At the "3:AM Magazine" (May 17, 2013), Richard Marshall interviews James Gordon Finlayson on
Habermas, Adorno, Politics
The debate between Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls "concerns their respective political theories. It is basically a dispute between Rawls’s theory of Political Liberalism, and Habermas’s Discourse Theory of Law. It is not primarily a dispute between Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Habermas Discourse Ethics. Principle (U) is the central idea in Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, which is a moral theory, not a theory of law or of democratic legitimacy, while the argument from the Original Position takes a back seat in Rawls’s Political Liberalism. People who interpret the Habermas Rawls dispute in the light of the contrast between Habermas’s principle (U) and Rawls’s Original Position, are looking at the wrong thing and so miss the real points of dispute.
What people should have been asking is this. What are the central organizing ideas of their respective political theories, and on what significant points do these ideas conflict? To my mind the real point of dispute concerns their different conception of the political and of democratic legitimacy. According to Rawls “ the liberal principle of legitimacy” implies that legitimate laws, laws whose enforcement is properly justified to those who must live under them, may not appeal to principles and ideas insofar as they form part of any comprehensive philosophical or moral doctrine, but only insofar as they form part of an overlapping consensus of all reasonable comprehensive doctrines. For various reasons, Habermas has to deny this. For one thing, he maintains that morality, that is principle (U) and the norms it validates, constrain what can count as legitimate law. Habermas claims at various places that that legitimate laws must “harmonize with the universal principles of justice and solidarity”. More precisely he writes that “a legal order can be legitimate only if it does not contradict basic moral principles.” Whatever way you look at it Habermas’s conception of morality (and his theory of Discourse Ethics) is what Rawls would call comprehensive moral (or philosophical) doctrines. The fact that Habermas calls his theory ‘proceduralist’ is irrelevant. After all he claims that substantive moral norms, namely all those norms that are validated by the procedure – namely discourse in conformity to (U) – constrain legitimate laws on pain of giving rise to cognitive dissonance (between moral and legal demands). There are other important differences too. Habermas allows that conceptions of the good may be germane to the justification of legitimate law, a claim that Rawls again, must deny. Finally, Rawls is right to claim that Habermas’s conception of legitimacy is comprehensive, at least in one obvious sense: it presupposes that a controversial philosophical theory is true, namely discourse ethics."
James Gondon Finlayson is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Sussex. He is the authour of "A Very Short Introduction to Habermas" (Oxford University Press, 2005) and co-editor (with Fabian Freyenhagen) of "Habermas and Rawls. Disputing the Political" (Routledge, 2011).