Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

System and Lifeworld, and electoral democracy

Or republic, or whatever you want to call it. As some readers may know, "system" and "lifeworld" are key terms in the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas. (It's a long story, but his theory of communicative action and in particular his development of speech act theory are important in my own work. Here I will go off on a different application.)

For most people, the forces that create the high-level context of their lives are largely inscrutable. Somehow human society produces the built environment of roads and sidewalks and corner stores; the job market in which they struggle to provide for themselves; the commercial products which are available and affordable or not; war and peace; and the mass media content that is constantly drilling into their brains.

People obviously have various theories about all this. To a large extent, they get those theories from their lifeworlds -- the interacting, communicative environments in which they do have competence and some degree of control. Together with our family, friends, coworkers, and to some extent people with whom we interact in a formal capacity such as teachers and health care providers, we mutually create our lifeworld. If, in our lifeworld, the earth is 6,000 years old and the reason we can't find a job is because rich people pay too much in taxes, well, that's how it is.

But the lifeworld is obviously not autonomous. At the system level, people are working to shape it through what Habermas calls strategic (as opposed to communicative) action. Vast forces contend for influence over our lifeworlds, whether it's Coke or Pepsi or God wants you to vote Republican. Ultimately, the processes that produce an electoral outcome owe only a passing and usually non-dispositive accountability to verifiable reality.

Yes, people's values differ and they decide what is in their own self-interest, so if they don't want gay people to get married they really don't want that. That's a component of their lifeworld, or it isn't, and strategic action has more capacity to mobilize it than to create it. (Although scare tactics are certainly employed. [The passive voice is chosen deliberately.]) A champion of democracy has to accept that voters will act on such feelings, and if you don't like it, that's the price you have to pay for democracy.

But the question of whether further cutting millionaires' taxes, as opposed to spending more on mass transit and public education, will do more to reduce unemployment is what Habermas calls a "first world" criticizable validity claim. It's a claim about intersubjective reality, that has a particular kind of truth which is independent of your values or feelings. The same goes for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the effect of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate. And it turns out that in U.S. politics, right now, such truths don't matter very much. And that's a disaster for us all.

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