Você está na página 1de 27

University of Chicago Press

Southern Political Science Association


After Virtue, Autonomy: Jurgen Habermas and Greek Political Theory
Author(s): Gerald M. Mara
Source: The Journal of Politics, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Nov., 1985), pp. 1036-1061
Published by: University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Southern Political Science
Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2130806
Accessed: 27-10-2015 14:32 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/
info/about/policies/terms.jsp
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

University of Chicago Press and Southern Political Science Association are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve
and extend access to The Journal of Politics.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

After Virtue, Autonomy:


Jurgen Habermas and Greek
Political Theory
Gerald M. Mara
Georgetown University

lasdairMacIntyre'sAfter Virtue (1981) is only the latest in a series of


statementsurging the revival of a classical or "Aristotelian"approach to
political philosophy. Stephen Salkeverhas argued from a numberof perspectives (1974,1977,1981)thatAristotle'sapproachto politicaltheorycan
help to solve conceptualproblemsor to avoid practicaldilemmasinherent
in alternativeformulations.RichardBernsteinlikewise sees (1977,p. xxii) a
currentrestructuringof social and political theory along the general lines
suggested by an Aristotelianunderstandingof politics. While the above
authorswould, I think, disagree sharply in the interpretationsof certain
importantcomponentsof the Aristotelianposition,they seem unanimousin
drawingtwo generalconclusions.The firstis that the classicalperspective
justifiespolitics by its capacity to produce morallyvirtuouscitizens. In this
regard, it is clearly different from both liberalism,which defends society
because of its protection of individual private interests, and communitarianism, which endorses politics because it affords opportunities for
public activity. The second, and obviously related, conclusion is that
political science must be essentially practical, providing guidelines as to
what is to be done (Politics1323al4ff.). A knowledge of politics and sound
politicalchoices shouldbe mutuallysupportive.Thusunderstood,classical
political theory cannot simply provide descriptions(be they empiricalor
interpretive)of politicalphenomena.Nonetheless,classicalpoliticalscience
resists a "decisionism"or "emotivism"which pictures the best political
activity as stemming from an irreducibleand (rationally)non-justifiable
choice made by a resolutewill.
Much of this praise of the classical approach stems from its alleged
superiorityto liberalism with its accompanying empirical social science
and to communitarianismas supported by contextualhermeneutics.For

'I am very grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier
drafts of this paper.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1037

example, Salkeverjudges (1974, pp. 90-92) the paradigm of virtue to be


superiorto the language of either freedom or community because of its
greaterinclusivenessof importantpolitical questions. MacIntyrebelieves
that a moral philosophy based upon virtue is the only alternativeto the
theoretical cul-de-sac which awaits both liberal individualism and its
Nietzcheanhistoricistcritique-an emotivism which ultimatelydenies the
possibility of rationallysolving our most pressing moral problems (1981,
pp. 111-112).Of coursesuch chargesarehardlyincontrovertible,but let us
assumefor the moment that they have some merit. To returnto a position
informedby Platoor Aristotle,we mustdemonstratehow classicalpolitical
philosophy can possibly be used in the analysis and evaluation of
contemporarysocieties. Whilecautious,Salkeverhintsthat we shouldaim
at supplying a modern content to Aristotle'sform of moral and political
reasoning (1977, pp. 405-7). But MacIntyre contends that a political
philosophybased upon virtue can only be responsiveto modern problems
if we radicallyrevise Aristotle'sframeworkso as to recognize the inherent
historicity of human activities (1981, p. 149). For MacIntyre, our
understanding of "historicityin general" leads us to reject Aristotle's
"teleology in nature,"which is based upon his "metaphysicalbiology," in
favor of a social teleology which recognizes virtues expressed within the
varied practices endemic to different societies (1981, p. 184). As a
consequence, "thegood life for man ... [is] the life spent in seeking for the
good life for man"as directed by societal practicesand traditions.
However, it may be more difficult than MacIntyreallows to derive an
Aristotelian moral theory from a psychology which focuses on the
constitutiverole of traditions.The claim that the good life for man is that
spent in its quest certainlycommunicatesimportantinsights.Butemphasizing the primacy of the searchimplicitly diminishesattempts to outline the
proper goals of human life. MacIntyre'sattachment to Jane Austen's
constancy or Kierkegaard'spurity of heart representsa decisive endorsement of style over substance.By itself the virtue of constancy provides us
with few clues for evaluatinggoals pursuedwith equal authenticity.Some
traditionsmay, after all, elicit the constantpursuitof highly questionable
ends.
MacIntyre'sdifficulties exemplify the dilemma facing those who wish to
arguefor the contemporaryimportanceof classicalpoliticaltheory.On the
one hand, available alternativesseem beset by significantshortcomings.
Yet the classicalposition itself seems to require,even in MacIntyre'sview,
fundamental alteration in light of its dependence on an unacceptable
metaphysics. The aporetic character of MacIntyre's proposals stems
largelyfrom his convictionthatthereis no thirdalternativeto the two poles
occupied by Nietzschean emotivism and an historicallycorrected Aristotelianism(1981,p. 111).

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1038

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

Of course, unsatisfactorycompromises could be avoided if we could


derive a contemporaryperspective on moralvirtue within Aristotle'sown
framework,as Salkeversuggests is possible. Conversely, we could avoid
thistaskif we could, contraMacIntyre,discovera suitablethirdalternative.
Jurgen Habermas' work can be interpreted as an attempt to supply
precisely such an alternative. For Habermas, political communities are
praiseworthyto the extent that they can be called legitimate by persons
acting under personal and social conditions allowing nonbiased, critical
evaluations of alternative possibilities. The legitimate society, thus
understood,is the one that rationalparticipantsin a free dialogue would
identify as capable of satisfyingtheir true common interests.This society
provides only those economic and political arrangementsthat could be
justifiedby an open examinationof all possible alternatives.The political
philosophercan evaluatethe legitimacy of a given society by simulationor
reconstructionof these criticalinquiries.
Habermascontends that his political analysisovercomes shortcomings
inherentin the principalalternatives.His reconstructiveapproachdoes not
claim,as do many empiricaltheoriesof legitimacy,thata legitimatesociety
simply elicits systemicallyacceptablepoliticalbehaviorfrom its members.
Likewise, reconstructionis not simply a hermeneutic interpretationof
social rules that does "not arrive at a judgment of the legitimacy that is
believed in"(1979,p. 204-5).However, Habermassays thathis approachis
also markedly superiorto Aristotelianism,which is for him as well as for
MacIntyrerendered implausible by a fatal reliance on an unacceptable
teleology (1979,p. 201).
Nonetheless,Habermascontendsthatthispoliticaltheoryis also capable
of subsuming many valid components of the positions he contests. For
Habermasas well as for Salkever,"neitherempiricismnor hermeneuticsis
wrong, but . . . each is radically incomplete" (Salkever, 1981, p. 504; cf.
Habermas, 1971, pp. 211, 316). Habermas'position also formally encompasses the two insightswhich seem integralto the classicalposition. First,
politics has a more importantpurpose than the provisionof security.It is
the medium through which human beings can achieve a certain kind of,
indeed the only certainkind of perfection-autonomy andresponsibilityin
the evaluationof individualand social choices. Second, Habermas'social
science is essentially practical. There is in principle no major structural
difference between the informed policy decisions made by membersof a
rationalsociety and the reconstructiveinquiriesof the criticalphilosopher.
However, in spite of the substantialanalytic and criticaladvantagesof
Habermas' perspective, I want to suggest that it contains damaging
shortcomingsas compared with the classical position. Habermasrecommends a certainprocedure ratherthan the pursuitof substantivepolitical
goals. We cannot formulatethe idea of a form of life but only the ideal of a

