Part 6c: Discourse ethics and deliberative
democracy, or the difficult path
to communicative practice – Habermas 3
(1st half) In
two previous essays of the series of reflections
on reflective practice, we examined the methodological foundations
of Habermas' practical philosophy. Practical philosophy is concerned
with the nature of human practice and ways to improve it, as
distinguished from the attempt of theoretical philosophy to
help us understand the nature of the world and of our knowledge
about it. We first focused on Habermas'
an account of the deep
structures of rational communication (Ulrich,
2009c), and then on what we called the Toulmin-Habermas model
of argumentation, a pragmatic
logic of cogent argumentation (Ulrich, 2009d). The
former explains the general validity basis of speech and thus
of communicatively secured
mutual understanding, whereas the latter aims at a general model
of discourse and thus also of practical discourse in the sense
in which "practical" is understood in practical philosophy,
meaning as much as raising, or being about, normative questions. The two models embody closely interdependent
attempts to elucidate the general pragmatic presuppositions of communicative rationality,
that is, to explain how practice can in principle be rationalized
through dialogical means
(see, e.g., Habermas, 1984, pp. 25 and 34; 1998, p. 44; 2009, Vol. 2,
p. 266). As a convenient term for both models, I will speak of the formal-pragmatic
framework (or model) of rational practice.
central question to which we now turn is this: Does
this framework lend itself to practice, and to the extent it
is not practicable without further ado, how might we pragmatize
it? To put it differently, the
question that interests us particularly in this third part is
whether the practical philosophy of Habermas is merely an original
and insightful theory of practice or whether it also
provides a theory for practice, a framework of thought
about good practice that allows of discursive realization. Since
our overall aim in this series is to revive the almost forgotten idea
of practical reason as a missing element in contemporary notions
professional practice, we can also formulate the above
question as follows: Is
it possible to employ the formal-pragmatic
framework so as to breathe new life into the concept of practical
suggest to discuss this question by considering two major applications
that promise to be relevant to the aim of promoting reflective
ethics: What light does formal pragmatics
shed on the importance and possibility of moral reasoning with a view to recovering
the ethical dimension of rational practice?
democracy: What light does formal pragmatics shed
the political and legal control of power
with a view to strengthening the democratic constitution of modern societies?
the first question we can partly draw on two previous essays
in which we explored Habermas' notion
of discourse ethics
(see Ulrich, 2010a and
b). Although they are not part
of the current series of reflections on reflective practice,
they were indeed written with a view to
preparing the present effort, so that we need not burden
the current analysis with so much theoretical background discussion.
It will be worthwhile though to recall some of the basic
earlier conjectures on the idea of a discursive grounding of
ethical practice. The focus, however, will be on the more specific
Can discourse ethics become a relevant part of actual professional
The second question aims at the need for grounding good
practice not only ethically but also democratically, that is,
in democratically institutionalized processes of decision-making
about matters of not purely private concern. We need
to understand the ways in which an adequate ethical grounding
of practice relates to its democratic grounding, and how a formal-pragmatic
framework might help us in doing justice to this interdependence.
Can there be an ethically relevant and practicable concept
of democracy as discursive practice?
should be clear though that the institutional issues involved
in a democratic grounding of professional practice reach deeply
into the fields of political philosophy, philosophy of law,
and theory of democracy, and thus beyond practical philosophy.
Since our main interest in this series is in the practical-philosophical
leg of reflective professional practice, I will address the
topic of deliberative democracy in a relatively cursory manner
and only inasmuch as it plays a complementary role to the discussion
of discourse ethics; the focus of the present Bimonthly
will be on discourse ethics.
ethics is Habermas' answer to Kant's practical philosophy. It aims at a contemporary
interpretation of the tradition of rational ethics and its core
idea of grounding ethics in reason rather than in personal virtue,
social custom and convention, or religious faith and authority. At the same
time, discourse ethics is a major application and to some extent
also an extension of
the basic methodological framework that Habermas proposes as
a basis for critical social theory and practice, formal pragmatics.
We can thus introduce discourse ethics in two ways: first,
by analyzing its basic motives and conjectures against
the background of Kant's conception of rational ethics as we
discussed it previously (see Ulrich, 2009b, 2010a, b; in addition,
Ulrich, 2011c, offers a concise introduction to Kant's rational
and second, by understanding it as a development of Habermas' framework
of formal pragmatics as we equally discussed it earlier (see Ulrich,
2009c and d). We will follow both paths. Our main interest will be in discussing
discourse ethics as a special application of formal pragmatics,
while situating discourse ethics in the tradition of rational
ethics will be useful to prepare us for that discussion. First,
however, we need to clarify some basic
terminological issues, concerning the relationship of ethical
to moral questions on the one hand and of practical to pragmatic
reasoning on the other hand.
Ethical and moral
usage subsumes under "ethics" two different types
of normative issues. On the one hand, there is the basic issue
of how people's notions of the good – their
worldviews and values – condition what they consider to be desirable ways
to live and act, say, with a view to "improving" an unsatisfactory
situation or ensuring "good" professional practice.
On the other hand, there is the more specific issue of how people
try to handle conflicting notions of the good,
an issue that in the face of increasing cultural diversity and
ethical pluralism becomes ever more important. Both issues may be called "ethical," but
only the second is also "moral"; it raises the
question of what kind of standards (if any) there are to resolve
ethical conflicts. We thus arrive at
three concepts of ethics as shown in Fig. 5. Ethics as
a generic term includes all questions of value judgment, including
reflections on the nature of such questions, that is, ethical
issues and judgments (meta-ethical questions). In the
present essay, we
will focus on the two more specific kinds of ethical issues
at the lower level of Fig. 5. They concern people's
personal notions of what is good
and desirable ("What makes us happy?") on the one
hand and interpersonal
notions of justice or fairness ("What is right?")
on the other hand.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, I will refer to
the first kind of issues as ethical questions and to
the second as moral questions.
Finally, the term evaluative
questions will refer to ethical issues that may include
ethics in the wider and the narrower sense but not moral questions,
while the term normative questions will also include
Fig. 5: Concepts
of ethics: ethical and moral questions
concept of ethics appears to become more prominent recently.
In media discussions
for example, politicians nowadays talk of "ethical
and moral issues" as if it were a matter of course
to distinguish between the two and everyone understood
the difference (I doubt everybody does). The implicit idea seems to be that
due to different cultural backgrounds and personal experiences, people
have increasingly divergent views about good and desirable ways to live and hence,
that ethics in
the face of such value pluralism cannot make itself the
arbiter of right and wrong. Ethics is thus moving closer to
a personal stance that we may or may not share with others but which we
meaningfully say to be right or wrong. Your way of life is just
that and it would be presumptuous for me to claim that my different
way of life is better.
Ethically alert readers are
bound to sniff danger here:
such ethical relativism threatens to undermine any solid basis
for rationally defensible, yet ethically grounded action. This
is why a second concept of ethics is needed, morality. Morality
is concerned with the ways an agent's personal ethics may clash
with that of other people and may affect their lives, by constraining their options to live and act in
accordance with their personal ethics. We are confronted
with a collective issue of reconciling different
notions of what is a proper way to live and to act. Moral
questions thus cannot avoid the issue of defining some basic interpersonal
standards for handling ethical clashes. That makes them
difficult questions. Such standards are not easy to find; they must arguably
deserve recognition by everyone who might face a similar situation, for example, because they treat people
with equal respect for their individual needs and values and
in this sense may count as impartial. To the extent such standards can
indeed be found, moral questions become rationally decidable
and in this respect are easier to handle than other ethical questions.
Whether a certain
action or action-related proposal is up to standard can then
examined, for example,
by considering past experiences or anticipated consequences
of a proposed action and measuring them against such a moral
standard. Morality is the territory on which ethics and
rationality can meet and can support one another.
important methodological difference emerges here between moral
and other normative questions. We can argue about the moral implications
of an action with a view to determining whether a proposal is
right or wrong, but we can only reflect on the underlying
ethos and discuss it with a view to understanding people's assumptions,
say, about what would constitute an improvement of a specific situation
of concern to them. In short, we can dispute and
justify moral claims, but we can at best recognize (in the
double sense of understanding and tolerating) ethical claims.
Discourse ethics accordingly
focuses on moral questions, as the only kind of normative issues
that allow of rational decision-making. Insofar the name of discourse ethics is a misnomer. Discourse ethics
is neither a general method for discussing ethical questions
nor an ethical code
of conduct for discourse in general. Rather, it is a specific
piece of meta-ethical theorizing in the tradition of Kantian
rational ethics. Habermas really intends with it a new approach to moral theory,
understood as a general theory of moral action. A name such as "discourse
theory of morality" or "communicative moral philosophy"
would have expressed this intention more clearly. Not unlike other contemporary work on moral
philosophy written in this tradition, such as Baier's
(1958) account of the moral point of view, Rawl's (1971) theory
of justice, Hare's (1981) account of moral thinking, or Kohlberg's
(1981) theory of moral development, to name just a few
outstanding examples, it aims at clarifying the methodological foundations and formal properties of moral reasoning.
This theoretical aim is not to be confused with the different,
"applied" aim of explaining how the requirements of
moral reasoning thus
be met in practice, or what substantial norms of action an agent
should rely on in a specific situation.
one respect though, "discourse ethics"
is not an entirely ill-chosen name for Habermas' project: discourse
ethics indeed seeks
to ground the theory of moral action in an ethos of communicative practice.
