Habermas: Religion in the Public Sphere – 27/06/2016


A Pluralist Democracy

Here are two assumptions we’ll accept for the sake of argument:

  1. We live in a democracy (or in a state that strives to be a democracy, or at least pretends to be one, however much of a mess they make of it in practice).
  2. The citizenry of that democracy is characterised by religious plurality: various religious and non-religious worldviews and ways of life co-exist, and (importantly) this is likely to remain this way.

Democracies occur in many forms, historically, but all have in common that they ought to be an expression of the Democratic Principle: those who are subject to the law, should be able to view themselves as co-authors of that law.

Of course, the way in which citizens can contribute to law-making can take many forms: electing representatives, voting in a referendum, starting and signing petitions, but also contributing to public debate through open, public forums, which require some basic democratic rights, such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, the right to a defense in court and the right to education (this is not an exclusive list).

An often-made mistake is to equate democracy with simple majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is ‘doing what the majority wants’, which can easily be established by a vote. This system is certainly a useful decision making tool, and can at times be applied in a democracy, but it is not the same as a democracy, since it can run against the Democratic Principle. The problem with majoritarianism is that it can lead to what is known as ‘the tyranny of the majority’. A majority can vote to unjustly oppress a minority, so in a majoritarian system, minority rights are in danger. A majority vote in favour of prosecuting homosexuals is a case in point. The problem with this is that the homosexuals in question would be subject to that decision, but they can hardly view themselves as co-authors of it. A democracy requires that all those who are subject to binding decisions should be able to have access to a justification they could come to accept as reasonable, and they should be able to influence that decision by offering a justification of their own. In short: in a democracy citizens owe one another reasons for laws, a vote alone won’t do.

A democracy, therefore, consists of a wide variety of social rights and institutions. We live in a democracy all the time, not only on election day.

Religion in the Public Sphere

So in a democracy, the public sphere is one of these important institutions. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written a lot about the public sphere, ever since the seventies. The public sphere is the domain in which citizens of a democracy discuss matters of public concern with each other. This can be online and offline, in the media, in the pub, in the bus, in the classroom. Habermas divides the public sphere in two tiers: the informal public sphere and the formal, political public sphere. The informal public sphere is the domain where ordinary citizens discuss matters of public concern, and the political public sphere is the domain where policy makers and other public official formulate and finalise laws: parliament and the court of law are examples.

Democratic deliberation takes place in these two tiers of the public sphere. Citizens contribute justifications to the informal public sphere that public officials pick up, and public officials justify the laws they make in the formal public sphere.

In the past two decades, the following question has been a topic of hot debate:

In a democracy, can religious justifications count as legitimate justifications for laws, or should laws be supported by secular reasons only?

One of the basic rights essential for a democracy is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion consists of a negative and a positive freedom. The negative freedom entails the right to be free from the religion of others, so others are prevented from imposing their religion on you, even if that were the religion of the majority. The positive freedom entails the right to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, which enables you to build churches and temples, dress in certain ways or observe certain diets or celebrate certain religious holidays. Each society can negotiate these two freedoms in various ways, but what is important is that both are respected. Habermas explicitly states that he is committed to both the negative and the positive freedom of religion.

So, at face value, this poses a problem. On the one hand, the positive freedom of religion protects the freedom of religion citizens to use their religious views in the public sphere, including in discussions about laws that apply to all. On the other hand, the negative freedom of religion protects the non-religious citizens, or citizens who adhere to minority religions, from having the religion of others imposed on them, which might happen if a law is supported solely with a religious justification. How to solve this problem?

American philosopher John Rawls suggests that citizens can use religious reasons in discussions in the public sphere, but “in due course”, when the law is finally made, the law should be supported by sufficient “public reason”. By “public reason”, Rawls means reasons that every reasonable citizen could reasonably come to accept. For instance, when a religious citizen goes to the polling station, they ought to be able to justify their vote with sufficient reason, even if their own reasons for casting that vote is religiously motivated.

