- BACKGROUND TO THE DEBATE
- SUMMARY OF SOLUTIONS PROPOSED BY HABERMAS AND THE BAHA'I RELIGION
- HABERMAS'S UNIVERSALIZABILITY PRINCIPLE
- BAHA'I CONSULTATION: COMMUNICATIVE INTERACTION
- CONCLUDING REMARKS
C.S. Lewis gives the metaphor of morality as being like a fleet of ships.
Three essential factors are needed to describe the proper functioning of this
fleet. First, the ships must neither collide nor interfere with each other's
paths. Second, each ship must itself be in proper working order. These two
considerations are interconnected, he explains. If the ships get in each
other's way or collide, their internal workings will of course be disrupted;
conversely, if a ship's functioning is faulty, it could be the cause of a
collision. The third consideration transcends the first two: where is the fleet
of ships going?
The meaning of the metaphor is obvious. To achieve nondisruptive societies,
humans must 1) interact in ways that preserve a sense of fairness and harmony,
2) achieve an internal moral code which fosters such types of interaction, and
3) arrive at at least a minimal consensus of purpose or goal. For one speaking
from the standpoint of a moral code legitimated transcendentally, as does the
Christian Lewis, it is the divine authority which dictates the purpose or goal,
and human subjective and intersubjective orderings are defined therefrom.
However, for one who does not presuppose a transcendental guiding force, the
way to a moral path is not so clear. Must a philosophy define a transcendental
purpose before it can prescribe behavioural patterns, or must individuals
receive a moral education which will allow them to create or discern ways of
interacting and the goal of interaction, or is it a social code which will
allow the other two concerns to become clear?
Religious and nonreligious systems of thought have tended to approach this
problem from opposite ends, the religious systems claiming ultimate and
totalizing prescriptive authority and the nonreligious systems seeking instead
a moral code which the unaided human mind can construct. Two new approaches to
the issue of legitimizing ethics have appeared relatively recently. The Bahá'í
religion, founded and formulated
between 1844-1921, offers a paradigm of social and religious pluralism and
metaphysical relativism founded on the principle of consultation. Here, ethics
is given a unique definition as necessarily both transcendentally and
consensually defined. Jürgen Habermas, writing in the last four decades,
preserves a limited sense of transcendentalism à la Kant, but in the main he legitimates moral
norms through his theory of "communicative action" and its central tenet,
The approaches to ethics and pluralism of the Bahá'í religion, especially as
found in its notions of consultation, and of Habermas have a fair deal of
similarity. Moreover, further correspondences between the two can be
constructed which could enrich each of them. I will explore some of these
similarities through the eyes of Habermas's communicative action and conclude
with some brief observations on religious pluralism. I will first summarize
Habermas's theory of universalization, then Bahá'í views of consensus and
relativity before attempting to relate the two. In the interests of situating
this discussion and its relevance, I have chosen to begin the examination with
a cursory presentation of the history of the debate in modern times.
BACKGROUND TO THE DEBATE
Much of the mood of modern philosophy can be characterized as critical,
"crisis" coming from the Greek word krisis, meaning "a separating," "a
trial," or "a decision." Inspired
in part by the apocalpyticism of the nuclear age, and the broad though subtle
sense of change occasioned by the turn of the millennium, humanity has, in
theologian Udo Schaefer's words, "an overwhelming sense of our being poised at
a decisive point in the history of the world" as it faces either "the
annihilation of humanity" or "a fundamental transformation of our
consciousness, our attitudes, our ethical values, and our political
Much of this current crisis can be traced back to the Enlightenment. As an
Aufklärung, a "clearing up," or "explanation," the Enlightenment
celebrated the powers of human reason. It awoke a keen interest in science and
the promotion of religious toleration, and a desire to construct governments
free of tyranny. As Max Weber put
it, the Enlightenment expressed the belief "that no mysterious forces exist...,
and that, in principle, all things can be mastered through calculation. This
amounts to a demystification of the world." This sentiment marks the beginnings
of philosophical (as contrasted with the various forms of artistic) modernism.
To modernism we owe many commendable things: notions of political and social
equality, democracy, the burgeoning of science, as well as negative things,
such as the hegemony of instrumental reason (this will be defined more fully
below, pages 5-6).
Speaking generally, the Enlightenment focus on rationality was first
criticized by the Romantics, who felt that it stifled emotion and imagination.
In this century, criticism has become more incisive. The suspicion has grown
that the project of the Enlightenment has legitimized "instrumental" powers of
rationality, uses of the reasoning nature that can lead to exploitation and
abuses of power. The cause of this suspicion, according to Helmut Peukert, is
"the assumption that our enlightened rationality does not measure up to the
consequences of its actions." The
emancipating spirit of the Enlightenment has been distorted and lost, partly
due to a misuse of reason made possible by Kant's insightful, but exploitable,
delineations of reason. The "Critical Theory" of the Frankfurt School realized
that the separation of reason from brute nature did allow for a freeing of
human rationality, but also a disjunction between humanity and the natural
world that transformed the latter, and ultimately other humans as well, into
objects of domination. "Reason thus degenerates into an instrument of
domination," writes Peukert. For
many thinkers, the project of the Enlightenment is irredeemable.
Postmodernists, for example, find that "eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
conceptions of human subjectivity, reason, and knowledge have broken down
beyond retrieval." In place of ultimate rationality, they prefer to see the
human subject as decentered and relativized, inhabiting a world too pluralistic
to be described by totalizing theories such as Kant's.
Religion, too, has undergone heavy criticism in the past three centuries, but
not in a way parallel with the criticisms of the Enlightenment. Rather, it has
suffered criticism directly at the hands of the Enlightenment. In 1755 David
Hume published his Natural History of Religion, which traced the origins
of religion to a primordial sense of fear and anxiety. Hume wrote that in its
lowest form, polytheism, religion was nothing other than "sick men's dreams,"
and in its highest form, monotheism, it was no more than "the nobler parts" of
the human mind. Though the
Romantic movement did witness somewhat of a religious revival, exemplified
amongst the philosophers by Hegel and amongst the theologians by
Schleiermacher, the emphasis on the use of reason to obtain individual
understanding remained more palatable than authoritative or authoritarian
philosophy was eschewed, even by the Transcendentalists. The positivistic
empiricism of Comte, when combined with the discovery of evolution by Lamarck
and Darwin, stamped religion with the lasting stigma of supernaturalism,
defined by the 1886 Encyclopedia Britannica as the "antithesis" of
Certainly, religion was largely to blame for its own disrepute, for its
institutions, in the case of almost every religion in history, have abused both
political and spiritual authority. Often, though, the critics have erred in
their choice of which object to criticize; instead of retaining respect for and
belief in authority but locating that authority elsewhere than religious
institutions, as Schleiermacher so admirably did, many critics have rejected
belief entirely. For example, Matthew Lamb points out that, confronted with the
tragic wars of religion, "Enlightenment intellectuals tended to criticize
religion rather than war."
Bertolt Brecht, writing in 1949, summarized well the attitude that still reigns
today: "Belief has prevailed for a thousand years, but now doubt has taken its
place... Doubt is cast on time-honoured truths, and what always used to be
taken for granted is now questioned."
SUMMARY OF SOLUTIONS PROPOSED BY HABERMAS AND THE BAHA'I RELIGION
Habermas calls the Enlightenment and modernity "incomplete projects." In using
these two telling words, he is claiming that 1) each is a project, a
clearly-defined movement with aims and a direction, and 2) neither should be
discarded if its aims seem not to have been realized, because the movements
still have potential; they can be redeemed.
