthetic private identity off from a political public one. Looked at in this way, Habermas’ mediation seems to be better than simply presuming that one part of a person’s identity can be shut down in favour of another. In this paper, I would ultimately like to ask if there can be some way of treating one’s private identity and its ethical concerns can be treated aesthetically (as in Rorty’s account) will still avoiding the problems of splitting that identity off from its public counterpart (as in Habermas’ account).

2) Habermas on the moral employments of practical reason

A) As I stated in the introduction, Habermas examines practical philosophical thought to see what it has inherited from philosophy throughout history, and comes up with the following formulation:

  1. Practical philosophy finds its roots in “three main sources: Aristotelian ethics, utilitarianism, and Kantian moral theory” {OE 1}
  2. These three sources relate in their own right to three different types of considerations: Aristotelian ethics to that of a person’s conception of the good life; utilitarianism to pragmatic considerations, both on the personal and societal level; Kantian moral theory to issues of justice in society.
  3. Ethical considerations are necessarily private, and bound up in a person’s deeply held convictions about who he is and where his life his going; utilitarian ones are simply concerned with practical issues and can be private or public but are not related to deeply held personal convictions and identity or long-standing moral imperatives; moral considerations deal with what is good for all, and require the quieting of personal goals in order for society to allow all people to pursue those same goals.

In the debate between the Aristotelians and the Kantians, Habermas comes down firmly on the side of the latter. The Kantian position

attempts to show that the meaning of the basic principle of morality can be explicated in terms of the content of the unavoidable presuppositions of an argumentative practice that can be pursued only in common with others. The moral point of view from which we can judge practical questions impartially is indeed open to different interpretations. But because it is grounded in the communicative structure of rational discourse as such, we cannot simply dispose of it at all. It forces itself intuitively on anyone who is at all open to this reflective form of communicative action. {Ibid.}

For Habermas, moral reasoning is inherently public and communicative: it provides its own grounds and structure for allowing moral issues to be clarified and agreed upon amongst individuals as well as groups of people. Also, because it is communicative, it should preserve individual conceptions of the good as much as possible without sacrificing what is in the interests of all people.

Clearly, this is Kant’s vision of a properly functioning liberal society, one that employs negative liberal rights to ensure justice for all. By giving up radical freedom in a collective agreement, we do not do violence to others, and thus ensure that all have some measure of freedom. Kant argues that there must be a

“society in which one will find the highest possible degree of freedom under external laws combined with irresistible power, i.e. a perfectly rightful civil constitution … necessity compels men, who are otherwise so deeply enamoured with unrestricted freedom, to enter into this state of coercion; and indeed, they are forced to do so by the greatest need of all, namely, the one that men themselves bring about, for their propensities do not allow them to coexist for very long in wild freedom. But once in a refuge such as civil society furnishes, these same propensities have the most salutary effect. {UH 33}

To wit, radical freedom will ultimately mean the destruction or domination of people who are unable to defend themselves against those who are stronger. In a civil society, these power imbalances are evened out so that people can coexist and even flourish because of living together. For Kant, this civil society will be constructed based on the dictates of reason: only those imperatives upon which all people can agree and live by according to reason are to be implemented as law.

Again, this is obviously the tradition in which Habermas situates himself. He advocates something resembling a Kantian civil society in which reason dictates our moral imperatives. It should be remembered, however, that Habermas’ conception of reason is quite different from Kant’s. Where Kant sees reason as being something innate in humans, Habermas believes that reason is only possible communicatively. Because Kant believes subjects to be monological, he has to posit reason as something transcendental. For Habermas, this is a mistake: it cuts reason off from social realities, and thus creates a dichotomy between the will as heteronymous and the will as autonomous.

Kant confused the autonomous will with an omnipotent will and had to transpose it into the intelligible realm in order to conceive of it as absolutely determinative. But in the world as we conceive it, the autonomous will is efficacious only to the extent that it can ensure that the motivational force of good reasons outweighs the power of other motives. {OE 10}

So, while Habermas agrees with Kant’s call for a civil society based on reason, he does so in the sense that this civil society will function communicatively instead of simply constructing its statutes based on the belief in a set of ahistorical moral imperatives.

