Seyla Benhabib is one of the few widely known political theorist women in the last decades. Her areas of specialization are 19th and 20th century Political Thought, and Feminist Theory. She is the writer of important books such as “Democracy and Difference: Changing Boundaries of the Political” and “The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt”. In this paper I am going to analyze two articles from her writings.
In her article “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy” Benhabib begins stating three main public goods in the minds of modern democracies, which are legitimacy, economic welfare and collective identity. In her idea, these three goods are heavily interdependent and “excessive realization of one good may be in conflict with and may jeopardize the realization of others” (Benhabib, pg 67). She gives some examples in order to strengthen her argument. For instance, economic cost can be attained in some countries at the cost of reducing legitimacy by limiting the rights of unions etc. Likewise, too much emphasis on collective identity may decrease the legitimacy if it is realized at the cost of the minority rights. Benhabib declares that although these three conceptions are equally important and interdependent, the main focus of her article and the basis of democracy is the legitimacy part. In her view, “legitimacy in complex democratic societies must be thought to result from the free and unconstrained public deliberation of all about matters of common concern” (Benhabib, pg 68). Benhabib believes that democracy can be best applied with this deliberative model. Benhabib defines democracy as “a model for organizing the collective and public exercise of power in the major institutions of a society on the basis of the principle that decisions affecting the well-being of a collectivity can be viewed as the outcome of a procedure of free and reasoned deliberation among individuals considered as moral and political equals” (Benhabib, pg 68). Seyla Benhabib makes it clear that while constructing her deliberative model of democracy, she uses practical reasons “which has become the collective and anonymous property of cultures, institutions, and traditions as a result of the experiments and experiences, both ancient and modern, with democratic rule over the course of history” (Benhabib, pg 69).
According to Benhabib, deliberative model of democracy can take place in an environment in which all institutions of this polity are so arranged that what is considered as the common interest of all is the result of a free and rational discussion between all participants. In other words, decision-making process requires a free and rational bargaining and discussion process among all social actors. Benhabib thinks that this would increase the legitimacy of the regime and decisions since they result from the free discussions between the opposing groups. Benhabib later turns on to create a discourse model of ethics for deliberative democracy. In her idea, there are mainly three reasons for this legitimacy. First of all, all actors have the same opportunity in participating in this process which is governed by the norms of equality and symmetry. Secondly, all people have “the right to question the assigned topic of conversation”. Thirdly, all “have the right to initiate reflexive arguments about the very rules of the discourse procedure and the way in which they are applied or carried out” (Benhabib, pg 70). Benhabib also underlines that in certain issues like environmental problems this bargaining process should not be limited to members of a nation-state but rather must contain all people from different countries who will be affected from this decision. Benhabib admits that while constructing her model, she was inspired by other theories such as Hannah Arendt’s theory of political action, Benjamin Barber’s model of strong democracy and different post-structural models developed by William Connolly, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.
According to Benhabib, there are some reasons for the deliberative democracy model to generate practical rationality. Firstly, no single individual or group is able to “foresee all the variety of perspectives through which matters of ethics and politics would be perceived by different individuals” (Benhabib, pg 71). Secondly, no single individual or group can possess the information necessary to make a rational choice. Thus, deliberation is a procedure for being informed. Thirdly, unlike what economic models of reasoning claim, this procedure necessitates opinion holders to support their ideas by plausible reasons and thus, facilitate other people’s formation of opinions. Benhabib believes that “in many instances the majority rule is a fair and rational decision procedure, not because legitimacy resides in numbers but because if a majority of people are convinced at one point on the basis of reasons formulated as closely as possible as a result of a process of discursive deliberation that conclusion” (Benhabib, pg 72). Thus, the deliberative model of democracy offers both a legitimate and rational decision. She also thinks that this model is proceduralist since it “emphasizes first and foremost certain institutional procedures and practices for attaining decisions on matters that would be binding all” (Benhabib, pg 73). In doing this, Benhabib thinks we should also reserve a place for pluralism and avoid establishing a strong unified moral and religious code. In addition, because of conflicting interests, mutual cooperation and consensus are essential in the deliberative democracy. Moreover, this model acknowledges the plurality of the modes of association and takes into account all types of groups including political parties, social movements, voluntary and civil society organizations etc. Benhabib then focuses on the different kinds of criticism towards her model of democracy.