It embodies a response to the ethical pluralism of our epoch that wants
us to rely on rationally motivated, argued reconciliation of interests
and value conflicts rather than on non-argumentative means such
as recourse to authority, power, or manipulation. At the bottom
of the moral aim of discourse ethics lies Habermas' overall ethical
vision of a communicative
rationalization of society. In this respect the impetus of discourse ethics reaches beyond moral theory,
towards a form of life that we may associate with an Enlightenment
ethos in the tradition of Kant. This is the ethos of citizens
who, because they see themselves as free and responsible
members of a community that offers space for a plurality
of forms of life, are prepared to settle conflicts with others
on the basis of mutual tolerance, respect, and
deliberation. So the name "discourse ethics," despite
difficulty it raises, is indeed programmatic; it
stands for the double ambition of reconstructing moral
philosophy and promoting an ethos of communicative practice.
and pragmatic questions A second terminological difficulty
from the close link between discourse ethics and communicative
practice faces not only ethical questions in the two senses
we have distinguished above, relating to "good" (desirable)
and "right" (just) ways to act, but also empirical
questions of "fact" (circumstances to be considered)
and "feasibility" (effective and purposive ways to
act). In his often-cited essay "On the pragmatic, the ethical,
and the moral employment of practical reason," Habermas
summarizes these different kinds of "practical" (i.e.,
action-related) problems under the question "What should I do?" and
aligns them with "moral, ethical, and pragmatic questions"
(1993a, p. 2 and 8f). Further, he
distinguishes a "pragmatic" from an ethical or moral
perspective by its orientation to a
"horizon of purposive rationality, its goal being to discover
appropriate techniques, strategies, or programs" (1993a, pp. 3 and 9). He also emphasizes that practical discourse
need not "neglect the calculation of consequences of actions
rightly emphasized by utilitarianism nor exclude from the sphere
of discursive problematization the questions of the good life
accorded prominence by classical ethics, abandoning them to
irrational emotional dispositions or decisions." (1993a,
can appreciate Habermas' intent: there is no need to
limit the relevance
of practical discourse and discourse ethics to any particular tradition
of ethical and/or moral thought. Nor should we as a matter of
principle immunize any kind of ethical assumptions or claims
against careful questioning and deliberation, by relegating
them from the outset to a sphere of nonrational acts of faith
only. Even so, we better try to avoid the terminological confusion that threatens here. In
particular, I do not think we should equate a pragmatic perspective
with purposive-rationality. The essence of pragmatic thinking
consists in considering the meaning and validity of a claim
in the light of its actual or potential consequences, which
does not imply a merely instrumental or strategic concept of
rationality at all, as little as it implies a merely utilitarian ethics. Well-understood
pragmatic thinking remains open to different notions of rationality
(including communicative rationality) and ethics (including
Aristotelian ethics and Kantian morality). Likewise, we better
avoid subsuming under practical questions each and all action-related
issues. The question "What should I do?" is philosophically
ambivalent; it stands for questions not only of practical reason
(i.e., normative issues) but also of theoretical reason (i.e.,
instrumental or strategic issues). Associating these with "practical" discourse may correspond
to an everyday usage of theses terms but runs counter to standard usage in practical philosophy, where "practical"
reason, following Aristotle and Kant, stands for a specifically
normative dimension of reason that is distinct from its theoretical-instrumental
To be sure, the answers
we give to questions of feasibility
may and usually do have normative implications, just as the answers we give
to ethical and moral questions may in turn raise instrumental
or strategic questions. In
discursive practice, theoretical-instrumental and practical-normative
questions tend to come up together. For instance, the choice
of means to achieve an end (an instrumental question of purposiveness) always
also entails normative questions (how do different means affect
different groups of concerned parties), just as the selection
of the ends to be reached (an ethical and often also moral question) raises questions of feasibility and purposiveness. Even so, it is essential
to distinguish between issues of "practical"
(i.e., normative) and "theoretical" (i.e., instrumental)
reason; for they pose different methodological demands. Thus seen, associating "practical" discourse
with all action-related question of the type "What should I do?"
is unfortunate. A more exact way of talking might have said
that the quest for rational practice (as distinguished
from practical reason)
raises different kinds of action-related or "What should we do?"
some of which confront us primarily with issues of theoretical reason (What
is the feasible and purposive thing to do?) and others, with
issues of practical reason
(What is the good and right thing to do?).
confusion threatens because Habermas, without saying so, switches between everyday and philosophical
usage of terms such as "should," "practical,"
and "pragmatic." While in everyday language these
terms are used loosely to refer to both normative and instrumental
or strategic forms of reasoning, in philosophical usage they refer to genuinely normative forms of reasoning only
and that is how we will employ them here.15) 16)
We will thus continue to associate "practical discourse" with
genuinely normative questions only. This excludes questions
of feasibility and purposiveness, which fall under the jurisdiction
of theoretical discourse; they may and usually will
come up in practical discourses, but they need to be clarified
by the specific means of theoretical-instrumental reasoning
and scientific discourse (think of tools such as feasibility
studies, cost-benefit analysis, forecasting, risk assessment,
strategic management, etc.). As soon as we enter into
such discussions of feasibility and purposiveness, we have in fact switched to theoretical
discourse. Conversely, inasmuch as theoretical-instrumental
questions entail normative questions, the latter of course fall
under the jurisdiction of genuinely practical reason and discourse
and thus are proper subjects of discourse ethics. Further, we will not equate "pragmatic"
reasoning with a particular focus on instrumental and strategic
questions; rather, we will continue to understand a pragmatic
perspective as encompassing all forms of theoretical-instrumental and
practical-normative reasoning inasmuch as they regard a claim's
consequences as the touchstone for assessing its meaning and validity.
This use of language is in line with Kant's distinction
between the "pure" and the "pragmatic" employment
of practical reason: both entail moral reasoning but
the former relies on a priori reasoning only, so that
its resulting rules of action are not conditioned by any empirical
contingencies, whereas the latter does consider empirical circumstances.
In short, practical reason is "pragmatic" whenever
it is not pure, but in either case its rationality is of a moral
kind (see Kant, 1787, B828, and the brief discussion in Ulrich,
2006b, p. 58f).
We are now ready to introduce the
essential ideas of discourse ethics, beginning as
announced with a short glimpse back at Kant's cognitive turn
ethics and Kantian ethics
core of ethics Kant
saw the ultimate root of morality in the good will of mature,
responsible agents who act with respect for others and therefore
themselves in the situation of those concerned by an action. Such an understanding of
ethics confronts moral agents with major cognitive demands.
Agents need to understand the implications of their ways of
acting for other people as well as for the communities of which
they are part, along with other communities and ultimately the global human community,
now and in future. Further, it is
not good enough to have a "good will" and lean back;
a good will must also express itself in an active effort to
pursue the good, which in turn demands an effort of finding
out, through careful reflection and observation, what "good"
action means in specific situations.
we learned from Kant, agents who
are not willing to make such an effort will hardly be able for
long to guide and justify their
conduct without entangling themselves in contradictions.
An agent who egoistically acts without considering the implications
of his conduct for others, risks treating other people in
ways they do not want to be treated, for example, because they
hold different ethical and cultural values or because they
may have to bear adverse consequences. Such an agent tacitly claims to be entitled
to treat others in ways he or she would not want to be treated
by them, that is, without their consideration and respect for his
needs and values. We briefly considered the example of so-called
tax heavens (see Ulrich, 2009b, note 3, and Ulrich, 2010b. p. 22f): tax heavens allow banking secrecy
to facilitate tax evasion
on the part of the
citizens of other countries, yet they would not want their own citizens to
find shelter from paying taxes in these other countries. Or,
to use two of Kant's examples, a liar does not want others to
lie at him, just as a murderer does not want others to murder
immorality of such actions roots in the fact that agents
– whether consciously or not – claim for themselves exceptions
from principles they expect others to respect, or privileges they do not grant to other people. Accordingly
they cannot justify their conduct
except by exempting themselves from the implications of their
actions. They therefore cannot help but argue inconsistently,
by invoking norms or rules of conduct they do not respect themselves.
This is why they are bound to become caught up in contradictions.
"We cannot demand from others what we refuse to respect.
It is a practical impossibility." (Mead, 1934, p. 381).
It is, in fact, both an emotional and a logical impossibility:
those affected will feel moral indignation, and those involved
will be unable to argue consistently. This, in short, is why
Kant sought to give morality a rational foundation: one cannot shut one's eyes to the moral dimension
of action and still claim to have reason on one's side.
thus became the pioneer of rational ethics, the idea
that morality resides in the agent's moral alertness and
reflection rather than in some external authority such as tradition or convention, or
religious or political leaders who tell
us what is allowed and what is not. If there is any philosophical basis for
grounding ethics, Kant taught us, it is to be found in
reason's internal demands, that is, in those general structures and requirements of
rationality without which it cannot operate. For example, reason cannot help but regard itself as free;
it cannot allow itself to be inconsistent; and quite generally,
it needs to preserve its own integrity (cf. the earlier discussion in
Ulrich, 2009b, p. 9f).
Ever since, practical philosophy
has been the philosophical discipline that examines the question
of how moral
issues can be handled "with reason." There exists,
for Kant, a deep link between morality and rationality: we
cannot be moral without being reasonable. Ethical traditionalism
consequently gave way to ethical cognitivism; the moral authority
of custom, dogma, and power was replaced by the quality of the
agent's moral sense and reasoning or, to speak with
Baier (1958), by the agent's cultivating the moral point of view.
say of someone that he is a person of good will if he is always
prepared (should it be necessary) to enter, before acting, into
moral deliberation, that is to say, to work out what is, morally
speaking, the best course open to him, that is, the course supported
by the best moral reasons, and also prepared to act in accordance
with the outcome of such deliberations. (Baier, 1958, p. 82)
we further learned from Kant, the link between the moral and
the rational involves the idea of
moral universalization: our subjective maxims
or principles of action, and with them the normative implications
of what we claim and do, can be rationally justified to the
extent they are generalizable – generalizable, that is, in the strong
sense that we
not only may expect any mature (or "reasonable") person
to accept them (factual acceptance)
but also can explain
why they deserve being generally accepted (good grounds).
