Seyla Benhabib (1950 - ) was born in Istanbul and immigrated to the United States in 1970. She is currently a professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. Her main interests include critical theory and feminist theory. She also published several books about Hannah Arendt and Jürgen  Habermas. Jürgen Habermas, considered one of the founders of modern communicative ethics, also called discursive ethics, discusses the basic idea that the validity of a moral norm cannot be justified in the mind of an isolated individual reflecting on the world. The validity of a norm is justified only intersubjectively, which means, in processes of argumentation between individuals.


The validity of a claim to normative rightness depends upon the mutual understanding achieved by individuals in argument. Thus, Benhabib thinks that feminist theories, for example, can contribute to moral philosophy.


Benhabib, in her book Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, talks from the intersection of communitarianism (Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer), feminism (Carol Gilligan, Susan Moller Okin, Iris Young, and Drucilla Cornell) and postmodernism (Michell Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard) to rethink universalism on the basis of communicative ethics. Benhabib strongly argues for the need to "save" universalist moral and political theories from "voiced skepticism" of feminists, communitarian and postmodernists, suggesting at the same time that they need to be "reformulated" rather than be discarded.


Carol Gilligan's research in moral psychology made us aware of the complete absence of women's experience not only in Kohlberg's conception of moral domain but in universalist moral theories. Kohlberg’s concept of moral domain is based on a strong differentiation between justice and the good life. Benhabib shows that with the transition to modernity, relations of kinship, friendship, love and sex come to be viewed as spheres of personal decision-making or belonging to the domestic sphere. These relations are consequently removed from the sphere of justice. This contributes to the privatization of the experience of the women and to their exclusion of the consideration of the moral point of view. Seyla Benhabib further develops her argument by pointing out that the absence of women's experience in a universalist moral theories cannot be simply "corrected" by inserting them into the picture because the gender blindness points to "a epistemic failure . . . of the grand narratives of the logocentric western tradition(1992, 14)." Feminist criticisms of the universalist moral theories questions implicit models of selfhood, autonomy and justice sustained by dichotomous reasoning, and Benhabib reconsiders the problem of the moral subject and its relation to others.

Benhabib points out that when Kohlberg questioned the interviewees about Heinz’s dilemma, he excluded Heinz’s social-historical context and his motivations. The other is abstracted from his/her identity and the differences are irrelevant. He ignores the “concrete other.”

There is no real plurality of perspectives in Kohlberg’s theory, only a definitional identity, according to Benhabib. What Benhabib problematizes here is that the conception of moral self based on the standpoint of generalized other inevitably brings the abstraction of individual identity. Privatization of women's experience and exclusion of women from the restricted moral domain of justice resulted in partial and fragmentary ethics. The definitional identity leads to an incomplete reversibility, since the primary criteria for reversibility is the concrete distinction between “self” and “other.” Moral situations, attitudes, and judgments can only be individualized if analyzed in the light of our knowledge about the agents involved.

It is only in an open and reflective moral dialogue that it can lead to a mutual comprehension of the otherness. Gilligan suggests that empathy is an important element in reversibility; however, Benhabib thinks that empathy, as a capacity to feel with the other, might make difficult a separation between the “self” and the “other.” She prefers the idea of “enlarged mentality” and suggests the creation of more principles, procedures and institutions to articulate the voice of “others.”

According to Benhabib, a communicative ethics regarding moral issues is preferable because it takes into account the generalized other, considering as equal all moral agents, and concrete others, as individuals with irreducibilities. According to the discourse ethics: (i) The moral point of view cannot be constructed by a hypothetical thought, but through a real dialogue between moral agents; (ii) The more knowledge about the other, the more rational will be the results of the deliberations; (iii) If there is no restriction of knowledge to be considered in the argumentative situation, there is no privileged matter in the moral dispute (justice or good life); (vi) In the moral discourse the agents can introduce metaconsiderations about the very conditions and constraints under which such dialogue takes place and they can evaluate their fairness.

As a consequence, in discourse ethics, the language of rights can be challenged. The moral theory domain is expanded and includes questions of justice as well as of the good life. The discourse or communicative model of ethics subverts the distinction between an ethics of justice and rights and one of care and responsibility.


Although Benhabib's “concrete other” ironically shows abstractedness and her idea of reversibility based on the “concrete others” who are asymmetrical is problematic, as pointed out by some scholars, her argument of communicative ethics is a productive framework for moral theory. Benhabib's critical approach to and adaptation of Habermas's communicative ethics sheds light on the significance of the specific differences among people. She is also well known for effectively putting different theories in dialogue.


The following reading is selected from Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (Routledge, 1992), pages 148-70. 



Topics for Discussion-Benhabib

Topics for Discussion


1. Benhabib's concept of rationality is discursive, communicative and context-sensitive, yet she adheres to a universalist tradition. One can say the achievement of Benhabib is her effort to situate a universalist ethics in relation to gender and contextuality. "Situating" self does not necessarily exclude features of moral self attributed to universalist moral perspective. Instead of imagining alternative rationality or ethics, Benhabib maintains the framework of universalism with the corrected concept of autonomous self. How "ambitious" or "radical" would you describe her project? If Gilligan's re-inscribing women's experience in the place where they are excluded is not enough, is Benhabib's situating a universalist ethics in relation to gender enough? 


2. In the discourse ethics, the more knowledge is available to moral agents about each other's individual history, talents and desires, which will lead to more rational judgment. If you think about juries sentencing decisions, for example, does more information about individual's history guarantee rational judgment? Why and why not? 


3. To describe her communicative ethics that is influenced by feminist theories, Benhabib rarely uses examples to illustrate the applicability of her theory. Among these examples, very few are about women and generally stereotypical, for example: ““black welfare mother of three children out of wedlock living in a rapidly decaying urban neighborhood” (1997, 166-167). Does it suggest that her universal subject really takes into account women?

4. If every concrete self and reason is always situated in some context, would it be possible to define a universalistic moral theory? If Benhabib does so in her text, what methodology does she use? 

5. Gilligan’s developed her moral theory based on a practical experiment while Benhabib develops her communicative ethics basically on theoretical basis. What are the implications these two different methodologies to a moral theory?