Reading and reflecting about discourse ethics:
an embarras de richesse
again. I fear I have had you waiting for the third of the three
announced essays on the practical philosophy of Jurgen Habermas, within my current series of Reflections on Reflective
As planned, this third part will deal with the way Habermas
employs his language-analytical
framework of "formal pragmatics" for "applied"
(though still theoretical) topics such as ethics, democracy,
and science; but yes, I am running late, later than I have
ever been with my bimonthly or (previously) monthly reflection
since I started the series in 2003. It's not that I have been
lazy but rather, that I have been
reading, reflecting, and writing too much, exploring
so many themes and lines of argumentation around the mentioned
"applied" topics that in the end I am suffering from
what the French call an
embarras de richesse – an overload of ideas, arguments,
much is never good. So I
have decided to cure the situation by cutting much of the material in question.
But then, throwing it away looks like a waste. Why not better
use it for a preliminary approximation
to the difficult subject of discourse ethics, a sort of primer? I
invite you, in this and the next Bimonthly, to explore some
of Habermas' ideas about discourse ethics in an informal, workshop style discussion,
as a way to prepare the ground for a more concise account later on.
This will be
a bit like we did it in the Bimonthly of July-August
2009 (Ulrich, 2009c), prior to the first two main essays on Habermas
(Ulrich, 2009d and e), except that this time we have so much material
to digest and I am not promising you any easy escape into the
clouds, ha! We
are going to explore a number of conjectures
that I find relevant for understanding discourse ethics, regardless
of whether in the end they will turn out to be sufficiently well-aimed
and specific to earn them a place in our series on reflective
professional practice, which, after all, is to be
of use to practicing professionals in the applied disciplines – professionals with some philosophical
interest and tolerance, to be sure – rather than to philosophers
only. Let's try and see.
initial difficulties in exploring discourse ethics
A note concerning references to Habermas' essays on discourse ethics
Habermas has published his major essays on discourse
ethics in two collections of
1983 and 1991 (English versions of 1990 and 1993), along with a number of further papers published
in earlier and later collections that deal partly with other topics. These
collections have appeared in English translations; but neither
the titles nor the contents of the collections that appeared
in English language are
entirely congruent with the German originals. This circumstance makes the attempt
to give parallel references to both the German and the English sources a bit cumbersome
(for authors) and confusing (to readers), as the collections
to be consulted change when in fact one refers to one and the
same essay – a disservice that publishers have done to
all those readers who like to check translated essays against
the original sound.
As a related
concern, it would be so helpful if translated scholarly texts
would give the pagination of the original sources,
so that switching back and forth between translated and original
texts would be easier. To
help readers at least partly, without giving full parallel references
throughout (an equally cumbersome procedure), I have decided
to cite Habermas' translated essays on discourse ethics
individually rather than giving references to
the collections in which they have been
published. The following table offers an overview of the titles,
relevant collections, and short references for some of
the articles concerned.
Table 1: Selected essays
by Habermas on discourse ethics
where to find them
– Notizen zu einem Begründungs-programm (1983a;
also in 2009)
und kommunikatives Handeln (1983)
ethics: Notes on a program
of philosophical justification
Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990)
und kommunikatives Handeln (1983b)
consciousness and communicative action (1990b)
Hegels Einwände gegen Kant auch auf die Diskursethik
zu? (1991a; also in 2009)
zur Diskursethik (1991)
and ethical life: Does Hegel's critique of Kant
apply to discourse ethics?
pragmatischen, ethischen und moralischen Gebrauch
der praktischen Vernunft (1991b)
the pragmatic, the ethical, and the moral employments
of practical reason
and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics
zur Diskursethik (1991c)
on discourse ethics
und Gesellschaftstheorie: Ein Interview mit T. Hviid
Nielsen (2009b, orig. 1990)
Texte Band 3: Diskursethik
society, and ethics: An interview with Torben Hviid
zu: Philosophische Texte Band 3: Diskursethik
genealogische Betrachtung zum kognitiven Gehalt
der Moral (1996a)
Einbeziehung des Anderen: Studien zur politischen
genealogical analysis of the cognitive content of
Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory
versus Wahrheit: Zum Sinn der Sollgeltung moralischer
Urteile und Normen. (2004a; also in 2009)
(expanded ed. 2004, orig. 1999)
versus truth: on the sense of normative validity
in moral judgments and norms (2003a)
2010 W. Ulrich
missing book on discourse ethics
I cannot help the impression that Habermas himself suffered
from an embarras de richesse when he was writing his
major essays on the subject. They look to me partly more like
exploratory drafts than systematic accounts of what discourse
ethics is all about and what it achieves. They are very often
complex and overloaded with details, partly repetitious,
full of excursions into arguments of and replies to other authors,
lacking systematic structure and intermediate titles, and as
a result make it far from easy for the reader to grasp the main
lines of the arguments. Habermas may have planned to write a
systematic account later on, but never did. Although a similar
observation holds true for other parts of his extensive work,
the problem is particularly acute in the case of discourse
ethics, as his writings on this subject range from 1973
to the present and thus stem from different epochs, use different
and partly inconsistent language, and pursue many different
lines of argumentation.
