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Action and Rational Choice is an ambitious, highly technical
interdisciplinary text centered on a rigorous reading of Jürgen Habermass
philosophy of language and moral theory.
The rigor of this reading results in part from bringing Habermass
philosophy into a productive confrontation with rational choice theory.
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 ones own interests.
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 Heaths book is to provide support for Habermass 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.
Habermass 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
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.
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
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 Brandoms 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 Heaths
analysis is the rejection of Habermass 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 doesnt fundamentally restructure the social order.
for the first half of the book. The
second half focuses entirely on Habermass 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.
Habermass 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
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 everyones 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.
be seen from this overview, which still leaves out a handful of intermediate
conclusions, Heaths 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 Habermass 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 Heaths obviously acute philosophical mind to shine.
ambitious interdisciplinary works disappoint specialists in the at least one of
the disciplines that the work touches, usually by profaning the disciplines
outside the authors primary discipline with superficial treatment or lack of
rigor. I would be very surprised to
learn that Joseph Heaths 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 ones discipline, as
philosophers have been learning now for several centuries.
© 2001 John Wright
John Wright, Ph.D. teaches philosophy
at SUNY Stony Brook.