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Two Sets of Concerns about Heath's “Pragmatic Theory of Convergence”

  • Pablo Gilabert (a1)

A central concern of Joseph Heath's Communicative Action and Rational Choice is to find a plausible response to “the problem of convergence … to explain why we should ever expect to secure agreement on moral questions” (pp. 8–9). In Chapter 7 of his book, Heath proposes what he calls “a pragmatic theory of convergence.” This account is presented as contrasting with the one proposed by Jürgen Habermas, which emphasizes the existence of an internal relation between convergence and moral truth. According to Habermas, there is a “connection … between moral cognitivism and the expectation of convergence” (p. 220). One cannot take moral judgements to be amenable to rational justification (i.e., be a cognitivist) unless one also assumes that an agreement among those participating in the discursive evaluation of that moral judgement is possible in principle. (Habermas adds that this a priori possibility lies in the use of a procedural criterion of moral validity, which in his moral theory is provided by a discursive principle of universalization.) Heath considers this claim about a supposed internal connection as a remnant of foundationalism in Habermas's otherwise promissory contextualist account of moral justification. To reject non-cognitivism, according to Heath, we need not demonstrate that convergence on moral judgement is always forthcoming. It is enough to show that ordinary moral thinking takes moral claims as amenable to discursive justification. As to whether actual practices of discursive justification of moral claims will indeed end in agreement or convergence, a “wait and see” attitude seems all we can legitimately hope for.

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1 Heath sees this “wait and see” attitude as being quite active, however. It includes an experimental stance within practical discourse that prescribes open-mindedness regarding the types of devices used in the search for discursive agreement. Heath's rejection of Habermas's insistence that agreement should be pursued through a principle of universalization, and his proposal of cooperative bargaining, is an example of this.

2 A powerful example of a discursive approach that still retains realist assumptions can be found in the work of Hilary Putnam (e.g., Realism with a Human Face, edited by Conant J. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990]). Not even Pierce, whom Heath invokes in his critique of “representationalism,” would give up strong realist assumptions moulding scientific discourse. Thus, in his endorsement of the “scientific method” for “fixing beliefs,” Pierce says that “its fundamental hypothesis” is that “there are real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those realities affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really are, and any man, if he have sufficient experience and reason enough about it, will be led to the one true conclusion” (Pierce C. S., “The Fixation of Belief,” in The Essential Pierce, Vol. 1, edited by Houser N. and Kloesel C. [Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992], pp. 109–23, esp. p. 120). More generally, Pierce's category of “Secondness” implies that all empirical inquiry involves contact with something foreign to the mind capable to “surprise” it (even if its thematization always involves intersubjective linguistic mediation—i.e., “Thirdness”) (see Pierce C. S., “On Phenomenology,” in The Essential Pierce, Vol. 2, edited by The Pierce Edition Project [Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998], pp. 145–59, esp. pp. 150–55).

3 See Gauthier David, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

4 It is puzzling that in his account of “pragmatic reasons” Heath does not mobilize the resources he developed in Chapter 4 of his book. In that chapter he says that, besides instrumental reasons focused on outcomes, there are two other basic kinds of reasons focused on the actions themselves: “affective” reasons and “normative” reasons. An appeal to the latter, based on “deontic constraints,” would have been helpful in Heath's discussion of moral convergence. Perhaps an expanded pragmatic theory of moral convergence should start by considering the relation between “pragmatic” and “normative” reasons for action. It would be helpful, however, to avoid a narrow construal of the distinction between moral and instrumental rationality in terms of focus on actions versus focus on outcomes (pp. 144, 146, 151). Most contemporary moral theories, not unreasonably, take moral reasoning to focus on both. The kernel of the distinction between moral and instrumental rationality is not whether outcomes are considered, but from what point of view they (or other focal variables) are considered (for example, in an impartial or in a self-serving fashion).

5 “A conception of political legitimacy aims for a public basis of justification and appeals to public reason, and hence to free and equal citizens viewed as reasonable and rational… We look for a consensus of reasonable (as opposed to unreasonable or irrational) comprehensive doctrines. The crucial fact is not the fact of pluralism as such, but of reasonable pluralism” (Rawls J., Political Liberalism [New York: Columbia University Press, 1996], p. 144). The notion of public reason, and the substantive rationale of its limitations, is further developed by Rawls in Political Liberalism, Lecture 6, and in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” in Rawls J., Collected Papers, edited by Freeman S. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 573615. In the latter text Rawls says that the content of public reason is given by “the set of principles and values of the family of liberal political conceptions of justice” (p. 584: my emphasis).

6 It also fails, by the same token, to illuminate the fact that seeking convergence with others on issues that affect their deepest interests is intrinsically valuable from the moral point of view, as it involves recognizing their moral status as persons deserving respect by way of not discounting their interests and their autonomous judgement. This is actually one of the insights motivating Habermas's discourse ethics, as the latter is moved by the “project” of an “ever increasing inclusiveness of other claims and persons” (Habermas J., Truth and Justification, translated by Fultner B. [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003], pp. 43, 257).

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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