For example, as I have hinted above, they might deserve such recognition because they are impartial, that is, they
treat everyone according to the same criteria and do not privilege any particular
interests or (possibly hidden) private agenda. Accordingly, we should also be able to defend such
principles publicly and
to teach them generally across all cultures and customs
communicative turn of cognitivist ethics Kant's
way of tying morality to reason was ingenious and fruitful;
but it has its difficulties and in some respects I think
he methodologically overburdened it. What in Kant's epoch may have been a reasonable
demand – that agents of good will should consider all the implications
their ways of acting may have from the perspective of those
concerned – appears to become increasingly difficult in an age
of ethical pluralism and global interconnectedness.
Who in this complex world of ours can claim to anticipate and appreciate (let alone justify)
all the implications an action may have for all the parties possibly
affected in some way, here and there, now and in future? True,
Kant emphasized the overriding importance of the agent's
good will as compared to the importance of correctly
anticipating and appreciating all conceivable consequences;
even so, it is clear that our notions of what a "good will"
means in a specific situation of action originate in our perceptions
of the world we live in and in our previous accumulated
experience of the effects that our conduct and that of others
has had on that world we live in. Therein consists the cognitive
kernel of all ethics and morality, to which Kant drew
our attention more than anyone before.
some extent, one might argue, the historically increasing cognitive
burden of good-willed action is compensated for by the hugely
expanded knowledge and tools of inquiry and expertise that are
at our disposal today. This is indeed so. But there is another, even more fundamental difficulty: by formulating the core idea of rational ethics
as an abstract principle of moral universalization, Kant removed it
entirely from the context in which moral consciousness originates
in the first place, the social lifeworld
of interacting and communicating individuals in which mutual
recognition, respect, and responsibility can naturally
develop and unfold.
first critic who famously (and somewhat unjustly) accused Kant
of proposing a mere "moral formalism" that was removed
from the social context of moral consciousness, was of course
Hegel (1802, p. 331). Habermas (1973a,
p. 150; cf. 1990c, pp. 195f, 201-211) took up Hegel's critique
in an early discussion that anticipated some aspects of his later communication-theoretical
turn. Habermas found that Kant
indeed missed the essentially interactive and communicative nature of moral
practice from the outset. Moral practice is fundamentally constituted
by communicating individuals who out of mutual recognition and
respect try to coordinate their actions with reason rather than
with force. In one phrase, morality roots in a fundamentally
cooperative stance. As we might put it (not following Habermas),
essence of morality is cooperation. What Habermas (1973a,
p. 150) beautifully describes as morality's inherent utopia of "unbroken
intersubjectivity" is, I would argue, indeed implicit in
Kant's notion of good will. The problem is, by assuming that
agents of good will are both willing and able to put themselves
in the situation of everyone concerned, Kant's formulation of
the moral principle takes such unimpaired intersubjectivity for granted rather than showing
how it can be supported – so much so that in the end it does not
emerge as a methodological issue of moral theory at all,
much less as a challenge to moral practice.
from the everyday perspective of a contemporary understanding
practice and from
the theoretical perspective of formal
pragmatics as Habermas has elaborated it meanwhile, the categorical imperative really calls for
being freed from the "monological" straitjacket in which Kant
put it. Rather than conceiving of moral universalization as an
"exercise of abstraction" (Habermas, 1993b, p. 24,
cf. 1990c, p. 195),
we might situate it directly in communicative
participants can voice their concerns authentically and
can challenge one another's assumptions and conclusions. From
an everyday perspective it is obvious that under modern
conditions of life characterized by ethical and cultural pluralism,
philosophy can no longer credibly play the role of an arbiter
and decree on behalf of ordinary people what are proper forms of life and
of conduct. Rather,
one lives one's life becomes the sole responsibility of socialized
individuals themselves and must be judged from the participant
perspective. Hence, what is capable of commanding universal
assent becomes restricted to the procedure of rational
will formation. (Habermas, 1993d, p. 150; different transl.
in 1992b, p. 248)
formal-pragmatic perspective, the question arises of
how under contemporary conditions of ethical pluralism, rational
will formation about normative questions is still possible at all. The answer can only
be that rational ethics must limit its ambition to those normative
that we have earlier called moral questions, that is, questions
that implicitly refer to generalizable standards and which accordingly,
to the extent such standards can be found, lend themselves to
interpersonally binding answers.
can't expect to find a generally binding answer when we ask
what is good for me or for us or for them; instead, we must
ask what is equally good for all. This "moral point
of view" throws a sharp, but narrow, spotlight that picks
out from the mass of evaluative questions practical conflicts
that can be resolved by appeal to a generalizable interest;
in other words, questions of justice. [Only these questions]
are so structured that they can be resolved equitably in the
equal interest of all. Moral judgments must meet with agreement
from the perspective of all those possibly affected and not,
as with ethical questions, merely from the perspective of some
individual's or group's self-understanding or worldview. Hence
moral theories, if they adopt a cognitivist approach, are essentially
theories of justice. (Habermas, 1993d, p. 151; different
transl. in 1992b, p. 248)
fundamental standard that the moral point of view brings into
play is the quest for impartial answers to moral
questions. The binding force of such answers originates in the
interpersonal acceptability and persuasiveness of ideas such
as reciprocity of behavior and expectations; respect for the
intrinsic autonomy and dignity of all individuals; equal consideration
for the different views and values of everyone concerned; fair treatment
for all; or in short, what Habermas refers to as "justice."
This, in a nutshell, is the basically simple, although in its philosophical
execution complex, change of perspective
introduced by the communicative turn of
ethics. The fundamental question that it entails is how interpersonally binding answers to moral questions can
be rationally identified and justified through communicative
discursive turn of communicative ethics Readers
will remember from the previous two parts of this introduction
to the practical philosophy of Habermas that he calls interactions "communicative"
when they entail an obligation to redeem a claim discursively,
by relying on argumentative rather than nonargumentative
means. Here is a somewhat longer extract from his "Notes"
on discourse ethics that summarizes the main ideas:
call interactions communicative when the participants
coordinate their plans of actions consensually, with the agreement
reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the intersubjective
recognition of validity claims.…Further, I distinguish between
communicative and strategic action. Whereas in strategic action
one actor seeks to influence the behavior of another
by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification
in order to cause the interaction to continue as the
first actor desires, in communicative action one actor seeks
rationally to motivate another by relying on [the
performative or regulative function of] his speech act.
The fact that a speaker can rationally
motivate a hearer … is due not to the validity of what he says
but to the speaker's guarantee that he will, if necessary, make
efforts to redeem the claim that the hearer has accepted.… As
soon as the hearer accepts the guarantee offered by the speaker,
obligations are assumed that have consequences for the interaction,
obligations that are contained in the meaning of what was said.
In the case of orders and directives, for instance, the obligations
to act hold primarily for the hearer, in the case of promises
and announcements, they hold for the speaker, in the case of
agreements and contracts, they are symmetrical, holding for both
parties, and in the case of substantive normative recommendations
and warnings, they hold asymmetrically for both parties.
… Owing to the fact that communication
oriented to reaching understanding has a validity basis, a speaker
can persuade a hearer to accept a speech-act offer by guaranteeing
that he will redeem a criticizable validity claim. In so doing,
he creates a binding/bonding effect between speaker and hearer
that makes the continuation of their interaction possible. (Habermas,
1990a, p. 58f; similarly 1984, p. 302)
short, the validity basis of communicative practice
resides in a tacit offer by the participants to redeem all validity
claims they raise, if asked to do so, by providing convincing grounds or "reasons."
Communicative interaction is effective so long, and only so
long, as this offer is credible. Successful communicative
interaction thus depends on an anticipation of cogent argumentation.
In fact, I would add, not only the validity but also the meaning
of a moral judgment is difficult to appreciate without grasping
a speaker's reasons. "To understand
what moral judgments and claims mean, we need to understand
how we can argue them." (Ulrich, 2010b, p. 13)
Such argumentation need not actually take place so long as the
participants can recognize each other's motives and do trust in the
readiness of the other participants to redeem their
claims explicitly if asked to do so. But implicitly, it
is at all times clear that
say that I ought to do something means that I have
good reasons for doing it. (Habermas, 1990a, p. 49)
and reason-giving are inseparable, in practical-normative questions
no less than in theoretical-instrumental or other questions.
what kind of good reasons might allow us to appreciate and
previous discussion of Strawson's (1974) analysis of the nature of moral consciousness
pointed to the kind of reasons
we need: they should help us in reestablishing the sense
of unbroken or unimpaired intersubjectivity that has been lost or is
at peril whenever normative expectations are violated (cf.
Ulrich, 2010b, p. 10f). Unresolved moral issues tend
to undermine the tacitly shared validity basis of communicative
practice. Unless a shared validity basis can
be reestablished, communicative practice risks breaking
follows that communicative ethics depends on a model of argumentation
that can remedy a lost or impaired communicative basis. What,
does cogent argumentation to that end mean? How can a shared
validity basis be reestablished in practical discourse once
it has been lost?