Another philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, however, argues that what Rawls demands of religious citizens is (a) too demanding, and (b) goes against the positive freedom of religion. He argues that many religious citizens are unable to make a “split” in their reasoning between religious and secular reasons, without having to be disingenuous or threatening their own integrity. It is, as it were, part and parcel of their religious commitment that they base their political actions on those religious views. This objection of Wolterstorff against Rawls is called the Integrity Objection. This threat to the internal integrity of religious citizens is particularly a problem because that burden is not asked of non-religious citizens, which poses an unjustified unfairness.

Habermas takes Wolterstorff’s objection seriously and has an alternative to Rawls: he calls it the translation proviso: citizens can use religious justifications for laws in the informal public sphere, even without offering additional secular reasons in support of their proposal. However, in the formal, political public sphere, officials must use secular justifications alone to justify the laws they make. To avoid simply ignoring the religious contributions to public debate, it is essential that religious reasons be translated to secular reasons. This job of translation, according to Habermas, is a responsibility religious and non-religious citizens carry together, as a co-operative task. This means that both religious and non-religious citizens must engage in a mutual learning process: religious citizens must learn to accept that their religious doctrines don’t have a privileged appeal to truth, and that there are rivaling religious and secular doctrines that deserve to be treated with equal respect. Non-religious citizens must learn that religious worldviews are not simply relics of an archaic past, bound to disappear, but that instead religious reasons are vehicles of relevant content that can shine new light on issues of public concern. In the process of translation, Habermas believes that this relevant content can be distilled from religious justifications and reformulated in secular terms.

For Habermas. Secular language differs from religious language in that it is “equally acceptable to all”, whereas religious language is only accessible to those who already adhere to that religion. That is the reason why, in Habermas’ view, at the end of the day, only secular reasons are able to meet the requirements of the democratic principle. His translation proviso, he argues, thus protects both the negative and the positive parts of the freedom of religion.


Habermas, Jurgen. “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens.” In Between Naturalism and Religion: Political Essays, by JurgenHabermas, 114 – 48. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008
Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997):765 – 807
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues.” In Religion inthe Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, by Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996
If you’re on Academia.edu, you could read this conference paper I delivered a few years ago (I am somewhat critical of Habermas, although I admire very much his position on the whole).
Here’s a brief excerpt of a lecture Habermas gave in 2011. Habermas is perhaps difficult to understand (he was born with a speech impediment and, of course, a German accent), but just watch this and pray you’ll be lecturing like that when you’re in your eighties.



Martha Nussbaum – The Capability Approach 06/06/16

Contemporary debates about the philosophy of social justice face challenges that are particular to our times. Martha Nussbaum developed – based on the capabilities-based development theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen – a sophisticated answer to many of these challenges, which she outlines in her book Creating Capabilities (2011). What are these contemporary challenges, and how does Nussbaum attempt to meet those challenges?

Contemporary challenges

Global justice. It is uncontroversial that resources and opportunities are unfairly distributed. Not only within countries or states, but also among states. Some states have more resources, or are better able to manage their resources, than others. What do richer states morally owe poorer states? On the one hand, the inequalities between states are arbitrary and not the result of a fair process, so fairness requires that these inequalities be compensated, particularly since these inequalities currently lead to dehumanizing conditions for many. On the other hand, really equal distribution of resources across states is as good as impossible to govern.