Habermas traces disillusionment with the two projects "by recalling an idea
from Max Weber." Weber, he writes, saw that the unified world-views of religion
and metaphysics "fell apart." This led to reason becoming separated into three
autonomous spheres--those of science, morality, and art, which became
institutionalized in the respective structures of "cognitive-instrumental,"
"moral-practical," and "aesthetic-expressive" rationality. While the differentiation of
reason into autonomous spheres has been very useful in analyzing human thought
and action and in promoting the growth of systems such as science and
capitalism, it has also led to negative effects. More, Habermas has stated that
even the often-assumed benefits of the Enlightenment have not necessarily been
achieved: "The promises of prosperity, freedom, and justice associated with the
Enlightenment project of scientific control over nature and a rational
organization of society have signally failed to be realized, and we have no
reason to suppose that they will be in the future."
Habermas resolves both attitudes of criticizing and praising rationality. On
the one hand, he acknowledges that instrumental reason has "colonized the
lifeworld." By this he means that the branch of rationality concerned with
means more than with ends has proved so successful in the realm of
techne, of practical application, that its methods and aims have been
applied to the other realms of rationality where it doesn't belong, such as
human interactions or aesthetic judgments. It has become a force of oppression
within the lifeworld, i.e. the sphere within which the individual acts and the
locus where the private though communicatively-condition subject interacts with
his or her communication partners. When rationality becomes narrowly
defined and misapplied in this manner, its potential to emancipate and
enlighten disappears and rationality becomes harmful. On the other hand,
Habermas does not want to discard rationality wholesale. To adopt attitudes
such as those of the postmodernists I gave above would, he would fear, lead to
a moral relativism such that normative ethicality would become impossible and
any attempts to create universal ethics would be seen as mere oppression.
Instead, he offers a theory within which instrumental reason is prevented from
overflowing its bounds. Then, as it ceases to colonize the lifeworld, the other
two spheres of reason can be reapplied to their appropriate uses and hence
The question Habermas seeks to answer is this. "Should we try to hold on to
the intentions of the Enlightenment, feeble as they may be, or should we
declare the entire project of modernity a lost cause?" The bulk of his social theory has
as its goal the development of an alternative to either extreme, one that makes
moral judgments possible and at the same time repels the forces colonizing the
lifeworlds. His most recent, and perhaps largest, contribution towards solving
this problem is his theory of "communicative action."
Communicative action solves both of the above problems. It allows the various
spheres of rationality to be retained without exceeding their bounds and
becoming oppressive, and it allows philosophy to prescribe normative ethics
without that ethics being either merely relativistic or transcendentally
Communicative action is, in brief, "an attempt to ground ethics in the form of
a logic of moral argumentation" in which "participants coordinate their plans
of action consensually." It is
"action" because, in contrast with a method of discovering moral laws interior
to the thinking subject, like Kant's monologically-reasoned ("discourse
of one") categorical imperatives, Habermas's moral laws are discovered only
dialogically ("discourse between"). Since dialogical, the broad term for
this deontology is Discourse Ethics. It is only active discussion and debate
between subjects, not passive contemplation within one subject, that can
inductively reason moral laws. It is "communicative" because it is only through
discursive argumentation, an active discourse concerning contested norms, that
an atmosphere can be achieved within which truth claims can be tested and
either validated or rejected.
There are a few specific points I'll make about communicative action which
will help to clarify its nature. First, we must distinguish between
"communicative" and "strategic" action. The latter is not true discourse; it is
speech used "to influence the behavior of another by means of the threat
of sanctions or the prospect of gratification" whose goal is to cause the
hearer to act in accordance with the wishes of the speaker. These he terms "illocutionary"
speech acts, which are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, speech acts
"such as ordering, warning, [or] undertaking." There is not necessarily anything
wrong with illocutionary speech acts. Indeed, the actions of commanding or
making promises are vital for everyday communication. However, they are not
discourse, for discourse requires an exchange of statements and ideas. It is
only when "all external or internal coercion other than the force of the better
argument" is ruled out that truth claims can be assessed. When they are imported into
communicative action, the process is interrupted, for the participants are no
longer wholly free to express themselves unfettered.
Second, communicative action is not a new theory and, of course, many of its
tenets are millennia old. What is new is, not just Habermas's clear formulation
of it, but also the use he makes of it. It represents an "ideal speech
situation," but does not rest unreasonable utopian hopes on its realization.
This is a point easy to misunderstand. His intention is apply Enlightenment
methods and ideals to social restructuring, yet his writings often give the
impression of being far too theoretical to have practical application. David
Klemm says that "[Habermas's] lectures presuppose a world in which those most
rooted in European cultural life are brought to the pinnacle of power," adding
humorously that "he seems to imagine his students as future corporate heads or
political leaders." Habermas is
aware of and addresses this issue. "Admittedly," he writes, my [communicative
action] hypotheses do require distinctions not easy to operationalize." Rather, its concern is with ideal
process, even if one that, "in light of its goal of reaching a rationally
motivated argument, must satisfy improbable conditions." It is, as he says in many places,
action oriented towards reaching understanding. The truth claims communicative
action seeks to discover are always contextual, never final. Every community
will have to embark upon the process in discussing every contested norm;
continuing action will never arrive at ultimate and final conclusions
applicable to another contested norm or to the same norm contested by a
different community. It is in the process of actions oriented towards
reaching understanding, not its final results, that allows the debate to
priorize discourse and preclude strategic speech.
A third aspect of communicative action is the one most relevant to the topic
at hand. Habermas's discourse ethics shifts the focus of deontology from
alternatives such as metaphysical and religious justification of norms, a
priori positing of transcendental ultimate principles used to legitimate
ethics, or simple positivistic empiricism as a source by which to arrive
inductively at morality, to a focus on the processes a community can employ to
agree upon and consensually validate ethical judgments. It may prima
facie appear that such a procedural approach may either relegate morality
to crude relativism or suffer moral judgments never to be finalized. However,
integral to the communicative procedure is Habermas's notion of
universalizability: all members of the community must enter into the discourse,
and only those norms which all participants accept as being optimal for the
best form of the good life for all people directly or indirectly affected by
the implementation or observation of that norm can be considered moral.
It is this principle of universalizability which 1) renders speech situations
necessary in validating a norm which is ultimately an unachievable ideal, and
2) renders notions of continual, contextual process more relevant than final
results. It is also this principle of universalizability which allows
communicative action the possibility of preserving freedom and the good life
while yet retaining the power to make prescriptive moral pronouncements. In
light of an ever-more pluralistic society, universalizability may hold a key to
furthering and helping to resolve much of the debate on religion's relevance to
the modern world. After a few introductory notes on the Bahá'í religion, I'll
explore this principle more deeply.
Similar to the way in which postmodernists like Lyotard view "metanarratives,"
many thinkers see the truth claims of religion as being authoritarian. These
transcendent claims, since not empirically-derived, are not fallible, and
systems of thought which define themselves as infallible are justifiably
suspect. Also, since these ultimate truth claims are a priori to each
religion, with no empirical content, they cannot easily be reconciled with a
pluralistic community. These two facts, lack of fallibility and inability to
encompass diversity, have often allowed religion's truth claims to become
metaphysically totalitarian and the clerical orders to become politically
totalitarian. As David Tracy summarizes, "Any religion, whether past or present
in a position of power demonstrates that religious movements, like secular
ones, are open to corruption... Whoever comes to speak in favor of religion and
its possibilities of enlightenment and emancipation does not come with clean
hands nor with a clear conscience." This criticism is particularly
cogent with religion because religion in many ways epitomizes pluralism. Its
truth claims are, to the believer, not trivial but paramount. Yet, not only is
there a wide variety of religions, but, as Tracy further points out, an even
wider pluralism within religions. "The religions, in fact, are even more
intensely pluralistic than art, morality, philosophy, and politics," he says. The Bahá'í religion proposes to
offer solutions to these two well-founded criticisms of religion.
