Habermas on rationality: Means, ends and communication

AuthorAdrian Blau
Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Article EJPT
Habermas on rationality:
Means, ends and
Adrian Blau
Department of Political Economy, King’s College
London, UK
This is a constructive critique of Habermas’s account of rationality, which is central to
his political theory and has sparked theoretical and empirical research across academia.
Habermas and many critical theorists caricature means-ends rationality (the ability to
pick good means to ends), e.g. by wrongly depicting it as egocentric. This weakens
Habermas’s attempt to distinguish means-ends rationality from his hugely important
and influential idea of communicative rationality (roughly, the rationality of genuine
discussion). I suggest that sincerity and autonomy, rather than non-egocentrism,
are the key distinguishing features of communicative rationality. This shows that com-
municative rationality actually overlaps with means-ends rationality. Indeed, means-ends
rationality is needed by critical theorists, as I exemplify by showing its use in deliber-
ative democracy. Moreover, means-ends rationality will be present in discourse ethics,
as I show with the example of moral discourse about gay marriage. My article thus
challenges decades of what Habermas and critical theorists have written on means-ends
and communicative rationality, but I stay broadly true to – and hopefully improve –
Habermas’s account of rationality.
Communicative rationality, Habermas, instrumental rationality, means-ends rationality,
Corresponding author:
Adrian Blau, Reader in Politics, Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, UK.
Email: Adrian.Blau@kcl.ac.uk
European Journal of Political Theory
!The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1474885119867679
2022, Vol. 21(2) 321–344
Frankfurt School critical theorists have often criticized means-ends rationality –
the ability to choose good means to ends. These criticisms miss the mark: they
involve narrow kinds of means-ends rationality and say little about broader ver-
sions. Every sensible theory of rationality should include means-ends rationality.
Early Frankfurt School theorists, like Adorno and Horkheimer, could sidestep
this response: the kind of means-ends rationality they attack is prominent and
needs challenging. The situation is more serious for Ju
¨rgen Habermas. Because
his predecessors offered little positive beyond their critique of means-ends ratio-
nality, Habermas developed a broader typology of rationality, including the crucial
contribution of communicative rationality – roughly, the rationality of genuine
discussion. But Habermas defines communicative rationality in contrast to means-
ends rationality, and since he caricatures means-ends rationality, this undermines
the very idea of communicative rationality. Most importantly, he depicts means-
ends rationality as egocentric, unlike communicative rationality; but he does not
define ‘egocentric’, and no definition supports this distinction, I show.
Drawing on Habermas’s late 1980s work, I offer an alternative distinction
between communicative and means-ends rationality, using the ideas of sincerity
and autonomy: the ends of genuine/sincere understanding and autonomous agree-
ment are side-constraints on means which can be used in communicative rational-
ity. But the same applies to means-ends rationality.
Michael Baurmann (1985) and Uwe Steinhoff (2009) have argued that commu-
nicative rationality is actually a subset of means-ends rationality. However,
Baurmann’s comments are too brief and Steinhoff’s are too critical. I build on
their arguments but instead depict the two forms of rationality as overlapping.
Properly understood, means-ends rationality is not the monster it is often por-
trayed as, but a sensible part of any theory of rationality. It is even necessary in
discourse ethics.
My constructive critique thus (a) enables a clearer and more workable idea of
communicative rationality, (b) corrects misperceptions of means-ends rationality
and (c) shows its relevance for Habermasian moral discourse and for critical
theorists more generally, including those using communicative rationality to
defend deliberative democracy. The relevance of these ideas for critical theorists
is a recurring theme in this article.
I should thus say more about how communicative rationality has often been
used, especially by critical theorists, to justify things it cannot justify. Sometimes,
this simply reflects misreadings of Habermas. For example, in political theory
Mark Pennington (2003) argues that markets can be communicatively rational,
in that they communicate information rationally. But this is not Habermasian
communicative rationality. In public policy, Clinton Andrews’s (2007) account
of instrumental, strategic and communicative rationality bears little relation to
Habermas’s. In international politics, Thomas Risse conflates communicative
rationality and discourse, and sometimes discusses the ideal speech situation in
322 European Journal of Political Theory 21(2)

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