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1039

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

rational procedure by which the best form of life possible under given
circumstancesmay be identified (1982,p. 262). However, the importance
of thatproceduremay itself rely on a substantiveteleology or an accountof
human perfection. This implicit conception of virtue has a number of
deficiencies as compared with those closer to the Platonic or Aristotelian
conceptions of the best life. In particular,autonomy would seem to be an
intermediategoal whose full significance can only be assessed in light of
those activities that are autonomouslypursued.Consequently,Habermas
may overlook seriousproblemswithinsome procedurallycorrectsocieties
and ignore the substantialadvantages of other communities which seem
procedurally immature. Nonetheless, Habermas identifies important
phenomena that must be taken into account within the project which
Salkever says is most essential: the development of a contemporary
perspective on moralvirtue.
II
The fundamental strength of Habermas'position lies in its ability to
correct,yet incorporate,its principalcompetitorsand to resolveconceptual
conflictsbetween opponentswho areseparatedby seeminglyirreconcilable
differences. From one perspective, Habermas' political theory would
appearto belong squarelywithin the philosophictraditionextendingfrom
at least JohnLocke throughJohnRawlsand RobertNozick. For Habermas
the fundamentalquestion about any political order concerns the grounds
for its legitimacy,the justificationfor its restrainingindividualbehavior"to
preventsocial disintegrationby meansof bindingdecisions"(1979,p. 180).
But in spite of general agreement over the importance of this question,
Habermasand the liberal traditiondiverge significantlyin their answers.
The justificationof liberal politics derives its force from a particular
theory of humannature.Liberaltheoristspresent a variety of descriptions
of human needs; nonetheless, there is remarkable consensus on their
generalstructureand theirsubsequentpoliticalrelevance.This structureis
nicely illustratedby Rawls'distinctionbetween thinand full theoriesof the
good. The thin theory identifies only those basic requirements (for
instance, liberty, opportunity, self-respect, and a moderate amount of
material resources) necessary for human beings to pursue life-plans of
whatever sort (see A Theory of Justice, pp. 396-7). A full theory of the
good, on the otherhand, is capable of describingvariationsin moralworth
as manifest in ways of life (A Theory of Justice, p. 439). Politics is
concerned only with those basic goods subsumableunder the thin theory.
Full-theorygoods cannot be manipulatedby the state (compareLocke, J.
S. Mill, Nozick), nor may their advocates legitimately expect political
supportinvolving the redistributionof scarce resources (see Rawls).

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1040

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

The reasonablenessof the liberalseparationof thin from full theoriesof


the good depends upon the adequacy of two presuppositions.The first is
that a rational evaluation of life plans is, in principle, impossible. The
second assumptionis thatthe liberalportraitof primarygoods is complete.
Consequently,two sortsof challengesarepossible. One may claim,as Plato
and Aristotle do, that the rational identification of virtuous and vicious
ways of life is both possible and necessary.Buteven if thisfirstchallengeis
disallowed, one may also question the adequacy of liberalism'sparticular
thin theory of the good. I believe that Habermaspursuesthe lattercourse.
Habermascontends that the kinds of goods dominatingliberalism'sthin
theory constituteonly one basic humaninterest-the interestin achieving
technical control over natural or social phenomena in order to satisfy
private needs. For him this interest coexists with two other basic needs
which together (integrated within what Habermas calls a "cognitive
interest structure")'serve to identify the fundamentals of the human
condition.In addition to an interestin technicalcontrol,humanbeings are
essentially (though often not consciously) concerned with the practical
requirement of formulating binding social norms and with the
emancipatoryneed to be autonomousand responsible,bound neitherby
social oppressionsnor by internalbiases.
Habermas'portrait of human interests does not make reference to a
single, binding moralprinciple (1975,p. 110). Nonetheless,the primacyof
the emancipatory interest allows him to develop a critical political
philosophy that diverges substantiallyfrom liberalism.The dominanceof
the emancipatoryinterestcan be assertedbecause even thoughthese three
fundamentalinterestsare neutralwith regard to the ends of life, they are
not neutral with regard to one another. Habermas sees the cognitive
interestin technical control as respondingto the most basic humanneeds
for materialsupportand social stability (1975,pp. 9-11). Thusunderstood,
technical skills are valuable because they are instrumentalin satisfying
certainnontechnicalrequirements.For Hobbes and Locke these "primary"
needs can be identified naturallyas the preservationof life and the pursuit
of a subjectively defined conception of happiness (see Leviathan,ch. 14;
I Or, more precisely, a "knowledge-constitutiveinterest structure."An "interest"thus
understoodis not merelyan empiricalconcernor desire,but a "deep-seatedanthropological"
characteristicwhich is in some sense definitive of the relationshipof humanbeings to their
externalenvironment,theirsocial surroundings,and theirmotivations.An interest,therefore,
is an aspect or dimensionof a human"lifestructure"(1971,p. 211). Interestsdirect or shape
humancognitionsandarethus"knowledgeconstitutive."Theoreticalknowledge,in the sense
of a disinterestedcontemplationof timelessthings,thus restson an erroneousontology and
psychology(1971,p. 314).No knowledgeis disinterested.See additionallythe expositionsand
criticismsof Bernstein(1977,pp. 219-225)and McCarthy(1978,pp. 110-125).By equatingan
intereststructurewith a life structureHabermasmay be closer to a certainkind of ontology
thanhe realizes.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1041

Second Treatise,ch. IX, par. 123). However, Habermasresiststhe liberal


tendencies to distinguishbetween acceptable and objectionable uses of
technology by consulting invariable human requirements or to derive
guidance for technical activities from such technologically derived
standardsas efficiency. Instead,the uses of technicalskillsare determined
by interactingindividualswithin particularhistoricalsituations."Eventhe
interestin self-preservation,naturalas it seems, is representedby a social
system that compensates for the lack in man's organic equipment and
secureshis historicalexistence againstthe force of naturethreateningfrom
without .... What may appear as naked survival is always in its roots a
historicalphenomenon. For it is subject to the criterionof what a society
intends for itself as the good life" (1971, pp. 312-313). The limits of
technical rationalitytherefore point to a more encompassingbut no less
basic human interest in the development of shared normative standards
capable of providing instrumentalreason with direction (1971,p. 313).
Understood in this fashion, Habermas'political analysisresembles the
"participatory"theory of HannahArendt, who sees politics as creating a
"public space" in which citizens speaking and acting together may call
"somethinginto being which did not exist before" (1953, p. 177; 1968, p.
151). Like Habermas, Arendt draws a radical distinction between
commitment to life as existence and the practicalimpulse for action. But
Arendt distinctly denies that any human interest can, in turn, guide
practice. In Arendt'spraiseworthy communities, the citizens' conduct is
motivated not by selfish materialism,but by a self-overcoming commitment to a principle (1968, p. 152). Yet as long as they encourage the
forgetting of the material self, Arendt'sprinciples are indistinguishable
from one another.There is no separablestandardby which very different
principlescould be evaluated (see Salkever, 1977,pp. 399-400).
For Habermas,Arendt'sphilosophy of community thus falls victim to
the same fundamentaldefect that plagues philosophicalhermeneuticsas
articulatedby Hans-GeorgGadamer.Neitheris adequate"whenapplied to
systematically distorted communication. For in this case incomprehensibility resultsfrom a faulty organizationof speech itself" (1970a,p. 205).
Habermas'phrase for this defect is "structuralviolence," a condition in
which certain interpretationsof human needs and consequently certain
optionsfor public policy areforeclosed,not merelyby politicalrestrictions,
but by the repressive influence of socialization on individual attitudes.
Arendt'stheory of public activity is thus not sufficiently criticalto free us
from the fettersof ideologies thatrestrictcommunicationsby engendering
deceptive convictions among citizens (1977,p. 22).
Habermas contends that such a critical standard can be derived,
however, from an analysisof the participatorysituationitself (1979,p. 177).
The development of sharedstandardsby "twoor more actingsubjects"can
be understood with reference to an ideal dialogue of which autonomy or