A communicative turn of rational ethics can succeed only to
the extent it can answer this sort of question convincingly.
The project of communicative
ethics thus amounts to the task of "recasting moral theory
in the form of an analysis of moral argumentation" (Habermas,
1990a, p. 57)
or, slightly more accurately, of reformulating Kant's moral
philosophy in the terms of a "special
theory of argumentation" (1990a, p. 44). This is where our earlier discussion of
Habermas' framework of formal pragmatics comes into play.
ethics and formal pragmatics
of moral argumentation It may be helpful at
the outset to recall some of the major ideas
that inform a formal-pragmatic approach to argumentation theory.
theory begins where deductive logic ends: with nontrivial,
because substantial, judgments of fact or value. Justification of
such judgments reaches
beyond deductive-logical consistency
and instead raises empirical and normative questions. That is, it involves
both epistemological and practical-philosophical
validity claims – claims to the truth of knowledge (regarding
about disputed facts or instrumental relationships) and to the rightness of norms (regarding
judgments about value conflicts or interpersonal relationships).
A logic of substantial argumentation
cannot hope to establish certainty about such questions of theoretical-empirical
or practical-normative validity in a way that would be comparable to analytical
necessity; for when it comes to such questions, alternative premises
or conclusions are always conceivable. Nor can it credibly go
back today to Kant's presumption of an absolute, context-independent
philosophical viewpoint in the form of "transcendental"
philosophy. Consequently, the only manner in which
we may still hope to achieve some certainty is by
reflecting on those unavoidable presuppositions of reasoning and argumentation
that in principle would allow us to reason
and argue compellingly, even though in the practice of empirical
inquiry and moral reasoning they may not usually obtain. To
put it differently, What are the presuppositions that we cannot
help but pragmatically assume to hold in raising and discussing
empirical or normative validity
claims, regardless of the extent to which they may actually
ordinary discursive practice? If we could identify such unavoidable presuppositions
of argumentation, we might understand them as a kind of "social-practical analogues of Kant's ideas of reason,"
as McCarthy (1994, p. 38) aptly puts it.
sort of presuppositional analysis (cf. Habermas, 1990a,
pp. 83-86) represents a post-Kantian,
quasi-transcendental type of reflection in the tradition of Peirce's (1878) pioneering
account of the "indefinite
community of investigators"
as an unavoidable presupposition of a pragmatic logic of inquiry. A number of authors took this
idea up prior to Habermas and applied it to the logic of theoretical
or moral justification, among them notably Royce
(1913, cited in Apel, 1972, notes 4 and 5), Mead (1934), Collingwood
(1940), Apel (1967-70, 1972, 1973, 1980, 1980a, 1981, 1987; cf. Mendieta, 2002 on the importance of this somewhat
neglected source of inspiration and collaboration for Habermas), Peters
(1974, cited in Habermas, 1993a, p. 84f), and Watt (1975,
cited in Habermas 1993a, p. 83). The basic
argument it yields in Apel and Habermas' development of Peirce's
approach on the basis of speech-act theory is that there
are argumentative presuppositions that we cannot reasonably dispute without entangling ourselves in a performative
contradiction, that is, a misfit between what we say (the
propositional content of a speech act) and what me mean to achieve
by saying it (its performative, or relational, aspect;
cf. Apel, 1987, p. 277; Habermas, 1990a, pp. 80-82, 89,
95; 1990b, p. 129; 1993b, p. 33; 1993d, p. 162). For
example, it would mean to succumb to a performative contradiction
if a speaker were to argue against some specific claim to normative validity
(performative aspect: I want to convince you of this
normative claim through my argument) by asserting that "rational argument about normative claims is not possible"
(propositional content: normative claims cannot be argued).
Much the same observation holds true, if we are to believe Apel
and Habermas, for all the conditions on which rational argumentation as such depends,
quite regardless of what it is about. There are features of
the process of argumentation that we cannot help but
assume to be respected by everyone who means to seriously participate
in an argument. As Habermas sumps up these unavoidable requirements:
four most important features are: (i) that nobody who
could make a relevant contribution may be excluded; (ii) that
all participants are granted an equal opportunity to make contributions;
that all participants must mean what they say; and (iv) that
communication must be freed from external and internal coercion
so that the "yes" or "no" stances that participants
adopt on criticizable validity claims are motivated solely by
the rational force of the better reasons. (Habermas, 1998, p. 44;
cf. his similar lists in 1973c, p. 255f, and 1990a, pp.
87-89, the latter with reference to the account by Alexy,
1990, pp. 163-167, which in turn goes back to Alexy, 1978, p.
156f; for our own previous short summary, see Ulrich, 2009c,
these requirements stand for counterfactual ideals, "every
speaker knows intuitively that an alleged argument is not a
serious one if the appropriate conditions are violated – for
example, if certain individuals are not allowed to participate,
issues or contributions are suppressed, agreement or disagreement
is manipulated by insinuations or by threat of sanctions, and
the like." (Habermas, 1993b, p. 56) The power of these
ideals is that a speaker cannot deny their relevance without
getting caught up in a performative self-contradiction. This
is what Habermas (e.g., 1973c, p. 258) means when he declares
that although being counterfactual, they are nevertheless "operative"
in any discourse. They embody a part of the general validity
basis of speech that is merely "anticipated yet effective"
(1971c, p. 140).
the terms of our previous introduction to formal pragmatics
(Ulrich, 2009c and d),
we are dealing with general pragmatic presuppositions of
argumentation on which we "always already" rely
as soon as we argue (cf. Habermas, 1984, pp. 25 and 34; 1998, p. 44; 2009, Vol. 2,
p. 266). Formal pragmatics, since it is able to explain
the unavoidability of these presuppositions by the means of language
analysis, speech-act theory, and argumentation theory rather
than by taking recourse to transcendental philosophy, offers itself as a framework
for elaborating contemporary concepts of rationality both in epistemology
(esp. science-theory) and practical philosophy (esp. moral theory).
Compared to transcendental
philosophy, its appeal is not only that it is more accessible
and can build on a broader basis of philosophical tools than
were available to Kant, but also that it can do so with weaker
assumptions – assumptions closer to life, as it were, as communication
and argumentation are such central features of our social lifeworld.
this perspective, then, we may understand discourse ethics as a
special application of presuppositional analysis. It
is an attempt to explain what kind of specific argumentative
conditions would allow justifying moral claims cogently. These conditions,
so goes the reasoning, we cannot help
but assume to be operational whenever we want to bring to bear
in communicative practice
the moral point of view, as the one viewpoint from which can decide rationally about
clashing normative claims. In
short, discourse ethics assumes the methodological function of a presuppositional
analysis of what it means to practice the moral point of view
discursively. Let us have a closer look, then.
fundamental principles of discourse ethics When
Habermas introduced discourse ethics, he was exploring new theoretical
terrain. Although he was addressing theorists rather than practitioners,
he could not presuppose
that they were all familiar with the idea of a communicative turn
of ethics (which he had pioneered in close exchange with Apel,
e.g., 1972, 1980a, 1990) or even with his own formal-pragmatic
of the logic of substantial argumentation (which he had developed
drawing on Toulmin's work, esp. 2003/1958). He therefore
needed to explain why a discourse-theoretical
reformulation of rational ethics made sense in the first place
and how it situated itself in the broader context of contemporary
ethical theorizing. Accordingly
his early essays on discourse ethics (esp. 1990a, b; 1993a, b, c) focus
on discussing its cognitivist, universalist,
procedural, and formal perspectives and how they relate to the
ideas of other contemporary theorists such as Baier (1958), Singer
(1961), Rawls (1971, 1985), Apel (1972, 1973,
1980, 1981, 1988), Frankena (1973), Strawson (1974),
Hare (1981), Kohlberg (1981, 1984),
(1981), Mead (1934), Strawson (1974), Toulmin (1970, 1972,
2003), Tugendhat (1982, 1984, 1989), Watt
(1975), and Williams (1985); compare
Ulrich (2010a, b) for a highly selective review and discussion
aimed at preparing the present essay.
The same circumstances
may explain why Habermas, rather than explicitly and systematically deriving discourse
ethics from formal
pragmatics, chose to introduce and discuss it in terms of two distinctive principles:
the principle of
discourse ethics (D) and the principle of moral universalization
(U). This has largely remained so in his later essays (see
in particular 1993d, 1996a, 1998, 1998a; 2003a; 2009a); there
is, unfortunately, no systematic book by Habermas on discourse
ethics. I'll briefly introduce the two principles before discussing them in more detail.
principle of discourse ethics (D) stipulates that
Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet)
with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants
in a practical discourse. (Habermas, 1990a, p. 66,
similarly p. 93 and 1990c, p. 197)
Every valid norm would meet with the approval of all concerned
if they could take part in a practical discourse. (Habermas,
1990b, p. 121)
Just those action norms are valid to which all possibly affected
persons could agree as participants in rational discourses.
(Habermas, 1996a, p. 107)
Only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the
acceptance of all concerned in practical discourse. (Habermas,
1998a, p. 41)
embodies both Habermas' communicative turn of the concept
of rational justification in general and the communicative turn of rational
ethics in particular. As a specific principle of discourse ethics, the
above formulations of (D) refer to the aim of justifying norms,
that is, to questions of moral rightness. It is clear though that the underlying general principle of a discursive examination
and substantiation of validity claims is also relevant and applicable
to questions of truth and instrumental rationality, and quite
generally to all questions that lend themselves to rational
consideration of supporting assumptions and foreseeable consequences.