A keyword of the Bahá'í religion is "unity in diversity." Though not a new
concept, no religion incorporates it so thoroughly in its very foundation as
does the Bahá'í. Two facts relevant to the above discussion fall out of the
unity in diversity philosophy. First, all religions are valid for their place
and time, and thus no religion is more true than any other, yet each religion
has a particular contextual relevance, and thus one religion can fairly be
deemed more appropriate in a certain context than another. Second, religion has
both the authority and the responsibility to prescribe moral laws for its
context, but most of these laws can only be formed by and applied within the
specific culture to which the laws relate. So-called "fundamental spiritual
verities" (such as the existence of the ineffable divine) aside, most matters
of ethics are determined by a process of consultation. This is a method for
achieving standardized sets of ethical and political governance the animating
principle of which is radical democracy. I'll introduce both of these, and
expand on the latter in part five, below.
First, the plurality of religions is, not just a social inevitability, but a
social necessity. As a religion within the Abrahamic tradition, the Bahá'í
postulates an ultimate ground of being which can be termed God, and which can
anthropomorphically be described as wishing to communicate with and educate
humanity. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í religion, gives as a central
Bahá'í tenet God communicates with humans at various points in history, on
average once every few hundred or thousand years, through reflections of the
divine called "Manifestations." (These are not "manifestations" in the
ontological sense, for the Christian concept of incarnation is rejected as a
man-made theology. It is God's attributes, not his essence, that are mirrored
in these human prophets, or "Educators.") As the pre-modern world did not have
the benefit of world-embracing communication, the "Educators" often had to
appear within a variety of cultures and give a seeming variety of teachings,
each fitted to the individual culture and its needs. In the so-called Axial
Age, for example, Bahá'u'lláh declares that more than one prophet (e.g. the
Buddha and Zarathustra) appeared at approximately the same time. Prophets have
also appeared diachronically, as did Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad within the same
geographical area, to unfold "progressive revelation," in which a group of
people has received similar teachings, but at ever more advanced stages and in
fuller expressions. Thus, all "revealed" religions are seen as deriving from
the same divine source, and are therefore equally valid. As such, the religion
does not recognize the concept of conversion, and Bahá'ís are forbidden to
proselytize. It is stressed that, when one adopts the Bahá'í set of beliefs,
one need not abandon one's previous set and, indeed, the continuing vitality of
the Bahá'í communities requires that a diversity of religious practices and
interpretations be preserved and even encouraged.
These facts preserve the pluralism of religions without resorting to any of
the three common distinctions of exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism, each
of which has its problems: 1) The Bahá'í religion makes unique claims for
itself without ascribing to these claims exclusivist authority, for all
revealed religions and even many "nonrevealed" ones, such as Taoism, stem from
the same divine source; 2) it is not inclusivist, for inclusivism, though
enshrining tolerance, yet ascribes preferential status to only one religion
(usually Christianity); and 3) it is not properly pluralistic, for pluralism,
if taken to its logical conclusion, results in the relativist aporia of not
being able to judge between competing claims. As the religion the most recent,
most relevant to contemporary issues, and having the greatest scope of
teachings, the Bahá'í religion does forward a claim for attention and unique,
unequalled relevance, while yet emphasizing that even its claims are,
ultimately, as contextual as those it replaces.
The above, summarizing the Bahá'í response to plurality among and between
religions, is sufficient background of most aspects of the religion relevant to
this topic. The other criticism, that religion's truth claims, since not
fallible or consensually reached, are authoritarian, is also, Bahá'ís believed,
resolved by a unique teaching of their religion. This, the single tenet of the
religion most directly applicable to Habermas's communicative action, is the
Bahá'í concept of consultation. I have chosen, for the sake of comparison, to
refer to consultation here as "communicative inter-action." Briefly,
consultation is the prescribed method for making decisions in which all members
of the decision-making body, be it a legislative group or an entire community,
are enjoined to share their thoughts before a democratic decision can be
reached, and no single member is allowed either to dictate decisions or to
campaign either for or against any one decision. Rather, only those verdicts
arrived at communally can be considered valid. I will explore consultation and
its parallels with communicative action more fully after presenting Habermas's
principle of universalizability.
HABERMAS'S UNIVERSALIZABILITY PRINCIPLE
Habermas uses the term "universal" in two related but different senses. A
moral law, to be moral, must achieve a balance between being applicable to all
parties within a defined community, i.e. transcendent to the particular, and
also consensually derived, i.e. dependent upon the particular. The first
meaning of universal is that, to be a law, there must be a clear sense
in which the specific moral principle is universalizable, or applicable and
binding to all equally. The second meaning of universal is that all
rational humans must have the ability to participate in constructing the law,
else its universal application would become an authoritarian imposition. All
humans have a "universal species competence," which for Habermas is founded in
communicative action and speech-act theory, to comprehend ethical issues, weigh
between differing options, and participate in a debate as to which option
should become a standardized norm for one's community. I'll address these two
meanings in this order.
Seyla Benhabib expresses succinctly the place and import of Habermas's notion
of universalizability. "Only those norms and normative institutions are valid,"
she writes, "which individuals can or would freely consent to as a result of
engaging in certain argumentative practices." Those practices are, of course,
the processes of communicative action. Whereas Kant declared that a norm could
be universalized if an individual moral agent could will, without his or
another's interests being compromised, that it be a universal maxim for all,
Habermas's opinion, continues Benhabib, is that norms can only be universalized
"after engaging in a special kind of argument or conversation."
It may prove to be clearest if I first present Kant's notions of universal
morality and some objections to it, for these are clearly notions both
informing Habermas's theories and to which he is reacting. A central insight
into morality is that certain principles must be regarded as of a higher status
than others. We may posit as a moral law, for example, that spouses should not
commit adultery. While this may sound like common sense, it is not justifiable
on its own; there must be a higher moral principle which would be violated by
its occurrence. An example could be that, assuming that the marriage was
conditioned on a vow of fidelity, adultery breaks the code of honesty. Another
example could be that adultery would disrupt the unity of the family, which
might be considered of supreme importance. The problem here is that, while each
higher level of principles may seem more common sense and intuitively correct,
an infinite regress looms. That is, just as sexual monogamy could be
conditioned on marriage fidelity, and that fidelity could be conditioned on
honesty, likewise honesty might be conditioned on the higher principle of
social coherence, and so on. If the regress is infinite, then ultimately none
of the levels of moral principle would be grounded in an ultimate level. And,
as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, unless some "ultimate
moral principles could be shown to be justifiable, no other moral judgments can
be shown to be justifiable." If
we can't ultimately ground marriage fidelity, then by extension we can't even
judge an event such as the Holocaust to be impermissible.
Kant sought to ground moral principles in self-reflection. Any action which a
rational, reflecting subject could judge to be moral would be, given one
necessary condition: universalizability. Habermas himself points out how
central this aspect was to Kant. "Kant noted time and time again [that] moral
norms must be suitable for expression as 'universal laws.' The categorical
imperative can be understood as a principle that requires...
universalizability." If we
placed no conditions on the reflecting subject, this exercise would obviously
result in a purely subjective morality. Kant resolved this by declaring that,
regarding any particular moral law, the reflecting subject must rationally
understand that all affected by the law be equally desirous of it. For example,
an individual might wish that his or her debts be cancelled, and hence
contemplate how nice it would be if all debts were cancelled. However, as soon
as he realizes that that means that the money owed to him would also be
nullified, he would not wish the law to be universally applied. By this
diligent application of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," a
rational subject could, on his own, posit universal moral laws.