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1042

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

emanciptionis the telos (1973, p. 17). "Whatraises us out of natureis the


only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure,
autonomyand responsibilityareposited for us. Ourfirstsentenceexpresses
unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus.
Taken together, autonomy and responsibilityconstitutethe only idea that
we possess a prioriin the sense of the philosophicaltradition"(1971,p. 314).
Through this identification of the emancipatory interest, Habermas
radicalizes his analysis of language well beyond Gadamer'sclaim that
languageallows the reflective appropriationand developmentof tradition.
WhileGadamer'sfocus on the culturalimmersionof languageallows for a
"recovery of the best in the past" (Gadamer, 1977, p. 26), Habermas'
discovery of emancipationcondemns the inculcationof prejudiceswhich
inevitably occur when "traditionis transferredinto individual learning
processes and appropriatedas tradition"(1977a,p. 357).
For Habermas, the primacy of the emancipatory interest is not an
arbitraryassertion.It can be supported by a developmental theory of the
humanpersonalitywhich Habermasdiscovers by adjustingthe cognitive
development psychology of Lawrence Kohlberg (1979, pp. 79-80). This
critical alterationof Kohlberg'sperspective suggests that human beings
develop moral responsibility not simply through the maturationof the
individual conscience (which does not require critical dialogues with
othersto be effective) but throughthe growth of the individualcapacity to
formulate and test principles of morality in critical exchanges with
similarlyresponsiblepersons.Personalautonomyis implicitin the conduct
of the ideal dialogue. A "universalethics of speech"can only be founded
upon the "perfect" moral discussion (1979, p. 90), which avoids the
structuralviolence dominatingall unjustsocieties.
Societies can, then, be praised according to how much they encourage
effective critical moral and policy discussions,the degree to which they
reject structuralviolence. Habermascalls this perspective on societies the
"model of the suppression of generalizable interests" (1975, p. 113).
Generalizableinterests, the common needs identified by rational interlocutors in a given society, can be suppressed by unjust political and
economic distributions and by the communicative distortions which
prevent those conditions from being challenged (1971,p. 315). Habermas'
criticalsocial science thuspursuesthe highly ambitiousgoal of comparing
the normswhich guide a society at any given point in time with those which
would be createdby rationalparticipantswith "adequateknowledge of the
limiting conditions and functional imperatives of their societies" in an
open, criticalatmosphere (1975,p. 113;1982,pp. 257, 275).
Habermas' approach may well avoid some of the central problems
which MacIntyre,Salkever, and others have ascribed to both liberalism
and communitarianism,while preservingthose elements that appearto be

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1043

insightful. First, Habermas agrees with critics of liberalism that its


catalogue of human goods is incomplete. While the cognitive interest in
technicalcontrolis a legitimatehumanneed, it is limited by or subordinate
to others.However, Habermasbroadly endorsesotherkey elements of the
liberalposition. There is no possibility of identifying a single best life for
man (1975, p. 115; 1979, pp. 201-202; 1982, p. 262). Consequently,
improving the liberal conception of human needs requires an amplified
thintheory of the good which encompassespracticaland emancipatoryas
well as technicalinterests.Therefore,Habermasis more inclined to define
the good society as one in which a certainprocess is guaranteedthanas one
in which certainsubstantivegoals are achieved (1979,p. 205).
Second,Habermasagreeswith criticismsof Arendt'spoliticalphilosophy
that picture it as both too narrow and too uncritical. For Habermas,
Arendt'spolitical theoryinclinesto a kind of decisionism,both in the sense
that the act of decision itself becomes the goal of political activity (1977,
pp.6, 14-15)and in the sense thatthe only rationalcriticismof politicsis that
which can occur in the political context itself. However, Habermasalso
contends that an analysis of this "decisional"context itself supplies a
standard (the autonomous interaction of free interlocutors)that can be
used in the evaluationof policy decisions. Habermasis thusable to employ
a communicativeconcept of politics without abandoninga directive and
critical posture based on rational standards.Under these conditions, he
accepts Arendt'sclaim that politics cannot be criticized, except discursively. In a sense, Habermascan redeem the participatorymodel of politics
througha critical analysis of participatoryacts, just as he can recast the
concept of legitimation by expanding the scope of political phenomena
relevantto legitimacy questions.
Because Habermas' communicative ethics is able to amend both
libertarian and communitarian perspectives without relying on an
Aristotelianteleology, it may be that his work can supply the "third
alternative"to Aristotleor Nietzsche that MacIntyresays is unavailable.
Habermas could perhaps explain the confusion in moral discourse
identified by MacIntyre as something other than the abandonment of
virtue.He may also dissentfrom MacIntyre'sproposed resolutionswithout
lapsing into a defiant emotivism. MacIntyre sees contemporary moral
discourse (over arms control, abortion, and distributivejustice) characterizedby a confusingparadox:vehementassertionsof seeminglyarbitrary
opinions are nonetheless clothed in appeals to impersonal, binding
principles. Habermas could trace this confusion in part to a failure to
differentiatemoraldiscourse,which presupposesan opportunityto reflect
apart from the immediate demands of politics, from moral action, which
inevitablyoccurs understressedcircumstanceswhich press for immediate
responses and compromises. Deeper confusions in moral discourse itself

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1044

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

could likewise be traced not to the irrelevance of virtue for moral


philosophybut to a failureto undertaketrulysearchinginterpretationsof
our situationbecause of social structuresthat distort the communicative
relationship,stifling the "aspirationto become rationalin this area of our
lives" (MacIntyre,1981,p. 9) through"thetraces of violence that deform
repeated attempts at dialogue"(Habermas,1971,p. 315).
Similarly, Habermas'communicative ethics could be seen to offer a
more concrete version of MacIntyre'sclaim that the good life for man is
"thelife spent in seeking for the good life for man"thatis, at the same time,
farlessvulnerableto chargesof culturalrelativism.The processof critically
interrogatingour needs and choices is, for Habermas,always constituted
by a situation in which the definite interests of definite classes conflict
under definite materialcircumstances.But Habermas'recognition that a
truly critical interrogation can only occur under conditions of free
communication requires that we judge the policies chosen in real
circumstances in light of those that would be selected if those same
circumstanceswere assessedby free interlocutorsin an open, nondistorted
exchange (1982,p. 275).
It is importantto reemphasize that Habermas'presumed responses to
MacIntyrein no way rely on Salkever'sadvice to adopt "theprocedureor
logic of Aristotle's political theory." Although Habermas' complex
psychology and critical social theory are faithful to the practicalspirit of
classical political theory, the substance of his position diverges from the
Aristotelianapproachin two importantrespects. The first is his denial of
the Aristotelianview of humannaturewhich, for Habermas,is based upon
a thoroughlyunacceptablemetaphysicalposture(1979,p. 201). Habermas'
second departureis a direct consequence of the first. Good politics is not
the pursuitof certainsubstantivegoods but the adherenceto a preferred
approachfor solving problems. Communicativeethics replaces practical
wisdom.
For Habermas, both departuresare essential because of the inherent
deficiencies of the classicalposition (1979,p. 201; 1982,p. 238). However,
Habermas' position is not without potential drawbacks. From the
perspective of Greek political theory, Habermaslowers the horizons of
politicalphilosophy from substanceto procedure.Thereis no opportunity
within Habermas'frameworkfor evaluatingwhat might be consideredas
substantively objectionable decisions arrived at through procedurally
correctmeans.Habermas'endorsementof communicativeethicsresembles
John Rawls'preference for pure proceduraljustice which "obtainswhen
thereis no independentcriterionfor the rightresult"(A Theoryof Justice,
p. 86). Communicativeethics "requiresthat we give up criticallyjudging
andnormativelyclassifyingtotalities,worldviews, epochs, formof life and
cultures,complexes of life as a whole" (1982,p. 254), and that we replace

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1045

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

thosejudgmentswith criticalcomparisonsof "normativestructuresexisting


at a given time with the hypothetical state of a system of norms formed,
ceterisparibus,discursively"(1975,p. 113).In orderto determinewhether
these sacrifices are necessary and their alternatives adequate, we must
evaluate Habermas' criticisms of the "classical model" in more detail,
beginning with a fuller appreciation of relevant dimensions of classical
political thought.
III
Both Habermas and classical Greek political theory emphasize the
central importance of discourse in politics, but their conclusions differ
significantly.While Habermasderives the primacy of autonomy from his
analysis of communicative competence, Plato and Aristotle evaluate
communicationand thus autonomyaccordingto theircontributionsto the
flourishingof moralvirtue. Aristotleclearly establishescommunicationor
speech as the centralhumanpoliticalcharacteristicwhen he defines man as
a political animalon the basis of his possessing speech.
Andwhy manis a politicalanimalin a greatermeasurethan... any gregariousanimalis clear.
Fornatureas we declaredoes nothingin vain;andmanalone of the animalspossessesspeech
... Speechindicatesthatthe advantageousand the harmful,and thereforealsothe justand the
unjust;for men are distinctfrom the otheranimalsin havingperceptionof good and bad and
justand unjustand similarthings;and it is partnershipin these thatmakesa householdand a
city2(Politics1253a7-18).