Habermas (e.g., 1996a, p. 107) mentions the example
of questions of democratic legitimacy; I would add questions
of legal compliance and other forms of value-rationality in
the general sense of conformity to defined values (e.g., social
and ecological standards). These different questions imply different
validity standards but not different principles of discourse;
in particular, there will be different criteria for determining
who counts as "concerned" and what kinds of "reasons"
count as relevant. In questions of truth, for example, those concerned
will be competent inquirers, and relevant reasons will refer
to high-quality observations about pertinent empirical circumstances;
whereas in questions of democratic legitimacy, those concerned
will include all citizens and relevant reasons will refer to applicable
citizens rights, legal and constitutional norms, the common
good, principles of equal treatment and minority protection,
previous democratically grounded decisions in the matter at
issue, and so on. It helps to substitute "claims" for "norms" in the above-cited formulations of
to render the
generic nature of the discursive principle obvious. The core
idea remains the same across all areas of application; it is
that discursive procedures of will-formation allow for consideration
of different perspectives and concerns, doubts and reasons,
and thus provide for a broad basis of information and legitimation.
In short, discursive will-formation is reasonable regardless
of the matter to be decided.
Habermas introduces (D) as a specific principle
of discourse ethics, I therefore propose that we take it to embody the
basic procedural requirement of communicative rationality in general.
There is no reason to restrict its relevance to moral
discourse only. In the terms of formal pragmatics, (D) stands for the general pragmatic
presuppositions of valid argumentation in any kind of discourse;
these presuppositions, as we have seen, are to make sure that
all relevant contributions and concerns can be articulated and
their consideration is free from external or internal sources
of distortion. This is not to say that (D) is devoid of any ethical
concern, on the contrary; the principle may indeed be understood
to provide a basic ethical grounding of all discourses, in the
form of the cooperative stance to which we have referred above
and which sets the quest for communicative rationality off from
mere reliance on strategic rationality or non-argumentative forces. Strictly speaking
though, (D) is a discourse-ethical principle only inasmuch
as it stipulates the indispensable ethical core of all
communicative rationality, rather than in the further-reaching
sense in which Habermas
usually employs the label "discourse ethics," of a
discursive approach to moral theory.
To avoid confusion, (D)
might thus better be called a discourse-theoretical principle,
or simply a general discourse principle. Its
basic message is:
communicative rationality and communicative reciprocity go together.
It belongs to the cognitive core
not only of ethics but of all rationality that we take others'
views and concerns seriously and consider them in an unbiased
and impartial way. In this intrinsic
reference to the idea of impartiality lies the methodological
secret of formal pragmatics as it were: since impartiality
– doing justice to the perspectives of others – is both a cognitive
and a normative principle, the demands of rationality and morality
converge. That is what Habermas means, I suspect, when he seeks to
"derive" discourse ethics from the general presuppositions
of discourse rather than by normatively introducing a moral
a reading of (D) suggests that it is indeed a fundamental principle
of all rational will-formation; but it also suggests that (D)
does not furnish a
sufficiently specific, constitutive principle of discourse ethics. Even
philosophers cannot have the cake and eat it – (D) is either
a general principle of reason or it is a specific principle
of moral reasoning, but not both at once. Reference to the shared ethical core of all communicative
practice does not enough to specify moral discourse, no more
than other specific kind of discourse. What
(D) fails to specify is the particular aspects of rationality
under which different types of theoretical and practical
questions need to be discussed: What does it mean to substantiate
to moral rightness as distinguished from a claim to truth, to purposive-rationality, or
to value-rationality? That is, what are the specific kinds of
"good reasons" that are required in each case? To specify the particular nature of moral discourse
and moral reasons, discourse ethics therefore needs an additional principle:
principle of moral universalization (U) stipulates that
For a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects that
its general observance can be expected to have for the
satisfaction of the particular interests of each person
affected must be such that all affected can accept them
freely. (Habermas 1990b, p. 120, similarly 1990c, p. 197)
contested norm cannot meet with the consent of the participants
in a practical discourse unless (U) holds, that is, unless all
affected can freely accept the consequences and the side
effects that the general observance of a controversial
norm can be expected to have for the satisfaction of the interest
of each individual. (Habermas, 1990a, p. 93)
Every valid norm must satisfy the condition that the consequences
and side effects its general observance can be anticipated
to have for the satisfaction of the interests of each
could be freely accepted by all affected (and be preferred
to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation).
(Habermas, 1993b, p. 32)
A norm is valid when the foreseeable consequences and side effects
of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations
of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned
without coercion. (Habermas, 1998a, p. 42)
recognize in (U) the Kantian principle of moral universalization, discursively
redefined. Quite in a Kantian spirit, the
italicized parts of Habermas' definitions are to make sure "that
a practice of justification conducted in this manner selects
norms that are capable of commanding universal agreement – for
example, norms expressing human rights."
(Habermas, 1998a, p. 43) Unlike in Kant's formulation of
the principle, however, empirical aspects do play a certain role;
there is reference to the consequences and side-effects of norms
of action, and to the individual interests and value-orientations
of the participants. This allows moral discourses to be more
than mere exercises of abstraction and instead to take into
account the particular experiences and concerns that shape the
participants' notions of what is good and right. Therein consists
one of the basic points of a communicatively turned moral universalism:
it creates room for considering norms from the different vantage
points of participants, although with a view to giving
the moral point of view a chance.
purpose of (U), then, is not to enforce a "pure" Kantian
morality in communicative disguise. To be sure, moral discourse is to overcome
a merely egocentric perspective or private stance of the participants;
but that need
not mean it has to ignore their individual views and values. Discourse makes
sense in the first place because and to the extent those involved
bring in different perspectives. The aim of moral deliberation
is not to abstract from all personal motives but only to make sure
that these motives are controlled by respect and responsibility
for the concerns of others. As Habermas (1998a, p. 40) puts
it, the aim is "equal respect for everyone else
demanded by a moral universalism sensitive to difference."
This is clearly a normative consideration, one that may be
seen to reach beyond the minimal normative content of argumentation
to which (D) has already drawn our attention. Still, it
is not just a normative consideration; for taking an interest in others' interests is also an intrinsic
requirement of communicative rationality as such. (U) and (D)
are closely related in this regard – a circumstance that is
to be expected, given the ties between the moral and the rational
that we have encountered earlier. As one of Habermas' translators explains
the rationale of (U):
choosing to argue, each party commits itself not just to its
own rational conviction but to that of others as well. This
is the kernel of intersubjectivity in (U).… The commitment to
rational conviction must involve something like taking an interest
in others' interests. (Rehg, 1994, p. 70f)
may wonder indeed whether the same statement would not provide
a better description of the rationale of (D). As I see it, reference
to the kernel of intersubjectivity underspecifies the
methodological intent of (U), but it sums up the intent of (D)
rather well. Be that as it may, so much is clear: together,
(D) and (U) establish a fundamental nexus between the
two concerns of ensuring communicative rationality among those
involved on the one hand and equal respect and responsibility for all others
on the other hand
– the two major concerns to which refers the title of Habermas' (1990) first
of discourse-ethical essays, Moral Consciousness
and Communicative Action. Thus seen (D) stands for the generic
intersubjective kernel of all communicative action whereas (U)
adds the specifically moral point of view that is constitutive
of moral action. While (D) takes care of the communicative
requirements of rational will-formation as such, (U) is to ensure that
the reasons a discourse identifies as good grounds
for accepting a claim are moral reasons – "good" reasons not just for
those involved but for everyone else concerned as well, in the strong
sense of being equally
good for all (Habermas, 1993d, p. 151; cf, 1990a, pp.
68-72, and 1992b, p. 248). In this "equally good for
the justification of good reasons as moral reasons. Cogent
moral arguments refer us to reasons that deserve recognition by all, even those not
involved as participants, as they satisfy both (D) and (U).
do (D) and (U) relate to one another? The fact that Habermas explains
discourse ethics in terms of the two apparently similar principles (D) and (U)
has caused considerable confusion about their relationship. Many
a reader may feel a need for some additional discussion of this
rather difficult issue before moving on to a critical discussion
of discourse ethics. The present
and the next subsection are for them. Readers who at this stage
prefer to gain some critical distance before they burden themselves with more details about the
two discourse-ethical principles and how they relate
to one another, may wish to jump directly to the next main section
titled "Critical Discussion"
and then to come back to the present discussion later.
text passages in Habermas' discourse-ethical writings suggest that (D) is
presupposed in (U), for instance when he refers to the communicative kernel that only
waited to be uncovered in Kant's moral principle or when he
that "for the justification of moral norms, the discourse
principle takes the form of a universalization principle"
(1996a, p. 109, italics added). On other occasions he seems to
suggest that things are the other way round in that (U) is presupposed in (D), for example when he explains that "the principle
of discourse ethics (D) … already presupposes that we
can justify our choice of a norm [by means of (U)]"
(1990a, p. 66) or that "to introduce such a discourse
principle already presupposes that practical questions can be
judged impartially and decided rationally." (1996a, p. 109).