situation may have provided a main motive for Habermas, in 2009,
to publish a rather comprehensive compilation of Philosophical
Essays structured according to the main topics of his work.
As Habermas himself recognizes:
than "collected papers" I present a systematically
structured selection of essays that must take the place of unwritten
monographs. I have not written any books about important topics
with which my specifically philosophical interests are concerned
– neither about the language-theoretical foundations of sociology
and the formal-pragmatic conception of language and rationality,
nor about discourse ethics, political philosophy, and the state
of post-metaphysical thinking. Only with hindsight have I become
fully aware of this peculiar circumstance. (2009, p. 7,
compilation consists of five volumes:
1: Language-theoretical foundation of sociology
2: Rationality theory and linguistics
3: Discourse ethics
4: Political theory
5: Critique of reason
are 41 essays published between 1971 and 2008;
in addition, and of particular interest, each tome comes with a new introduction. Unfortunately,
the third volume does not unite all the major essays on discourse
ethics, in particular,
the important essay on "Moral consciousness and communicative
action" (1990b) is missing. In any case, so long as
the compilation has not appeared in English language, it is
of little use to most of my readers, quite apart from the fact
that a compilation cannot cure the embarras de richesse
to which I have referred. I suspect Habermas' writings on discourse
ethics would have benefited more than any other part of his
writings from a systematic monograph rather than a mere compilation.
For the reasons I have mentioned, they pose
difficulties to the reader that go beyond the normal difficulties
we have come to expect from this author's writings – perhaps
the price we have to pay for the ideas and insights they have
to offer us, and sometimes also for the stimulating questions
they leave open.
difficulties One more difficulty concerns various
terminological problems around the notion of "discourse
ethics," issues that I will explain in my main account
of discourse ethics in a future (not the next) Bimonthly. For my present
purpose it is sufficient to say that I basically use the term
"ethics" as a metalevel concept, referring to the
philosophical study of questions of value judgment in general
and moral questions in particular. Inasmuch as the terms "moral"
and "ethical" are opposed, I understand by moral issues
questions that imply a need to decide among
competing ethical conceptions of the good, that
is, clashing forms of life (or "ethical clashes,"
as I will call them). Using this terminology, "discourse
ethics" is basically a theoretical effort concerned
with moral rather than ethical questions, that is, a
piece of moral philosophy rather than (as it is frequently misunderstood)
a device for operationalizing ethical practice.
overwhelming number of sources to master Another
major difficulty is that Habermas
(1990a, b, c; 1993a, b, c, d) introduces discourse ethics by explaining at great
length how its "cognitivist," "universalist,"
"procedural," and "formal" perspectives differ
from other theoretical efforts, for example, by R. Alexy (1978, 1990), K.O. Apel (1972, 1973,
1981, 1988), K. Baier (1958), S. Benhabib
(1982), M.K. Günther (1988), L. Kohlberg (1981, 1984),
P. Lorenzen and O. Schwemmer (1977), A. MacIntyre
(1981), J. Rawls (1971, 1985), R. Rorty (1979), M.G. Singer
(1961), P. Strawson (1974), S. Toulmin (1970),
E. Tugendhat (1984, 1989), A. Wellmer (1991), and
B. Williams (1985).
discussing his ideas in relation to these authors, Habermas
aims to show why he believes rational ethics in the tradition
of Kant can only be conceived today in terms of processes of
learning (ethical cognitivism), of moral universalization (ethical
universalism), and of communicative practice (ethical proceduralism)
but not in terms of substantive presuppositions
(ethical formalism rather than normative ethics), and why moreover
discourse ethics is better suited
than any other ethical theory to explain the moral point of
view in such terms (1990b, p. 120). In particular, these
premises seem adequate to Habermas because they offer answers
to the tide of ethical relativism and skepticism; and discourse
ethics is particularly suited to live up to such premises because,
for example, its handling of cognitivism is consonant with what
cognitive psychology in the tradition of Piaget and Kohlberg
has told us about the development of moral consciousness and
judgment, and also because its communicative understanding of universalism
and formalism opens up new ways to argue moral concerns across cultural
barriers (cf. Habermas, 1979b and 1990b).