Imperialism. We’d like to think that the times when Western nations went around the world invading territories, claiming land and resources for themselves and imposing their laws, norms, religions, languages, culture and governance upon other peoples is long behind us. Likewise, we’d like to think that women and men enjoy equality in all spheres of life and that battles like that of the suffragettes is a thing of the past. But reality is uncomfortable in this respect. Feminists and anti-colonialists have often persuasively pointed out that even after decolonisation and the legal recognition of equality for man and women, male and Western norms are still culturally dominant, often in hidden and implicit ways. Feminist philosophers have argued that many moral and political philosophies in the history of philosophy implicitly assume male standards that don’t quite fit women’s experiences. Likewise, Western philosophies have been shown to implicitly assume a European or US American context, thereby discounting non-Western societies from the outset, but at the same time claiming universal applicability. Western philosophies thus are in danger of implicitly making imperialist claims without realizing it. In this light, postmodern concerns – like those put forward by Nietzsche – spring to mind: is it at all possible to formulate a moral or political theory that has universal application, or does such a theory always amount to imperialism, whereby the dominant group imposes its arbitrary morality on everyone? But if a theory of justice has no universal applicability, can it be said to be a theory of justice at all? After all, aren’t we all owed the same respect, in virtue of our humanity?

Justice to animals. Can justice apply to non-human animals, too? Few would argue that animals can make the same moral claims as humans, or that they should have the same rights. But equally few would claim they are not owed any moral respect at all. Presumably, truth lies somewhere in between. Animals are sentient, they can feel pain and pleasure, fear and joy. Many people would argue that animals should be protected from pointless cruelty. But which criteria apply here? A theory of justice that is not at all able to consider or apply to non-human animals is, these days, considered to have a serious handicap.

The Capability Approach

Martha Nussbaum can’t be said to lack ambition. She claims that her theory of social justice meets all three of the above challenges. She starts from the Aristotelian idea that the idea of justice ought to be based on the question: “What is each person able to do and to be?”[1] If we are to judge any society on its basic justice or decency, that’s the question we should ask, according to Nussbaum. To further break this question down, she has formulated ten capabilities, which form the basis of her account of justice. These ten capabilities are:

  1. Life.
  2. Bodily health (“including reproductive health”)
  3. Bodily integrity (including “opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction”)
  4. Senses, imagination, and thought (“being able to use the senses, to imagine, to think, and to reason”)
  5. Emotions (“being able to have attachments to things and people outside of ourselves”)
  6. Practical reason (“being able to form a conception of the good”)
  7. Affiliation (“being able to live with and toward others”)
  8. Other species (“being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature”)
  9. Play (“being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities”)
  10. Control over one’s environment (“being able to participate effectively in political choices” and “being able to hold property and having property rights”) [2]

These ten capabilities constitute Nussbaum’s account of social justice. To understand how they work, however, a few further things must be said about these capabilities.

Firstly, these ten capabilities form the basis of justice. Justice should be understood in these terms; they are not mere symptoms of justice.

Secondly, these ten capabilities are universal. They apply to all humans and even to non-human animals, regardless of culture of context.

Thirdly, having these capabilities, does not mean that one also enacts them. This should be a matter of free choice, according to Nussbaum. She therefore distinguishes ‘functioning’ from ‘capabilities’, whereby functioning refers to doing what a capability enables one to do. For instance, I may have the capability to connect with other species – I am able to do so and no one is hindering me from doing so nor coercing me to do so – but whether I actually choose to do so is a different matter. The capability approach is therefore a distinctly liberal approach.

Fourthly, Nussbaum employs a threshold with regard to these capabilities. That means that in order for a person to live a life of dignity, and for a society to deserve the label ‘decent’ or ‘minimally just’, these ten capabilities must be enabled to a certain, minimal, degree. It is hardly intelligible that a person could exercise them to a maximum degree, since contingent circumstances necessarily limit them. Hence, justice does not require that people are unlimited in the exercise of these capabilities, but that they have them to a certain degree.

Fifthly, the ten capabilities relate to each other. If the conditions for reasonable bodily health and longevity aren’t met, for instance, we also won’t be capable of many other things. A society is therefore just only if for each citizen conditions are provided that practically enable all ten capabilities to threshold level. That also means that the lack of one capability can not be compensated with an excess in another capability. No amount of education can compensate for the lack of bodily health. All capabilities must be met to threshold level.

Does Nussbaum’s account meet the three contemporary challenges?