Quite frequently he also states that (U) is "derived" or "abducted" from
(D) or "operationalizes" it (e.g., 1990a, p. 82f
1996a, p. 109; 1998a, pp. 43 and 46).
is one of the innovative features of discourse ethics that it
seeks to avoid the need for "introducing" the principle
of moral universalization in ways that would boil down to a
mere appeal to the moral sense or
good will of those involved. Instead, it locates the principle
within the formal properties of practical discourse, where it
is "always already" presupposed in the form of "universal
presuppositions of argumentation" (1998a, p. 43). In
this respect it seems adequate to say that discourse ethics derives the
moral principle (U)
from the discourse principle (D) and thus does not merely postulate it
but actually justifies it. There are some difficulties involved
though. Strictly speaking, (U) is then to be considered an argumentative
(or logical) rather than a normative (moral) principle; it explains
how moral claims can be buttressed argumentatively but not why
they should, that is, why people ought to reason and
act morally. By implication,
practical discourse can be expected to produce moral insight
(i.e., moral reason) but not necessarily also the will to act
accordingly (i.e., moral motivation).
Habermas recognizes the difficulty when
he points out that "it 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."
(1993b, p. 33) It remains unclear how discourse ethics
is to close the resulting gap between moral reason (as an
ideal of universalizing moral discourse) and moral motivation
(as a normative force that inspires and regulates moral
related difficulty is this. Deriving
(U) from (D) does not appear to account for the fact that the moral point of view unfolds normative force
not only in its discursive employment but also in individual
moral conscience, reflection, and action. Significantly the idea of moral universalization
as it is contained in well-known moral principles such as the
ancient Golden Rule or the categorical imperative, along with
Mead's (1934) plea for "universal role-taking" and
Baier's (1958) account of "the moral point of view,"
is much older than the idea of rationally motivated moral discourse.
But if this is so – if moral universalization was a meaningful idea long
before the communicative
turn of ethics and thus can apparently inspire moral consciousness
and conduct directly without discursive detour – it is difficult
to see how one can claim that it is grounded in discourse
rather than brought into it, say, by an act of good will
on the part of the participants. I suspect
Habermas' might respond that we indeed need to distinguish
systematically between moral universalization as an argumentative
device in discourse and as a motivating force that may very
well be effective prior to discourse and reach beyond it, for instance,
in the form of a cooperative stance that shapes "that complicated web of attitudes and feelings which
form moral life as we know it" (Strawson, 1974, p. 24,
as discussed in Ulrich, 2010b, p. 9f). As an argumentative
device, the principle of moral universalization may then be assumed
to be contained in the presuppositions of discourse
without precluding the possibility that as a motivating force,
it shapes people's individual moral consciousness quite independently of
its discursive employment.
Conversely, inasmuch as a communicative turn of ethics is already anticipated
in Kant's categorical imperative, from where it just needed
to be extracted, discourse ethics might be understood to
imply that when it comes to moral reasoning, the discourse
principle (D) is contained in (U) and thus can be
systematically derived from it rather than needing to
be "introduced" previously as a discourse-ethical
principle or by reference to the intrinsic requirements
of linguistic competence and cogent argumentation. Note that
the limitation we just considered
above – that (U) can be derived from (D)
only in its capacity as a formal principle of argumentation but not as a motivating
normative force – does not apply to the derivation of (D) from
(U); for the moral principle
can very well be understood as a normative force that motivates
an agent and still implies an orientation
towards communicative rationality.
a further difficulty, Habermas obviously cannot and does not intend a mutual derivation of (D) and
(U) from one another. That would amount to circular reasoning
and thus would yield a rather dubious basis for claiming that
both principles represent inescapable
presuppositions of practical discourse rather than mere conventions (cf. 1990a,
pp. 89 and 93). Even so he occasionally (e.g, 1990a, pp.
86 and 94) hints at the possibility that such a simultaneous
derivation of (D) from (U) and of (U) from (D) would not necessarily
be circular, inasmuch as the former derivation would work at the level of moral
consciousness (morality as a motivating force implies an orientation
to communicative rationality) and the second,
at the level of argumentative requirements (morality as an argumentative
force implies an orientation to moral universalization). Be
that as it may: a more credible way of grounding
discourse ethics language-analytically would consist in demonstrating
that one of the two principles is contained in the requirements
of rational discourse and the other is contained in the former
Habermas does not choose this option, however, as both principles
are equally fundamental to him; declaring either to be more
basic than the other would unavoidably cause new theoretical
problems. A one-sided derivation of (U) from (D) might
question the claim of discourse ethics to provide a genuine
development of cognitivist ethics in the tradition of Kantian
rational ethics; conversely, a one-sided derivation of (D) from
(U) might question the claim of providing a new, language-analytical
grounding of moral theory. Unfortunately though, the price to pay for avoiding these
difficulties is another difficulty: discourse
ethics remains strangely undecided, if not ambivalent, as to
how the supposed "derivation" of its two core principles
from language-analytical foundations is to be understood and
how, in consequence, the two principles relate to one another.
short, a certain lack of clarity does creep
doubts and difficulties
The above-quoted definitions of (D) and (U) are so strikingly
– and confusingly – similar that it is far from obvious that
both principles are needed and if so, what are the crucial differences
and the division of roles between them. Not surprisingly, a
lot of discussion can be found in the secondary literature about
this issue. Perhaps best known is Benhabib's
(1990) carefully argued suggestion that (U) should be altogether
discarded as in her view, it is fully implied in (D). As she sees it, the requirements
for which (D) stands, of rational argumentation and agreement,
strong ethical assumptions such as equal consideration and respect
for all concerned, assumptions that amount to what she calls
"the principle of universal moral respect" (1990,
p. 337). Such a view is in line with the basic aim of discourse
ethics, of finding a new basis for moral theory in the linguistic
structure of rationally motivated communication. Inasmuch as
(D) adequately captures these linguistic presuppositions, introducing
an additional principle (U) looks at best unnecessary to Benhabib but
is more likely confusing. For example, she finds it confusing
tends to assign to (U) the role of argumentatively guaranteeing
consensus on moral validity claims; for doing so risks
turning our attention away from the procedural focus of
(D), by which discourse ethics means to replace the earlier
substantial focus of rational ethics. As she
alone can never be a criterion of anything, neither of truth
nor of moral validity; rather, it is always the rationality
of the procedure for attaining agreement which is of philosophical
interest. We must interpret consent not as an end-goal but as
a process.… It is not the result of the process of moral
judgment alone that counts
but the process [as such]. Consent is a misleading
term for capturing [this] core idea behind communicative ethics.…
(Benhabib, 1990, p. 345)
a second concern, Benhabib fears that (U)'s formulation is prone
to misinterpretation. Rather
than elucidating the procedural focus of discourse ethics as
it applies specifically to moral judgment, it may open up the door to utilitarian reasoning
and thereby might have us regress behind the level of Kant's moral
has given "U" such a consequentialist formulation
that his theory is now subject to the kinds of arguments that
deontological rights theorists have always successfully brought
against utilitarians. Without some stronger constraints about
how we are to interpret "U," we run the risk of regressing
behind the achievements of Kant's moral philosophy. (Benhabib,
1990, p. 343)
want to suggest that (U) is really redundant in Habermas' theory
and that it adds little but consequentialist confusion to the
basic premise of discourse ethics. (D) [as the expression
of this premise]
states that only those norms can claim to be valid that meet
(or could meet) with the approval of all concerned in their
capacity as participants in a practical discourse. (D), together
with [the] rules of argument [that it entails] and the normative
content [that] I summarized as the principles
of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity, are in my
view quite adequate to serve as the only universalizability test.
1990, p. 344)
It is my
claim that this core intuition, together with an interpretation
of the normative constraints of argument in light of the principles
of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity, are sufficient
to accomplish what (U) was intended to accomplish, but only
at the price of consequentialist confusion. (Benhabib,
1990, p. 345)
first glance, Benhabib's argument seems to blur the fine line between the two notions of morality
that we considered above, as a normative force and as an argumentative
device. At a closer look, however, this
defect is probably one of formulation rather than substance.
Substantially, the circumstance that Habermas finds it
necessary to qualify (U) as an argumentative rather than normative principle
may be seen to strengthen Benhabib's case;
for if (U) is a merely or at least mainly argumentative principle, one may indeed ask why it still
needs to be stipulated (or "derived") as a separate
principle rather than simply being considered an integral part
of the presuppositions of rational argumentation according to
(D). One might even take Benhabib's doubts further and support it with
the following observation. Should it turn out that unlike what
Benhabib suggests, moral universalization entails some methodological requirements
are not contained in (D), including possibly the need for some
source of normative force that reaches beyond the general ethical
core of a communicative stance, then (U) would indeed amount to an
indispensable addition to (D); in which case some serious doubts about the success of
Habermas' theoretical project would be in order. One
might then have to conclude that counter to what
discourse ethics proposes, a sufficient
grounding of moral theory in the general presuppositions of communicative
rationality is not possible without "introducing"
an additional normative principle (introducing, that is, with
an appeal to the good will of those involved); or else, if it
is possible, that discourse ethics
has failed to elaborate such a grounding in an adequate manner.
share some of these doubts, as well as Benhabib's
view that the relationship of (D) and (U) is not sufficiently
clear. More importantly, as I will further explain in the subsequent
of discourse ethics, I doubt whether discourse ethics
achieves what a good moral theory should accomplish, namely,
providing us with adequate guidance for moral practice. My main interest
in discourse ethics is indeed with a view to supporting moral practice,
and it is in this respect that I find in it reasons for concern.