In thispassage Aristotledenies thatthe justand the unjustsimply emerge


throughthe process of criticallyassessingthe needs dominantin a society at
any given point in its development. Althougha knowledge of justice and
injustice can only be achieved through discourse, the adequacy of that
knowledge is not determined solely by its meeting the demands of the
communicativecontext. In addition, it must be an accuratepicture of the
natures of just and unjust things which can, in a way, be perceived. In
Aristotle'sterms, a knowledge of these naturescan allow us to distinguish
between more and less adequate speeches about justice.
Aristotle'scontention that justice exists in a way apart from discursive
interactionsthuslends supportto Habermas'claimthatAristotelianpolitics
depends upon a prior teleology. This teleology is based not on a goal
externalto individualhumannaturebut on an immanentperfectionproper
to humanbeings. A person'sachievingor fallingshortof perfection can be
2 Alltranslations
fromAristotle'sPoliticsandNicomacheanEthicsandfromPlato'sGorgias

are my own, although I have been guided throughoutby Rackham's(Loeb), Ostwald's


(Bobbs-Merrill)and Lamb's (Loeb) translationsof the respective works. Quotationsfrom
Plato'sRepublicare from AllanBloom's(BasicBooks) translation.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1046

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

measured by how well he or she exercises the characteristicvirtues


appropriate to the human species. In the political context at least, the
relevant perfection can be understood as moral virtue, not simply the
performanceof certain actions but the development of a permanentand
stable personality3which characteristicallydesires the mean between
excess and deficiency appropriate in particularmoral situations (N.E.
1106bl8-33).
Aristotle'scharacterizationof the morally virtuous personality as the
immanent perfection of the individual determines the content of his
political theory. "Thelawgivers maketheircitizens good by theircustoms,
and this is the aim of every lawgiver; however if they do this poorly, they
fail; this separates a good regime from a bad one" (N.E. 1103b3-7).This
encouragementoccursthroughthe shapingof desires,since "thebeginning
of choice is desire and reasoningdirected toward a certainend .... Hence
choice is appetitiveintelligenceor intelligentappetiteand thiscombination
makesman the initiatorof action"(N.E. 1139a33-b7).Thisdefinitionof the
good city as thatwhich guides the desiresof its citizenstowardmoralvirtue
resultsin two importantcontrastsbetween Aristotelianor Platonicpolitical
theory and Habermas'perspective. First, for Plato and Aristotlea suitable
political standard for a given society cannot be discovered simply by
reconstructing how rational interlocutors would have collectively and
bindinglyassessedneeds and justifiednormsin a given social context (1975,
p. 133). The adequacy of these interpretationsand justificationsmust be
evaluated in light of theirapproximationto or deviation from choices that
would be needed to foster moral virtue in those circumstances. This
evaluation requires at least two kinds of knowledge. The first is an
understandingof the natureand limitationsof the moralvirtue that can be
encouragedin the politicalcommunity (Politics1323al4-16,1333a16).The
second concerns how different social, economic, and psychological
features affect prospects for achieving a good regime in particular
circumstances(see Politics 1327b36-37).Both of these kindsof knowledge
would appearto be necessarypriorto the criticalphilosopher'sconstructing
a simulated dialogue among hypothetical interests in a given society.
Withoutthe firstkind of knowledge, the criticaltheoristmay take existing
societies too seriously;without the second, he may not take them seriously
enough.
Aristotle illustratesthe critical uses of these two kinds of knowledge
when he evaluates, in book three of the Politics, the conflict between
oligarchsand democrats over the natureof justice. Both partiesarticulate
principles of justice based on their own interests. Partisansof oligarchy
3In Greekthe word is hexis.Salkever'sexcellentdiscussionof possibletranslationsof hexis
indicatesthe advantagesand limitationsof renderingit as "personality"(1981,pp. 489-490).

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE, AUTONOMY

1047

contend that political power should be allocated accordingto inequalities


and furtherthat these inequalitiesshould be measuredby differences in
wealth. Supportersof democracyassertthatbecause all citizensare equally
free, they should share equally in political power. But Aristotlecontends
that, while both positions are partiallyright, neither identifies complete
justice.Democratsare correctthatjusticeis equalityamong those who are
truly equal, but wrong in thinking that equal freedom is an accurate
indicatorof true equality. Oligarchsare thereforerightto say thatunequal
human beings deserve unequal political power, but wrong to identify
wealth as the appropriatemeasure of inequality. Aristotle'salternativeis
that the unequal sharing of political power should be based as much as
possible on inequalitiesin moral virtue. Thus a critical reconstructionof
oligarchicand democraticinterestsrequiresthatthey be subordinatedto a
trulygeneralhuman interestin moralvirtue (N.E. 1095al4-21)that can be
fulfilled completely only in the best regime. This attitude toward human
perfection encompasses a further distinction in needs theory beyond
Habermas' separation of suppressed from recognized interests. In
addition, Aristotleseparatestruehumanneeds (which may or may not be
recognized as suchby particularindividualsor in particularsocieties) from
wants or desires that are only apparently beneficial (regardless of the
strengthof perceptionsabout their importance) (N.E. 1114a30-b12).
Aristotle's persistence in separating needs from wants is paralleled,
however, by a reluctanceto assumethatnormal,to say nothingof intense,
desires can be suspended in political discourse. This reluctancecontrasts
with Habermas' requirement that participants in a truly free political
dialoguebe willing to call theirmost importantdesiresopenly into question
(1975,p. 89; 1982,p. 275); in his "perfect"dialogue, interlocutorsare only
bound psychologicallyby a commitmentto free inquiryor by a willingness
to discover those general norms which, in those circumstances,should
govern theirconduct. Butwithinthe Aristotelianframework,a reconstruction which abstractsfrom the influence of desires seriouslymisrepresents
political reality. Oligarchsand democratswho only "layhold on justiceof
some sort"do so precisely because of theirlove for wealth or freedom (see
Politics 1280a15-25). Entering into a hypothetical dialogue between
oligarchsand democratswho no longerinternalizethe love of wealthor the
passionfor freedom ignoreswhat drives these partisansmost stronglyand
what stands most firmly againstsimply rationalsolutionsto theirconflicts.
As a result,Aristotle'sproposed solutionsto these severe politicalproblems
reject the anticipationof unrealisticconditions in which "theprinciple of
the justificationof possible principles"is the only binding psychological
force and rely instead on the improvementor redirectionof ineradicable
concrete desires (See Politics 1267al2-17).
Aristotle'srecognition of the differences between needs and desires
engendersa second majordivergence between Habermasand the classical

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1048

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

perspective. It concerns the relative importance of communicative


competence. For the classicaltraditionthe value of free discourseis clearly
contingent on its contribution to satisfying the human interest in the
flourishingof moral virtue. To be sure, both Aristotleand Plato contend
thatdiscourseis the firmestgroundingfor virtue (manis, after all, political
because he is rational).Nonetheless in certaincircumstancesmoralvirtue
becomes more assuredor morestable as criticalcommunicationis reduced
ratherthan expanded.
Communicationand moralvirtue can diverge because of the inevitable
influence of desire on the growth of communicativecompetence. To this
extentPlatoand Aristotledeny thatany communicationcan be undistorted
in the strong sense which Habermas intends. However, certain kinds of
desires can foster as well as distort the human potential for moral virtue.
Accordingly, the social structuresin which a productive communicative
competence may flourishmustfirstencouragethe habitualsatisfactionand
rejectionof particulardesires. Therefore, while Plato and Aristotlediffer
substantiallyover the ultimateplace of desire in the best city,4they agree
thatthe best educationmustpay attention,firstof all, to appetite (Republic
402al-3; N.E. 1104bl2-14).
Becausecommunicativebenefits cannotbe psychologicallyindependent
of a more complex condition of moralvirtue, Plato and Aristotleare quite
willing to accept narrow communicative distortions which preserve
broader psychic benefits. For example, in some societies or for some
individuals the destruction of the psychological restraintsimposed by
traditionmight cause very great harm. Consequently,beneficial political
changesmay only be possible in ways that make them acceptable to those
involved (see Politics 1289a2-4;Rhetoric 1355a34-47),i.e., in ways that
distorttheirtrue content (see Republic414b7-c3).Thus, in Plato'sGorgias
Socratesdevelops the outlinesof a rhetoriccarriedon "witha view toward
what is best" (Gorgias502e3-4). This kind of rhetoric aims at cultivating
"those desires whose satisfaction makes human beings better" (Gorgias
503c9-d2). For Plato, the need to restrainviolent desires also justifiesthe
much more extensive distortionsof free communicationfound in societies
developed from the beginning-for example, the best cities described in
the Republicand the Laws. In thisregardthe classicalperspectiveseems to
incline stronglyto a traditionalismimmune from criticism.However, two
points of clarificationshould be made.
4 Plato'sbest city aims at an overcoming of physicaldesire that is simply impossibleand
unnaturalfor Aristotle.In anothercontext,I suggest(1983)thatthisdifferenceis explainedby
theirvery differentconceptionsof the soul,especiallyconcerningthe relationshipof thebody
to the soul.CompareRepublic518d7-519al;611b8-c7with De Anima403a7;412b4-9;421a2128 and Metaphysics1035bl4-18.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1049