insightful in its details and often stimulating the reader's
thought by the issues it raises, Habermas' way of proceeding,
once again, makes it rather difficult to overview the basic
assumptions and aims of discourse ethics, and moreover it creates a difficulty for
the majority of readers who are unlikely to be familiar with
all the sources he discusses.
alternative way of proceeding In view of
this difficulty, I have decided to take a different road and
to offer my readers a personal account that does not follow
Habermas in all these directions. Instead, I will try to discuss
the major aims and ideas of discourse ethics
by situating them directly against the two major frameworks of practical
philosophy with which we have already familiarized ourselves
in some detail, Kant's framework of rational ethics (of which
discourse ethics represents a major reformulation) and Habermas'
own framework of formal pragmatics (of which discourse ethics
as I try to understand it is an application and possibly a development).
those readers who like to get a fuller picture of the way Habermas
argues his case for discourse ethics, I planned to include a limited
into two major lines of argumentation that one finds in his
writings on the subject; "excursion"
in the sense that this section was to follow Habermas' writing style
of offering "Notes"
and "Remarks" rather
than a systematic exposition of his own argument. As explained
at the outset, I now prefer to offer this excursion as a first
approximation and discussion opportunity, separate from my later account. Whether I will ultimately include any portion of this
excursion in the main essay may remain open at this point.
As a last preliminary
remark, I will follow Habermas in a
rather free manner. I will spin my argumentative thread by letting
Habermas inspire us rather than following him slavishly.
Where I do not give references to Habermas, you may assume I
do not or only remotely follow the details of his argumentation;
however, I will still try to remain true to the spirit
and aims of his thinking about ethics. Let's go.
basic arguments for discourse ethics
this preliminary attempt to overview some of the arguments for discourse
ethics, I suggest
to outline two main lines of argumentation that I find in Habermas'
diverse accounts. They concern:
The need for a communicative turn of rational (or cognitive)
The need for reviving moral universalism in a world of ethical pluralism.
to the exploratory rather than systematic intent of the present
essay, the first argument comes in two versions, whereby the
second version picks up where the first version ends but does
not necessarily depend on it. Not only the content but also
the mood of the two versions will be different, as in the second
version I'll invite Habermas to join in and have
a (fictitious) discussion with us, as another way to bring his ideas
a bit closer to the readers.
argument for a communicative turn of rational ethics (Version 1)
cognitive turn of ethics Kant's
identification of the moral force with the "good will"
of a mature person confronted him with a problem: what
was the ultimate source of a good will? Why should people want
to act morally? He answered the question in a revolutionary way:
because we want to have reason (or good grounds) on our side,
rather than entangling ourselves in contradictions or being
convicted of lacking rationality. For a mature, enlightened
person, the will to be good (the moral force) ultimately
resides in our will to be reasonable and self-legislating (autonomous
rather than being directed by mere
custom, or religion
2009b, esp. p. 13). Ever since, it has been
a key idea of practical philosophy that moral questions can and
be decided "with reason," that is, by relying on the
force of argument rather than on any
non-argumentative force. Or, as we summed up the motto of Kantian ethics
earlier: "Let arguments decide, not authority!" (Ulrich,
2009b, p. 36)
we nowadays speak of "rational ethics" or, as Habermas
prefers to say, of "cognitive ethics" or ethical cognitivism.
considers processes of thought and learning (cognition) to be
constitutive of what Kurt Baier (1958) has called the "moral point of view,"
a stance of equal consideration and respect displayed by a morally
mature agent for the dignity and integrity
of all other people who may be concerned by her actions or
claims. A cognitive understanding of the moral point of view
means we believe that we can systematically examine and discuss
the norms or principles of action that guide us, in an effort
to live up to this standard of equal respect for all concerned. In this sense we
can say with Kant that normative claims admit of good
reasons, that is, rational deliberation and assessment.
caveat is in order. Ethical cognitivism is often
defined as the
proposition that normative statements or claims have a propositional
content or at least can be said to be right or wrong "in
terms of the readily available model of propositional truth"
(Habermas, 1990a, p. 52). However, such a definition is prone to being misunderstood. It might
be misread as suggesting (and many people do read it in this
way) that practical statements can be justified rationally inasmuch as they have a propositional content,
that is, assert or imply some factual statements or observations about
the world. This is not how Kant understands cognitive ethics,
not any more than Habermas (to whose notion of the cognitive
character of ethics we will turn in a moment). While it is correct to say that practical statements
do as a rule assume some factual conditions to be true, it would
be wrong to conclude that the need and potential for justifying
them rationally is limited to their propositional content.
