Habermas and Theology (Philosophy and Theology)


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By opening up legally defined spheres of individual freedom, modern law reduces the burden of questions that require general society-wide discursive consensus. Within these legal boundaries, individuals are free to pursue their interests and happiness as they see fit, normally through various modes of association, whether that pursuit is primarily governed by modes of strategic action as in economic markets , by recognized authority or consensual discourse e.

Consequently, modern law is fundamentally concerned with the definition, protection, and reconciliation of individual freedoms in their various institutional and organizational contexts. The demands on the legitimation of law change with this functional realignment: to be legitimate, modern law must secure the private autonomy of those subject to it.

The legal guarantee of private autonomy in turn presupposes an established legal code and a legally defined status of equal citizenship in terms of actionable basic rights that secure a space for individual freedom.

Religion and Democracy in the Thought of Jürgen Habermas | SpringerLink

However, such rights are expressions of freedom only if citizens can also understand themselves as the authors of the laws that interpret their rights—that is, only if the laws that protect private autonomy also issue from citizens' exercise of public autonomy as lawmakers acting through elected representatives.

Thus, the rights that define individual freedom must also include rights of political participation. The exercise of public autonomy in its full sense presupposes participants who understand themselves as individually free privately autonomous , which in turn presupposes that they can shape their individual freedoms through the exercise of public autonomy. This equiprimordial relationship, Habermas believes, enables his discourse theory to combine the best insights of the civic republican and classical liberal traditions of democracy, which found expression in Rousseau and Locke, respectively a, chap.

Habermas b, chap. Because these rights are abstract, each polity must further interpret and flesh them out for its particular historical circumstances, perhaps supplementing them with further welfare and environmental rights. In any case, the system of rights constitutes a minimum set of normative institutional conditions for any legitimate modern political order. The system of rights, in other words, articulates the normative framework for constitutional democracies, within which further institutional mechanisms such as legislatures and other branches of government must operate.

The idea of public autonomy means that the legitimacy of ordinary legislation must ultimately be traceable to robust processes of public discourse that influence formal decisionmaking in legislative bodies. Decisions about laws typically involve a combination of validity claims: not only truth claims about the likely consequences of different legal options, but also claims about their moral rightness or justice , claims about the authenticity of different options in light of the polity's shared values and history, and pragmatic claims about which option is feasible or more efficient.

Legitimate laws must pass the different types of discursive tests that come with each of these validity claims. Habermas also recognizes that many issues involve conflicts among particular interests that cannot be reconciled by discursive agreement on validity but only through fair bargaining processes. This puts his democratic principle in a rather puzzling position. On the one hand, it represents a specification of the discourse principle for a particular kind of discourse legal-political discourse.

This makes it analogous to the moral principle U , which specifies D for moral discourse. As a specific principle of reasonable discourse, the democratic principle seems to have the character of an idealizing presupposition insofar as it presumes the possibility of consensual decisionmaking in politics. For Habermas, reasonable political discourse must at least begin with the supposition that legal questions admit in principle of single right answers c, —95 , or at least a set of discursively valid answers on which a fair compromise, acceptable to all parties, is possible.

This highly cognitive, consensualist presumption has drawn fire even from sympathetic commentators. One difficulty lies in Habermas's assumption that in public discourse over controversial political issues, citizens can separate the moral constraints on acceptable solutions, presumably open to general consensus, from ethical-political and pragmatic considerations, over which reasonable citizens may reasonably disagree. As various critics have pointed out, this distinction is very hard to maintain in practice, and perhaps in theory as well Bohman ; McCarthy ; Warnke On the other hand, the democratic principle lies at a different level from principles like U , as Habermas himself emphasizes b, The latter specify D for this or that single type of practical discourse, in view of internal cognitive demands on justification, whereas the former pulls together all the forms of practical discourse and sets forth conditions on their external institutionalization.

From this perspective, the democratic principle acts as a bridge that links the cognitive aspects of political discourse as a combination of the different types of idealized discourse with the demands of institutional realization in complex societies. As such, the democratic principle should refer not to consensus, but rather to something like a warranted presumption of reasonableness.

In fact, in a number of places Habermas describes democratic legitimacy in just such terms, which we might paraphrase as follows: citizens may regard their laws as legitimate insofar as the democratic process, as it is institutionally organized and conducted, warrants the presumption that outcomes are reasonable products of a sufficiently inclusive deliberative process of opinion- and will-formation , When these arenas work well together, civil society and the public sphere generate a set of considered public opinions that then influence the deliberation of lawmakers In light of the above ambiguity in the status of D , however, one might want to take a more pragmatic approach to democratic deliberation.

Such an approach e. Habermas's discourse theory also has implications for international modes of deliberation—hence for the debate about a potential cosmopolitan political order. To understand his position in this debate, it helps to sketch a typology of the main theories.

The current discussion moves along four main axes: political or social, institutional or noninstitutional, democratic or nondemocratic, and transnational or cosmopolitan. Theories are informed by background assumptions about the scope of cosmopolitanism: whether it is moral to the extent that it is concerned with individuals and their life opportunities, social to the extent that it makes associations and institutions central, or political to the extent that it focuses on specifically legal and political institutions, including citizenship.

Habermas's position in this debate is moderate.