On the other hand, this practical interest has the advantage that I need not be concerned primarily
about the theoretical merits or defects of discourse ethics, except
insofar as these merits or defects relate to its value as a framework for good
practice. Putting (U) to good argumentative
use does not depend so much on how discourse ethics
explains and justifies the principle but rather, on the way we understand
and employ it for practical purposes. Basically
a discourse-centered, procedural, and participative
conception of morality such as discourse ethics outlines it
does appear relevant to an epoch characterized by a plurality
of forms of life and conflicting ethical
positions, quite regardless
of how successful discourse ethics is as a moral theory.
a view to practice, the one serious doubt that is bound to come up with the two
discourse-ethical principles (D) and (U) is whether and to what extent they
lend themselves to pragmatization. Although it would seem
to me that the communicative turn of practical
philosophy should indeed open up new chances for pragmatizing
the idea of practical reason, it is difficult to overlook the
circumstance that discourse ethics does not have a good track
record in this respect. It has achieved conspicuously little in terms of how practical people
(citizens, professionals and decision-makers both in the public
and private sectors) understand and handle moral claims. The far-reaching
impact it has had on
moral theory is not at all matched by a nearly comparable impact on practice.
It is indeed striking to see that in the huge body of literature
about discourse ethics, one hardly finds examples of specific courses of actions that would have been identified,
and justified by means of discourse ethics.
One must wonder, therefore, whether discourse ethics elaborates
the idea of communicative rationality in a manner that is practically
as relevant as it could and should be. The frequent reference of
discourse ethics to the "pragmatic" presuppositions of argumentation cannot mask
its lack of pragmatic orientation in the fundamental sense of
an orientation towards actual moral practice. Due to the idealizing formulation
of both (D) and (U), its "pragmatic" orientation remains theoretical rather than paving
the way to suitable pragmatization.
conclusion, the main issue regarding
(D) and (U) that should concern us is not so much how exactly
they relate to one another and whether we might or should discard
one or the other, so that at the end of the day we might perhaps be able to "derive"
discourse ethics in a theoretically more stringent way from
the inherent requirements of rational thought and argument. I
do not know whether that is possible, nor do I think it is of primary
importance. More important to me is how we might translate (D) and (U) into
good professional and everyday practice. We have understood that the two principles are "unavoidable"
ideas in the sense of a presuppositional analysis of rational
practical discourse, which alone can credibly replace today
Kant's "transcendental" philosophy; we have also understood
that they accordingly function, in McCarthy's (1994, p. 34)
as a kind of "social-practical analogues of Kant's ideas of reason."
But how, given their ideal character,
can we render them practicable? Therein I would see the true touchstone for a satisfactory
account of (D) and (U), including the way they can mutually
support one another. With this challenge in mind, I would now
to offer some further, critical discussion of ways to understand
and employ (D) and (U).
suggest we examine discourse ethics and the roles it assigns
to (D) and
particularly to (U) from three perspectives: (i) against
the background of formal pragmatics; (ii) against the background of Kantian
rational ethics; and (iii) with a view to
application. I'll begin with the first perspective, as it
is most immediately useful for clarifying the relationship of
(D) and (U). The two other perspectives will then help us prepare
the ground for later pragmatization.
discussion (i) –
Examining (D) and (U) against the background of formal
pragmatics: Where does morality lie? How
exactly do (D) and (U) link up with the framework of formal pragmatics?
While it is clear that Habermas conceives of discourse
ethics as a special application of formal pragmatics, his discourse-ethical
writings do not discuss the question systematically.
To clarify the issue, I find it helpful to return to our earlier
analysis of the framework (see Ulrich, 2009c and d), where we distinguished
levels of pragmatic presuppositions that together should
not only give everyone concerned a fair chance of articulating
their views and values but should also make
sure that the outcome of communicative practice can count as rational.
three levels stand for what Habermas described as the "process," "procedural,"
and "product" aspects of argumentation, respectively. For
the reader's convenience, here is the earlier table
in which we summed up our account of formal pragmatics (see Table 3):
(reproduced from Ulrich, 2009c, p. 14):
aspects of discourse, or: What makes a "good"
from Habermas, 1984, pp. 8-42, and Wenzel, 1992, pp.
reproduced here from Ulrich, 2009c,
or "process" perspective
(communicative competence guided
by cooperative attitude)
from strategic to communicative action
or "procedure" perspective
(uncoerced and undistorted
from communicative action to discourse
or "product" perspective
(pragmatic logic of argumentation)
from a deductive to a pragmatic logic of argumentation
of the above)
(radicalization of discourse)
Step from initial to higher levels of reflection
2009 W. Ulrich
readers will recall, we interpreted the three levels
as crucial methodological steps that lead us first
from strategic to communicative action, then from communicative
action to discourse, and finally from a deductive to a pragmatic
logic of argumentation (compare the full discussion of the three
steps in Ulrich, 2009c,
pp. 17-24, and 2009d, pp. 3-32).
Taken together, the methodological requirements involved in
these three steps amount to the formal-pragmatic presuppositions
of communicative rationality.
we now try to situate the two discourse-ethical principles (D) and (U) in
Table 3, we gain a new shorthand version of formal pragmatics
as applied to moral discourse. It relates (D) and (U) to different
"steps" or levels (standing for different methodological
requirements) in the quest for cogent moral argumentation,
as shown in Table 6.
Table 6: Formal-pragmatic
aspects of discourse ethics,
What makes a moral argument cogent?
from Table 3 in Ulrich, 2009c, p. 14)¨
step towards moral practice
or "process" perspective
from strategic to communicative action
(communicative competence guided
by cooperative attitude)
Coordinate your actions through
mutual understand- ing!
or "procedure" perspective
from communicative action to moral discourse
tions of discourse
Redeem the normative core of your claims, if asked
to do so, by cogent arguments as defined by
or "product" perspective
from a deductive to a pragmatic logic of moral
(universal role-taking, considering
possible consequences and side-effects)
Review your arguments in
the light of universal role-taking among all those concerned as
participants in a rationally
motivated discourse as defined by (D)!
of the above)
role-taking, participatively realized)
point of view,
2013 W. Ulrich
Table 6 embodies my summary account of the methodological core concepts
of discourse ethics as seen against the background of formal
pragmatics. It assigns (D) and (U) to the "procedure"
and "product" levels of moral discourse. By thus relating
(D) and (U) to formal pragmatics, we gain a clearer understanding
of their function within the underlying Toulmin-Habermas
model of argumentation. Since according to this model, the general layout of argumentation
is "field independent," that is, remains the same
across different types and contexts of argumentation, it is
indeed legitimate to try and locate in it the structure
of moral argumentation and consequently, the roles of (D) and
A formal-pragmatic model of moral argumentation thus
the same three basic levels of presuppositions and related methodological
concepts as does the general model. It becomes a specific
model of moral argumentation by specifying some of the methodological
steps and requirements involved and more importantly, by assigning
the two discourse-ethical principles (D) and (U) to the procedure
and product levels.
need for specifying a theory of moral argumentation in this
way explains why Habermas formulated not
only (U) but also (D) in terms that are specific to discourse ethics.
This circumstance should not have us overlook the fact that
only (U) is strictly speaking specific to moral discourse, whereas (D)
could, and in my view should, be reformulated so as to capture
the methodological core concern of that level in field-independent terms, that is, as a general discourse
principle. The step from
communicative action to discourse is obviously inherent in all
forms of discourse. Just as obviously, the same pragmatic presuppositions
apply regarding the openness and symmetry of argumentative conditions
(see Ulrich, 2009c, p. 21f,
for a short summary of these conditions). Only at the
subsequent, "product" or "logical" level
of argumentation, cogent argumentation entails specific
requirements according to the type of questions to be dealt
Since the need for (D) and (U) emerges at different levels
of argumentation and since moreover (U), unlike (D), is not
field-independent, it is clear that the two principles fulfil
methodological roles. Accordingly, neither
can really replace the other. Thus seen, it appears that Benhabib's
(1990) above-cited call for discarding (U) fails to do justice to the deep structure
of communicative rationality as formal pragmatics understands
situated (D) and (U) in formal pragmatics, a few additional
observations offer themselves concerning their different but
complementary functions within the deep structure of communicative
with (D), the way Table 6 situates it in formal pragmatics
should make it clear that it is much more than a relatively
trivial kind of participatory
principle, a principle that would exhaust itself in "calling" for
a participative or communicative approach. As such it would have belonged to the "process" rather than the
"procedure" level, if it were to be given a place
within formal pragmatics at all. Rather, (D) renders the participation
of all those concerned an intrinsic requirement of communicative
rationality, both in theoretical and in practical discourses.
It makes participation a part of the general symmetry conditions
of rational argumentation (see Ulrich, 2009c, p. 23f, for
a definition of the term). Participation thus becomes a core requirement of rationality
at the procedural level, for all argumentation in general
(as summed up in Table 3) and specifically for moral argumentation
(as summed up in Table 6).
(D) remains unspecific with regard to the nature of
cogent argumentation required for different types of discourse,
it refers us to the need for defining specific standards or
rules of argumentation at the subsequent level. In the case
of practical discourse, as we have seen, this argumentative
standard is supplied by the principle of moral universalization
Indirectly, by calling for more specific standards at the logical
level, (D) thus also ties the idea of moral universalization
to the same general symmetry conditions to which it ties the
ideas of rational motivation on the part of all those involved and of participation
on the part of all those concerned: if (D) is to be relevant
to moral discourse, it depends on an additional principle of
argumentation such as (U). In
this way, (D) as applied to practical discourse helps us appreciate the deep link between
the moral and the rational, to which Kant first drew our
attention. Important as this link was to Kant's monological
concept of practical reason as a process of moral universalization in the agent's mind, it thus turns
out to be no less important today, within a discursive framework
of "real," cooperative processes of argumentation
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.… 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 reflexive in nature; only it can
give the participants the knowledge that they have collectively
become convinced of something.… Nothing better prevents
others from perspectivally distorting one's own interests than
actual participation. (Habermas, 1990a, p. 66f; cf. also
p. 94 for the emphasis on "real" discourses)
irony, of course, is that discourse ethics explains why "real" discursive
moral universalization are needed but not, how they might be
made real. The basic idea remains nonetheless valid:
there is a deep link between normative validity and communicative rationality. An analogous statement could be made
for scientific truth, whether in the form of factual knowledge
or of theoretical generalizations: there is a deep link
between empirical validity and rational, open discourse
(ie., discourse that is accessible to all those who are interested
and competent or have some relevant observations or conjectures
to contribute). Although not always recognized, this link inheres
all scientific and technical insights. But this topic, important
as it is, would lead us away from our present focus on the normative
foundations of rational practice and I therefore will not pursue
it further here.
from the procedural to the logical level of moral
discourse, the role assigned to (U) also becomes more clear.
the Kantian universalization principle is to be salvaged for use
in "real" processes of argumentation but thereby gains a new role.