Hegel criticized the Kantian moral formula, calling it, Benhabib says,
"inconsistent at best and empty at worst." The problem, Hegel pointed out, is
that whether a moral law can be universally, if monologically, legitimated does
not make it moral. No concrete maxims can be unequivocally derived from the
pure form of the moral law alone, and if they do, adds Benhabib, "it is because
other unidentified premises have been smuggled into the argument." Habermas succinctly pinpoints
Hegel's critique of Kant's deontology in "Morality and Ethical Life: Does
Hegel's Critique of Kant Apply to [Habermas's] Discourse Ethics?" with four
specific criticisms. One of these is that Hegel objected to the abstract
universalism of Kant's ethics. Since Kant was seeking universal moral
norms, his enterprise required that the contemplating subject abstract beyond
all empirical data and particulars; were the moral verdicts arrived at
influenced by particulars, then they could not be transcendent enough to
qualify as universal. The problem Hegel had with this, Habermas says, is that a
judgment validated by that universal "necessarily remains external to
individual cases and insensitive to the particular context of a problem in need
of a solution."
Nietzsche and Adorno expressed even stronger, less reserved criticism of
Kant's categorical imperatives. Nietzsche stated forcefully that, if the
relation between the particular and the universal is not properly constructed,
then life is "essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange
and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation
and, at the least and mildest, exploitation." Hegel, while reformulating much of
Kant, appropriated his transcendentalism with the assumption that the dialectic
between the universal and the particular would render each equally strong and
autonomous. Adorno, though, with a critique very similar to that of Nietzsche's
of Kant, opined that Hegel's universal will overpower the particular, and that
Hegel's, and by extension Kant's moral theories become violent acts.
Habermas summarized above Hegel's critique of Kant's universalism by saying
that it overlooked and ultimately ignored the particular. Elsewhere, Habermas
refers to this same objection using the notion of fallibility. Doubtless he was
influenced here by Popper's notions of falsification, by which a scientific
generalization can never be conclusively verified, but can be falsified. It is
only this fact of falsifiability, or, in Habermas's (translated) terminology,
"fallibility," that a theory can be judged scientific. By contrast, a
theory--even if seemingly scientific--that cannot be falsified is considered
unscientific. For example, Popper considered Marxism and psychoanalysis to be
nonscientific because not empirically falsifiable, and we shall see that Habermas
judges religion in the same way and partially for the same reason.
In light of both Kant's highly influential ethical system and some of the
objections given to it, such as the ones listed above, Habermas formulated his
theories of discourse ethics. In doing this he both preserved aspects of Kant
and Hegel, such as the necessary universalizability of normative moral laws,
but he also rejected aspects, especially the way in which these deontologies
transcended the particular. While many aspects of discourse ethics and
communicative action directly relate to and contrast with previous
Enlightenment and modernist ethical theories, one aspect of Habermas's thought
in particular will be addressed here, and that is the notion of
Kant sought to legitimate universal principles, not through the deus ex
machina of religious authority, as had been standard in most Occidental
philosophy in the previous millennium and a half, but through the procedure of
rational contemplation. Habermas wishes to preserve, in large part, this
project. As J. M. Bernstein says, Habermas acknowledges the collapse of
(authoritarian) tradition as a force of reason, opting instead for a
recognition and upholding of the particular, especially as manifested in the
plurality of lifeworlds, yet all the while maintaining a firm hold on "the
commitment to universalism." "My
problem," says Habermas, "was a theory of modernity, a theory of the pathology
of modernity from the viewpoint of the realization--the deformed
realization--of reason in history." In short, he wanted to retain the
ability to make moral pronouncements, which requires, in his project, the
continuing validity of rationality. If this sounds like an obvious solution,
then one must keep in mind the derogation of rationality in much of
post-Enlightenment, and especially postmodernist, thought. Both of these, from
Nietzsche and Weber through to Derrida and Lyotard, have often tried to
supplant rationality with "decisionism," deconstructionism, poststructuralism,
and relativistic pluralisms.
Habermas has taken upon himself the seemingly contradictory task of rejecting
a pure, nonfallible transcendentalism such as religious claims and Kant's
categorical imperatives, opting instead for an empirically-grounded ethics, yet
at the same time one that can make universalistic prescriptions. This,
obviously, appears at first glance to be impossible. He accomplishes it, and
accomplishes it well, by reinterpreting universalism.
In Kant's monological rationality, a thinker could arrive at the normative
categorical imperative by him- or herself, and if another thinker disagreed
with him, it was practically irrelevant. Habermas founds his rationality
dialogically. Universal truth claims, communicative action's version of the
categorical imperative, are only reached through a process of community
discussion. This process is not mere conversation, for it has strict guidelines
and goals. Discourse ethics states that if a moral norm, such as not committing
adultery, becomes contested within a community, then what that community needs
to do is discuss, or, using this word in a technical sense, "argue" about the
contested law. After all participants have had their input, and after they have
carefully listened to the input of all other participants and honestly
reconsidered their opinions, then the community will, if the debate is allowed
to continue long enough, eventually come to an agreement about the moral law in
question. This agreement will, speaking practically instead of metaphysically,
now become a universal truth. This process is not simple conversation, because
a central element of it is rationality. All participants have a communal
obligation to examine carefully, not just the thoughts of others, but their own
opinions. This consideration must be sincere, honest, and completely candid.
Any opinion that is not ultimately founded on clear rational
reasons--(Why do I believe that, what's really my intention in
wishing this, do I have any open or hidden agenda, have I really
taken the other person's standpoint into consideration, do I fully
understand the consequences of implementing or abandoning this norm?)--must be
dispensed with, and only an extended discussion with others, not subjective
contemplation within one's own lifeworld, can expose hidden agendas and purify
the dialogue of "strategic" influences. Since the conclusions of the argument
have been reached rationally, the new, renewed, or newly-validated moral norms
can rightly be considered normative, and since the conclusions of the argument
have been reached consensually, they can rightly be considered justified, and
since all members of the community have participated fully in the discussion,
they can be considered universal.
Habermas defines his principle of universalizability (U) with a few slightly
different formulations. In
summary, it is this: Any moral norm is valid when and only when all those
potentially affected, directly or indirectly, by its implementation,
alteration, or abandonment have freely come to understand, accept, and approve
of these consequences. To rephrase it (hopefully) more simply, no one will be
expected to submit to a moral law or its effects unless and until he or she has
come to fully understand and agree with all of its affects. Conversely, of
course, once each member of the community has agreed upon the moral norm, he or
she is morally responsible to obey its dictates. "A norm which passes the test
of universalizability only deserves general recognition on condition that it is
actually obeyed by everyone," Habermas explains, and, conversely, "the
following of a valid norm can only be expected from someone who can be sure
that all others are also obeying the norm." (U) is thus universal for two
reasons: one, all affected must universally agree to the norm,
and two, when it is agreed upon, it becomes universally applicable to
all. Thus does (U) solve the above two objections to Kant's
universalism: it abandons monological reflection in place of dialogue, and
without losing any rational legitimizing force.
