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Communicative Action and Rational ChoiceReview - Communicative Action and Rational Choice
by Joseph Heath
MIT Press, 2001
Review by John Wright, Ph.D.
Feb 15th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 7)

            Communicative Action and Rational Choice is an ambitious, highly technical interdisciplinary text centered on a rigorous reading of Jürgen Habermas’s philosophy of language and moral theory.  The rigor of this reading results in part from bringing Habermas’s philosophy into a productive confrontation with rational choice theory.   

Habermas has long been interested in defending the possibility of normative social criticism from the twin enemies of postmodern relativists who reject ‘grand narratives’ and empirical social theorists who adopt a skeptical or conventionalist posture toward morality.   According to Habermas, morality can be grounded on the ability of linguistically competent agents to engage in argumentation.  He argues that only norms that can meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in a practical discourse can claim to be valid.   He then argues that the presuppositions of successful argumentation structure practical deliberation such that we have reason to view its outcome as rational.  In any successful argument, we must freely consider relevant contributions to the discourse, cannot exclude anyone competent to speak and must not trying to coerce anyone.  Agents who are engaging in argumentation are engaging in a particular type of action that Habermas calls communicative action.  Communicative action is social action oriented toward achieving an understanding with another agent.  It contrasts with strategic action, which is oriented toward maximizing one’s own interests.

            The suggestion that there are two fundamental action types sets Habermas at odds with rational choice theory, which attempts reductively to model social behavior on the basis of agents acting solely with a view to advancing their interest in strategic interactions.  One of the first fruits of Heath’s book is to provide support for Habermas’s claim that there is a genuine need for another action type in order to account for communication.  He shows that attempts to account for communicative interaction in game-theoretic terms fail because as soon as the agents’ interests are set against one another, as they often are in the real world, it becomes advantageous for the agents merely to babble at one another. They are motivated to use terms inconsistently so as not to give the other agent any insight into what they are going to do. 

            Habermas’s suggestion, again, is that to account for meaning we need a separate action type that is structured around the aim of coming to an understanding with another agent.  For Habermas, to know what a speech act means is to know the conditions that make it acceptable to make that utterance.  To know the meaning of an assertion, one must know the reasons that would make that assertion acceptable.  Habermas therefore offers what Heath calls, following Robert Brandom, an inferential semantics.  The speaker, in making a speech act, comes under an obligation to provide reasons for her claim if challenged.  Heath follows Habermas this far. 

But Habermas also wants to say that we come under an obligation to follow through, in the sequels to our speech interaction, with the obligations that we entered into in our speech.  That is crucial to his aim of grounding accountability in social action on our use of language.  Habermas wants to say that imperatives make a particular kind of claim, a rightness claim, that incurs special obligations to follow through in action when we find a rightness claim to be justified.  Heath finds this move questionable.  First, it is not clear how the meaning (the propositional content) of rightness claims (claims that an imperative is justified) could be so closely tied to understanding the rightness conditions of that imperative.  Rather, the meaning of an imperative seems bound only to the truth conditions for the state of affairs to be brought about in the imperative.  In other words, understanding what is said in an imperative depends only on understanding the truth-conditions for the specific state of affairs to be brought about, not on whether the imperative is justified.  And since understanding action-directing claims depends only on understanding their descriptive content, not on recognizing the justifiability of background norms, Habermas is not justified in grounding social accountability in language use. It is not necessary for our understanding of imperative speech acts that we are ready follow through with our commitments in our behavior when they justified. 

So, Heath argues that instead of strategic action and communicative action as our two fundamental types of social action, we need to replace communicative action with normative action.  Normative action is grounded in a socialization process that, when successful, leads us to give deliberative priority to normative reasons for action over strategic reasons for action.  Heath argues, following sociologist Talcott Parsons, that accountability is not to be explained in terms of antecedent commitments entered into in speech acts, but by a social mechanism that instills a disposition to choose in accordance with normative deliberation. 

