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        What’s good and what’s just

gary e. davis
May 2003 / March 2014

This discussion was initially part of “A Brief Sense Of
An American Pragmatism”
It sounds great to say (as Habermas has been translated to say) that “insight into that which [is] good and just to all parties concerned [is] dependent upon a reciprocal acceptance of mutual perspectives” by all parties concerned. But on what basis does any one party accept an insight into what is good and just? [A later translation as “equally good for all” provides for the same point: What’s just is what’s equally good for all. Interestingly, though, this is about what’s good.]

In his main work, JH properly makes a lot of the distinction between what’s good and what’s just, but he confines his conception of good interaction to warranting critical differences, which loses sight of enabling engagements which avoid estranging differences. (Of course, his theory of communication is premised on the value of understanding; so, my point is about losing sight of that.) Ethical life is as dependent on good interaction as is relations of equality. But JH would evidently disagree that capabilities of ethical life are the condition for the possibility of mutuality vis-à-vis estranged difference, which is what we want from deontic meaning: trans-personal regulation of estranged differences. Otherwise, the difference between ethical and deontic value dissolves: What is required is what is desired in common, each for their own good, which includes (for each life) common good supplementing good lives, enabling good lives, enriching common ground, not primarily regulating interaction among strangers.

Anyway, I find many problems with JH's distinction between ethical and “moral” meaning (outside of a pragmatic distinction between ethical life and generalizability from that formally as legislation; more on this below, “...several discussions that I’ll link to here”). I recently [2000] discovered Richard J. Bernstein’s critique of JH’s distinction between ethical and moral meaning, in Habermas on Law & Democracy, Rosenfeld and Arato, ed., 1998; and JH’s reply there is worth detailed attention. But also, during mid-1997, I did a detailed excursion into his main case for the difference, which he explicates in ch. 1 of Justification and Application. Some subscribers to the Spoon Collective may have suffered through it. The whole thing needs to be unpacked and redone; so my point now is just that a problem of JH’s dependence on a substantive ethical/moral distinction is longstanding for me, as well as for others.

[March 5, 2014: If you might be interested in what I’m alluding to, there are several discussions that I’ll link to here. Please excuse my rhetorical playfulness there, which actually keeps high fidelity to JH’s text, while dancing around it, too: here and postings #2, 5, and 11 here. Again, it all should be unpacked. I had been presuming that JH’s text was readily available to the reader, so there’s no context provided, other than working immanently with JH’s sentences.]

I think that there is a basic human interest that can be shown to belong to the ontogenic background of healthy self identity and a communitarian ethic of care which provides the best explanation for motivation to act from duty (Michael Slote’s “agent-based” theory of moral motivation, Morals from Motives, 2001, provides a non-Aristotelian care-based theory of justice). The “democratic ethos” (Bernstein) in America enacts through its “constitutional partriotism” (JH) an historically-rooted sense of humanitarian progress that is universalistic because it’s deeply (ontogenically) humanistic and, in this sense, registers a belonging together of “what’s good and what’s just” in terms of one’s own humanity that is Ours. Making good sense of—creating durably motivating fidelity to—ecological good is not a procedural issue.



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