B) In A), I observed that for Habermas, practical reason has three major functions. It allows us to deal with purely practical matters such as what we are to do when “the bicycle we use every day is broken” {Ibid. 2}. It allows us to deal with more complex issues about who we are; this is the question of “what life one would life to lead, and that means what kind of person one is and would like to be” {Ibid. 4}. Finally, practical reason allows us to consider how issues between people (who all carry with them the personal question just mentioned) in an impartial way {Ibid. 5}. In the third function of practical reason, we are able to think in a way that departs from the subjectively based reasoning of the second function. In this sense we do not ask what is “good” but rather what is “just”, which is to say what is permissible to do in a society of people {Ibid. 6}. These three employments of practical reason each carry with them their own sense of “should”. The pragmatic is related to the simple “should”, as in what one should do given a certain set of circumstances. The ethical is related to what one “ought” to do; in this sense there is room for questioning whether or not the “ought” is to be fulfilled. In the moral sense, however, we are faced with a “must”, and in this case there is no question of the right thing to do. Habermas spends quite some time dealing with the distinction between the ethical and the moral, and the distinction seems to be that “in the first case, what is being asked is whether a maxim is good for me, and is appropriate in the given situation, and in the second, whether I can will that a maxim should be followed by everyone as a general law” {Ibid. 7}.

Taking maxims (“the more or less trivial, situational rules of action by which an individual customarily regulates his actions” {Ibid. 6-7}) as the meeting point of the ethical and the moral, Habermas shows how practical reason itself changes shape in order to handle each kind of consideration. This, of course, brings identity into play. The ethical pertains to “the not merely contingent dispositions and inclinations but the self-understanding of a person, his character and way of life … that is inextricably interwoven with each individual identity” {Ibid. 4}, while the moral faces a broader scope, one which moves above and beyond questions of individual identities and life projects. What we may live by as a maxim in terms of ourselves as individuals may not be compatible with what is permissible in society at large. “This would follow only if my perspective necessarily cohered with that of everyone else. Only if my identity and my life project reflected a universally valid form of life would what from my perspective is equally good for all in fact be equally in the interest of all” {Ibid. 7-8}. Ethical concerns deal with authenticity in a way that moral concerns do not. Thus, the will has to orient itself differently when the ethical is left behind for the moral:

in each instance, the constellation of reason and volition and the concept of practical reason itself undergo alteration. Not only the addressee, the will of the agent who seeks an answer, changes its status with the meaning of the question “What should I do?” but also the addresser, practical deliberation itself. {Ibid. 10}

This is an interesting assertion, because it seems to loosen up the concept of practical reason as being unified – something that Habermas would presumably like to see preserved in some form. On the other hand, it does allow for the complexity not only of one individual’s identity as that individual’s attention shifts from private considerations to public ones and back again, but also for the complexity of many individuals trying to relate to one another in a civil society. As Habermas says, though, this generates the additional problem of the communal pursuit of collective goals, and the problem of the regulation of communal existence under the pressure of social complexity also takes on a new form. Pragmatic discourses point to the necessity of compromise

as soon as one’s own interests have to be brought into harmony with those of others. Ethical-political discourses have as their goal the clarification of a collective identity that must leave room for the pursuit of diverse individual life projects. The problem of the conditions under which moral commands are reasonable motivates the transition from morality to law. And, finally, the implementation of goals and programs gives rise to questions of the transfer and neutral exercise of power. {Ibid. 16}

Here we see why Habermas looks to “public forms of communication and practices in which the conditions of rational collective will formation have taken on concrete institutional form." By recognizing the complexity and contingency bound up in a collective of individuals, Habermas sees the need for a way to bring those individuals together in a way that can bracket out the problems caused by that same complexity. True to this project, he wants communicative action to be the unifying factor in public discourse and discourse ethics. Furthermore, he thinks it is possible to battle power differentials by implementing social critical theory in order to expose the places in which strategy is overtaking communication2 . In this way, he hopes not only to construct systemic conduits for public discourse that will minimize conflict between individuals who want to pursue personal goals, but also to protect forms of life that do not coincide with or that are not touched by public discourse3 .

