Rawls & Habermas

Lecture Notes on John Rawls/Jürgen Habermas

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971)

It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one’s initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit.

John Rawls works on a limited number of critical concepts in which there is a social contract among rational beings who achieve universal consensus through discursive will formation.

1. There is an original position in which the potential citizen forges a social contract for one purpose of fairly dividing the society’s natural assets both corporate and individual. The original position is taken from a utopian standpoint because the negotiator of the status in the future society leaves an individual to start from the beginnings of a fair social society. There are two concerns here. The first concerns that liberties are equally accessible by all. The second is that principles of justice are universalizable. There is a problem of individual methodological individualism in that precepts for the individual are generalized to all in the polity. This original position entails no less than drawing up a universally assented to social contract that any reasonable person could adhere to its precepts. In the background, the Categorical Imperative of Kant proves to be foundational in that reason deontologically is given to the individual as a morally autonomous human being. Neither Rawls nor Habermas took this perspective as axiomatic, but rather critically as a beginning for a modern philosophy that had postulated the Enlightenment promise of the Kingdom of Ends.

2. The individual will negotiate from a veil of ignorance in that he will not know where he will find himself in that future society as he starts from ahistorical negotiations that are prepolitical; hence, he will make sure that each status, distribution of goods in society, access to offices in society fairly requites the participants. That is the Principle of Efficiency because a rational person will want to be protected against the real possibility that he will be in the most disadvantaged group in society. Hence, he will see to it that the least advantaged have all their primary needs met in a way that all in the social contract will concur for reasons of achieving a consensus. The veil of ignorance entails universal impartial observers who could reasonably assent to any of the given liberties and rewards of his given station in life. Herein lies a possible utilitarian view of the greatest good to the greatest number; however, Rawls said in such a view the majority could oppress the minority.

3. The maximin principle emphasizes that you enhance the positions of the least advantaged of that society so that they will participate while not offending the most well to do in this welfare state in which there is redistributive taxes.

4. The Difference Principle signifies that this just society will act fairly because all are willing participants. The most advantaged will gain their minimal needs with the universal consensus of all the other social statuses in the society, which is hierarchical in nature. There might not be an equal distribution of all primary goods because it will be in the interests of the public.

5. There is an assumption that capitalism can reform itself. The mechanism is the welfare state where all people live in fraternity. There prevails a family feeling throughout society between individuals where competition is nonantagonistic. Rawls concerns himself with the Efficiency Principle, in which basic liberties are a primary good to be distributed equally throughout a democratic nation state with a stable constitution. So, redistribution of rights is a concern to bring about an equitable society in the polity—as long as the most disadvantaged gain goods and services that would not otherwise be the case under any other scenario.

6. There is “weak” affirmative action to assure that at the very least there is equality of opportunity among all categories of people while still maintaining meritocratic principles that are rational and commonsensical. Too, if necessary, there can be an equality of outcome if serving the requirements of fairness and social justice, which can be construed as "strong" affirmative action.

7. The question becomes do the public good and liberties and public morality coincide? Should public policy promote justice or profits for the stockholders? Individuals might be sacrificed for the good of all to rectify historical wrongs. Reflective equilibrium will allow the public to make a consensual decision.

Rawls has been influenced by a cross fertilization of Rousseau and Kant.


1. Universality (antiperfectionism of a quasi-permanent character presumes that there will be an egalitarian community of virtuous citizens engaged in discursive will formation at the overlapping political and private levels that are integrated in their public behaviors) versus particularism (the cultural determinism of a utilitarian society, that is capitalist political economy, in which public policy and private morality can be calculated with a specific value). Utilitarianism can be compatible in a capitalist society where the majority prevails, yet have a barbaric institution like slavery.

2. The values of Rawls are those that put a premium on the attributes of pluralism and civility, in which differences of systems of belief/ value systems overlap. The citizen is a generalized one of a benevolent, transcendental and impartial spectator who can espouse a General Will against the will of all (partisan groups and their interests).

3. For Rawls, democracy is more procedural than substantive in value. The Social Contract promotes equality of opportunity, while substantively arguing, as the subtext, for a welfare state in which there is equality of outcome that allows for the punishment of individuals of merit for the sake of the public good, for instance, in affirmative action programs.

4. He seems to have no other assumption of human nature than that people are rational; that is antihistorical in its world view. The History of Man shows repeated breakdowns and radical discontinuities in any purposeful development toward democracy, as promoted in the version by American foreign policy since Theodore Roosevelt to apply the Monroe Doctrine globally that embodies an ideological imperialism. History has demonstrated that human nature cannot be remade by political means to revolutionize socioeconomic inequality inherited from previous generations. History has shown a cumulative tendency toward modernization of the means of production; however, there is no inherent tendency toward the redistribution of wealth among the classes, least of all the worst off. That challenges the difference principle of Rawls as being of utopian sentimentality, devoid of the realism of realpolitik as practiced by experienced statesmen since man began recording the chronicle of human events. The same criticism applies to the Principle of Difference.