Habermas follows his principle of universalization, (U), with the principle of
discourse ethics, (D). His principle of (D) is in some ways a prerequisite of
(U). It states, in short, that only those norms are valid which meet with the
approval of all participants in the dialogue. (D), states Habermas, "stipulates
the basic idea of a moral theory but does not form part of the logic of
argumentation." That is, with
(U) a contested norm cannot be accepted by all participants unless all
affected agree on its final formulation and the effects it will have on
each participant, while (D) limits morality to only those norms
that have been approved through a process of discourse. It may seem that there
is a fair bit of overlap here, for (D) provides the foundation of the
legitimizing project, while (U) merely clarifies the scope of application of
the norm. Habermas acknowledges that (D) is in a way a prior concern--"(D) is
the assertion that the philosopher as moral theorist ultimately seeks to
justify"--yet he still wishes to
accord a higher status to (U)--"The only moral principle here is the
Critics have also noted this apparent overlap. Its source seems to be a
confusion about the same criticism levelled against Hegel: does
universalizability entail violence to the particular? That is, does the
existence of a higher-level definitive morality deprive the individual of any
personal morality? I'll use
these objections as a springboard to the discussion of the second crucial sense
of Habermas's notion of universalism, which is slightly unrelated to the above.
Namely, he speaks of universalism not just as the final, end result of a
dialogue, but also as an a priori competence of a rational beings. His
communicative action is an addition to a branch of "reconstructive" sciences
that deal with what has been termed "universal species competences." In this
context, this means that rational humans universally have the ability
and, ultimately for Habermas, the obligation to engage in communicative action.
Before defining the terms "reconstructive" sciences and "universal species
competences," I'll first treat the above objections in some detail, for they
will prove useful in introducing and explaining more fully the foundation of
Habermas's principle of universalization.
Benhabib, for example, declares (U) to be redundant, adding "little but
consequentialist confusion" to the basic principle of (D). What criticism such as Benhabib's
seems to boil down to is a fear that (U) represents a resurrection of the same
sorts of ethical authoritarianism of which the Enlightenment so completely
cleansed philosophy. Benhabib explains that, as she sees it, Habermas's (U)
does little more than guarantee consensus, to exemplify which she quotes
Rousseau's dictum "on les forcera d'être libre." Her point is clear. She fears that
Habermas draws too complete a disjunction between the age old questions of the
good life and questions of justice--that is, between questions of individual
morality and standardized social morality--for, while universalizability is
determined by consensus, and the final verdicts of a community's consensus are
taken as necessarily moral, yet universalizability does not automatically mean
moral. That is, just because a community universally agrees upon a norm, this
consensus does not legitimate that norm as valid. An example is that members of
certain Indian societies have unanimously believed that a widow should
voluntarily immolate herself upon her husband's funeral pyre. This has not
necessarily been an imposition on the women's code of morality, for they, too,
often accepted this norm.
However, the fact of their acquiescence must not be so construed as to justify
this as a moral act. One could object, for example, that a moral law higher
than the communal has been violated, such as Kant's categorical imperative
could object, or one could say that, though some women accepted the norm, they
did so without having been exposed to sufficient alternatives and points of
Habermas's universalizability principle fails precisely because it is
transcendental, Benhabib seems to object. It fails because it abstracts "away
from the embedded, contingent, and finite aspects of human beings," and thus is
"blind to the variety and richness" of human diversity. This can lead to
"morally disturbing and counterintuitive consequences." Albrecht Wellmer, too, points to
this aspect of communicative action's discourse ethics as problematic. Wellmer
points out that, at the level of abstraction at which universalization occurs,
"one has already abstracted from all differences between speakers, i.e. from
all concrete determinations."
This is true insofar as that all participants must be willing to surmount their
individual lifeworlds with their personal opinions and desires if they are,
first, truly to be able to listen empathetically to the views of their
co-participants, and, second, to be willing to change their preconceived
notions, if needed and so convinced, and accede to the consensus of the group.
Though Wellmer concedes that there could be other ways of interpreting
universalizability, he concludes
that "a transcendental (or universal) pragmatic ultimate justification
of a communicative ethics is not possible." It can never be achieved because
the participants can never fully transcend the presuppositions and
preconditioning that they bring to the dialogue.
These two objections seem to rest on the relation between the universal and
the particular, Benhabib's that the universal is prejudiced over the
particular, and Wellmer's that the universal can never fully be justified.
Habermas, though, is not insensitive to this criticism, and indeed seems to
anticipate it. He does so by founding his discourse ethics, not just on
dialogical consensus, but on presuppositions that he makes about the capacity
of all humans to engage in dialogue. This brings us to the second fundamental
aspect of universalization: Habermas's theories of universalism do not just
relate to the ontological and deontological status of a consensually-defined
moral norm, but also to the foundational achievability of this project. The
dialogue of discourse ethics, he declares, is within the purview of all
To repeat, the principle of discourse ethics, (D), states that only those
norms can be valid which have been approved of by all participants, and the
principle of universalizability, (U), states that the participants can only
approve of the norm if 1) all who would be potentially affected by it have
participated in the debate, and 2) if it is, after being legitimated, applied
to all. This theory clearly presupposes a condition that is both necessary and
sufficient: all those affected by and debating a contested norm must have the
capability both of understanding the issues and of expressing their opinions on
it. There must be a universal competency.
Moral laws in our modern, pluralistic, rational world can no longer be
legitimated apodictically, that is, as handed down from an infallible and
unquestionable transcendent source, be it the Pope or Kant's monological
categorical imperative. A contested moral law can only be addressed and debated
from the standpoint of the individual lifeworld. However, the speaker must be
rational. A speaker who is youthful, poorly educated, or mentally ill would, it
seems, not be considered rational in the Habermasian sense. This, however, is
not quite what Habermas intends; by "knowledge," he is thinking more of
"knowing-how" than "knowing-that," a distinction preserved in many languages,
such as French, between "savoir," to have factual knowledge, and
"connaître," to understand or to have familiarity with.
Scientific endeavors that are concerned with such "pre-theoretical" knowledge
have been termed "reconstructive sciences." These include, in Richard
Bernstein's list, Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, Jean Piaget's theory of
cognitive development, and Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development. All three hypothesize, though in
differing ways, that certain facets of human thought and behaviour are internal
structures occurring universally in all humans. These are considered
reconstructive because these undertake the reconstruction of pretheoretical
knowledge. Their underlying idea, explains Thomas McCarthy, is that all acting
and speaking subjects implicitly know how to "achieve, accomplish, perform, and
produce" without having to have been taught to do so. In contrast with
empirically-founded endeavors such as in the natural sciences, the
reconstructive sciences explore symbolic and social realities, seeking "deep
structures" of competence in (usually) the human species. Hence, "universal
species competences," which Habermas terms, in his adoption of them for the
agenda of communicative action, "universal pragmatics."
The data of reconstructive sciences is provided, not only by observation and
testing, but also by introspective reportage of the subjects. However, they are not
transcendent. This, as Richard Bernstein points out, is, for Habermas, their
most important methodological point. These sciences "are themselves subject to
appropriate canons of confirmation and falsification." This is crucial because it places
Habermas's ethics on a scientific footing that Kant's, being merely internal
and transcendental, could never claim.
The point of adopting such reconstructive sciences is that Habermas wishes to
make ethics pragmatic and more socially relevant. "The reconstructive sciences
designed to grasp universal competencies break through the hermeneutic circle
in which... the interpretive social sciences are trapped," he writes. Transcendental philosophies such
as Kant's and Hegel's, while perhaps metaphysically convincing, did little to
effect a social relevance. Habermas finds communicative action to be founded,
at least implicitly and often explicitly, in the very act of speaking. Here he
summarizes it succinctly enough to warrant quotation in full:
In the attitude oriented toward reaching understanding [i.e., a
community's communicative action re especially a moral norm], the speaker
raises with every intelligible utterance the claim that the utterance in
question is true..., that the speech act is right in terms of given normative
context..., and that the speaker's manifest intentions are meant in the way
that they are expressed.
Put another way, every time a person speaks, he or she applies the three
validity claims of truth (what I am saying to you represents a true statement
as best I understand or perceive it), sincerity (I mean this statement, I am
not lying) and rightness (what I am saying is appropriate in terms of our
shared social realm. While it is
obvious that not all speech acts include these validity claims--e.g., if one is
speaking imperatively or strategically some or all of the three might not be
relevant--all communicative speech acts do.
Habermas's notion of the universality of these validity claims is, upon
reflection, obvious. Also, it indicates two other aspects of discourse which
further imply the potential of moral behaviour: humans possess an inherent
goodwill, and they seek to live communally. Communication is motivated by
goodwill, for why would one communicate a (nonstrategic) thought if one did not
believe it to be true and wish to share it sincerely? Acts of communication
also imply a universal desire to interact with a communal give-and-take, for,
if it were otherwise, one would not need to speak with another human, but could
either speak to one's cat or, as in Kant's scheme, simply reflect internally.
Thus, it is in communicative speech that Habermas founds discourse ethics and
the possibility for prescribing universal morality.
Habermas's intention is to find an empirical and reason-based ground for a
universalizable ethics. "Through speech-act theory," he explains, "I just
wanted to get hold... of a notion of rationality that does have certain
normative implications." Since
all humans, no matter what culture they are in and what language they speak,
unconsciously include the above validity claims with every spoken statement,
his theory of universal pragmatics can become just that: universal. This has
profound implications for ethics in a pluralistic and modern world, for it
suggests that mutual understanding, community solidarity, and universalizable
morality is, not just possible, but built into the very competences we as a
species universally possess. Moral judgments can be rationally and
empirically-based without resort to positivism, they can be universally applied
without the threat of a sort of apodictic moral totalitarianism, and they can,
indeed they must, be reached through a process of community dialogue the
informing motivation and guiding principle of which is action oriented towards
reaching understanding. The moral laws arrived at after this process can
unhesitatingly be labelled "truth."
BAHA'I CONSULTATION: COMMUNICATIVE INTERACTION
The Bahá'í religion sees itself as the only force capable, in the present
world, of bringing about world peace and constructing avenues along which
humankind can achieve its fullest potential. The base of its claim to be able
to do so is its principle of unity in diversity, and especially consultation.
Bahá'u'lláh taught that diversity is as essential to a properly functioning
society as, say, differences in pitches, rhythms, and instruments are essential
in a symphony. Bahá'ís believe that the only way to preserve pluralism of
opinion, interpretation, and culture is to have all people, nations, and
cultures consciously agree to do so. This agreement requires, in at least a
minimal sense, a unity of belief. Only if all diverse elements consciously
agree to respect and retain diversity will the multifarious political interest
groups, cultures, religions, and even language communities cease trying to gain
dominance or, in less purposeful domination activities such as the growth of
colonial languages at the expense of native ones, can hegemonies be
prevented. The way Bahá'ís seek
to effect this paradigm shift is, largely, through teaching communities the
principles of consultation.
I will present the Bahá'í notion of consultation in the following paragraphs
and, to keep from being repetitive, I will make any appropriate observations
relating consultation to Habermas's communicative action in the same
presentation. The parallels between the Bahá'í system and Habermas's two senses
of universalism will be evident.
Consultation may sound, prima facie, like little more than a fancy term
for an old and common understanding of how productive dialogues should be
conducted. This would be a misreading, for it contains a few innovative
elements. "The purpose," writes 'Abdu'l-Bahá, son of Bahá'u'lláh, "[is] that
consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth," and "the
shining spark of truth comes forth only after the clash of differing
opinions." Every member of the
consulting body, be it an entire community or a smaller ruling body, is encouraged and, if hesitant,
solicited to share his or her thoughts. The directive is that, "before the
majority of the Assembly comes to a decision, it is not only the right but the
sacred obligation of every member to express freely and openly his views." They must, in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's
words, "proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and
moderation to express their views."
Partly for the sake of ensuring that these guidelines are followed, every idea
and suggestion put forward is not considered the idea of the person who
mentioned it, but the property of the group as a whole. That is, no one is
given either credit or blame for his ideas. This prevents both individual
credit and ad hominem attacks, which has the effect of greatly limiting
strategic communication. This addresses a common objection to Habermas's
theories, namely their unattainable utopian character. It has been noted (see
above, page 8) that a discourse in which the participants detachedly subject
all of their preconceptions and opinions to impartial rationality seems highly
counterfactual. In consultation, where ideas cease being traced to the
provenance of their thinker and instead belong, impersonally, to the group,
there is much more practical ability to subject them to critical and objective
analysis, and much less of a tendency to guard and unreasonably argue for or
against any particular idea. Consultation thus embodies Habermas's injunction
to let no force but that of the better argument prevail and removes some of the
primary obstacles to the ideal speech situation.
One of Habermas's main concerns was to promote a social ethics that would
prevent the rise of totalitarian governments and encourage democracies, and
much of his theory of discourse ethics is oriented towards that goal. Religion,
for Habermas, was a prime example of dictatorial morality. Kenneth MacKendrick
writes in a recent paper that "Habermas sees the truth claims of theology as
being self-validating and unredeemable in discourse - and therefore
unreflexive, unaccommodating, and unaccountable." The Bahá'í religion has similar
concerns, and orients consultation as a response to them. Shoghi Effendi, who
figured prominently in organizing the religion in the twentieth century, wrote
that Bahá'ís must "bear in mind that the keynote of the Cause of God is not
dictatorial authority, but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the
spirit of frank and loving consultation... Consultation, frank and unfettered,
is the bedrock of this unique Order." Consultation helps to foster
democracy by, first, enjoining that all participants have their say, and
encouraging this by preventing any decisions being made autocratically. A
decision can only be made if there is a quorum, which on all present-day Bahá'í
administrative bodies is at minimum five. Thus, the most totalitarian a
Bahá'í government could become is oligarchic. However, since even this
hypothetical oligarchy could only be elected democratically, it is difficult to imagine Bahá'í
administration and, by extrapolation, its deontology, being authoritarian.
Habermas's universalizability principle is reflected in the Bahá'í notion of
truth being consensual and reached through consultation. For Habermas, a moral
law can only be declared to be true, and subsequently enforced, if all affected
have had the chance to discuss it and have agreed on it. Since no
transcendental authority, be it a categorical imperative or God, is ever
invoked to legitimate a norm, only norms defined consensually can,
pragmatically, be considered as truth. Likewise, for Bahá'ís, it is only in the
process of consultation that most truth claims can be defined and rationally
validated. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains this in a quote relevant enough to be included
He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right
but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion; for the
light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide... Before
expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already
advanced by others... If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more
true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an
opinion of his own... By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity
That is, the "spiritual verities" aside, most of humanity's truth claims are
only reached and legitimated through the process of consultation. Once a
decision is reached by majority vote, it is considered, in a way reminiscent of
Charles Peirce, to be pragmatically true. Further, similar to the teaching that
ideas belong to the group and not to individuals, these consultative truths are
taken to represent the body politic and not the opinion of those who voted for
it. The international Bahá'í governing body explains that "[a]s soon as a
decision is reached it becomes the decision of the whole Assembly, not merely
of those members who happened to be among the majority." In this way is Habermas's notion
of universalization applied to consultation: it applies to all equally, as does
his (U), but, being conditioned on majority rather than conformity, it is more
There is further aspect to this, and one which also differs slightly from
Habermas's system. His communicative action can, as I mentioned, be criticized
for its ideal status. A discursive community will only reach agreement on a
contested moral norm after a sufficiently protracted debate. For the force of
the better argument to prevail, every participant must be convinced that his or
her opinion, if differing from the final verdict, was wrong. This is not
because he is forced into accepting the consensus, but because the honest and
sincere application of reason showed him which opinion was the better, and he
changed his mind. This course of events is clearly pragmatically
counterfactual, for it is highly unlikely that such a debate could truly be
continued long enough and that the participants would be rationally
dispassionate enough for all to become wholly convinced of one and only one
outcome. Decision making in the Bahá'í system of consultation does need to
continue to this utopian ideal. Bahá'í writings emphasize repeatedly that a
unity of opinion is the best option, but not essential. Discussion can stop
when a majority is reached. Bahá'ís do not consider these consensually-defined
truth claims to be metaphysically true for, since most religious beliefs are
contextual, metaphysical considerations are often de-emphasized. Rather, it is a pragmatic truth.