C) Still, I wish to ask if Habermas’ approach is not in some way violent to the private or ethical sphere. He argues that the pragmatic, the ethical, and the moral are all tied to the employment of practical reason; however, following the Nietzschean tradition, I am inclined to suggest that this may not be the case. I am not suggesting that one’s private identity is in no way rational; I am, however, suggesting that it may be much more than that. As Nietzsche puts it, the development of one’s character and life project is a matter of style:

To ‘give style’ to one’s character––a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into a plan until every one of them appears as art and even reason and weaknesses delight the eye. {GS §290}

The question really seems to be whether or not a non-rationalized or extra-rational way of living can be compatible with Habermas’ project. What are we to think if it comes out that people are approaching even public discourse as a matter of aesthetic pleasure? In other words, what if it is the case that people engage in so-called communicative action as a matter of giving style to their characters? Does it even make a difference? If the private or ethical sphere is not just a matter of rationality, as I am suggesting, can there be an overlap between the two such that the distinction does not really make sense anymore? Richard Rorty argues that there is incommensurability between the ethical and moral insofar as we recognize the necessity of adhering to collective norms and procedures even though we may privately view ourselves and the world in quite a different way. He argues, also following Nietzsche, that identity should be a matter of self-creation rather than self-discovery4 {CIS 27}. He thinks that it should as such be treated quite differently than the kind of thought and participation required for public political discourse. Contra Habermas, he argues that his “’poeticized’5 culture is one which has given up the attempt to unite one’s private ways of dealing with one’s finitude and one’s sense of obligation to other human beings” {Ibid. 68}. On Rorty’s view, we should stop trying to integrate or mediate the public and the private and simply construct a liberal society that will recognize the difference, allowing each sphere to thrive. Is this view useful or even plausible, though? In the next section, I will examine Rorty’s stance and measure it up next to Habermas’.

Part Two


1In A Thousand Plateaus, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write “The State must realize the distinction between the legislator and the subject under formal conditions permitting thought, for its part, to conceptualize their identity. Always obey. The more you obey, the more you will be the master, for you will only be obeying pure reason, in other words yourself …” {TP 376}. I cite this passage because it brings out the sense in which reason itself, even as Habermas employs it, may turn out to carry a certain violence with it that is undesirable insofar as it may unnecessarily limit individuals’ possibilities for self-creation. As we will see later in this essay, Rorty certainly carries that belief.

2In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas says that a critical social theory is “critical of the reality of developed societies inasmuch as they do not make full use of the learning potential available to them, but deliver themselves over to an uncontrolled growth of complexity. As we have seen, this increasing system complexity encroaches upon nonrenewable supplies like a quasi-natural force; not only does it outflank traditional forms of life, it attacks the communicative infrastructure of largely rationalized lifeworlds” {TCA 375}.

3Or perhaps because Habermas’ vision of a well-functioning liberal society would, in fact, also protect those forms of life through the employment of negative liberal rights. Here again we can see Kant’s influence on Habermas.

4Here Rorty means “self-discovery” in the sense that there is some “true”, ahistorical, non-contextual self to discover. Of course, Habermas also recognizes that personal identity is a matter of contingency and context {OE 6}, but again, he differs from Rorty in positing reason (even intersubjective and communicative reason) as a basic structure or faculty of the self.

5Rorty’s use of the word “poetic” in terms of culture and private identity is more or less equivalent to Nietzsche’s use of the word “style” or Michel Foucault’s notion of life as “art” {TFR 350}. I used the word “aesthetic” earlier in the essay, but I was referring to the same kind of idea as Rorty in his use of the word “poetic”.