Arsons/Habermas, Scientific Sociology/Critical Theory, and a Natural Law Theory of Morality

Mark Gould, Haverford College

The foundational impulse in any critical theory is to provide a non-arbitrary standard against which contemporary social conditions might be assessed. Apart from, although often included within, a religious understanding of purportedly universal moral standards, are various notions of natural law. In such theories, when they are religious, God is understood to act justly and the standard of justice to which God adheres is recognized to be accessible to all people independently from revelation. I discuss how we might articulate a theory of natural law grounded in sociological theory that might redeem this aspiration. I explain why a natural law standard is essential in an evaluation of the validity of any set of social relationships. This entails a critique of all procedural theories of morality, including the one Jürgen Habermas has articulated. I show how Habermas redeems his procedural theory of validity through his contention that validity claims are inherent in all speech, and in his analysis of an ideal speech situation, where such claims might be redeemed. While Habermas’s argument is brilliant, I contend that we must rethink his understanding of social science if we are to provide an adequate natural law theory, one that redeems the promise of “critical theory,” providing both a standard by which we might evaluate the present and, at the same time, a model of how we might construct a better future. This last task entails the explication of an integrated functional, structural and developmental social theory. Such a social theory is grounded in the work of Talcott Parsons, although we will see that it transcends his work. The natural law standard that it articulates is characterized in a theory of social development, which constitutes an invariant normative standard.

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 Presented in Session 50. Method and Theory on Historical Change I