According to Nussbaum, societies that are unable to reach a minimum threshold level of these ten capabilities for their members ought to receive help from societies that do have the resources and institutions to provide these ten capabilities. This is, according to Nussbaum, a reasonable demand for global justice.

Although Nussbaum claims that her approach has universal applicability, she is sensitive to the dangers of imperialism. However, she has thought of this too. The capabilities are sufficiently generic, according to Nussbaum, to allow for significant differences in cultural interpretation. How or to which extent we choose to play, make decisions about our bodies or relate to the other species can be informed in various ways by our religion, culture, upbringing, ethical views, tastes or environment.

Finally, the ten capabilities can be employed to evaluate not only the level of justice towards humans, but also non-human animal species. Perhaps even robots!



Thanks for reading my introduction, but who can really explain it better than Martha Nussbaum herself? I really recommend watching this lecture. It is very clear and detailed and really brings home why Nussbaum thinks all of this is very, very important.


[1]    Martha Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities; The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univerity Press, 2011) p. 18

[2]    Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, 2011 and Martha Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)

Hannah Arendt – The Banality of Evil 22/02/2026

Few topics are as delightful to discuss over a cuppa on your ordinary Monday evening as evil. Pure, horrible, terrifying evil. Can’t wait.

Here’s a thought to ruin your night’s sleep: did you think that for evil to be done, you need an extraordinary kind of person, or extraordinary circumstances? A really wicked kind of person, who takes delight in cruelty? Or if not a cruel person, then at least extreme circumstances that force one to choose between two evils? Not so, says Hannah Arendt. She contends that evil is very banal. If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t think or resist, if you just do your job, if you just do what is expected of you, you might be doing horrible evil right now. Evil is not some extraordinary thing, Arendt argues, evil is “terrifyingly normal”.

Arendt attended the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. She was a journalist at the time. Eichmann was a Nazi who designed the time tables for the logistic operation to and from concentration and extermination camps. He was very good at this job, and thanks to his effort, the killing of millions of Jews happened efficiently. Eichmann, thus, made a major contribution to one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.

But in court, his defenses were all cliches: he was just doing his job, he was just obeying orders, he was just doing what was expected of him, he was just trying to do his job well. And it’s true: Eichmann never saw any prisoners, he just shifted some papers on his desk and made some phone calls to ensure the trains were all running on time. It’s not that he didn’t know that these trains were full of Jews and that they were going to their final destination, but he never thought about it very deeply. He never paused to think whether something horrible might be going on, and whether he might be bearing some responsibility for these atrocities.

Arendt was puzzled by Eichmann. She had read Immanuel Kant, who explained evil in terms of weak or corrupted will: humans have a propensity to subordinate moral law to self-interest, and that’s when evil is done. But Arendt was not satisfied by this explanation. It explained neither the horror nor the scale of such evils as the Holocaust. And it failed to explain Eichmann’s evil in particular. Eichmann was just an ordinary man, not a monster. His motives were commonplace. He had no deep or wicked desire to exterminate a group of people, he just wanted to do his job well.

Thus, Arendt concludes, Eichmann was just an ordinary man, doing evil. Evil is as banal as Eichmann’s motives. Yet, she doesn’t let him off the hook, because it is his thoughtlessness that makes him culpable, according to Arendt. He should have paused to think about what was going on, what he was doing, and what his role and responsibility was.

The banality of evil is disturbing. If ordinary people can so easily be lead to do evil, then who guarantees us that you and I aren’t a cog in some evil machine right now? This disturbing thought is illustrated quite starkly by experiments like the Milgram experiment, in which 26 out of 40 subjects were willing to administer a fatal electric shock to an innocent individual simply because an authority told them to.

Confucius – 08/02/2016

Confucius (551?-479? BCE) is one of the oldest and best known ancient Chinese philosophers (that is to say: he was born in the state of Lu in what is now called China.) Many ideas that might sound familiar to you can already be found in his collection of writings: the Analects. The Golden Rule, for instance: “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”, or does the idea that the key to moral living is compassion sound familiar to you? Well, Confucius said it well before any Western thinker did. Indeed, he said it before the history of Western philosophy even started. Although some might find his philosophy too conservative for their taste, it is impressively rich and remarkably current today.


