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Index of Topics on Site Chapter 2: Private Versus Public Autonomy

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2003.
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On the Relationship between the Individual and the Social Community: Private versus Public Autonomy

(Habermas, Pp. xxiv-xxvi): Note the tradition Habermas emphasizes from John Locke, liberal concern for individual liberty and rights, as compared to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose emphasis is on civic republicanism, the common good, and popular sovereignty.

Habermas bases legitimacy on discourse that includes both private autonomy and public autonomy. He does not believe that you can have legitimacy which ignores either of these.

Natural law is that law which seems to come from a higher source beyond the laws written by man. Kant identified that source as morality. Habermas objects that morality is tied to specific religious and spiritual beliefs that in the age of phenomenology are subject to question. Rousseau identifies the higher source of natural law as "shared tradition, civic virtue, agreement on the common good," what Habermas calls "ethics." Habermas objects that the ethics approach is no longer feasible in the face of global pluralism. He suggests that the legitimacy we tend to see in natural law must come in the twenty-first century through democratic discourse and agreement on those values in which we can all believe. Habermas also insists that we must all participate in such democracy. Exclusion confounds the legitimacy.

An Example of Our Confusion When Confronted by A Structural Barrier that Feels and Looks Like an Individual Problem

When a student says, "Your test discriminates. It is not a good test," the student is questioning legitimacy. When the administrator asks, "Why do you say that?" the student sometimes answers in confusion, "Because I can't pass it." This is the point at which our experience fails us, and rightly so. That is Habermas' point, that the new pluralism has left us confused about the logic and the legitimacy of handling such dilemmas: are they individual? Does the difference reside in the individual? Or are the dilemmas structural and have we merely failed to grasp some perspectives?

The student usually fails to make the underlying but clearly felt claim, "And I know that I am smart enough to pass it." The student loses the argument when the administrator answers logically, "So are you saying that my test discriminates because many people in your social group do not pass it?" When the test is a basic writing, or basic math test, there has been some general institutional agreement that passing that test indicates a fundamental standard. For the student to argue that the test is unfair because an indiscriminate number of his/her group fail seems to argue that standards should be lowered for that group. Yet the institution views the test as a neutral test, required for all. Logic dictates that there may be a minimal standard set for all, especially when a society is concerned with raising educational standards. The student's objection seems to attempt the social reconstruction of logic, that somehow lower standards for some people, or groups of people, will not lower overall standards for the whole society. Often the student is at a loss for words at this point to explain why he/she is sure that the test in fact discriminates.

Habermas emphasizes our need to "institutionalize democratic processes," to define what tests do measure the learning that is needed for the public good (rules akin to positive law). We must then engage in discourse to resolve our concerns about why some persons or groups of persons seem to fail such tests more frequently than some other groups (legitimacy concerns). If we can agree on ways that provide access to the skills that will lead to test passing for all who make the effort to develop those skills, then we have communicative action upon which to substantiate the legitimacy of our tests and of requiring the passing of those tests as a minimal standard. But if we do not know, or cannot come to agreement on either (1) whether the tests do in fact measure the competence we seek through our standards and/or (2) a reasonable means of providing the skills needed, we can still require the tests, though not through communicative action, since our discourse has failed to bring us to agreement. Instead, Habermas suggests that, given this stalemate, we must use strategic action. Through strategic action we agree to a compromise, even though some of us remain unconvinced of the fairness of the action. The institution may adopt such tests through the need to enforce standards and the lack of alternatives. But then the social power of the ultimately deciding group distorts the underlying discourse for communicative action on legitimacy.

We can't agree, all of us, on the validity and most efficient and fairest way to use the tests. But we can adopt the tests and agree to use them. When those for whom the means have not been adequately provided to meet the goal of competency argue that the tests discriminate against them in their "difference," whatever that may be, they are trapped with the neutral logic that there is no perpetrator, and that the intent was not to discriminate. They must turn to a communicative action in which they have equal sharing, and to a discussion of the social power's distortion of legitimacy to get around the social construction of logic argument. The prevailing social power may argue the need for strategic action to produce a cost effective end result best for the collective good. That still begs the question of "fairness" and "discrimination" for those who do not find the "means" provided to equip them with the skills to pass the test reasonable or fair. For example, a student who has poor writing skills may be told to return to high school and develop such skills. But that may impose a major burden to the student's future. Or the school requiring the writing competence may offer its own course. And that course may or may not be effective. The discrimination argument is really about the one who experiences this discrimination, his/her feelings, his/her options for gaining the skills, the readiness of remedies, the effectiveness of remedies, and his/her sense of the power to participate in the democratic discourse that sets these rules. Because this moves into the arena Habermas addresses through communicative action, this is a philosophical argument that requires masterful sophistication to make. Few of us are used to making such arguments, especially when we are not part of the decision-making group with the power to enforce strategic action.

Statistics and empirical arguments produce similar conclusions in Joseph Feagin's work. Feagin speaks of "institutional discrimination." Robert K. Merton, in his 1935 description of the emergence of deviance when the means to goals are blocked for some groups, gives us another different approach to explain the dilemma of the one who feels that the test discriminates. Merton's theory would say that if a "means" to develop the competency skills seems blocked, then deviant means of reaching the goal (competency rating in spite of test results, in this case) could be predicted. In this brief space, we have illustrated a continuum of social scientists trying to explain "success," its democratic definition, its enforced definition, and deviance and violation of rules when some discover their means to the goals blocked.

