Habermas vs Putnam
- Hilary Putnam has just published a new book of essays, in which he
briefly discusses his sense of Habermas' discourse ethics. One might
believe from the title---_The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and
Other Essays_, Harvard 2002---that the book is *primarily* directed
toward Habermas, but it's not. However, the book comes out just before
Putnam and Habermas hold a discussion, Nov. 13, on the topic of the
fact/value difference, which must be more than coincidental for the
scheduling of the discussion.
The essay "Values and Norms" in the book focuses on Habermas (or more
accurately: Apel's and Habermas's use of the ideal speaking
situation), while the entire book pursues the fact/value difference in
various contexts, all of which will be useful to Habermas readers,
inasmuch as Putnam's own views on the difference are valuable,
independently of his sense of Habermas' discourse ethics, which is
important for its typicalness of disagreement with Habermas'
orientation toward universalization. I'm especially pleased to see
Putnam focus on Amartya Sen, since I've several times recommended
attention to Sen's approach to economic development.
"As I see it," Putnam writes, "the critical issue [with Habermas] is
the justification of the step from saying that any true claim about
our duties is 'knowable by us' to 'would be the outcome of an ideal
discussion, if that discussion were sufficiently prolonged" (125).
The first objection for Putnam is the status of the aspects of the
ideal speaking situation. "*[T]heir* justification--and they
constitute essentially the whole of Habermasian ethics--*isn't* that
they are the *outcome* of an indefinitely prolonged Peircean inquiry
at all!" (125), rather (according to Putnam) Apel's "transcendental
The second problem for Putnam is the notion of "sufficiently
prolonged." "*[T]here is no reason to believe that the outcome of an
ideal and sufficiently prolonged discussion of an ethical question
would inevitably be correct*" (126).
Thirdly, for Putnam, there is a objection he has "once seen Lyotard
make against Habermasian discourse ethics, to the effect that
discourse ethics marginalizes or excludes the 'inarticulate'" (129).
But Putnam hasn't, as list subscriber Vic Peterson put it, "done his
homework"--specifically in the sense that Putnam is evidently unaware
of anything Habermas has written after the mid-80s essay on discourse
ethics, in particular the essays of _Justification and Application_,
which annul Putnam's belief that discourse ethics encompasses the
entirety of ethics. Putnam is objecting to a view that Habermas has
left behind: applying a consensus theory of truth to norm formation.
"[I]t seems to me," concludes Putnam, "that at bottom his desire to
treat all value discourse *outside* the narrow limits of discourse
ethics as mere negotiation of differences between 'life words,' [sic]
and also the reason that he fears conceding any objectivity that goes
beyond this to such value discourse--namely that such a concession
would not be compatible with 'modernity' (meaning here the modern
suspician of everything that is supposed to be 'metaphysical')-- are,
at bottom, *positivistic* desires and reasons. The idea that one can
concede so much to the positivists and still retain a tiny bit that,
it is thought, will be sufficient to rebuild all the ethical
objectivity that one wants or needs is an error in exactly the way
that the positivist idea that one can concede so much to the skeptics
and still retain a tiny bit that, it was thought, would be sufficient
to rebuild all the scientific objectivity that one wants or needs was
an error" (133).
In the end, though, Putnam is supportive of what Habermas is trying to
do. "[F]allibilism is not all that rational inquiry in general
requires, and discourse ethics, *Habermasian* discourse ethics, can
and should be seen (or so I have long urged) as spelling out in more
detail what rational inquiry worthy of the name requires. Recognizing
that there must be *more* to ethics than discourse ethics in no way
diminishes the importance of discourse ethics" (133-4).
Earlier, I've sketched a view of ethics that looks for a
complementarity of virtue and duty, so I'm glad to see that Putnam
anticipates something similar, though in traditional terms that I find
counterproductive: "I have often remarked to friends that in ethics we
need both Aristotelian and Kantian insights, and I never cease to be
astonished at the resistance I meet when I say this....But...our
imperfect but indefinitely perfectible ability to recognize the
demands made upon us by various values is precisely what provides
Kantian (or "discourse") ethics with *content*" (134).
I think this is the wrong way to go about gaining a balance,
encompassing valuational delibleration within a deontic view. A
converse approach is more tenable, encompassing deontic views within
virtue-ethical deliberation--or "agent-based" ethics, as Michael Slote
argues in _Morals from Motives_ (Oxford 2001). The converse view is
more tenable because, in short, "moral-cognitive development" (_MCCA_)
is the keynote of Habermas' basic value of mature autonomy, and a
post-conventional *cognitive* stance toward ethical-moral issues gives
virtue-ethical considerations primacy over deontic considerations (a
claim I've hardly begun to argue beyond brief sketches).
By the way, Putnam's other Aristotelian (besides Sen) is Bernard
Williams, which pleases me, since my own reservations about Kantian
moralism began in the mid-80s with Williams' _Ethics and the Limits of
Philosophy_. But all that Putnam says against Williams (and he *is*
against Williams) is annuled by Williams' new book, _Truth and
Truthfulness_ (Princeton 2002), which understands truth in terms of
"Accuracy" and "Sincerity" (capitalized by Williams due to the
technical sense of these terms that he develops). Putnam seems to
think that Rorty and Williams have similar views, while Williams finds
Rorty very unappealing.
Anyway, I hope that Habermas uses his discussion with Putnam to
clarify how he understands the place of discourse ethics in the
broader venue of ethical considerations, particularly in light of
recent work which Putnam apparently isn't aware of.