A Critique of Habermas

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to put on my democratic theory hat and offer a critique of Jürgen Habermas‘ theory of deliberative democracy. Habermas gives his answer to the question of what kind of government we ought to have by appealing not to any specific goal or end that he thinks government ought to have, but by instead offering standards by which we can judge a procedure through which one would determine one’s society’s ends. I argue that Habermas relies too much on moral intuitionism to substantiate these standards and consequently provides insufficient reason why we should choose to determine our form of government by appeal to procedure rather than by appeal to result.

Let’s lay out Habermas’ view.

Habermas believes that the best procedure for determining optimal state policy is by appeal to an uncoerced consensus. This consensus is to be reached through deliberation. Habermas recognizes that for a wide array of reasons, real-world deliberations are not going to be ideal. They are not going to be wholly uncoerced, and there will typically be insufficient time for a true consensus to be formed. Nevertheless, Habermas proposes these standards as benchmarks by which our existing deliberations can be judged. He also recognizes his conception of the ideal deliberation as a fallibilist one. By this he means that at any point during the course of the deliberation, it is legitimate for deliberants to point out additional, previously unrecognized or under-emphasized reasons why the deliberation might not be ideal.

Habermas operates through the dialectic. When deliberants identify problems with the deliberation, Habermas attempts to find the synthesis between his position and the critique offered. In this way, Habermas seeks to assimilate all the critiques he encounters into his own view. If Habermas were to read this, Habermas would likely be looking for ways to take whatever criticisms I raise and incorporate them into his view. He would likely view whatever concerns I may rise as contributing to the improvement of the conception of the ideal deliberation and would presumably deny that my view could ever be wholly in conflict with his own. This is in no small part due to Habermas’ linguistic views–Habermas believes that the mere act of using words is to engage in the kind of deliberation he discusses.

So what’s my problem with this? There are two related claims Habermas makes that I take issue with:

  1. Habermas presumes that the goodness of a political decision comes not from the effects of the decision itself, but from the procedure used to reach that decision.
  2. Habermas presumes that the best procedure is one that comes nearest to producing uncoerced consensus.

Habermas is a proceduralist–he focuses his efforts on finding the best procedure by which we would make a decision rather than determining what the best outcomes are and then designing the procedure to yield those outcomes. This sets Habermas apart from thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who believed the goodness of any political system lay not in the nature of its procedure but in the outputs it produced. For this reason, Mill believed that the best political system for a people depended on what those people needed in order to make progress toward the good as Mill conceived it. Habermas, by contrast, starts with the procedure and is quite willing to let that procedure produce any number of diverse outputs. He claims that the procedure cannot be judged by the outputs, in which we do not have independent confidence, but only by the extent to which it meets the shifting standards of the ideal deliberation–the uncoerced consensus.

The trouble is by what epistemological method can we claim simultaneously that the principles by which we judge outcomes are unknown or unknowable but that the principles by which we judge procedures are to any degree identifiable? Habermas attempts to mitigate this by allowing that his conception of the ideal deliberation is fallibalist and can be altered through the very kind of deliberation it sanctions, but this leads us around in a circle. What justifies the priority Habermas places on uncoerced consensus in the first place? If we answer “there is an uncoerced consensus that uncoerced consensus is the best way to make decisions”, we have a consensus grounded in the existence of a consensus grounding in the existence of a consensus, and on and on it goes.

Habermas’ commitment to this view implies an objective philosophical claim that coercion is bad and consensus is good. Habermas does not embrace any consequentialist theory that would imply either of these claims (he cannot, because if he did so, he would be committed to specific outcomes). He therefore must be making the claim deontologically by appeal to intuition. However, if our conceptions of what appropriate decision-making procedures should be are grounded in intuition, why can we not appeal directly to our intuitions to determine outcomes? It would seem that Habermas’ argument contains an unnecessary intermediary step:

  1. Objective intuitions guide us toward a more ideal deliberation (that which produces uncoerced consensus rightly conceived at nearly as it can).
  2. Deliberation is the best way to determine what our political ends should be.
  3. Therefore, we should pursue the output of deliberation.

Why do we need #2? If outputs are reducible to objective intuitions, why does Habermas not just proceed directly from intuitions to outputs? There is no account of why deliberation is necessary to mediate our intuitions provided that they track objective good, and if our intuitions do not track objective good, then the justification for deliberation is circular and arbitrary.

Habermas is ultimately an a priori moral intuitionist, not unlike Immanuel Kant. He is ultimately subject to the same critiques that Kant and the other intuitionists are subject to. Namely, how do we know that our intuitions are in fact a priori objective moral claims rather than the sputtering of our culturally conditioned superegos? John Stuart Mill and the other utilitarians respond to Kant by claiming that intuitions can be wrong, that we can only acquire moral knowledge a posteriori by experiencing the real-world results of our actions and the actions of others through the benefit/harm mechanism. This same complaint can and should be leveled by utilitarians at Habermas.