That would amount to an attempt to explain (and ultimately,
to justify) normative claims in the empirical terms of theoretical
reason rather than in the genuinely normative terms of practical reason,
that is, in Kantian language, by examining the practical dimension of reason
that is constitutive of them. It appears more adequate, therefore,
to associate ethical cognitivism simply with rational
ethics – the assumption that normative claims can be
considered "right" or "wrong" in a genuinely
practical rather than merely theoretical sense. Speaking
of normative "rightness" rather than "truth"
avoids the implication that practical questions allows of rational
justification in as much and only in as much as we can
translate them into questions of theoretical reason.
conceiving of practical reason as a second dimension of reason
sui generis, Kant was (to my knowledge) first to adopt ethical cognitivism.
conception of ethics
is in one important respect less fundamentally cognitive than our contemporary conception:
the central role he gives to an agent's "good will" places
lower demands on the agent's cognitive abilities than those we
tend to associate with rational action today. While it was still possible for
Kant to assume that ordinary agents
could overview the entire scope of their actions, we can no
longer rely on such an assumption, as the effects
of our actions may reach far beyond the contexts of action that
ordinary actors can claim to overview. "Today, good will
and good judgment no longer converge so easily." (Ulrich, 1994, p. 33)
Hence, the moral point of view today puts higher cognitive demands on
what Habermas calls "rational motivation," the will
to decide practical questions on the basis of argumentatively supported "good reasons."
It follows that Kant's cognitive turn needs to be developed
further. This is what discourse ethics as I understand it is
understanding of cognitive ethics As
Habermas (e.g., 1993b, p. 29) puts the issue, cognitive ethics assumes that moral judgments –
claims to normative rightness – can be shown to be right or wrong
in close analogy to the way in which judgments of fact – claims
to knowledge – can be shown to
be true or false, which is not the same as saying they can be
justified inasmuch as they have propositional content;
it does not imply that we reduce practical
to theoretical questions. The crucial idea,
we remember (cf. Ulrich, 2009d, pp. 9-12, esp. Table 2), is that the normative
(or "regulative") content of validity claims lends
itself to rational argumentation no less than their propositional (or "constative")
content; both are indispensable parts of the universal validity
basis of speech (1979a, pp.
2 and 5; 1984, pp. 99 and 137f). This is the idea Habermas means to refer
to when he uses (at first glance surprising) formulations such
as "practical questions admit of truth" (1975, p. 111;
1990a, pp. 43 and 51f) or "normative claims to validity are
analogous to truth claims" (1990a, p. 56, and 1990c, p. 197; similarly p. 68,
1993b, p. 29; 1998, p. 38; 2003, pp. 238, 243f
and 247-249; and 2009a, p. 26),
or when he describes claims to moral rightness as being "truth-like"
and having an "epistemic meaning" (1998a, p. 39),
or moral argumentation as having "epistemic force"
(1998a, p. 45).
us make sure we understand what Habermas means. We need to free ourselves from the traditional
correspondence theory of truth, according
to which truth consists in "correspondence" (agreement)
with empirical evidence or "facts." This is obviously
not Habermas' notion of "epistemic" force. Even within
the realm of theoretical reason, formal pragmatics makes it
clear that propositional claims can only be validated discursively.
"Facts" are not things we can point at but rather, statements
that we can assert or deny argumentatively. There is
no difference in this respect between claims to empirical truth
and to moral rightness; both can only be justified through discourses
that live up to the requirements of cogent argumentation.
the conditions for argumentative justification remain different.