Affirmative action was one response to these recorded events. The reaction to the discrimination some feel to preference in standards for anyone is another response to the dilemma. These are probably issues that are going to grow with us into the twenty-first century. It behooves us to understand them theoretically, the better to seek real solutions.

Study Questions

  1. Habermas emphasizes the importance of balance between individual and public autonomy. How does that balance relate to the issue of the "Freemen" who have recently made such spectacular claims for their independence from the U.S. Government?

    The balance is strongly on the side of individual autonomy in the case of the "Freemen," perhaps enough so that we might be led to question the issue of social integration and legitimacy. Particularly since the "Freemen" represent one of many pluralistic groups in the U.S., we need to consider the mechanism for social integration that will hold U.S. society together in the face of such claims of independence.

    The example of the "Freemen" is one in which strategic action, taken by the government to enforce the government's position results in distorting the legitimacy that democratic discourse theory ought to be able to produce. The legitimacy issue has caused considerable confusion as individuals have tried to understand the phenomenon, and those related to it in Texas and Oklahoma City.

  2. What does Habermas mean by public discourse, the process on which he bases legitimacy? (Habermas, p. xxviii)

    He means actual participation by allcitizens who are permitted in the discussion to explore their own interests and values . He also intends that such discourse have "a real impact" on the ultimate decision-makers.

  3. Does Habermas reflect the idea that expert administrators should make most administrative decisions? (Habermas, p. xxviii)

    No. He reflects instead the idea that "legitimate administrative activity" should reflect meaningful impact of citizens' notions, interests, and values .

  4. What could an administrator do to create meaningful impact for students' notions, interests, and values on the writing competency test described above? Could the administrator satisfy the democratic discourse requirement of fair and equal participation by asking two "honors" students to sit as the only student members on the committee that made decisions about that test?

    An administrator could create meaningful impact by inclusion of all for whom test matters, and who are affected by the competency of writing skills. That would include employers (who require writing competency in their employees) , teachers (who are charged with helping students develop the skills) , students (upon whose degrees the student body's competency reflects; these might be "honors" students) , students whose writing skills need the development the test is designed to measure (these would probably not be "honors" students, at least not exclusively) , and measurement experts to explore both the tests' effectiveness and alternative measurement processes .

    If two "honors" students were the only students on the committee, that would not (8) solve the requirements for democratic discourse because chances are that those students would never have experienced the feelings of discrimination (9) the tests evoke in students whose writing skills have not been well developed. (10)

  5. How does "private autonomy" come into the argument for the writing competency tests?

    The following plausible response focusses on enhancing the freedom of the individual:

    In favor of the tests: Individuals can achieve more when the standards for performance are generally held high. Coleman, Equal Educational Opportunity, The measure of peer expectations of the educational environment for performance shows greater correlation with achievement than any other factor. Expectations for writing performance will raise peer expectations, in turn raising educational achievement.

    Against the tests: Some individuals are limited more by their "situatedness" than by their competence . A lack of exposure to writing skills and a lack of the well defined usefulness for writing skills in some educational settings has ill prepared some students. We need to define the skills as useful, in a way that the student can see the benefits of acquiring them , and provide some reasonable and effective means for attaining them that does not work punitively to prevent some other participation that is seen as equally beneficial .

  6. How does "public autonomy" come into the argument for the writing competency tests?

    The following plausible response focusses on enhancing the public good.

    In favor: The public good is served by raising the standards for educational achievement. Writing competence contributes to educational achievement. The tests will serve to raise the standards and will, thus, serve the public good.

    Against: Tests for which some groups are ill prepared serve primarily gate keeping functions. They discriminate against such groups and block the means to success , thus encouraging both a sense of injustice and in extreme cases, even deviance .

  7. What is natural law? Natural law is that law which seems to come from a higher source beyond the laws written by man.

  8. What is the social construction of logic?

    A concept derived from the social construction of reality (Berger and Luckman). To a very real extent we socially construct our environments. A caring, supportive environment produces different responses in the individuals that are part of the environment from one that is cold and punitive. By the ways in which we interact and agree to interact we socially construct the reality that we must then live with .

    When faced with something that "feels" unjust, we often attempt to deal with it as we would any other relationships in our environment . We accuse it of being unjust, expect it to be repentant and to change to a position of greater justice. But that assumes that the "something" is willing to examine the unstated assumptions (Minow) on which it is based. If the "something" is a neutral test that is part of the requirements for everyone, then that something is likely to appeal to pure logic and ignore our "feelings." Teachers with issues of tests, parents with issues of hygiene, employers with issues of hard work are not likely to question the underlying and unstated assumptions of their demands. This resistance often forces the one who feels treated unfairly (12) to continue to rhetorically assert that something is unfair, without challenging in specific argument the unstated and questionable assumptions. This can easily be seen as an attempt to socially construct "logic," to insist that a wrong or unjust conclusion has been reached because the traditional steps of analogy or deduction do not work in this case. In actuality, we need to look to the unstated assumptions, as Minow illustrates. It is not the logic that does not work, but the presumptions of which we remain unaware.

    For an in-depth philosophical piece on the social construction of logic see Hilary Putnam, "Why Reason Can't Be Naturalized," in Paul K. Moser and Arnold vander Nat, Human Knowledge, 2d Edition, Oxford University Press, 1995.