Students and followers of Confucius have collected some of his sayings and writings in a book that is now known as the Analects, or Lunyu. From this work, it is clear that Confucius was mostly interested in the question: What is needed for a society to be a healthy society?

To answer this question, Confucius appealed to the Heavens and the Ancestors. That was conventional in his day. The Heavens were a central notion in ancient Chinese religion, but what philosophers mean when they refer to the Heavens is not like anything we in the West know. The Heavens can mean a Supreme Being, but it is also used to refer to nature or natural laws, or fate, or the realm of the spirits. Confucius says he had a special relationship with the Heavens, and that he understood what the Heavens wanted from him and mankind. In his days, saying this lends extra credibility to a philosopher. It’s like a modern scientist saying: “I understand the laws of nature, so trust me, I’m a good scientist.” A philosopher who understood the ways of the Heavens was trusted to be a good philosopher. The Ancestors were also a central notion in ancient Chinese historical awareness. These weren’t ordinary Ancestors. They weren’t somebody’s great-great-great granddads. They were legendary figures. The ancient Chinese people believed that their societies were the messy remnants of much earlier, much more harmonious societies, ruled by legendary rulers with superhuman abilities and extremely long life spans: the Ancestors. Confucius claimed that he appealed to the values and ethics that made one of those societies – the kingdom of Zhou – flourish. This is another move of Confucius to make himself look better: a philosopher who says: “I’m not making this philosophy up, I’m just reminding you of what worked in the good old days.” shows not only modesty, but also reassures his audience that what he proposes is not some weird radical idea. Since an appeal to the Heavens and to the Ancestors makes a philosopher look more credible, it was conventional for philosophers of the time to do so. It may also be that Confucius never made these appeals himself, but that his followers credit these statements to him as a form of respect.

In this class, we’ll discuss a central in Confucius’ philosophy: the idea of ren, which is often translated as ‘compassion’, which is to be achieved by looking at roles within the family and by cultivating the rituals.

We will also discuss two criticisms of the Confucian model at the time: that of the Mohists and that of Zhuangzi.

Prisoner’s Dilemma, Bonnie and Clyde – 18/01/2016

Imagine the following scenario:

You, Bonnie, and your associate Clyde, have robbed a bank. You have been arrested and locked up in separate cells, unable to communicate with each other. After a while, the sheriff enters your cell to interrogate you. When it becomes clear that you are not going to confess, the sheriff admits that he has enough evidence to get both of you convicted for possession of the illegal substances he found in your car, but not enough evidence to get either of you convicted for armed robbery. So he offers you the following deal, and informs you that he will offer Clyde the same deal:

1. If you confess and rat on Clyde, but Clyde remains silent, your account will be enough to lock Clyde up for 10 years. In return for this favour, you get your freedom.
2. If you confess and rat on Clyde, and Clyde also confesses and rats on you, both of you get a prison sentence of 7 years.
3. If you remain silent, but Clyde rats on you, you will face 10 years in prison, whilst Clyde goes free.
4. If you both remain silent, all the sheriff has is the illegal substance, which will land both of you a prison sentence of two years.

Then he leaves you to consider your options.

It is immediately clear that the best thing to do for you and Clyde is to remain silent.



But then you start to doubt. Although you love Clyde, you are not willing to sacrifice 10 years of your life for him. Knowing him, you suspect that he won’t do that for you, either! What’s more, you don’t trust him one bit. Coming to think of it: he’s a self-interested bastard, and cunning too! You decide to take the option that will leave you with the shortest possible prison sentence, assuming that Clyde will do the same.

When the sheriff knocks on your cell door, will you rat or remain silent? How long will each of you spend in prison?

And whatever you choose, what does that tell us about cooperation and rationality?