Unlike what is the case with theoretical propositions, discursive
agreement about a moral claim not just points to empirical
conditions of which we need to assure ourselves outside
the discourse (e.g., through controlled observation or experimentation)
but actually creates the conditions of the claim's validity,
in the sense that the claim is shown through the discourse
to be worthy of recognition. Thus the process of argumentation
itself, and nothing else, can and needs to make sure
that adequate conditions obtain for the justification of a moral
claim (1998a, p. 38, similarly p. 42). In Kantian terms,
practical reason is the "stronger" dimension of reason,
which is what Kant meant when he proclaimed the "primacy"
of practical over theoretical reason. Practical reason does not need to "observe"
Nature (the phenomenal world of experience) in the double sense
of obeying and recognizing its laws but is free to establish
its own moral laws or principles. To use Habermas' formula of
the "epistemic"meaning or force of moral judgments,
we might say that moral argumentation is "epistemologically"
stronger than theoretical argumentation in the sense that it
can establish its own conditions of justification. The reverse
side of the coin, however, is that its insights do not enjoy
the backing of Nature but depend for their force on the good
will and rationality of human agents:
is part of the cognitivist understanding of morality that justified
moral commands and corresponding moral insights only have the
weak motivating force of good reasons. (Habermas, 1993b, p. 33)
"epistemic force" of moral argumentation is thus a
double-edged sword. Moral argumentation is strong and weak
at the same time; strong in that it only depends on the free
will of people; weak in that what it can justify lacks the ontological
connotation of informing us about "the" objective
world of nature but at best takes on the deontological meaning
of committing us to some norms regulating "our" social
world of society.
One may wonder, accordingly, whether assigning
to moral claims a "truth-like" or "epistemic"
character does not blur these differences at the same time as
it is meant to remind us of the shared validity basis of moral
and propositional claims in "good reasons." I prefer,
therefore, to speak simply of the cognitive content (or meaning,
force) of moral statements, whereby "cognitive" means
as much (or little) as "arguable," that is, being
capable of – and simultaneously, in need of – being buttressed
argumentatively by reference to good
grounds or reasons (i.e., reasons that others can share).
Habermas captures it all with the following description of cognitivist moral theories in the tradition of Kant:
they all assume that
judgments have cognitive content. They represent more than expressions
of the contingent emotions, preferences, and decisions of a
speaker or actor. Discourse ethics refutes ethical skepticism
by explaining how moral judgments can be justified.
references to truth and epistemic content are then in essence
metaphorical ways of describing the central implication of ethical
cognitivism, namely, that moral statements allow and need discursive
validation no less than theoretical statements. A statement
or claim is "true" or has "epistemic" meaning
to the extent we can define and redeem its conditions of justification
in argumentative terms. Truth, once we have purified it
of all connotations of "correspondence," is just a
special case of validity, as is normative validity:
unites these two concepts of validity is the procedure of discursively
redeeming the corresponding validity claims. What separates
them is the fact that they refer, respectively, to the social
and the objective worlds. (Habermas, 1998a, p. 38)
should then be clear what Habermas means when he assigns a cognitive
or epistemic status to moral statements. What remains to be
shown is how exactly we may hope to justify claims to moral
justification: from an observer's or participant's perspective?
Kant's answer, of course, consisted in
the categorical imperative. We can rationally justify
moral judgments, he explained, to the extent we can generalize
or "universalize" them, that is, imagine everyone
else would act accordingly, without entangling ourselves in
contradictions. That is, despite formulating the idea of moral
universalization as an imperative, he actually understood it
as a justification principle (cf. Habermas, 1990c, p. 197).
He recognized in it the one genuinely practical principle
through which practical reason could unfold moral force (i.e.,
settle normative conflicts) yet remain general (i.e., universally
applicable) and rational (i.e., tie morality to rationality,
or moral sense to good reasons). Practically speaking,
he required a moral agent to put herself in the places of all
others concerned and then to consider whether
she could still want the claim in question to be accepted universally.
the background of what we have just said about Habermas' understanding
of ethical cognitivism, it is obvious that this Kantian conceptualization
of moral validity in terms of a fictitious "exercise of abstraction" (Habermas, 1993b, p. 24)
does not look entirely satisfactory. It
translates what is fundamentally an issue of interpersonal
practice into an effort of individual reflection. Therein consists its value, but
also its limitation, both as a theoretical explication of the
moral point of view as such (i.e., of what moral claims,
if valid, mean) and as a methodological basis for ensuring moral
Kant's construction of moral justification in the terms of a
categorical imperative neglects is that the social world to
which moral justification refers is fully accessible only from
a participant's perspective. The categorical imperative
puts the agent in the situation of an observer; and implicitly,
it puts all those who may be affected by the action in question
in a situation of observers, too. This does not justice to the
ontological difference we observed above, with Habermas, between
the objective world of observable phenomena and our social world
of interpersonal relationships and interactions.
communicative turn of cognitive ethics
much more natural way to "universalize" the principles guiding our
actions would therefore seem to be through communicative
practice, that is, by relying on the interactive means of dialogue rather
than on individual reflection only. Theoretically speaking,
that would situate the task of moral justification in the intersubjective
setting in which it arises – clashes between the
subjective value preferences of actors – rather than in an abstract
conception of the self-tribunal of reason. Practically speaking,
it would moreover avoid many of the difficulties of Kant's approach;
I am thinking, for example, of the limited reflective skills of people,
as well as of their limited empathy for the situation of
others, in some cases even a complete lack of moral sense. A
dialogical approach does not entirely depend on the reflective skills of agents,
along with their good will and moral sense. Instead, it can
rely on all those concerned and assign to them the task of
informing or, where necessary, challenging
the agents' claims to rightness, by voicing
their concerns authentically.