Linguistic communication is, on this view, a specific form of norm-governed action by which we enter into a game of commitments and entitlements through our assertions.  The content of an assertion is defined by the commitments for offering reasons to which it obligates us and the entitlements to further claims that flow from it.   Here Heath merely summarizes Brandom’s philosophy of language, which is in many respects similar to that of Habermas, but dispenses with the elements that Heath found questionable (like asserting the existence of a special discourse for ‘rightness claims’). A further consequence of Heath’s analysis is the rejection of Habermas’s voluntarism, that is, the contractualist view according to which norms, in modern societies, are fundamentally an outgrowth of speech acts.  He thereby rejects the view that norms must be fundamentally defensible with reasons.  Heath thinks it is much more reasonable to take institutionalized sanctions as playing a fundamental role in producing accountable agents.  Thus, while modern societies have found new resources for “constructing and modifying normative orders,” this doesn’t fundamentally restructure the social order.

So much for the first half of the book.  The second half focuses entirely on Habermas’s project of discourse ethics.  Heath argues that Habermas accepts an unnecessarily heavy burden of proof in attempting to show that moral argumentation must exhibit convergence in principle, and that his attempt to avoid asserting that moral claims admit of truth or falsity is misguided.  Habermas wants to reject moral noncognitivism, by which he means broadly any view under which moral norms do not admit of rational justification, as well as relativism.  But Heath argues that Habermas does not need to show that moral arguments lead in principle to agreement in order to show that norms can be rationally justified.  Habermas’s attempt to do so, as well as his attempt to find a term for moral validity other than truth, Heath argues, is connected to a view of truth that Habermas in any case explicitly abandons, even for purely descriptive assertions.  Habermas adopts a deflationary analysis of truth according to which its origin lies in formulas like “it is true that…” which are similar to “I promise that…”  Truth merely renders explicit what one does in making an assertion, so that any sentence that is capable of being asserted is also capable of being true and false.  So, Heath argues, to say that a set of claims gives of being true or false is not to make a statement about a substantive property of these sentences or of the world.  There is no need to show that these claims exhibit convergence in order to show that they are bivalent (either true or false) because this follows just as a truth of logic.

The acceptance of this burden of proof resulted, however, in Habermas also accepting an unnecessarily stringent requirement of universalization in morality.  Habermas wants to argue that norms are grounded in interests, and that in engaging in moral argumentation we are seeking to see which of our interests can be generalized into norms.  Norms are valid, for Habermas, if and only if all affected can accept the general consequences it can be expected to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests.  By construing morality as a matter of generalizable interests, Habermas claims he can separate it from ethical questions, which are for him concerned with substantive values.  Habermas restricts moral questions to those that are in principle resolvable by means of argumentation, rendering his proof that moral consensus is possible tautologous.  Heath criticizes Habermas for this move, and argues that Habermas is too quick to reject compromise as a means for achieving agreement when agents are deeply divided about substantive values.  Here a type of game theory makes a return to provide a model for structured bargaining procedures where disputes can be resolved under normative guidance.  Heath thereby hopes to show a more realistic path to the resolution of moral questions, even when generalizable interests are lacking.

As can be seen from this overview, which still leaves out a handful of intermediate conclusions, Heath’s book covers a lot of ground.  In spite of its sustained lucidity, the sheer number of conclusions is taxing, and this reader found himself often losing track of the central thrust of the work.  It is far from clear that it has a central thrust, though that may be a side effect of the way the issues in this book are cast.  A problem may lie in the fact that Heath chose to use Habermas’s work, in his words, “as a scaffolding” for his own views. Heath builds here a very compelling theory of norm-governed social action and the place of linguistic communication within it, but it seems diluted and fragmented by his prolonged tangle with Habermas.  That said, the commentary on Habermas is some of the best to be found anywhere, and will be of great interest to readers of Habermas.  Still, a straightforward theory of social action would have had more punch and allowed Heath’s obviously acute philosophical mind to shine.

Most ambitious interdisciplinary works disappoint specialists in the at least one of the disciplines that the work touches, usually by profaning the disciplines outside the author’s primary discipline with superficial treatment or lack of rigor.  I would be very surprised to learn that Joseph Heath’s work disappoints anyone in any of the three disciplines that it touches, economics, sociology, and philosophy.  This work strikes me as an astonishing synthesis of this range of material.  If it does disappoint anyone, I doubt it will be because of any lack of rigor, but rather because Heath tries to delimit the reach of strategic game theory models. It is always hard to recognize the limits of one’s discipline, as philosophers have been learning now for several centuries.

 

© 2001 John Wright

John Wright, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook.


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