Friday, February 24, 2006

Habermas: the new Hobbes? combat and controversy

There is a strange interpretation of Hobbes that he is in fact a natural law proponent. I think this fails eventually, but it's a good thought for a late night when you can't sleep. How can we combine Hobbes's subjectivism with a universal view of human goods?:
On subjectivist theories of the good, what makes it true that something is good is that it is desired, or liked, or in some way is the object of one's pro-attitudes, or would be the object of one's pro-attitudes in some suitable conditions. One might think that to affirm a subjectivist theory of the good is to reject natural law theory, given the immense variation in human desire. [And the critical metaphysical consequences of that.] But this is not so. For one might hold that human beings’ common nature, their similarity in physiological constitution, makes them such as to have some desires in common, and these desires may be so central to human aims and purposes that we can build important and correct precepts of rationality around them. This is in fact what Hobbes claims. For while on the Hobbesian view what is good is what is desired, Hobbes thinks that humans are similarly constructed so that for each human (when he or she is properly biologically functioning) his or her central aim is the avoidance of violent death. Thus Hobbes is able to build his entire natural law theory around a single good, the good of self-preservation, which is so important to human life that exceptionlessly binding precepts can be formulated with reference to its achievement.
The Enlightenment enclosure--from whose fold I expel Hobbes for reasons of decency--had a higher goal, and a more developed philosophical scaffold to reach it. Locke and Kant especially have linked autonomy and freedom to natural universal laws. But it is a truth often acknowledged that the Enlightenment project of justifying liberalism against relativism has failed--for the most convincing description of this see Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. Critical Legal Studies folks are fond of discussing this too. Post-modernism, by critiquing the universalist pretentions of the Enlightenment, also torpedoes its emancipatory ideals: without universalism the danger of authoritarianism flares up, as Jürgen Habermas learned too well in his youth.

Habermas believes that we can be brought to agree as a community by the unforced force of discourse. This is because reason is universal, both as a capacity in man and in what it apprehends. This argumentation, with the intersubjectivity that implies, can take place even if God, or at least the metaphysics of morals, is dead. In attempting to convince, we engage in communicative action, criticizing reasons for holding positions, and thus we approach universal norms, despite the lack of any true ontological reality of these norms. Does this sound familiar?

Hobbes and Habermas both are concerned with the breakup of unifying narratives into localized traditions that can lead to violent conflict. Habermas believes the problem is authoritarianism; Hobbes believes that's the solution. But in both cases the radical freedom and equality of individuals in the human system is a prerequisite for the Hobbermasian theories: for Hobbes, freedom and equality mean anyone can kill anyone, and so all are vulnerable to swords and thus we must band together; for Habermas, freedom and equality mean anyone can convince anyone, so that all are vulnerable to rhetoric and thus we are bound together.

In both cases, solidarity-in-fact replaces solidarity-de-jure, and subjective contingency attempts to do the work of objective normativity. If you believe that God is dead, then Habermas is an incredibly attractive update of Hobbes. If you think God is on vacation, you might wonder whether the servant has power of attorney while the master is away.

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