In the early 21st century we find ourselves
living in a world that is so increasingly diverse, complex, and dynamic
– so technologically advanced, culturally pluralist and rapidly
globalizing, but also facing almost intolerable socio-economic
disparities along with huge environmental challenges and political
difficulties – that one needs to be bold to even ask the question:
How can we still hope to think and act rationally in this
current world of ours? How in a world of conflicting needs and
values do we know what we ought to do? What skills would we need to learn
so as to better understand situations and ways to improve them? How
can we judge whether and to what extent others in whom we trust,
citizens, decision-makers and
professionals at all institutional levels, master such skills? Even at an individual
level, how can each of us still seriously claim to get our facts
and values right and to act accordingly, and what would "right"
mean in the first place?
is the sort of "impossible" (because impossibly big
and difficult) questions that I currently face within the limited
scope of my ongoing "Reflections on reflective practice"
series and specifically with a view to an ethical grounding
of the quest for good and rational practice. How else if not
on the basis of such considerations can I hope to arrive at
an adequate assessment of discourse ethics (one of the topics
on which I have recently focused) and also to develop useful
to where we might go from here?
today: can we bring the moral idea back in? It
may well be that the intellectual legacy of the 20th century
does not equip us particularly well for dealing with the challenge.
This is why I found it useful, in the early parts of the "Reflective
to travel back in time and examine whether the tradition of
practical philosophy that began with Aristotle might supply, in adequately developed and pragmatized form, a "third
pillar" of the quest for good and rational practice; a
third pillar, that is, along with the two currently prevailing
pillars of "applied science" and "reflective
practice" (see Ulrich, 2008a, b). This is the job
that I have been pursuing in many of my bimonthly essays of
the past five years or so, within and outside the "Reflections
on reflective practice" series.
the "reflective practice" series, the focus has been
on some major approaches to
rational ethics – the idea that right action and right thought are
inseparable. Inasmuch as in the tradition of practical philosophy, "right"
means "morally right," this idea does not enjoy
wide currency now. In the wake of the last century's
neopositivism – ranging from the rise of logical positivism (e.g., Schlick,
1918; Carnap, 1928; Reichenbach, 1938) via critical rationalism (Popper, 1959,
1968, 1972) to neopositivist philosophy of social science (e.g., Rudner,
1966) – this is an understandable but not necessarily rational state of the
matter. The aftermaths of neopositivism continue to be effective
in many ways, and they have tended and still tend to discredit
the idea of a "rational" approach to the normative
core of human affairs. To mention just a few major symptoms,
scientism (the identification of the limits of rationality with those of science) is
still widespread, as is a questionable (but largely unquestioned)
belief in the "primacy of theory"
for sound practice (cf. Ulrich, 2006d, 2007a). Vain claims to "objective
science" and "value-free"
professional expertise are still widely accepted or are even expected from "competent"
researchers and professionals (cf. Ulrich, 2011a). Some careful
observers of contemporary society have unsuccessfully admonished
us of an overall tendency towards "institutionalized counterproductivity"
(Illich, 1971, 1975), towards a growing "legitimation crisis"
and "new obscurity" (Habermas, 1975, 1990a), and even
towards "organized irresponsibility" (Beck, 1992, 1995).
And finally, of most immediate concern to my current work, an
ethical grounding of the prevailing concept of reflective practice
(Schön, 1983, 1987) – admittedly a difficult undertaking – is
still largely missing. Indeed, it seems to me that the lack
of a clear and arguable notion of how the rational relates to
the moral is a shared core difficulty underlying all these symptoms
(or diagnoses) of a contemporary rationality crisis. How can we bring the moral idea back in?
the rational to the moral, and vice-versa I
do not have the answer, to be sure. What is obvious, I think,
is that new patterns of thought about rational practice are
needed. There is a need for understanding "practical discourse"
– read: application-oriented discourse on normative questions
– in ways that are more practice-focused than are contemporary
moral theories and models of moral argumentation. Likewise,
there is a need for better embedding such models in democratic
processes of collective will-formation and decision-making.
This explains my continuing interest in discourse ethics, despite
early and increasing doubts about its practicability. Its discursive
orientation is basically pointing in the right direction, I
so, Habermas' outline of a discourse-theoretical foundation
of moral theory is not to be confused with the different
undertaking of outlining a practicable framework for moral practice.
uncompleted review of discourse ethics (Ulrich, 2009c, d; 2010a, b; 2013a) has
once again made it obvious, I think, how
far away contemporary practical philosophy, despite many new impulses, still is from being able to support moral
practice. Clearly, we have a long way to go towards a practicable framework for ethically grounded
own modest attempts in this direction make no exception. I find
myself struggling more, now that my focus is turning towards
the future, than in the early parts of the series, when I could still look back and learn from
some of the most outstanding practical philosophers about the
demands and difficulties of moral thought.
intermediate reflections, and a major excursion In
an attempt to enlarge my universe of discourse and to gain some
distance, I decided to make a virtue of necessity and to
undertake an unplanned excursion into Eastern thought, more precisely, into ancient Indian philosophy,
in a hope to find new ways of seeing
the matter. Given that such an excursion means exploring new
and unfamiliar territory, I cannot anticipate what may come
out of it. Further, it is clear that such an excursion takes
some preparation. There will be three, relatively short, preparatory
parts in which I offer some rather divergent "intermediate
reflections"; intermediate, that is, on my path from reviewing
the ideas of major practical philosophers of the past to outlining
new ideas for the future. There will then be a longer fourth
or alternatively two shorter final parts, in
which I report on my excursion into ancient Indian philosophy,
an ongoing adventure that absorbed a lot of my time in recent weeks
and which thus explains why the present Bimonthly comes
the present introductory part, I sum up some of the conjectures that made me postpone
my original plan, of writing the fourth and last part (= the
second half of the third part, technically speaking) of
my review of the practical philosophy of Habermas, in favor
of engaging in the present "intermediate reflections."