5. The politics of Rawls puts a premium on the maximin principle, in which the redistribution of goods and talents goes towards the worst off while also benefiting those who are the social and political elite. The powers that be in the great states that make history have shown no such beneficent proclivities.

6. Rawls has created a utopian measure of society by which to gauge justice in practice and fairness in principle. It is a set of ethical standards by which to measure human progress to the evolution of more humane institutions.

Jürgen Habermas (1929–)

Quotation from The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Habermas performs a critical commentary on Foucault:

"It was the human sciences that then, in a subtle manner, extended the normalizing effects of this bodily dimension into the innermost sphere of scientifically objectified persons and populations who were simultaneously driven back into subjectivity. In their very form, the human sciences are supposed to present an amalgam of knowledge and power; the formation of power and the formation of knowledge compose an indissoluble unity."

Juergen Habermas has fashioned a discursive ethics that pivots on two major debates in his time: The Historians’ Debate on the Holocaust and German responsibility; and the Methdological Debate, as seen in the above quotation. Discursive will formation has to deal with a disrupted consensus in the strategic realm of public life because of the triumph of scientism, and its specialized interest groups, in exercising an ideological hegemony of the natural over the human sciences to the detriment of the latter. The discursive will formation creates an intersubjective ethics that decenters the ego. Habermas calls it communicative action that leads to a competence in the domains of public and private life such that the two are not alienated from each other and attain an ethical unity in truth prevailing over error, signified in the saying: “Let the unforced force of the best argument prevail in the marketplace of ideas.” Habermas obviously still believes in the Enlightenment ideal of the perfection of man and the inevitability of progress, even in matters of ethical development to higher stages where there is an enlarged consciousness that creates a communitarian interest among all likeminded folk. He believes that men naturally are rational; when that rationality breaks down violence purges the impure ideologies, because they are pathological, so as to build a new consensus. He uses the psychoanalytic model of Freud to direct the effort toward self-enlightenment. The “talking through” therapy apparently can be applied to political discussion as well. Exactly who are the therapists and how transference can be affected has to be more fully developed in an epistemological sense.

Issues of alienation and reification are paramount in Habermas’ works in which he analyzes the juridification of society and the administration of things through bureaucracies that run all our major institutions such that the relationship between individuals devolves into the mutually indifferent relationship between things. Also, he talks of the monetarization of the political economy in which workers cannot relate to each other because of the mutual estrangement towards each other by the cash nexus. The political economy is patriarchal and hierarchal with workers, citizens, and students, for example, tied to a chain of commands and rules whereby they have no meaningful and significant input into the system per se. Habermas warns of mistaking what should be for is, that is, the omnipotence of ideas among intellectuals that disallows for ambiguities in the public sphere and private domains of conflict resolution. That intolerance is disruptive of a communicative ethics. Too, he discusses the emancipatory effects in counterdiscourse in marginal groups, like the ecology movement, in which democratic practices prevail so as to provide a model of liberation for the greater public. If people’s needs cannot be met, then legitimacy deficits may be incurred by the system that undermines its authority and necessarily leads to anomie and ressentiment.

He elaborates on themes of knowledge and human interests that are always mediated by centers of power. He calls for the aestheticizing of pure and practical reason so as to evolve a moral consciousness that takes into account the ability to assume the position of the Other in discussions leading to a public consensus. That is the road to Freedom. Obviously, there are residual elements of Hegel and Marx in Habermas.

The forces of production have overwhelmed the relations of production: or capital = money trumps nation state politics in commanding loyalties of citizens and dictating norms of action. We are citizens of the world de facto.” Dr. Schindler, 17 March, 2007