First, neither Aristotle nor Plato directs persuasive rhetoric and


restrainingtraditionsagainstthe economic interestsof materiallydefined
social classes. Rhetoric is needed primarily because of the strength of
humandesires. Rhetoricis dispensableonly underthe absolutelyunattainable condition of the disappearanceof violent desire or of the emergence
of a willingness to call all internalizationsapartfrom "theprinciple of the
justificationof possible principles"into question.Second, these distortions
of communicationare only justifiableif they fostera trueconditionthatcan
be identified by rationaldiscourse.Plato, Aristotle,and Habermasconcur
that a private reference to formal rules cannot provide suitable ethical
guidance.ButPlatoand Aristotledo not, as Habermasdoes, fix the ultimate
basis of communicativeethics in the very fact of free agreement,however
rational.Critical endorsements of particularneeds assessmentsare valid
only insofaras they reveal realitiesin nature.Thus, Socratesindicatesthat
only "lookingoff toward the nature of the soul" (Republic 618d8-9) and
seeing it as it is "intruth"can allow one "to creep into a man'sdisposition
and see throughit" (Republic577a3).
The differences which I have tried to sketchproduce a generalcriticism
which the classical perspective might direct at Habermas. It is that his
political theory tends to rely on a restrictednumber of psychological and
political criteria.Owing to the priorityof autonomy, Habermasevaluates
societies in terms of their procedural legitimacy: the openness of
communicativestructureswhich promisethe nonsuppressionof truesocial
interests in critical discourse. Aristotle'sfocus on the "mean for us" in
particularcircumstancesis a more complex psychological standardthan
Habermas'recommendedwillingnessto engage in the criticalevaluationof
needs. Consequently, a multiplicity of political arrangementsvariously
responsive to this complex psychological reality play permanent,rather
than simply interim,roles in Aristotle'sbest society.
Of course Habermaswould respond that such a narrowingreliance on
process is unavoidable, indeed desirable, owing to the deficiencies of a
misplaced classicism. Aristotle'spolitical theory rests on an implausible
"metaphysicalmode of thought"(1979,p. 200). Attemptsto resurrectthe
classicalpolitical teaching must thereforerest on "certainreductive forms
of Aristotelianism... a hermeneuticsof everyday conceptions of the good,
the virtuousand the just in order then to certify that an unchangeablecore
of substantial morality is preserved in the prudent application of this
knowledge" (1979,p. 202). This kind of reductionismmay ultimatelyturn
out to be very dangerous,for "whoguaranteesthe grammarof these forms
of life not only regulatescustoms but gives expressionto reason"(1979,p.
204).
Habermas'objections are substantial,and his fears hardly unjustified.
However, it is important to determine whether his central premise, the

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1050

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

incoherence of Aristotle's moral and political teleology, is ultimately


conclusive. Habermasjustlyresistsassertionsof the supremacyof classical
political theory (1982,p. 238). However, recognizingthat the Aristotelian
position requires explication is not, alone, adequate grounds for its
dismissal.

IV
Habermasappearsto reject classicalteleology because it is inconsistent
with the discoveries of modern science (1973,p. 44; 1982,pp. 238, 248). I
cannot comment on that issue here, but I will considerthe more restricted
question of whether a teleological characterizationof the human good is
clearly implausible in light of the portraitsof human activity implicit in
contemporarypolitical theories. Is a conception of some best way of life,
embodied in a consistent personality, necessarily incompatible with the
psychic dominance of any one of the three basic interests identified by
Habermas?
In developing his theoryof justice,JohnRawls (whose political theoryis
based upon an enlightened conception of the technical interest) wants to
exclude directly all conclusionsabout ends of life. The principlesof justice
chosen in the original position presume only expectations for primary
social goods. On this basis Rawls dismisses perfectionism, which directs
"society to arrange institutionsand to define the duties of citizens and
obligationsof individualsso as to maximizethe achievementof excellence
in humanart,science and culture,"as a valid principleof justice.However,
his is surely not the only possible description of excellence. It could be
argued that Aristotle'smoral virtue lies, in a sense, between the primary
goods needed to support the full spectrumof humanendeavors, and thus
desirablefor all, and the considerabletalentsallowingdistinctionin the arts
and sciences, and thus accessible only to a few.
Moreover, Rawls maintains allegiance to an implicit conception of
humanperfectionby endorsingthe "Aristotelianprinciple,"the proposition
that "otherthings being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their
realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities) and this enjoyment
increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greaterits complexity"
(1971, p. 426). The Aristotelianprinciple is thus a standardby which the
various primary goods can be ordered. Self-respect is to be preferred
above "libertyand opportunity,income and wealth,"in fact-"above all"
(A Theory of Justice, p. 433). Consequently, the most praiseworthy
societies are those that foster the development of individualpersonalities
manifesting this kind of excellence. A stable society encourages its
members'sensesof justice.Andthe sense of justiceis a centralpsychological
characteristicof Rawls'Aristotelianpersonality."Thereforethe companion

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1051

principleto the Aristotelianprincipleimplies ... thatthe collective activity


of justice is the preeminent form of human flourishing"(A Theory of
Justice, p. 529).
HannahArendt,who offers an articulatedefense of the integrityof the
practicalinterest,also appearsto exclude considerationsof the best way of
life from her political theory. Politics is the realm of free activity in a
"public space" where one can be seen and admired. However, "the
[political] act itself though it proclaims its goal and makes manifest its
principledoes not revealthe innermostmotivationof the agent"which may
be suffused with "ulteriormotives ... such as hypocrisyand deceit" (1963,
pp. 91, 93). Praiseworthypolitical action is thus understoodas virtuosity,
"anexcellence we attributeto the performingarts ... where the accomplishment lies in the performance itself and not in an end-productwhich
outlaststhe activity that broughtit into existence"(1968,p. 153).
Yet Arendt'spreference for virtuosity over perfection reflects a more
basic preference for a certainway of life. Whilespeakingand actingdo not
generate an end product that lasts beyond performance, they are
nonetheless capable of revealing the unique personalitiesof the actors
"who they are" (1958, p. 179). This unique personalityis not, of course,
reducible to motivations. It can instead be understood as a capacity to
initiate, to call something into being that has not previously existed. Like
Aristotle'smorallyvirtuouscharacter,this capacity is in a sense separable
from individualcreativeacts. Arendtexplicitlycallsactivityin accord with
thiscapacity a kind of happiness.It consistsexclusivelyin "havinga sharein
publicbusiness"(1963,p. 115).Thispraiseof publicly creativepersonalities
is thus due to a prior endorsementof a certainway of life as desirable for
humanbeings.
Thus, Habermas' criticisms of the shortcomings of the technical and
practical congitive interests could also be seen as critiques of the
personalitiesthatencompassthem.In spite of Habermas'firmestintentions,
his alternativeformulationis not developed solely on proceduralgrounds.
Insteadhe reliesupon the priorityof a certainkind of humanactivitywhich
is itself understoodteleologically.
Habermas,of course,openly characterizesthe speech act teleologically;
its telos is matureautonomyor the act of reachingan understanding(1973,
p. 17). However, mature autonomy can be understood in a weaker or
strongersense. In its weaker version, autonomy is expressed as a human
choice thatis neithera technicalpursuitof the goods demandedby appetite
nor a pure decision immune from rationalscrutiny(1982,pp. 226-7). This
kind of autonomyevaluatesthe needs directinginstrumentalaction as well
as the goods that somehow inform resolute decisions. It bases judgments
neither upon the simple acceptance of existing social norms (empirical
legitimacyanddescriptivehermeneutics)noruponthe privatelyrecognized