After a community has reached a decision, all members are to accept it.
'Abdu'l-Bahá explains that
If they agree upon a subject, even though it be wrong, it is better
than to disagree and be in the right... Though one of the parties may be in the
right and they disagree that will be the cause of a thousand wrongs, but if
they agree and both parties are in the wrong, as it is in unity the truth will
be revealed and the wrong made right.
Though this may sound illogical, the Bahá'í theory is that it is the quickest
way to perceive which course of action is superior. If five people in the
community act on one decision and four act on an opposing one, a much greater
time and effort will be required to determine which course was the superior
than would be required if all nine acted wholeheartedly and in accord, even if
their course turned out to be the inferior.
Habermas uses the notion of universalism in two ways; one, that all must and,
as the theory of universal validity claims of speech acts shows, can
participate in judging a moral law, and two, that all must agree on the law
and, once they have, the law must apply to all equally. He avoids any sort of
ethical autocracy by requiring that only the better argument hold sway, yet
acknowledges that this does represent an "ideal speech situation." Habermas
solves this problem partly through recourse to reconstructive sciences, i.e.
sciences which study universal species competences. Through this method
Habermas theorizes that our every spoken utterance includes validity
assumptions that approximate the ideal speech situation. That is, the very fact the we are,
universally, linguistic and communal beings serves to reify the abstraction of
the ideal speech situation.
The Bahá'í system of governance and communicative structuring, especially
consultation, addresses the same issues that Habermas's communicative action
does and prescribes many of the same solutions. Consultation, though, draws
clearer lines describing the nature of the individual communities which seek to
create a communal ethics, and it draws these lines partly by defining the
relativistic communal norms in contradistinction to a universal community,
namely the one in which all member states have agreed to the overarching norm
of unity in diversity. Even though Habermas sees a potential reification of the
ideal speech situation in the universal validity claims of speech acts, there
still seems to be an aporia in the process of communicative action, an aporia
which would inevitably preclude the final step of universalization of the norm.
Namely, is it feasible to expect that a community can be so dispassionate as to
let nothing but empathetic rationality reign? Consultation offers a solution to
this--rather than theorize about moral laws that can only be applied following
a complete and rational agreement, the Bahá'í consultation offers another kind
of universal species competency. It teaches the universal necessity of, first,
sharing fully and openly one's thoughts, but after doing so to be detached from
one's personal ideas and opinions, and to priorize instead a consensus reached
by agreeing to act in accord with majority decisions.
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Wellmer, Albrecht. "Practical Philosophy and the Theory of Society," in Seyla
Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, eds. The Communicative Ethics Controversy. Cambridge:
The MIT Press, 1990, pp. 293-329.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
(New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1960), pp. 70f.
 Though the term "Bahá'í Faith" is the most common, it
carries overtones of piety and apologetics. The term "Bahá'ísm" is often
encountered in academic works, but this is regarded by Bahá'ís as expressing
the same misunderstandings that led to the (now recognized as improper) term
"Mohammedanism" for "Muslim." The option used here is the most felicitous. See
Robert H. Stockman, ed., "A Curriculum Guide for the Bahá'í Faith" (Wilmette,
Illinois: Bahá'í National Center Research Office, 1994), p. 2.
 See J.M. Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life:
Jürgen Habermas and the future of critical theory (Routledge: London,
1995), p. 191.
 Throughout this paper I will be using the term
"universal" and derivatives of it. Here I should clarify what universalism, in
this context, is not. Two of its most common meanings in academia, both
of which here it is not, are in 1) comparative religion, where it simply
means a religious system claiming world validity, or a concept defined as
applicable to all experiencers, and in 2) metaphysics, where it usually relates
to the nominalism/realism debate as to whether or not there is a universal
Form, or archetype, which gives identity to particular instances of the
universal. What it is I will define later.
 From Krinein, "to divide" or "to choose," and
hence "to judge" or "to examine."
 Udo Schaefer, trans. Geraldine Schuckelt, Beyond the
Clash of Religions: The Emergence of a New Paradigm (Prague: Zero Palm
Press, 1995), pp. 17f.
 American Heritage Dictionary of Cultural Literacy,
Electronic Edition (InfoSoft International, Inc., 1994), s.v.
 Quoted in Schaefer, Clash of Religions, p. 27.
 Helmut Peukert, "Enlightenment and Theology as Unfinished
Projects," in Don S. Browning and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, eds.,
Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1992),
pp. 43-65, p. 46.
 Peukert, "Enlightenment and Theology," p. 48.
 David F. Ford, "Epilogue: Postmodernism and
Postscript," in David F. Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians: An introduction
to Christian theology in the twentieth century (Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, 1989), pp. 291-297, pp. 291f.
 Quoted in Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A
History (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1986), p. 19.
 See Sharpe, Comparative Religion, p. 28.
 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "supernaturalism."
Accessed from the Internet (Linkname: OED Logo Oxford English Dictionary; URL:
 Matthew Lamb, "Communicative Praxis and Theology:
Beyond Modern Nihilism and Dogmatism," in Don S. Browning and Francis
Schüssler Fiorenza, eds., Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology
(New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 92-118, p. 108.
 Quoted in Udo Schaefer, "Ethics for a Global Society,"
in The Bahá'í Studies Review, Volume 4 Number 1, 1994, pp.47-56, p.
 Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity--An Incomplete
Project," in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern
Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 3-15, pp. 8-10.
 Quoted in Jürgen Habermas, Peter Dews, ed.,
Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas (London:
Verso, 1986), p. 5.
 See David M. Rasmussen, "The System/Lifeworld
Distinction in the Context of Power," in David M. Rasmussen, Reading
Habermas (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 51-54.
 Habermas, "Modernity--An Incomplete Project," pp. 9f.
Italics in original.
 Jürgen Habermas, trans. Christian Lenhardt and
Shierry Weber Nicholsen, "Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical
Justification, in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action
(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), pp. 42-115, pp. 57f. This presentation of
communicative action will, unless otherwise noted, largely be taken from ibid.,
esp. pp. 57-76, "The Principle of Universalizability as a Rule of
Argumentation," and "Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action," in ibid.,
pp. 116-194, esp. "The Perspective Structure of Action Oriented toward Reaching
Understanding," pp. 133-141.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 58. Italics in
 Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "illocution." I am
simplifying this: Habermas also makes use of a further distinction of
"perlocutionary" speech acts, which are even more strategically-oriented. These
distinctions are all drawn from J. L. Austin. Cf. Oxford English Dictionary,
s.v. "perlocution," which quotes Austin's How to do Things with Words,
p. 102: "We can similarly distinguish the locutionary act 'he said
that..' from the illocutionary act 'he argued that..' and the
perlocutionary act 'he convinced me that..'." Italics mine.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 89.
