Chow Pak Kiu Abstract


Chow Pak Kiu

(HKCT Institute of Social Science and Associaçăo de Filosofia da China em Macau)

Should Instrumental Reasoning be allowed in Public Sphere?

Those who have a high regard for public sphere have their own reasons. There are at least two. First of all, discourses that take place in public sphere are processes of argumentations in which rationality, inter-subjectivity and impartiality are valued. Paternalism and vested interests will never exert their influences upon the decisions collectively made by the interlocutors. Secondly, most, if not all, pieces of information relevant to collective decision making are accessible to every interlocutor in public sphere. Such a flow of information helps to nurture a democratic decision making process that could overcome deep differences among the interlocutors and thereby give rise to 'a legitimate bonding force' for a pluralistic society. Critics who have doubts about public sphere may ask what kind of interlocutors is entitled a place in the public sphere as mentioned above.

According to Habermas, anyone who is capable of demonstrating communicative rationality and ethics is capable of conducting a fair and constructive discourse in public sphere. He attributes a number of qualities or traits to such a person. Firstly, as an interlocutor, he or she is expected to use the same linguistic expressions (not necessarily of the same language) in the same way. Secondly, he or she is expected not to suppress or exclude any relevant argument given by fellow interlocutors. Thirdly, he or she is motivated only by a concern for the better arguments. In a word, he or she shares with his or her fellow interlocutors a set of standards for distinguishing proper uses of linguistic expressions, relevant arguments and adequate criteria for comparing arguments. In view of what inheres in an interlocutor that guides his or her acts of communication, two extremely different paths may open up to him or her when foreign interlocutors are encountered. Either he or she continues to apply the original standards of linguistic usages, argumentative relevancy and excellence with the aim of converting the foreign interlocutors as a way of understanding them; or he or she allows himself or herself to share a different set of standards with another group of interlocutors for conducting a different kind of discourses that enables himself or herself to be understood. However, interlocutors from either side should not confine themselves within intra-cultural understanding in an inter-cultural setting as there is a pluralistic society to nurture. This is a difficult task since there is little common ground for exercising communicative rationality in cross-cultural exchanges. It is not too difficult to find out that inter-subjective understanding gives way to a kind of subjective understanding that promotes instrumental values and such a move makes it even more difficult to pursue inter-subjective understanding. Public sphere for cross-cultural discourses is indeed vulnerable to instrumental reasoning. We certainly have to keep instrumental reasoning at bay as Habermas expected. But how?

In this paper, I choose to answer the when question before the how question. I argue that instrumental reasoning has a part to play for nurturing a pluralistic society that cuts across different cultures, especially at the stage when interlocutors with different cultural backgrounds begin to recognize a society as an aggregate of individuals that serves the pre-existing interests of its members. Only when there is a society to accommodate people from different cultural backgrounds that the interlocutors could take into consideration the different backgrounds of the other members on an equal footing for developing a code of argumentation that enhances inter-subjective understanding in a pluralistic setting. Instrumental reasoning should have no dominant role to play at this later stage. Habermas's interlocutors should know when to keep their instrumental reasoning at bay. When the time of control comes, they may also want to examine if their reasoning serves to promote instrumental values in the name of promoting inter-subjective understanding and thereby obtains a dignified position in public sphere. Indentifying this kind of reasoning is the first step to keep it at bay.