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1052

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

constraintsof conscience (Kohlberg) or practical reason (Kant). Needs,


motivations, and indeed social norms themselves can be evaluated by
criticaldiscourse (1979,p. 90).
I see no contradictionbetween this weaker sense of autonomy and the
possibility of identifying a best way of life. Adopting this conception of
autonomydoes not compel rejectionof a permanenthumanneed structure;
nor does the recognition of virtue dismiss autonomy in favor of
psychological determinism.Thus Aristotleis able to employ a conception
of choice that allows individualresponsibility,while recognizinga human
end or perfection.
For Habermas,of course, this conception of autonomy is too weak; he
rejects the compatibility of true (strong) autonomy and a permanent
humanneed structure."Theinsightthat the truthof statementsis linked in
the last analysis to the intention of the good and the true life can be
preserved today only on the ruinsof ontology" (1971,p. 317). Habermas
endorses,then, the Hegelianand Kantianfocuses on historyand freedomin
opposition to the Aristotelianconcentration on nature and virtue. The
humangood is not the development of moralvirtuewithina teleologically
understoodnaturalcondition,but the emergence of freedom in the course
of human history. Nonetheless, it may be more difficult than Habermas
believes to disconnect his praise of historical freedom from a naturally
based ontology. Strongautonomy,as Habermasdescribesit, does represent
an optimal humanconditionthatcan itself be understoodas the perfection
of human existence (1971, p. 211). "Ego identity means a freedom that
limits itself in the intention of reconciling-if not of identifyingworthinesswith happiness"(1974, p. 94). This intentionalself-limitation,
like the expressionsof the technical and practicalinterests,has a natural
foundation."Orientationtoward technicalcontrol, toward mutualunderstandingin the conduct of life, and toward emancipationfrom seemingly
Natural'constraintsestablish the specific viewpoints from which we can
apprehendreality as such in any way whatsoever. By becoming aware of
the impossibility of getting beyond these transcendentallimits, a part of
nature acquires through us autonomy in nature" (1970, pp. 311-312,
emphasis mine). Habermas'reliance on this kind of ontology makes it
possible for him to say thatnorms may after all be evaluatedaccordingto
their truth;that is, according to the critical judgments which would be
reachedby free participantsin an open dialogue (1975,p. 117;1979,p. 205).
Of course Habermas contends that the telos of the human interest
structureemerges througha "developmentallogic" thatis nonontological;
i.e., "without recourse to a first unmediated something" (1979, p. 72).
However, Aristotle's"firstunmediated something"is not as mysteriously
distant from human reality as Habermas' phrase might suggest. The
immediate ontological support for Aristotle'saccount of moralvirtue is a

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE, AUTONOMY

1053

permanenthumanneed structurewhich callsfor the perfectionappropriate


to the species. This humanpermanenceis, for Aristotle,ultimatelyrelated
to or consistent with a cosmic, non-human permanence. Nonetheless,
establishingthe connections between these two very different conditions
of permanenceremains,in Aristotle'swork,a highlyprovisionalenterprise.5
The metaphysical world view which informs Aristotelianismdoes not
dissolve the immediate primacy of an objectively discovered, immanent
teleology, capable of explainingthe naturesand existencesof visible things.
Understood in this way, Aristotle'steleology may have much in common
with Habermas'developmental logic. Habermas'analysisof ego identity
reveals a best condition that can be understood as the outcome of ego
development (1979,p. 70), while Aristotle'sclaimthatwhat is justby nature
changes (see N.E. 1134b29-30) guards the classical position against
dogmatic rigidity. Moreover,Habermas'contentionthat "anautonomous
ego organizationis by no means a regular occurrence, the result, say, of
nature-likematuration;in fact, it is usually not attained"(1979, p. 70) is
consistentwith Aristotle'sconclusions once we recognize, with Salkever,
thatAristotledoes not define natureas a "mechanicalsystem governed by
universalcausal laws" (Salkever, 1981, p. 77). For Aristotle,the fact that
natural ends are infrequently actualized is not an inconsistency or
contradiction(see Metaphysics982b29-983all;N.E. 1095bl4-22).
It seems then that Habermas'praise of autonomy and his criticalsocial
science do not so much presume dismissalof the questionof the best life as
offer a particularanswer to that question. Habermashimself unavoidably
relieson a particularconception of humanexcellence;the best way of life is
the autonomouslife. Understood in this way, Habermas'differences with
Platonic or Aristotelianpolitical theory are not formal but substantive.Is
Habermas' endorsement of strong autonomy as a way of life more
acceptable than the classical version which makes the praise of (weakly)
autonomous decisions contingent on the goals which those decisions
pursue?I want to suggest thatHabermas'commitmentto strongautonomy
as a standardfor moraland political choices is both unsuccessfulon its own
terms and potentiallydangerousin its consequences.
Habermasrecognizes,of course,thatin all conceivablepersonalor social
circumstances,strongautonomyis atbest an intermediateend. Autonomous
decisions intend resultsextending far beyond the responsibilityimplicit in
the decision process. Autonomousactors do certain things. However, the
goals which complete autonomousacts are beyond the ken of Habermas'
Thisinterpretationis suggestedby WernerMarx,who says (1977,pp. 57-59)thatAristotle
may view the Prime Moveras the "conditionfor the possibilityof every ousia ... when the
fundamentalconcepts of ousiology are thought throughto the end." Kleingives a similar
assessmentof Plato'sIdea of the Good (1965,p. 26).

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1054

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

systematic defense of responsibility;"cognitive linguistic ethics has no


need of principles"(1975,p. 110). The modes of completing autonomous
acts are supplied, instead, by the social and historicaloptions which face
rational persons. "If the actors do not bring with them, and into their
discourse, their individual life histories, their identities, their needs and
wants, their traditions, memberships and so forth, practical discourse
would at once be robbed of all content" (1982, p. 255, emphasis in text).
Thus, Habermas' defense of strong autonomy "comprises only formal
determinationsof the communicative infrastructureof possible forms of
life and life histories"(1982,p. 228). Habermasviews this approachas an
alternativeto both the development of abstractinsights,"radicallyignoring
all content"and an "enchantment"with a given historicalreality (1982,p.
252). However, communicativeautonomy'sreliance on the opportunities
provided by particular social contexts may be more extensive and
therefore more problematic than Habermasadmits. Habermas'political
standardassumes,however hypothetically,that"allmotives except thatof
a cooperative readiness to arrive at an understanding"can be rendered
inoperative(1973,p. 18). In spite of thissuspensionof virtuallyall empirical
motives, critical dialogue does not entail subordinating the needs of
empirical nature to the dictates of a Kantianrational will. Contingent
individual and cultural needs thus constrain the range of normative
decisions possible in any given social context. Through its autonomy in
nature, a still dependent ego "obtains free access to the interpretive
possibilitiesof the culturaltradition"(1979,p. 93, emphasismine).
Thus the criticalinsightsachieved by partisanswithin class conflicts are
limited to the clarification of existing class interests "with adequate
knowledge of the limitingconditionsand functionalimperativesof a given
society" (1975, p. 113). True critique provides a particularclass with the
opportunity"to make clear to itself how it is to act politically in a rational
manner"(1973,p. 33). Rationalpolicies chosen under these circumstances
are likewise constrained by existing problems and opportunities. The
indeterminacy of empirical circumstances means that even the most
procedurally legitimate society only might come to define happiness as
something other than the accumulationof privately disposable material
objects (1979,p. 199).Indeed, to be trulyfree of structuralviolence, public
policy decisions on social relations or war and peace would have to
consider, in certainhistoricalcircumstances,the objective desirabilitynot
only of radical redistribution and pacificism but also of slavery and
genocide.
The drawbacks of Habermas' failure to provide a fully evaluative
politicaltheorycontinuewithinhis comparativepolitics. Habermasadmits
that his conception of a communicative autonomy is "peculiarlyunreal"
(1973, p. 19). Nonetheless, it is used as the theoreticalbasis, throughthe