Habermas holds to the norm of an eventual constitutional patriotism to replace outdated notions of toxic nationalism, mainly using the European experience of the twentieth century. The state can no longer fulfill life world needs of its people. The socioeconomic structure of capitalism has created a global village, needing new political forms for the post Keynesian era, formerly based on demand side economics of the welfare state. The currency of money has replaced power as the currency or common denominator for strategic actions in the public sphere. Market forces now globally determine the allocations of scarce goods and services. Those already advantaged have an intrinsic edge in not so open market competition for the values of life and capital. Neo-liberalism has triumphed where there is minimal state action and multinational corporations rule the world. The state is impotent insofar as capital is highly mobile across borders. Capital equals money equals power, reversing the traditional trinity. The welfare state has become outmoded because of a too delimited tax base to maintain it. It no longer can steer demands from the populace and the system’s ability to generate capital values to meet that demand. Hence, the state necessarily dispenses with surplus population as redundant, as in the case of New Orleans. Of course, a capital gains tax would alter that scenario, but the established powers have no inclination to waste valuable resources on poor people. For the future to hold hope, the public intellectuals must work on building blocs of confederation, federation, and world government in order for private needs to be met by public availability of funding, which is certainly there. There have been four major eras in man’s history of building wealth: agricultural; factory and assembly line; knowledge and services, such as teaching, administering, and providing health; and the last stage is current in that information and high technology instantaneously circulate capital via a world wired electronically. To even be a player, an individual must have computer knowledge and ownership of access to such hardware in his home and person.

And the status quo of today is nothing other than the whirlpool of an accelerating modernization that has been left to its own devices.” Jürgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays (2001)

Modernization created the state and all the hateful crimes of nationalism of the twentieth century. Habermas wishes for a postmodernism that crosses national boundaries to create a consensus on the core values of a unified world where all are included in a discourse ethics. That necessarily means the enlightenment ideal of universal education as a prerequisite. There have to be intermediary social and political forms between the masses and the outdated nation state system that no longer can meet the legitimate, democratic concerns of all people for the good life in terms of quality of life, and not just the quantity of mass goods that are not fairly distributed. The means are there. What is absent is the will for concerted action to overcome provincial and spiteful loyalties of a tribal nature for species’ needs to be met: that entails guaranteeing health, human rights, the environment, a good job, a meaningful career, equal access to centers of power and money which combines rewards on both criteria of merit and need. If individuals disregard that concern, then there will be endless wars based on archaic mores of religion, race, gender, class, and nationality. The time is at hand to build a discursive will formation that circumscribes the world to include all in the conversations of man and men.

Habermas Encounters Marx

"If we assume, further, that the phenomena of the loss of meaning and freedom do not turn up by chance but are structurally generated, we must try to explain why media-steered subsystems develop irresistible inner dynamics that bring about the colonization of the lifeworld and its segmentation from science, morality, and art."

(The Theory of Communicative Action II, 330-331 (1987).

"Greed is good."—Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

Greed obviously is not good, despite media portrayals to the contrary. The sum of private vices has not led to the public good but rather a deep recession; in fact, the Great Recession of 2008. Nonetheless, President Obama is beholden to the interests of Wall Street to remain electable. His cabinet is staffed by many elite investment banker types who have not the people mind when they give advice to the president. The situation is so absurd that failed institutional chief executive officers are paid out tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers' moneys with little thought as to the irresistible inner dynamics that have brought about the colonization of the White House and Congress (particularly the Senate) of whatever political persuasion by special interest groups that give lie to the prescriptions of the constitution that legitimizes and sanctify popular sovereignty. Economic issues are beyond the understanding of the average lay person. By default of knowledge, the moneyed interests have taken the power away from the people and turned it into political capital to establish a plutocracy into the indefinite future. Capitalist democracy is a contradiction not just in logic but in everyday practices of the political economy.

This discursive will formation, as detailed by Habermas, resulted in the creation of his two volume magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action (1983, 1987). Essentially, Habermas has created a counterfactual world where there are no longer masters and slaves, but only subject/subject or self/other relations where an equality of individuals pertains. There is the ability to empathize with the other and meet his needs and he meets your needs such that a participatory democracy can be an attainable end. So, the possibilities lie within language itself as instruments to enlighten the engaged parties. When language makes people transparent to each other, there no longer will felt to be the need to deceive in order to dominate. The truth will set you free. That premise of course is highly problematic. From Machiavelli and Hobbes to the postmodernists like Foucault, there were counter arguments given in the bodies of their respective writings. Habermas, however wonderful his desire for peace on earth, stands alone with a following that is clearly in the minority. The influence of Kant and Rousseau are obvious in this instance. However, Habermas assumes that material interests are a matter of mutual indifference. That is an assumption not so easy to take at face value. In fact, with the scarcity of resources in the world because of structural problems in the distribution of wealth, war, famine and disease follow in the Malthusian sense. The poor simply get poorer. The motivating value is a selfless search for truth, the above mentioned dialogical ethics. From the local practice of politics to world government, Habermas posits that there is a historical impetus from Enlightenment Reason to build institutions in which the government coincides with the political economy of capitalism and socialist states, eventually encompassing the impoverished nations of the third and fourth worlds. Unfortunately, he grossly underestimates the power of nationalism, even in his own Germany, where minority groups from the third world are not welcome and in fact discriminated against, for instance, the Turks and Greeks.