Theory and Practice, Habermas had taken up Hegel's (1802)
famous critique, according to which Kant, by conceiving of morality
in terms of the autonomous and "pure" good will of
an abstract, reflecting individual rather than in terms
of the social relationship of communicating individuals, turned
morality into an empty formalism. "Kant expels moral action from the very domain of morality itself." (Habermas,
1973, p. 150) Hegel,
and with him Habermas,
overstated the point
– we have seen in an earlier Bimonthly (Ulrich, 2009b, pp. 16-21)
that the categorical imperative does take up the central intuition of reciprocity
in human interaction – but it is clear that moral questions are of a fundamentally intersubjective
nature. It is thus indeed difficult to see, in theory as well
as in practice, why we should deal with
moral questions in a basically monological rather than communicative mode. In his seminal first essay
of 1983 about "discourse ethics," Habermas
accordingly argued the need for a communicative turn of cognitive ethics:
we keep in mind the action-coordinating function that normative
validity claims play in the communicative practice of everyday
life, we see why the problems to be resolved in moral argumentation
cannot be handled monologically but require a cooperative effort.
By entering into a process of moral argumentation, the participants
continue their communicative action in a reflective attitude
with the aim of restoring a consensus that has been disrupted.
Moral argumentation thus serves to settle conflicts of action
by consensual means. Conflicts in the domain of norm-guided
interactions can be traced directly to some disruption of a
normative consensus. Repairing a disrupted consensus can mean
one of two things: restoring intersubjective recognition
of a validity claim after it has become controversial or assuring
intersubjective recognition for a new validity claim that is
a substitute for the old one. Agreement of this kind expresses
a common will. If moral argumentation is to produce this
kind of agreement, however, it is not enough for the individual
to reflect on whether he can assent to a norm. It is not even
enough for each individual to reflect in this way and then to
register his vote. What is needed is a "real" process
of argumentation in which the individuals concerned cooperate.
Only an intersubjective process of reaching understanding can
produce an agreement that is reflective in nature; only it can
give the participants the knowledge that they have collectively
become convinced of something. (Habermas, 1990a, p. 66f)
first of all, that Habermas is talking about moral theory, not
about moral practice; that is, the reference to "real"
processes of argumentation is to be understood as a theoretical device for explaining the idea and
nature of moral judgment. To say it more accurately, the theoretical
device is to be the Toulmin-Habermas model of argumentation
that we have discussed earlier (see Ulrich, 2009e, pp. 8-39).
By contrast, Kant's theoretical device of a monological
conception of cognitive ethics risks missing the essentially cooperative nature of ethical
practice from the outset. To be sure, the idea is not that
we should disregard the role of individual moral reflection but
only, that we cannot adequately conceive of moral reflection unless
it is informed
and facilitated by exchanges with others. The aim remains
to explain how in matters of moral concern, we can reach "an agreement that is reflective in nature." (1990a,
p. 67) Reflection
and communication support one another. Neither can replace the
other. In particular, reflection on behalf of others, in an
attempt to act responsibly towards others, cannot replace the
effort of giving them an opportunity to articulate their concerns authentically.
need not read Habermas to see that the cooperative nature of
morality is contained in the very concept of moral "responsibility,"
regardless of whether we understand it monologically or communicatively:
acting "responsibly" has something to do with "responding." Only secondarily, where the circumstances render
cooperative exchanges impossible – for example, if those concerned
are unable to be present and/or to articulate their needs, or
they are unborn, or I don't know who they are and where to find them – is it up to me as a moral agent
to decide and act on their behalf. But even then I still
"respond" to them in a virtual way. This is the communicative
core of the moral idea which the categorical imperative captured
ingeniously, although due to the lack of discourse theory, it
could not implement it with dialogical means.