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1055

model of the suppressionof generalizableinterests,for criticalcomparisons


among existing (or historical) societies. Habermas, to be sure, has no
superficial modernistic biases: "If one brings standards of discursive
justificationto bear on traditionalsocieties, one behaves in an historically
'unjust'manner"(1979,p. 205). However, the relativepraisehe accords to
different societies is due to their place in a developmental framework
crowned by the emancipatedcommunity.For Habermas,as for Piagetand
Kohlberg,this frameworkrepresents"anirreversiblesequence of discrete
and increasinglycomplex stages of development;no stage can be skipped
over and each higher stage implies the preceding stage in the sense of a
rationallyreconstructiblepatternof development"(1979,pp. 73-4). Within
this pattern traditionalsocieties, those characterizedby an "orientation
toward authority,fixed rulesand the maintenanceof the social order,"are
regarded as less advanced than societies with a "social-contract,legalistic
orientation,generallywith utilitarianovertones."
However, the reliability of these comparative evaluationsdepends on
the reasonablenessof the developmental frameworkitself. The dominant
normsof the legalistic-utilitariansociety praise"therelativismof personal
values and opinions" and are thus closely related to an "instrumental
relativist" orientation in which "right action consists of that which
instrumentallysatisfies one's own needs and occasionally the needs of
others"(1979,p. 79). In light of Habermas'silence about social purposes,it
seems questionable whether the flourishingof proceduralemancipation
can assurefreedom from purposefulinstrumentalist. Moreover,emancipated communitiesare not powerless communities.In light of Habermas'
dramaticreluctance to scrutinizetheir final goals, the pursuitof emancipating social structuresis not without potential dangers. The promise of
unbiasedresponsibilityjustifiesHabermas'defense of "theorganizationof
enlightenment" in which the powerful tools of psychoanalysis and
psychotherapy are deliberately used to help create the psychological
readinessto pursueemancipateddecisionsand activities (1973,pp. 28-32).
And in certain circumstances,anticipationof this procedurallegitimacy
may justifythe "necessityfor compelling norms"until"aggressivenesscan
be curtailedand the voluntaryrecognitionof discursiveprinciplesattained"
(1975,p. 85).
Given these uncertainties,a comparativepolitical science which prefers
some forms of traditionalismto some forms of legalism is hardly absurd.
Stated more positively, we may wish to reject Habermas' pessimistic
conclusionthatno desirablepoliticalmodels can be found withinthe range
of societies which have exhibited what he calls structuralviolence (1971,p.
315).Thus,even if traditionalpoliticalrelationshipsareinevitablysurpassed
by the advances of modern societies, some of these communities may
provide benefits so important that they require rediscovery or approximation throughnontraditionalmeans.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1056

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

Habermas'vulnerabilityto both excessive optimism and unreasonable


pessimism stems from the particularway in which he tries to avoid the
pitfalls of both abstract universalismand uncritical hermaneutics. For
reasonsalreadyclear, he wishes to combine a kind of formaluniversalism
with an intense awareness of the impacts of cultural forces. Habermas
pursues Kant'sgoal of a universal ethics. But the free responsibility of
personswho areendsin themselvesgrowswithincooperativeinvestigations
of concrete moralproblemsratherthanin rationalprivatecommitmentsto
the categoricalimperative. Nonetheless these specific cooperative efforts
are also more criticaland self-consciousthanthe rationalethical behavior
of free citizens associated within the Hegelian state. Habermas'ethical
reality requires an explicit allegiance reinforced by a willingness to
entertainalternativesratherthanan implicitcompliancewhose significance
is only dimly perceived (see Philosophyof Right,sec. 261). However, this
very demanding, critical formalism threatens to convict virtually all
societies of structural violence. At the same time, the absence of a
substantive standard for rationality means that we must accept the
enormous circumstantial influences which social structures exert on
formally autonomousdecisions. The classicalperspective may be able to
avoid optimistic and pessimistic excesses because it provides a fundamentally different alternativeto both formal universalismand historical
interpretation.
Plato and Aristotle fall outside of Habermas'characterizationof the
philosophic tradition which "from the beginning . .. has presumed the

autonomyand responsibilityposited with the structureof languageare not


only anticipated,but real" (1971,p. 314). Habermasrejects the supposed
naivete of this tradition through his denial that Socratic dialogues are
"possibleeverywhereand at any time."Buthe counterswith his own highly
optimisticversionof the universallyrationalistgoals of the Enlightenment
emerging throughhumanhistoricalactivity. Thus, Habermaspresentsthe
Socraticdialogue, understoodin a highly rationalisticfashion,as prospectively possible for everyone. Habermas rejects efforts to recover the
metaphysicalphilosophicconcernsof Platoand Aristotle.Butall may strive
for the practicalautonomyimplicitin every seriousdialogue.For Platoand
Aristotle,however, the strongsense of autonomyis surelyunreal,not only
empiricallybut also prospectively. The complete sublimationof desire to
"a willingness to reach an agreement"is psychologically both impossible
and undesirable.Whatis real in theireyes is a permanenthumanpotential
for moralvirtue,partiallydefined by the psychologicaldominanceof right
desire. This conception of human excellence recognizes that a weaker
autonomy, fully capable of the argumentativeexamination of political
choices (1982,p. 275), is possible everywhereand at any time, althoughnot
for everyone. Those incapable of such autonomous self-direction can,

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1057

however, develop an approximatemoralvirtuethroughhabitsengendered


by broadly educationalsocial structures.
Thus the optimal political structureis that which nourishesor approximates this sort of autonomyby inculcatinggood habitsin its citizens (N.E.
1103b2-7).An autonomouschoice in this context, then, is not the rational
acceptance of authority (see Gadamer, 1976, pp. 32-34), but rather a
rational questioning of dominant values which is rooted in a societally
induced conviction of the psychological necessity for and objective
coherence of defensible value structures. While this weaker form of
autonomy or its approximation through positive habits is not as selfsufficientas Habermas'strongerversion,it is more immediatelyaccessible
to individuals, even in communicatively distorted (i.e., the range of
existing) societal contexts.
Aristotlethus offers an alternativeto the paths identified by Habermas
regarding the "historicalembedding of political reason" (1982, p. 251).
Aristotle'spolitical theory recognizes the constraintswhich existing social
conditionsimpose on political action. His "bestcity" is not possible under
all or most empirical political circumstances. However, approximate
attemptscan be recognized as such, owing to the substantiveconceptionof
the proper goals of political action which a knowledge of the natureand
possibility of moral virtue provides. Within Habermas' framework
however, a free, autonomous choice of a principle of happiness only
partiallyovercoming the dominance of materialself-satisfaction(1979,p.
199) cannot be designated as incomplete because a conclusive account of
permanentinterestsis in principle unavailable.
But if Habermas' conception of autonomy can be deepened by an
appreciation of Aristotelian ethics, contemporary political theorists
stimulated by the Aristotelianperspective can also employ Habermas'
conception of autonomy within attempts to develop a perspective on
virtue that is of contemporaryrelevance. I am thinkingparticularlyof the
possibilities for moral virtue within modern democracies. Habermas
suggests that politics can be a desirableactivity or way of life even in the
context of mass societies governed by representativebodies and bureaucracies. His investigations are designed, in part, to show that political
activity in large industrialized societies can be both effective and
choiceworthy. Its effectiveness is illustrated by the strides which the
working classes in the western democracies have made toward a more
equitable distributionof the products of capitalist enterprise (1973, pp.
232-3). There is indeed no reason to believe that democratizationin those
societies is not capable of effecting even more fundamental changes in
economic structures(1973,pp. 234-5).
However, the value of politics extends beyond its beneficial productsor
consequences. It is the only activity in which the critical examinationof