Habermas took inspiration from Marx, and in a sense rehabilitated him by his innovation of a dialogical ethics, so lacking in his historical role model. Marx had a reason that could not reflect upon its own constitution with a linguistic theory. Marx believed language to be superstructural in nature, reflecting the domination of the bourgeois class in the state and society. Habermas argues that there is an emancipatory thrust in language, in which all the parties to a conflict look into their internal contradictions of argument and then draw conclusions that involve a politics of consent, rather than mutual annihilation, for example by looking at the totality of the late Soviet’s Union’s history.

There is an ethics of care in Habermas because he was influenced by the feminist movement; power would be dispersed horizontally within society. There was an attempt to move from universal, procedural modes of dialogue to concrete instances, historically validated; for example, he took up the case of women, Jews, and the species’ interest of nature.

Habermas started off as a Marxist. However, in the end, he rejected his more violent prescriptions; more importantly, he thought the locus of struggle was for the control of modes of linguistic speech, for how you talk and think will enable you to overcome the colonization of the lifeworld to achieve an intersubjective freedom that has specific referents of an empirical nature. He much wanted to unite the social and moral sciences in order to allow for an emancipatory thrust, in which definite emancipatory values could be espoused without constraints, and nonetheless fleshed out in historical context, for instance, the right of women to full equality.

Habermas strongly advocates a constitutional patriotism. He wants the Basic Law of Germany to be reconsidered so as to allow the citizens en masse to create a public debate in open forums that exclude no one who agrees to agree and if not to tolerate differences in opinion in the hope of changing minds under different conditions in future argumentation. He wants a unified Germany to look to the future of a United Europe, not to the provincial past of Schmitt and Heidegger who exalted the Volksgemeinschaft. Habermas believes that Auschwitz represents ground zero in terms of moral communicative competency and a state inspired instrumental reason applied toward resolving primeval hatreds by making the Other unworthy of life—in other words, to be exterminated. Habermas believes that it would be evil for Germany to try to reconstruct its past in order to salvage any aspects of its militaristic and anti-Semitic past. The new Germany is to be multicultural to be in line with the forces of modernity that are making a global village, or a global political economy with economic coherence and the possibility of confederating states into a world government. That is his Enlightenment ideal for Germany totally to annihilate its collective mentality for sentimentalizing certain periods of its barbaric past. It is neither to be forgiven nor forgotten. He realizes that that prospect will lead to an interminable discussion with no immediate resolution other than with a transfiguration of young Germans into good Europeans and eventually into citizens of the world—in short, racially tolerant.

Habermas posits an idea that is most dangerous throughout the corpus of his works. He says, in the final analysis, that there is only really one Truth in the process of discursive will formation. This idea resonates too closely to the eschaton of Marx’s classless, communist society, in which the truth of History has been realized. This idea of Truth resonates too closely to Rousseau’s General Will, which climaxed in the French Revolution. In the case of the latter two thinkers, posthumously, revolutions were made in their names, respectively in Russia and France. Might there not be the same threat that a left-wing revolution, in the name of redeeming Germany, fashions a sanguinary revolution in order to cleanse Germany of its historical ‘impurities’ so as to create a post Enlightenment man by a despot who has the key to history? And in the name of consummating the constitutional patriotism of Habermas engage in a world war to disseminate the Truth to the unwashed? Of course, such an outcome would be a complete contradiction of all that Habermas represents in terms of advocating a participatory democracy. However, there are parallels in history. Marx himself had been misused by Lenin and Stalin to make a revolution that contradicted the spirit of humanism that characterized Marx’s work to salvage the messianic view of the Jews to attain the promised land of freedom. By twisting his promise, the deliverers of that freedom in the Soviet Union turned out to be tyrants. That similarly could occur with the immense body of writings of Habermas that could be "reinterpreted" selectively by re-reading parts of his works to suit a political agenda to justify a tyrant on a world scale.

In the omnipotence of the word, there can gestate unlimited evil. The ideal speech community demands consensus in the name of Truth. Given extreme political situations, absolutism of ideas gives way to ideological ruthlessness to make reality fit ideals. In the name of absolutist values, the most terrible crimes in history have been committed. Habermas’ writings can breed extremism in the guise of an emancipatory interest. Rawls, on the other hand, restricts himself to historical contingencies to allow for human fallibility. So, personally, I prefer Rawls to Habermas, even though both have polymath systems that are total in nature. Americans have a tradition of pragmatism that circumscribes extremist politics; the contrary has been true of Germany, lacking in depth democratic structures of institutions and the democratic mentality of respecting those who are other than German in their thinking, doing, and willing.