step from communication to discourse I
have referred to the need for a "communicative" rather
than "discursive" turn of cognitive ethics so far,
as we are concerned with the basic idea of theoretically situating the process of moral
justification in the social world of interpersonal relationship
in which it originates practically. This is the social lifeworld of everyday
communicative practice. But of course, communicative practice
is not an ideal world. People raise all sorts of claims, and
most of these claims clash. The moral issue of what is the right
way to act risks at all times boiling down to who is right,
in the mere sense of who can impose his views upon others. We
therefore need to take the communicative turn of ethics one
step further, from ordinary communicative practice to rationally
motivated discourse. After all, Habermas' interest in
cognitive ethics is part of his quest for communicative rationality.
rationality demands that whenever communicatively coordinated practice risks breaking
down, we take the crucial step from communicatively secured coordination
of action to
communicatively secured reflection about what endangers cooperative action (Ulrich, 2009d, p. 20). By switching
to rationally motivated discourse, the participants step back
from pursuing their interests and adopt a reflective mode in
which they focus on the moral question of identifying rationally
supportable claims. Discourse is the vehicle that maintains communicative
practice when due to different conceptions of what is good and
right, it risks breaking down. It can achieve that by applying
as a standard the principle of moral universalization as it
contained in the categorical imperative, though now in a discursive
A communicative conception of ethics thus prompts us to recognize
the close link between the moral and the rational of which Kant
first admonished us. Kant, of course, could not formulate this
link with the theoretical means of discourse theory and therefore
had to devise a thought experiment that could monologically
simulate a communicative testing of moral universalization.
The result was the categorical imperative, a test
of the universal
communicability of moral claims, as
Silber (1974, p. 217) describes it aptly.
of course, such a simulation at best allows us to suppose
we have managed to place ourselves in the situation of all
the other parties and to understand how they might
respond if they could. Without actual communication
according to the rules of rationally motivated discourse, we
cannot actually know whether
they would concur with the result of our thought experiment.
Thus, when it comes to the principle of moral universalization,
we will for ever have to speak in the subjunctive mood.
prefers the constructive mood of formal pragmatics to the subjunctive
mood of Kantian reflection, as it were. He finds it necessary
to reformulate the idea of moral
universalization so that it becomes a discursive rather than
merely reflective effort of testing a norm's universal communicability.
As one of Habermas'
most important translators and commentators, Thomas McCarthy,
up the point in an early but still accurate way:
Rather than ascribing as valid to all others
any maxim that I can will to be a universal law, I must submit
my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing
its claim to universality. The emphasis shifts from what each
can will without contradiction to be a general law, to what
all can will in agreement to be a universal norm. (McCarthy,
1978, p. 326)
referred to this apt remark of McCarthy in one of his earliest
characterizations of what he described as a "procedural"or
"cooperative" reinterpretation of the categorical imperative:
this viewpoint, [….] the universality principle does in fact entail the
idea of a cooperative process of argumentation. For one thing,
nothing better prevents others from perspectivally distorting
one's own interests than actual participation. It is in this
pragmatic sense that the individual is the last court of appeal
for judging what is in his best interest. On the other hand,
the descriptive terms in which each individual perceives his
interests must be open to criticism by others. Needs and wants
are interpreted in the light of cultural values. Since cultural
values are always components of intersubjectively shared traditions,
the revision of the values used to interpret needs and wants
cannot be a matter for individuals to handle monologically.
1990a, p. 67f, with references to
McCarthy, 1978, and Benhabib, 1982)
thus argues his case for a communicative turn of the categorical
imperative by explaining its relevance regarding two key aspects
of the social lifeworld: the importance of participative
processes of will-formation on the one hand (1) and the importance
of culturally conditioned value differences on the
other hand (2). Both arguments merit a brief comment.
By pointing to the need for actual participation
of the parties concerned, Habermas makes it clear that the point of
a discursive reformulation is not just argumentation but also,
and perhaps primarily (the matter is disputed in the literature
around discourse ethics), participation. Reflection may provide
a basis for argumentation but can at best simulate, not realize,
participation. Moreover, participation matters regardless of
the participants' argumentative skills; a conjecture that does
not fit in well with the rather one-sided emphasis that Habermas
puts on the demands of rational argumentation as compared
to those of democratic participation (cf. Ulrich, 1983,
pp. 167f, 301f, 309f, 312f). Hence, I would argue, the difference
that matters when we move from moral reflection to moral discourse
is not just that we can recast the idea of moral universalization
in the form of rules of cogent argumentation; we must also turn those concerned into active
participants. To put it differently,
I suspect that ultimately, with a view to real-world practice,
it is not in the first place the need for argumentation but
the need for participation which requires us to take the step from
a reflective to a discursive model of moral universalization.
pointing to the cultural embedding of moral judgments, Habermas does not of course
mean to mobilize against Kant any kind of ethical relativism.