Liberals like John Rawls insist on public reason and think that public reason should be used for changing constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice. According to Benhabib, Rawls’ model has a restricted agenda compared to the deliberative model of democracy since it only allows public reason to take part for general principles. Furthermore, Benhabib claims that in Rawls’ theory, “public reason is best viewed not as a process of reasoning among citizens but as a regulative principle imposing limits upon how individuals, institutions, and agencies ought to reason about public matters” (Benhabib, pg 75). In addition, according to Rawls this public reason should be applied restrictively since associations should have autonomy in accordance with liberal principles. Thus, Benhabib blames Rawls for not locating public sphere “in civil society but in the state and its organizations” (Benhabib, pg 75). Feminist theories also approach to deliberative model as problematic. In their view, the dichotomy of the public and private spheres lead to the formation of a public sphere which is “historically, socially and culturally a space for male bodies” (Benhabib, pg 81). Culturally settled traditions and habitudes lead to the lack of representation of women in the public sphere and do not result in fair and rational decisions. There is also institutionalist, realist criticism towards the deliberative model of democracy. This type of criticism underlines the impossibility of application this type of a democracy in complex modern societies. Benhabib thinks that the deliberative model of democracy is not something new and all accepted and beneficial democratic institutions and practices are arranged according to this model. However, the question is to expand the scope and strengthen this practice. Many democratic earning such as “the rationale of parliamentary opposition, the need for a free and independent media and sphere of public opinion, and the rationale for employing majority rule as a decision procedure” are good examples showing that the deliberative model of democracy is already in practice but there is a need for ameliorating it (Benhabib, pg 84).
In “Models of Public Space” Benhabib focuses on different public space traditions. The first tradition according to Benhabib is Hannah Arendt’s agonistic concept of public space. In her works “The Human Condition” and “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Arendt complains about “the rise of social” by which she means “the institutional differentiation of modern societies into the narrowly political realm on the one hand and the economic market and the family on the other” as a requirement of public-private distinction (Benhabib, pg 90). Arendt has enmity towards totalitarian regimes which aim to orientate people just to behave and obey instead of discussing and forming opinion in the public sphere. In this way, Arendt is considered as an anti-modernist by some people. Arendt’s idealized public sphere resembles to ancient Greek public sphere understanding in which women, slaves, laborers, non-citizen residents and all non-Greeks are excluded from the public sphere. By looking at this reading, we can reach the conclusion that Arendt is in favor of an elitist public sphere. However, Benhabib thinks that we can form two different public spheres from Arendt’s theory; namely the agonistic and associational view of public space. According to the agonistic view, public space is the place where people show their moral and political views by heroism with action. “This is a competitive space, in which one competes for recognition, precedence and acclaim; ultimately it is the space in which one seeks a guarantee against the futility and the passage of all things human” (Benhabib, pg 93). However, by an associational reading we can reach the conclusion that Arendt conceptualizes the public space as emerging whenever and whenever “men act together in concert”. In other words, public space is the space “where freedom can appear”. According to this view, for Arendt different locations become public spaces if they become the sites of acts in concert, power relations and “common action coordinated through speech and persuasion” (Benhabib, pg 93). Arendt’s effort to exclude work and labor from the public sphere is non-sense according to Benhabib because economy by its nature is political and is a part of the public sphere. According to the model of liberal dialogue, the public space should be neutral and open to all opinions. However, as Bruce Ackerman points out there should be a “reasonable way”, “conversational restraint” in order to provide coexistence of different groups (Benhabib, pg 96). Benhabib calls this liberal model as “legalistic” model of public space. The third model on the other hand is “discursive public space” model which is drawn clearly by Jürgen Habermas and resembles to Benhabib’s deliberative democracy model. According to this model, public space is the place of free and rational debate and it leads to right conclusions, decisions.
In these articles, Seyla Benhabib successfully summarizes different views about the public-private dichotomy and the necessary conditions of democracy. But I still think that there are some problematic aspects in her deliberative model. First of all, although the security of private and especially personal sphere is absolutely necessary against a totalitarian state, in many cases this distinction leads to the emergence and the continuation of inequalities in the private sphere. Although liberal democracies provide equal political and social rights in the public sphere, their indifferent attitude to the injustices taking place cannot be corrected with deliberative democracy. Like Martha Nussbaum mentions in her article “Aristotelian Social Democracy”, the existence of settled injustices, inequalities and backwardness that are strengthened by traditions may lead to people’s mistake in making right decisions. Although we do not have to determine what is right for people, we have to agree at least on minimum number of things that are essential for human life. That is why this distinction sometimes leads to the continuation of inequalities. That is why feminist criticism towards public-private dichotomy is very important in my opinion. Since women especially in conservative societies are repressed and socialized in this way, allowing them to have equal rights would not solve problems but rather would lead to the perpetuation of these problems. It is obvious that we do not want a totalitarian state but we should find a better solution than liberalism in doing this.
 Rawls’ “justice as fairness has two basic principles. Firstly, “each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value”. Secondly, “social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” (Rawls, Political Liberalism, pg 5-6).
 “Arendt, by contrast, relegated certain types of activity like work and labor, and by extension most, if not all, issues of economics and technology to the private realm alone, ignoring that these activities and relations, in so far as they are based on power relations, could become matters of public dispute as well” (Benhabib, pg 95).