We have seen various views throughout history that seem stunningly unjust to us today, but that people have viewed as rational — that even great philosophers, like Kant thought were rational. It seems clear that Kant did not think sufficiently about how background conditions influenced his application of reason.
In his late work Kant began to think about some of these issues more than in the early work. But Hegel was an important thinker pushing this type of inquiry forward. In Hegel’s view, as we have seen, we are becoming more rational in the course of history. For Hegel and his heirs there is a parallel between the advancement of thought that is widely accepted in areas like physics and advancement in thought on morality.
One of Hegel’s heirs to reject Hegel’s mystical interpretation of such progress and to argue for it with a more naturalistic than spiritualist orientation is Juergen Habermas. In Habermas’ early assimilation of Hegelianism, he emphasizes the we have indeed made progress throughout history as we have learned in diverse realms of human interest. In his book, Knowledge and Human Interests, and indeed throughout his career, among other things, he argues that we have not just learned about better manipulating the world (in the natural sciences) but also about social coordination (in the realm of politics and morality). He indicates in particular, in a Neo-Hegelian vein, that more inclusive social institutions that we have created over time create better conditions for the exercise of our reason. Insofar, as these institutions facilitate the better subjective use of reason, we can view these as more rational institutions.
In line with Habermas’s view we can see individuals as subject to particularist biases, depending on their background experience, class, understood self-interest and so on. Over time, in the democracies, institutions have become more rational as those who are affected by those institutions have gained the opportunity to have greater say in how the institutions that affect them are organized. With the emergence of modern democracies in particular the view became more sedimented that all should have voice in shaping the political processes that shape their lives.
In line with Habermas, we can argue that inclusive legal structures create, at the very least, the possibility for decisions that are more informed by the general interests within society and that we can thus see as more aligned with the kind of principles that Kant thought rational laws should have. Laws that are formed too much with particularist interests of segments of society and that are not meeting goods that more generalizable might at least be changed, if we can assume that voters will vote the lawgivers out of office who impose such laws upon them.
From the outset, however, Habermas and other critical theorists with whom he is identified, saw mere representational democracy as inadequate. More generally, in order to be rational, to generate a legal order that is reflective of general rather than particularist interests, there must be a chance for more direct political involvement.
Of course, long prior to Habermas, democracies themselves had integrated legal protections for some elements needed to preserve democracy and for citizens to do more than vote: Modern liberal democracies have a free press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech more generally. This is to facilitate the democratic process, to facilitate an informed public, involved in shaping its own governmental institutions.
In sync with Habermas, all of this is more rational than forms of governance that exclude voice. Medieval and early Modern non-democratic forms of government simply increase the possibility that those governing will govern for particular interest groups of a powerful elite. They decrease the probability that the laws will be generated for the more general good of the public.
All this granted, while Habermas accepts that existing liberal democracies are a great advance over preceding more hierarchical political systems, he still views them as quite incomplete. We need more than the type of protections of free press and liberal freedoms noted above to ensure as rational society as possible. If we want a system that is as rational as possible, in Habermas’ view, then we need one that is as inclusive as possible. We need a more participatory and deliberative democratic society. Such a system, as Habermas sees it, will make it more likely something akin to Kant’s universal law can be found, as individuals engage in dialogue aimed at understanding.
See the blog on Discourse Ethics