Instead of embodying an unconditional moral imperative and thus
also a directly motivating force of action, it now takes on the more modest role of a
rule of moral argumentation
(see, e.g., Habermas, 1990a, pp. 63, 86, and 93f; 1990b, p. 121;
1990c, p. 197;
1993b, p. 32f; 1998, pp. 42 and 45). As Habermas argues,
it can serve as a moral principle that need not be "introduced"
by recourse to some
additional source of normative orientation such as Kant's "good
will" or moral
"law" or "duty," as it is part of the specific
logic of moral argumentation and as such provides a
standard of justification that goes beyond the general
symmetry conditions required by (D):
an approach to moral theory] avoids confusions
in the use of the term "moral principle." The
only moral principle here is the universalization principle
(U), which is conceived as a rule of argumentation and is part
of the logic of practical discourses. (U) must be carefully
distinguished from … the principle of discourse ethics (D),
which stipulates the basic idea of a moral theory but does not
form part of a logic of argumentation. (Habermas, 1990a,
p. 93, italics added)
then, is a "moral principle" in the limited
sense of a justification principle that is grounded in the requirements of
cogent moral argumentation, so that it need not be introduced by a
to the good will of those involved. To the extent one accepts
the claim of discourse ethics to having demonstrated such a
non-voluntarist grounding of morality in communicatively turned
practical reason, the one remaining precondition that
the participants still need to bring into the discourse
is that they be "rationally motivated," that is,
prepared to argue rationally according to (D). The
voluntarist core of discourse ethics thus shrinks to a basic
reason or, to put it with less pathos, to an ordinary desire
of not being convicted of a lack of sound reasoning. Moral
logic, combined with rational motivation, takes the place
of moral motivation, as it were.
requirement of rational motivation thus translates, at the logical
level of argumentation, into (U)'s demand for equal
argumentative consideration of the views and values of all those
concerned. (U) goes beyond (D) in that it implies a specifically
moral perspective of inclusiveness:
those to be included are to be included not just because they may
have something to contribute (e.g., knowledge or skills) but also,
because they are to be treated as equals (i.e., out of respect
for them). Therein consists (U)'s genuine normative content;
although, if we want to believe Habermas, it is a normative content contained
in the very presuppositions of rational moral argumentation
is clear that in the framework of formal pragmatics,
this concern for inclusiveness remains basically an argumentative rather than a normative principle,
a linguistically grounded requirement of moral justification
to which Habermas refers as a "rule of argumentation." Still, one may doubt whether discourse
ethics, despite its focus on the logic of moral justification,
can really do without assigning some intrinsic normative
force to the moral principle (U) that would reach beyond the
minimal normative core (or ethos) that Apel and Habermas uncovered in the general presuppositions of practical discourse. How else, we need to ask,
is moral discourse supposed to unfold some interpersonally binding,
normative force beyond the process of argumentation itself?
As Habermas avows:
is by no means self-evident that rules that are unavoidable
within discourses can also claim to be valid for regulating action
outside of discourses. Even if participants in an argumentation
are forced to make substantive normative presuppositions (e.g.,
to respect one another as competent subjects, to treat one another
as equal partners, to assume one another's truthfulness, and
to cooperate with one another), they can still shake off this
transcendental-pragmatic compulsion when they leave the field
of argumentation. The necessity of making such presuppositions
is not transferred directly from discourse to action. In any
case, a separate justification is required to explain why the
normative content discovered in the pragmatic presuppositions
of argumentation should have the power to regulate action. (Habermas,
1990a, p. 85f; cf. 1993b, p. 33, and 1998, p. 45)
indeed, action-motivating justification of norms is thus
crucial intended contribution of (U), beyond that of (D), to rationally
secured moral practice. I say "intended" because for
all practical purposes, it remains doubtful whether (U) can
fulfil its assigned function of a rule of justification; see
points (ii) and (iii) of this critical discussion. By implication, its action-regulating
function remains equally doubtful. The bad news is, while burdening (U) with a justificatory
does not appear indispensable for its meaningful use in practice
as an argumentative device – insight into different moral perspectives
does not depend on ultimate justification – expecting it to have some action-regulating
force does appear indispensable for moral practice. While it is of theoretical
interest for communicative ethics to ground moral discourse
in the requirements
of cogent moral argumentation only, moral practice unavoidably
overrides this restriction and demands that such argumentation
translate into a force of moral motivation that reaches
beyond the process of argumentation itself.
follows that unless
moral discourse is to fall back on a mere appeal to the moral
motives of discourse participants, which would mean to simply
presuppose rather than produce morality, this normative force must be part and
parcel of the same rational motivation that has the participants
adopt (U) as a rule of moral argumentation. Although
in practice there can be no guarantee that rationally motivated
moral discourse will in each and every case go together
with a corresponding moral motivation, I find it less problematic
indeed to expect that (U) should in practice develop some action-regulating force
to burden it with a (theoretically sufficient) justificatory function. It is a distinctive
feature of all cognitivist ethics that for a rational agent, moral insight translates naturally into a will to act
accordingly, no less than insight into what is rational translates into a will
to act accordingly. If it were otherwise, inconsistencies of reasoning and action would be difficult to
avoid. In discourse practice this requirement of consistency boils down to two options:
either the participants are indeed motivated by good will (then
there is no problem) or else, similarly to what we found necessary
for (D), they are at least motivated by a basic will to
reason in the minimal sense of not wishing to be convicted of inconsistent
reasoning and action. I am prepared to grant that this is neither
an entirely improbable nor an entirely unreasonable assumption
so, one must wonder whether Habermas' attempt to ease the methodological
burden of the universalization principle, by assigning to it a
more modest role than that of a normative, action-regulating
and motivating force such as the categorical imperative could
still imply it, goes
far enough. The
difficulty is that his account of (U) as a mere rule of argumentation
assumes an unnecessarily narrow concept of argumentation. In
this account, cogent moral argumentation effectively converges with justification:
it is by being able to either justify or else rebut disputed
claims that discourse ethics is to resolve normative conflicts
rationally. The aim is "to show that moral questions
can be decided rationally" (1993b, p. 32), whereby
a decision is taken to be "rational" to the extent
it can refer to a justified norm or principle of action.
To serve as a useful rule of moral argumentation, (U) would
therefore need to amount to a rule (or device) of justification.
methodological implications of tying rationality in moral questions
to justification are precarious. As
a rule of argumentation that is to provide a vehicle of
moral justification, (U) requires nothing less than an arguably successful effort of universal
role-taking – the core idea
at this level
moral discourse, to which Mead (1913,
1925, 1934) contributed seminal considerations in his work on
"symbolic interactionism" (see the earlier discussion
in Ulrich, 2009b, pp.
17-23 and 30f) and which later became the epitome of postconventional
morality in Kohlberg's (1968, 1976, 1981, 1984) work. Insightful
as the concept of universal-role taking is for explaining the
moral idea, it embodies an ideal that as such cannot be a possible
outcome at the "product" or logical level of real
moral discourses. Much less can discursive practice ever legitimately
claim it to be an outcome of actual argumentation It embodies a meaningful endeavor but not
a meaningful claim. The attempt of discourse ethics to salvage
the universalization principle for use
in "real" processes of argumentation breaks down at
this point. Its translation of Kant's universalization principle
into communicative terms may be expected to provide valuable orientation
for discursive practice but not
a practicable mode of justification.
would not go as far as Benhabib's call for discarding (U) altogether;
I tend to agree with Habermas that (U) is indispensable for a logic
of moral argumentation. The preliminary conclusion I draw is a more pragmatic
one: the role we assign to (U) for moral practice needs
to be still more modest than what discourse ethics proposes.
That the universalization principle cannot carry the burden
of justifying moral practice (a difficulty we will consider
in more detail in the second half of this essay) need not mean it cannot
usefully inform and guide "real" moral
discourses. To this end, it will probably be indispensable to
alleviate the argumentative burden that discourse ethics assigned
it. Rather than the moral principle (U) itself, we may have
to discard its role of a supposed vehicle of
moral justification. Paradoxically, if we wish to strengthen the role
that (U) can play in practice, we may first need to weaken the
role we assign it in theory. Let us see.
For a hyperlinked overview of all issues
of "Ulrich's Bimonthly" and the previous "Picture of the
see the site map
This is the first half of the third of three articles on
the practical philosophy of Jurgen Habermas
within the "Reflections on reflective practice" series.
The second half will appear in a
next Bimonthly. The previous Parts 6a and 6b are available in the Bimonthly
issues of September-October and November-December, 2009.
(for the three Parts 6a/7, 6b/7, and 6c/7 first half)
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