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1058

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985

dominant societal values, the opportunity to free oneself from the


restrictive bounds of ideology, is possible. A true critique which makes
clearthe natureof classinterestsnot only providesa foundationfor rational
strategic action, but also endows individuals with the capacity to act
autonomously through the "communicativeaccess to [their] own inner
nature[s]"(1979,p. 74). For "onlycommunicativeethics is universal(and
not, as is formalistic ethics, restricted to a domain of private morality
separate from legal norms): only communicative ethics guarantees
autonomy"(1975,p. 84).
Second, Habermas focuses on the changes in social conditions which
makecertainkinds of achievementspotentiallyaccessibleto a muchlarger
number of persons than in Aristotle's polis. Aristotle's restriction of
citizenship to the leisure classes is not due so much to class prejudice (see
MacIntrye, Collingwood) as to a factual acceptance of the dismal
economic and educational circumstances surrounding craftsmen and
laborers(see Politics 1278al5-22).But Habermasunderscoresthe immense
political importanceof economic and social improvementsbroughtabout
by "the development of the forces of production" and the spread of
educational opportunities. To be sure, both economic and educational
advances can currentlybe seen as responsesto and thus components of a
capitalistmarketeconomy. Nonetheless,when they are combined with the
inevitable problems attendingeven controlled capitalism,both advances
have the potential to effect fundamental reforms. Consumerism, for
example, is not the inevitable outcome of the development of the forces of
production (1975, p. 83). The expansion of educational opportunities
likewise provides opportunities for challenging the utilitarianview of
education rooted in a materialisticachievement orientation(1970,p. 28).
While these examples are necessarily sketchy, they do suggest that
Habermas provides a number of valuable insights into the political,
economic, and educational factors which both shape and constrain
attempts to develop a perspective on moral virtue that could be used in
contemporarysocial criticism.In makingthisobservation,I do not meanto
suggest that a synthesis of Habermas and the classical tradition can, by
itself, provide us with a rejuvenated "politicsof virtue."But if efforts to
synthesize are likely to be artificial or frustrating,attempts to initiate
dialogue promise to be both feasible and helpful. The resultswhich might
be expected from such dialogue are as yet itself only anticipated.Yet their
potential importanceis substantial.
In a much different context, Thomas Pangle rightly observes that "the
reality of the Western state has in some ways come to resemble the
theoreticalinterpretationgiven by Kantand Hobbes" (1976,p. 362). Can a
political theory based upon a substantive conception of moral virtue
evaluate this reality in a useful way? In spite of his considerable efforts

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE,AUTONOMY

1059

MacIntyrewould appear to answer negatively. A conception of virtue


based upon a naturalteleology seems to him incoherent. And the liberal
state'scapacity to provide the political basis for a social teleology of virtue
is truly impoverished. On these grounds, MacIntyreconcludes "thatthe
modern state is totally unfitted to act as a moral educator of any
community" (1981, p. 182). Accordingly, modern political philosophy
seems consignedeitherto specifying those structurescapable of solvingthe
political problem (i.e., providing security) even, in Kant'sphrase, "for a
race of devils, if only they are intelligent" (see Perpetual Peace, First
Supplement) or to casting a backward, knowing glance at a history of
moral and political decay with only the slighest prospect for supplying
concrete alternatives.6
Habermas'conclusionsare somewhat more promising,at least insofaras
he allows that political activity in modern society has some chance of
fulfilling a human potential that is different from and superior to
undirected technical instrumentalismand pure, pragmatic decisionism.
We arenot confrontedwith the depressingchoice of becoming eithersocial
engineersor, so to speak, inmatesof closed institutions(1973,p. 282).
At the same time, however, a Socratic or Aristotelianconception of
virtuemay profitablyinformand perhapsalterHabermas'theoryof moral
development. One benefit to this alterationwould be that we could avoid
reliance on Habermas'intermediate, problematic conception of strong
autonomy without lapsing into either emotivist or deterministtheoriesof
action. The dialogue I am recommending would then be faithful both to
Habermas'focus on communicativecompetence and to the Socratic and
Aristoteliantraditions. Its principal concerns would be to pose critical
questions about the definition of human excellence in the context of
contemporary political and economic structures and to assess the
interpretationof needs and the formation of social norms in light of this
inquiry. Such a dialogue may provide the best path we have toward a
criticalpolitical theory that is responsive both to our cognitive interestin
emancipationandto ouroverridinghumaninterestin combiningworthiness
with happiness.

MacIntyre'sconcludingpraise of "localforms of communitywithin which civility and


intellectualand moral life can be sustainedthroughthe new dark ages" is not especially
comforting.Not only is it maddeninglyvague in itself, but MacIntyrealso offersno cluesas to
whether (and, if so, how) this sort of communitycould benefit those who must continueto
dwell and work in mass societies.
6

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

1060

THE JOURNALOF POLITICS,VOL. 47, 1985


REFERENCES

Anscombe,G. E. M. (1967)."Thoughtand Actionin Aristotle."Reprintedin JamesJ. Walsh


and HenryL. Shapiro(eds.), Aristotle'sEthics. Belmont,CA:Wadsworth.
(1969)."ModernMoralPhilosophy."Reprintedby W. D. Hudson(ed.) The Is-Ought
Question.London:Macmillan.
Arendt,Hannah(1958).The HumanCondition.Chicago:Universityof Chicago Press.
(1963).On Revolution.New York:Viking.
(1968).Between Pastand Future.New York:Viking.
Aristotle(1961).Metaphysics,2 vols. Trans.by Hugh Tredennick.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
(1962).NicomacheanEthics.Trans.by MartinOstwald.Indianapolis:Bobbs-Merrill.
(1964).On the Soul, ParvaNaturalia,On Breath.Trans.by W. S. Hett. Cambridge,
MA:Loeb.
(1966).Rhetoric.Trans.by H. Rackham.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
(1967).Politics.Trans.by H. Rackham.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
(1968).NicomacheanEthics. Trans.by H. Rackham.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
Bernstein,Richard (1977). The Restructuringof Social and Political Theory. New York:
Harcourt,Braceand Jovanovich.
Gadamer,Hans-Georg(1977).PhilosophicalHermeneutics.Berkeley:Universityof California
Press.
Habermas,Jurgen(1970).Towarda RationalSociety. Trans.by JeremyJ. Shapiro.Boston:
Beacon.
(1970a)."OnSystematicallyDistortedCommunication."Inquiry13:205-218.
(1970b)."Towarda Theory of CommunicativeCompetence."Inquiry13:360-375.
(1971). Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. by Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston:
Beacon.
(1973).Theoryand Practice.Trans.by JohnViertel.Boston:Beacon.
(1975).LegitimationCrisis.Trans.by Thomas McCarthy.Boston:Beacon.
(1977)."HannahArendt'sCommunicationsConcept of Power."Social Research44:
3-24.
(1977a)."AReview of Gadamer'sTruthand Method."Reprintedin Fred Dallmayr
andThomasMcCarthy(eds.), Understandingand SocialInquiry.NotreDame:University
of Notre Dame Press.
(1979). Communicationand the Evolution of Society. Thomas McCarthy,trans.
Boston:Beacon.
(1982)."AReplyto MyCritics."InJohnThompsonandDavid Held (eds.),Habermas:
CriticalDebates. Cambridge,MA:MIT Press.
Hobbes, Thomas (1962).Leviathan.Ed. by MichaelOakeshott.New York:Collier.
Kant, Immanuel (1957). Perpetual Peace. Trans. by Lewis White Beck. Indianopolis:
Bobbs-Merrill.
Kohlberg,Lawrence(1981).The Philosophyof MoralDevelopment:MoralStagesof theIdea
of Justice.San Francisco:Harperand Row.
Locke, John (1966). Two Treatisesof Government.Ed. by Thomas I. Cook. New York:
Hafner.
MacIntyre,Alasdair(1981).After Virtue.Notre Dame: Universityof Notre Dame Press.
Mara,Gerald(1983)."PoliticsandActionin Plato'sRepublic."WesternPoliticalQuarterly36:
596-618.
Marx, Werner (1977). Introductionto Aristotle'sTheory of Being as Being. The Hague:
MartinusNijhoff.
McCarthy,Thomas (1978).The CriticalTheoryof JurgenHfabermas.Cambridge,MA:MIT
Press.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

AFTERVIRTUE, AUTONOMY

1061

Nozick, Robert (1974).Anarchy,Stateand Utopia. New York:BasicBooks.


Pangle,Thomas(1976)."TheMoralBasisof NationalSecurity:FourHistoricalPerspectives."
In KlausKnorr(ed.), HistoricalDimensionsof NationalSecurityProblems.Lawrence,KS:
Universityof KansasPress.
Plato (1962).Laches,Protagoras,Meno, Euthydemus.Trans.by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge,
MA:Loeb.
(1967).Theaetetusand Sophist.Trans.by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
(1968).Republic.Trans.by AllanBloom. New York:BasicBooks.
(1969).Republic.Transby PaulShorey.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
(1969).Laws. Trans.by R. G. Bury.Cambridge,MA:Loeb.
Rawls,John (1971).A Theoryof Justice.Cambridge,MA:HarvardUniversityPress.
Salkever, Stephen (1974). "Virtue, Obligation and Politics." American Political Science
Review 68: 78-92.

(1977)."Freedom,Participationand Happiness."PoliticalTheory5: 391-413.


(1981)."Aristotle'sSocial Science."PoliticalTheory9: 479-508.

This content downloaded from 78.56.136.104 on Tue, 27 Oct 2015 14:32:59 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions