13 April 2010

Rational Motivation

I found this discussion and critique of Jurgan Habermas's philosophical evolution to be thought provoking. Here are a few of the excerpts:
In his earlier work, Habermas believed, as many did, that the ambition of religion to provide a foundation of social cohesion and normative guidance could now, in the Modern Age, be fulfilled by the full development of human rational capacities harnessed to a “discourse ethics” that admitted into the conversation only propositions vying for the status of “better reasons,” with “better” being determined by a free and open process rather than by presupposed ideological or religious commitments: “…the authority of the holy,” he once declared, “is gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus.

What secular reason is missing is self-awareness. It is “unenlightened about itself” in the sense that it has within itself no mechanism for questioning the products and conclusions of its formal, procedural entailments and experiments. “Postmetaphysical thinking,” Habermas contends, “cannot cope on its own with the defeatism concerning reason which we encounter today both in the postmodern radicalization of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ and in the naturalism founded on a na├»ve faith in science.”

Postmodernism announces (loudly and often) that a supposedly neutral, objective rationality is always a construct informed by interests it neither acknowledges nor knows nor can know. Meanwhile science goes its merry way endlessly inventing and proliferating technological marvels without having the slightest idea of why. The “naive faith” Habermas criticizes is not a faith in what science can do — it can do anything — but a faith in science’s ability to provide reasons, aside from the reason of its own keeping on going, for doing it and for declining to do it in a particular direction because to do so would be wrong.

The counterpart of science in the political world is the modern Liberal state, which, Habermas reminds us, maintains “a neutrality . . . towards world views,” that is, toward comprehensive visions (like religious visions) of what life means, where it is going and what we should be doing to help it get there. The problem is that a political structure that welcomes all worldviews into the marketplace of ideas, but holds itself aloof from any and all of them, will have no basis for judging the outcomes its procedures yield. Worldviews bring with them substantive long-term goals that serve as a check against local desires. Worldviews furnish those who live within them with reasons that are more than merely prudential or strategic for acting in one way rather than another.

The Liberal state, resting on a base of procedural rationality, delivers no such goals or reasons and thus suffers, Habermas says, from a “motivational weakness”; it cannot inspire its citizens to virtuous (as opposed to self-interested) acts because it has lost “its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole” and is unable to formulate “collectively binding ideals.

So what will supply the strength that is missing? The answer is more than implied by the reference to heaven. Religion will supply it. But …the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.”

The result, as Michael Reder, another of Habermas’s interlocutors, observes, is a religion that has been “instrumentalized,” made into something useful for a secular reason that still has no use for its teleological and eschatological underpinnings. Religions, explains Reder, are brought in only “to help to prevent or overcome social disruptions.” Once they have performed this service they go back in their box and don’t trouble us with uncomfortable cosmic demands.

But Habermas gives us no reason (if you will pardon the word) to believe that such a reminder would be heeded and lead to reason’s being furnished with the motivation-for-solidarity it lacks. Why would secular reason, asked only to acknowledge a genealogical kinship with a form of thought it still compartmentalizes and condescends to, pay serious attention to what that form of thought has to offer? By Habermas’s own account the two great worldviews still remain far apart. Religions resist becoming happy participants in a companionable pluralism and insist on the rightness, for everyone, of their doctrines. Liberal rationality is committed to pluralism and cannot affirm the absolute rightness of anything except its own (empty) proceduralism.

The borrowings and one-way concessions Habermas urges seem insufficient to effect a true and fruitful rapprochment. Nothing he proposes would remove the deficiency he acknowledges when he says that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” The edifice is not going to be propped up and made strong by something so weak as a reminder, and it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing

There is a lot to unpack here, and I will leave it to the reader to do most of it. Here are some of my reactions.

According to the author, Habermas has recently suggested that secular reason in the form of science and political discourse lacks the ability to motivate humanity towards virtuous behavior and "collectively binding ideals", a deficit that only religion (in some capacity) can provide. While I tentatively agree with this assertion, I think it is open for discussion. Some, notably Sam Harris in his recent TED talk and elsewhere, would argue that advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology provide a clear trajectory in which we will eventually be able to determine, in some objective sense, what is moral. Sam's is a haughty claim, one that is hard pressed to overcome the postmodern critiques knowledge and power. Even if a secular process could do this, would it translate into more enlightened collective motivation? If so, than all of the problems we see in the world would have to be attributed to ignorance, not basic selfishness.

The author goes on to criticize Habermas for utilizing religion's instrumental value while rejecting any ultimate truth claims. Not only is it condescending, but it implies that his acknowledged source of motivation is completely relative, making it even more groundless than discourse ethics. It is an interesting critique, but it doesn't give any suggestions for Habermas as to what the solution is. The problem with accepting religious truth claims as an anchor is that many of them ARE contradictory and culturally relative, and would lead to conflict from the very beginning if taken seriously beyond the psychological and sociological value. The truth claims would need to be reasonable and universal yet potent enough to avoid undermining his whole philosophical project. They would need to be accessible to the majority of humanity both emotionally and intellectually. It would require a new kind of religion.


  1. If the liberal state lacks collectively binding ideals, the most likely reason is not because it is neutral, but rather that we have misunderstood modern rationality. This means that what is so rational about the modern age is not the rigor with which we settle upon shared values but the rigor with which we calculate and advance competing interests. The rationality of the marketplace banishes the rationality of the forum to the dungeon of academia.

    I would say a great deal more than this, but I'm a bit pressed for time. Nonetheless, it seems to me that by multiplying the spaces in which collective identity is consulted upon, plans are made, and action is taken based on spritual principles, then perhaps philosophers will invoke living and breathing religion and not the caricature Habermas sets up to prop up procedural liberalism.

  2. Mr Cat,

    Nice comment, I have to agree with you about the "calculate and advance competing interests" argument, which is the motivating force behind much of the postmodern critique. I also agree about invoking a living and breathing religion, but I have to admire Habermas's effort. It is only recently it seems that he has acknowledged the value of religion in modern progress, but it is a good sign that he is starting to now, after a lifetime of very influential work setting up secular system of what amounts to a consultative process. And, really for me, if I wasn't a Baha'i, I would probably view religion merely as relative and emotional at best, with some instrumental value. I would be fully on board with the secular/humanist concept of progress, with Habermas as a guiding lite. It is only because I know about Baha'u'llah's revelation that I can fully agree with your last point.

  3. I think there's a tendency to assume that people can keep reason completely separate from their emotions. It's true that we are capable of exercising detachment, but that is an ability which is cultivated by religion, by fixing one's attention outside of self. Detachment does not simply come about as a result of believing in rationality. Religion provides a methodology for scrutinizing and improving one's motives, and that's the lack we're feeling in our enlightened rational society.