Rather, if I understand him correctly, his point is this: as moral agents, we cannot
not from the outset abstract from all the individual views and
values that we have acquired through our socialization and which
are rooted in the cultural traditions of which we are a part. We
only need to make sure we do not impose particular interests
at the expense of suppressing generalizable interests (cf. Habermas,
1975, pp. 111-117; Ulrich, 1983, pp. 149-151). It seems to me
Habermas here departs a bit from Kant's concept of practical
reason: Habermas does not suggest that practical
reason should be "pure" of all individual interests but
only that we should submit the consequences of our pursuit of individual
interests to all others, and consequently should consider it as "rationally justified" only to the extent it
meets with the approval of all the parties concerned. The objection that
has been raised against Kant since Hegel (1802), namely, that Kantian
ethics is "purely" (sic) formalist and empty and therefore does not help
us in identifying any concrete norms of action as morally defendable, is thus at least
partly met: moral agents are no longer supposed to abstract
from all personal values and interests but only to submit the
consequences to the test of universal communicability. The moral
"purity" of our intentions cannot reasonably be an
a priori formal requirement for participating in discourse
but only its outcome. The shift in moral theory from transcendental
philosophy to formal pragmatics – from a priori concepts
of practical reason to general pragmatic presuppositions of
argumentation – conforms to such a reading of discourse ethics.
concludes the first version of the first main line of argumentation
that I suggested we should explore, concerning the way Habermas
argues his case for what we might call a strongly cognitivist
understanding of rational ethics and its communicative turn.
This is how I tend to interpret the main thrust of the argument
as far as we have considered it up to this point:
ethics is a moral theory that aims to explain the
nature of moral reasoning.
reasoning is about rational assessment and resolution
of ethical clashes.
his categorical imperative, Kant formulated the
fundamental principle that allows us to handle ethical
clashes rationally, the principle of moral universalization.
It is the fundamental principle of practical reason.
formulated as an imperative, Kant actually understands
the universalization principle as a justification criterion for moral claims.
understood, the universalization principle implies a
strong cognitive, or we might say: argumentative
kernel; a kernel that is as important today as it
has ever been as a stronghold against ethical relativism
Kant's formulation of the principle of universalization
puts the moral agent in the situation of an observer,
and the other parties concerned in a situation of dependency
on the agent's good will and reflective skills. This
does no longer respond to our contemporary notions of
a free and participative society, in which concerned
citizens demand being treated as participants
rather than just as observers.
does it respond to the increased complexity of our world,
which is due to at least two circumstances: first,
the consequences of our actions reach beyond
the contexts of action that we can assume everyone to
survey and to judge andequately; and second, there is
an increasing pluralism of forms of life and
conforming ethical conceptions.
both reasons, moral theory today should conceive
of moral questions from a participant's perspective.
It should therefore translate the reflective form of
the categorical imperative into the communicative form
of discourse ethics. A communicative turn of rational
ethics is in order.
argumentation leads us on to further issues. For example,
how can we explain and strengthen the cognitive basis of practical
reason through processes of learning and socialization? How
can we in the first place recover the stronger concept of practical
reason that Kant still shared with Aristotle but which has been
narrowed down in modernity to a merely instrumental (i.e., technical
and purposive-rational) notion of practical rationality? And
can we come to terms with the cultural and ethical pluralism
of our epoch?
the second half of this exploration of some basic ideas of discourse
ethics, in the next Bimonthly, we will start with the
topic of the lost Aristotelian concept of practical reason and
explore some ways to understand and strengthen the cognitive
foundation of morality today. I will invite Habermas to join
us for a (fictitious) discussion of this issue, and he will
explain to us the ways he draws on the works of Peter Strawson
and Stephen Toulmin to this end. (By contrast, Habermas' [1990b,
1993c] use of Kohlberg's work will only be considered in the
later main essay on discourse ethics, given that we have already
discussed Kohlberg's work in the context of our Kant discussion
[Ulrich, 2009b]). Subsequently, we will turn to the second
main line of argumentation that I have proposed at the outset,
and will consider how a contemporary concept of practical reason
may come to terms with the increasing diversity
of forms of life and the ensuing ethical pluralism and relativism
you in May, alligators.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This is an exploratory essay preparing the announced
third part of my introduction to Habermas
within the current "Reflections on reflective practice" series.
It is not itself part of the series.
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