Habermas on Consensus

While there continue to be debates around the ideal outcome of deliberation, a common conception is that deliberation ought to arrive at consensus.

That is to say, when issues arise in a democratic society, citizens ought to come together, share and discuss their knowledge, arrive at consensus, and collectively take action to address the issue. While this is, of course, no small task in a pluralistic world, coming to consensus is a worthy endeavor.

I was struck, then, by Habermas’ framing of consensus in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action

By entering into a process of moral argumentation, the participants continue their communicative action in a reflexive attitude with the aim of restoring a consensus that has been disrupted. Moral argumentation thus serves to settle conflicts of action by consensual means. Conflicts in the domain of norm-guided interactions can be traced directly to some disruption of normative consensus.

This is different from how I typically think of consensus. I take for granted that people have different views and experience – that is, I never imagined there would be consensus to begin with.

Habermas, on the other hand, sees consensus as the norm. This has implications subtly different from seeing consensus as an ideal: Rather than a tool to achieve the seemingly impossible, dialogue is simply a tool for restoring the expected state.

This has further implications for the value of deliberation and consensus. Habermas continues:

Agreement of this kind expresses a common will. If moral argumentaion is to produce this kind of agreement, however, it is not enough for the individual to reflect on whether he can assent to a norm. It is not even enough for each individual to reflect in this way and then register his vote. What is needed is a “real” process of argumentation in which the individuals concerned cooperate. Only an intersubjective process of reaching understanding can produce an agreement that is reflexive in nature; only it can give the participants the knowledge that thy have collectively become convinced of something.

Or more simply, as Habermas writes earlier in Moral Consciousness:

“Real argument makes moral insight possible.”


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