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It is not minimal in the sense of Rawls's law of peoples, which denies the need for any strong international legal or political order, much less a democratic one. Nor is it a strongly democratic position, such as David Held's version of cosmopolitan order. However, both Held and Habermas share a common emphasis on the emergence of international public law as central to a just global political order. Democracy on the nation-state model connects three central ideas: that the proper political community is a bounded one; that it possesses ultimate political authority; and that this authority enables political autonomy, so that the members of the demos may freely choose the conditions of their own association and legislate for themselves.

POSTMODERN PHILOSOPHY AND FAITH

The normative core of this conception of democracy lies in the conception of freedom articulated in the third condition: that the subject of legal constraints is free precisely in being the author of the laws. If this applies to the modern state, then it would seem that cosmopolitan democracy would take this trend even further.

For Held , cosmopolitan democracy is clearly continuous with democracy, at least in form, as it is realized within states. Held's approach thus has three enormous advantages: an emphasis on a variety of institutions; a multiplicity of levels and sites for common democratic activity; and a focus on the need for organized political actors in international civil society to play an important role in a system of global democracy.

Contrary to his earlier essay on Kant's Perpetual Peace, Habermas has now pulled back from Held's strong conception of cosmopolitanism. In The Postnational Constellation a; German ed. Still, he cannot have it both ways. This is because he clearly, and indeed surprisingly, makes self-determination through legislation the deciding criterion of democracy. Consequently, at the transnational level, the fundamental form of political activity is negotiation among democracies. This demos is at best a civic, rather than political, transnational order.

More recently, he argues that regulatory political institutions at the global level could be effective only if they take on features of governance without government, even if human rights as juridical statuses must be constitutionalized in the international system , — As in the case of Allen Buchanan's minimalism, this less demanding standard of legitimacy does not include the capacity to deliberate about the terms governing the political authority of the negotiation system itself. This position is transnational, but ultimately nondemocratic, primarily because it restricts its overly robust deliberative democracy to the level of the nation state.

The stronger criteria for democracy are not applied outside the nation state, where governance is only indirectly democratic and left to negotiations and policy networks. Furthermore, the commitment to human rights as legal statuses pushes Habermas in the direction of Held's fundamentally legal form of political cosmopolitanism.

At the moment, Habermas's view of cosmopolitan politics is not yet fully stable. But it is clear that he thinks that a cosmopolitan order must be political and not merely juridical ; institutional and not merely organized informally or by policy networks ; transnational to the extent that it would be like the European Union, an order of political and legal orders ; and in some sense democratic or at least subject to democratic norms.

However, in order for him to fully adopt this last characteristic of the international system, he will have to rethink his conception of democracy as self-legislation. If he does not do so, it seems impossible to fit democracy onto a transnational rather than fully Kantian cosmopolitan order. On the topic of religion, Habermas has taken a nuanced position that continues to develop.

The Fragility of Secular Reason

In his Theory of Communicative Action , he treated religion primarily from a sociological perspective, as an archaic mode of social integration. Since then, however, he has explored the role of religion in politics, on the one hand, and the relationships between religious and philosophical modes of discourse, on the other. At the same time, Habermas insists on the difference between theological and philosophical modes of discourse: as a reflection on faith, theology must not renounce its basis in religious experience and ritual.

Consequently, he resists apologetic attempts to generate religious belief from philosophical premises. Habermas has further developed his views on the relation between philosophy and faith in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger who would become Pope Benedict XVI b; German ed. The Christian idea of human beings as created in the image of God has been especially important for Western moral-political theory, which translated the religious idea into the secular view of persons as equal in dignity and deserving unconditional respect ibid.

This assimilation of Christian ideas does not gut their substance, however. In acknowledging that religious modes of expression can harbor an integral cognitive content that is not exhausted by secular translations, Habermas seems to have located the boundaries of his methodological experiment in demythologization.

He thus calls for a dialogue in which secular and religious forms of thought mutually inform and learn from each other. At the center of contention are the duties of believing citizens to translate their religiously based claims into secular, publicly accessible reasons. Audi places the heaviest burden on believers, requiring them to support only those laws for which they have sufficient public reasons; each citizen thus has a duty to translate religiously based arguments into secular ones.

For Habermas, Audi and Rawls underestimate the existential force of religious belief—how such belief can, at least for some believers, provide the only sufficient basis for their political views, even when public reasons might also be taken as supporting the views in question. The demand that believers translate their comprehensive religious views into secular justifications imposes undue burdens on believers of this sort.

The demand for translation, rather, pertains only to politicians and public officials with institutional power to make, apply, and execute the law. As Habermas reads them, Weithmann and Wolterstorff take the opposite line from Rawls and Audi, opening up public discourse to untranslated religious arguments. Weithmann requires believers to argue for their positions as good for everyone, but he allows them to frame such arguments within their religiously based conception of justice.


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Wolterstorff removes even this mild constraint. Both thinkers do not impose any institutional filter: not only in the public sphere but also in the halls of power, religious reasons can suffice to justify coercive legal and administrative decisions. Indeed, Wolterstorff seems to reject a key idea behind democratic legitimation, namely the presumption that procedures and decisions should operate within a background framework of principles acceptable to all citizens.

Jürgen Habermas

Consequently, it is unclear how a democracy should maintain its legitimacy and avoid devolving into an endless strife of factions simply vying for power. In the background of these debates lay contention over the burdens of citizenship. Believers might object that Habermas still places an asymmetric burden on them. After all, they must eventually, at the institutional level, shift over to secular modes of justification, whereas non-believers need not carry out the same kind of move toward religious justification.

In response, Habermas has offered the hypothesis that both believers and non-believers are involved in a complementary learning process in which each side can learn from the other.

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