 David E. Klemm, "Two Ways to Avoid Tragedy," in David
Jasper, ed., Postmodernism, Literature and the Future of Theology (New
York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), pp. 7-20, p. 18.
 Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 141. Habermas
expands on this point in Dews, ed., Autonomy and Solidarity, pp.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 88.
 David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics,
Religion, Hope (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 85.
 David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, p. 86.
 In answer to the obvious question "why, then, another
religion?" Bahá'u'lláh responded that education requires ever-increasing levels
of knowledge fitted to a changing and ever more mature humanity. It is a
fundamental tenet that Bahá'u'lláh's teachings will one day also be superseded
by the next Manifestation. Indeed, Bahá'ís believe that every religion's
scriptures declare that the religion will one day be superseded, but that very
few adherents correctly understand these prophesies and accept this fact.
Within Christianity, for example, see John 14:2-3, 16:6, and 16:12-13, Acts
 A concise summary of these three approaches to the
theology of religions can be found in Gavin D'Costa, "Theology of Religions,"
in The Modern Theologians, pp. 274-290. Cf. also John Hick, "Interfaith
and the Future," in The Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 4 no. 1, (1994): pp.
1-8. For a Bahá'í evaluation of the three approaches, cf. Juan R.I. Cole, "'I
am All the Prophets': The Poetics of Pluralism in Bahá'í Texts," Poetics
Today, vol. 14, no. 3 (Fall 1993): pp. 123-141.
 Seyla Benhabib, "Afterword: Communicative Ethics and
Current Controversies in Practical Philosophy," in Seyla Benhabib and Fred
Dallmayr, eds., The Communicative Ethics Controversy (Cambridge: The MIT
Press, 1990), pp. 330-369, pp. 330f.
 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, "Ultimate
Moral Principles: Their Justification," pp. 177-182, p. 179.
 Sometimes also referred to as "impartiality." Cf.
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Ultimate Moral Principles," p. 180.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 63.
 Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 334.
 Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 335.
 Habermas, "Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel's
Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics?", in Moral Consciousness and
Communicative Action (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), p. 195.
 Quoted by Dews in Peter Dews, ed., Autonomy and
Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas (London: Verso, 1986), p.
 Webster's New World Encyclopedia, college
edition (New York: Prentice Hall,1993), s.v. "Popper, Karl."
 J. M. Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life, p.
 Quoted in Richard J. Bernstein, ed., Habermas and
Modernity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985). p. 4.
 Cf. Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 65 and p. 93, and
Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 120.
 Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity, p. 252.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 93. Cf. also p. 66.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 94.
 Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 93.
 Cf. David E. Klemm, "Two Ways to Avoid Tragedy," p.
 Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 344.
 Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 345. (I translate, "they will
be forced to be free.")
 While there obviously have been exceptions, and the
women who voluntarily submitted to this treatment were doubtless fewer than
those who were forced to submit to it, the fact remains that some adult,
rational women have freely agreed to it. This example differs from, say, forced
genital mutilation of African girls, for the girls, being children, could not
be considered old enough, or, in Habermasian terms, "rational" enough to fully
understand and agree to the action.
 Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 356 and p. 342,
 Albrecht Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy and the Theory
of Society," in Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, eds., The Communicative
Ethics Controversy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), pp. 293-329, p. 327.
 "One can also understand the choice of a [universal]
reference system... in a different way: namely, as grounded in the interest of
reconstructing a system of rules that will be recognized by speakers..."
Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy," p. 327. Wellmer continues, explaining that we
can see this level of abstraction, not as a discourse constraint forced upon
the participants, but as one chosen in exactly the same method that a moral
norm is chosen, i.e. consensually and willingly. However, though acknowledging
this alternate explanation, he does not carry it through.
 Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy," p. 327. Italics in
 Cf. also Spanish, saber vs. conocer, and
Arabic, 'alama vs. 'arafa.
 Richard J. Bernstein, in Habermas and Modernity,
 Chomsky's generative grammar includes abstract
principles of grammar that, not only are universal, but point to the
possibility of language having a biological basis. Piaget's and Kohlberg's
theories detail stages by which cognition (Piaget) and morality (Kohlberg)
develop in all individuals in clear-cut stages, universal in their general
structure in all humans and all cultures.
 Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen
Habermas (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), pp. 276.
 Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen
Habermas, pp. 278f.
 Richard J. Bernstein, in Habermas and Modernity,
 Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 118.
 Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," pp. 136f. Italics in
 Habermas also speaks of a fourth validity claim,
comprehensibility, which stipulates that the sentence itself is a
comprehensible one. I.e., "this ball is red" contains a level of clear,
comprehensible meaning in a way that "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did
gyre and gimble in the wabe" doesn't. However, he concentrates on the three
 Habermas, "Concluding Remarks," in Craig Calhoun, ed.,
Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992), pp.
462-480, p. 463.
 Though there is not the space here to explain this
fully, I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that the Bahá'í
religion merely seeks to replace lesser forms of imperialism with a global one.
Moojan Momen, an eminent Bahá'í scholar, writes: "The Bahá'í Faith is..., I
would argue, in reality, a metareligion. It is not another religion that has
come to take the place of the existing religions but rather a way of looking at
the religious experience of the whole of humanity... What I see the Bahá'í
Faith doing is taking the religious traditions of the world and developing
these along their own traditional paths of spirituality... The world-wide
Bahá'í community would act as a medium in which these different spiritual
pathways would become globally available." Moojan Momen, "Beyond Pluralism"
(unpublished article, 1995), pp. 1f.
 Interpreters are sometimes quick to exemplify this with
the adage "to agree to disagree." This is misleading, because it implies
contentiousness, a dead end in an argument. A more accurate axiom would be "to
allow to be different."
 Quoted in The Universal House of Justice Research
Dept., compiler, Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1995), Nos. 20 and 9, respectively.
 All administrative bodies in the Bahá'í religion, from
local to international, are corporate, possessing at minimum nine members.
Power of governance is never invested in individuals, hence each and every
major administrative, legal, or interpretive ("spiritual") decision is made
only through the process of consultation. In contradistinction, Habermas only
sees religious institutions as resistant to democracy. See Kenneth MacKendrick,
"Method, Theory, and Communicative Action: An Exploration into Jürgen
Habermas's Contribution to the Study of Religion (unpublished paper, delivered
at a symposium at the University of Toronto on April 27, 1996), p. 13.
 From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, in
Consultation, No. 31.
 Quoted in John Huddleston, The Earth is But One
Country (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 99.
 MacKendrick, "Method, Theory, and Communicative
Action," p. 11.
 Quoted in Consultation, Nos. 22 and 26,
 See note 69, above. Cf. also Compilation on Bahá'í
Administration (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 96,
and Helen Bassett Hornby, compiler, Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference
File, third edition (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1994), No. 585.
 Cf. Compilation on Bahá'í Administration. The
proscription of positive or negative campaigning includes elections as well as
discourse. An individual who publicly campaigns for his or her election to a
governing body is automatically barred from consideration and, conversely,
those individuals who are elected are expected to "serve" on the body (though
not required, it is rare for someone to refuse). This procedure puts into
practice the old Chinese adage that "He who most wants to lead is least fit to
do so, and he who is most fit to lead least wants to."
 Consultation, No. 20. Italics added.
 The Universal House of Justice, quoted in Lights of
Guidance, No. 584.
 Cf. Moojan Momen, "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í
Metaphysics," in Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, volume 5 (Los
Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988), pp. 185-218.
 Consultation, No. 12.
writes: "It is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one
right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of
dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong
decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord
and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually
lead to the righting of the wrong." Quoted in Consultation, No. 15.
 See Habermas, in Autonomy and Solidarity, p. 260.