The advantage of this format is that it allows me to articulate conjectures of a more
tentative nature than I have allowed myself in the "Reflective
practice" series, and to pursue broader, exploratory lines
of thought. In addition, this first part will look a bit closer
at the difficulties that the general in the moral causes us
in the case of discourse ethics, as a major example of rational
ethics. I will benefit of the opportunity to recap where we
stand in our discussion of discourse ethics, with special regard
to the role of general ideas.
The second part
will focus on Kant's (1786,
1787, 1788) penetrating analysis of the nature and role of general
ideas (including, of course, the moral idea) as ideas of pure reason. Kant's
understanding is perhaps the profoundest of all "Western"
contributions to the topic of which I am aware. He explains
both their deep-seated, indeed unavoidable role in human cognition
and their problematic sides. In short, he teaches us why the
general ideas of reason are rational and what sources of error
are involved. So Kant's analysis is of great interest in itself;
in addition, due to its fundamental nature, it might also better
prepare us for later appreciating the role of general ideas
in ancient Indian thought.
In the third part I will try to outline,
in broad and tentative terms, some basic ideas on how we might
try to pragmatize Kant's transcendental
framework of rational ideas. My hope is that the different
reflections of Parts 1-3 will suggest some new lines of thought,
and will also prepare us to recognize and appreciate
whatever new ideas (new as compared to Western rational ethics)
we may subsequently encounter in ancient India. Whether this will indeed
be so, I have no way of telling at this stage. Nor can I tell
now whether the excursion into Eastern thought will in
the end make a significant difference to our current discussion
of "Western" rational ethics, apart from certainly
being a worthwhile adventure for its own sake. Regardless of
whether it will indeed make a difference, I
trust it is always meaningful and enriching to familiarize oneself
with different traditions of thought.
of the exciting aspects of an intellectual life is that everything
one explores and comes into contact with provides new food for
thought. But, to stay with the picture, good food requires
careful preparation and serving. The proof of the famous pudding comes only
when the work in
the kitchen is finished and the main meal has been enjoyed.
At this time I find myself still working
intensively with kitchen utensils and apron. I know I have kept
the guests (you, the readers) waiting, yet I can only just begin
to offer a few small appetizers, in the form of the following,
rather fragmentary "intermediate reflections." I hope you will find them sufficiently
appetizing to stay,
although they probably cannot and are not meant to satisfy your hunger.
On the general in the moral
I understand discourse ethics as an effort to answer the
fundamental question mentioned at the outset, of how under contemporary conditions
we might still hope to
achieve rational practice, whereby "rational" practice
would consider the normative no less
than the instrumental dimension of practice. Discourse ethics
seeks to answer this question
by reformulating it in more precise terms, basically as follows: How can normative
conflicts (or ethical clashes) be resolved argumentatively rather than by
recourse to non-argumentative means? This is what morality, discourse-ethically
framed, is all about.
ties between the rational, the moral, and the general
Settling a conflict "argumentatively" means that all those
concerned can agree on their own free will, on the ground that they find themselves
treated fairly or
justly and also find the overall result acceptable on both moral and utilitarian
grounds. Discourse ethics, like all rational ethics, sees the essence of such
fairness and rightness in impartiality, that is, in the search for and reliance on
guiding principles or, as moral theorists like to say, "norms of action" that
would not privilege anyone's particular concerns but would treat everyone equally,
that is, with equal respect for people's personal integrity and rights. Reasoned (or
argued) impartiality and a thus-grounded claim
to the acceptability of the norms relied on to everyone
concerned is accordingly what the moral
point of view (Baier, 1981) is all about. Rationality, generality, and morality
thus come together.
core difficulty is obviously how to make sure everyone's
concerns are properly considered. Who is "everyone"
in the first place; what concerns, needs and interests do those
identified as belonging to "everyone" have; and
how can they be met in practice? These are questions that can
partly be answered on an empirical basis, but they also reach
beyond the empirical, in two ways. They imply a theoretical
basis for rationally anticipating the consequences of actions,
and a moral basis for rationally evaluating them. Anticipation
of effects can be complex in our interconnected world, and moreover
the future is boundless, that is, there is an element of general,
unbounded thought involved. The general includes the (whole)
future. At the same time, a moral point
of view for evaluating identified consequences entails the idea
of putting ourselves in the place of all those possibly concerned,
not only here and now but also elsewhere and in future, which
again points to an element of unbounded, generalizing thought. The
moral, because it entails the general in the sense of equally
considering "everyone" concerned, also includes the
Accordingly difficult it is (except perhaps in purely local
or private action
with no external effects in space and time) to foresee who will or may be affected
and what their specific concerns might be, considering people here
and there, those living now and those not yet born or unable
to voice their concerns for other reasons. The only way to "make sure" one
doesn't leave out anyone's concerns is by thinking and arguing globally, universally.
This is why, at bottom, the methodological core idea of moral theory, as
we have seen in our discussion of rational ethics, consists in the requirement
of moral universalization – the idea that a normative claim is morally
justified if and only if the norm of action that informs it could serve as a general norm or principle of action for everyone
facing a similar situation.1)
So there we again
have the three elements of ethically grounded practice mentioned in the
title of this essay: the rational, the moral, and the general. I suppose that
ultimately, at least from a perspective of rational ethics, the rational is indeed philosophically (though not always practically) congruent with
the general in moral practice, in the sense that we cannot define either rationality or morality
without some reference to the general – to generalizable kinds of
conjectures, arguments, attitudes, principles, or standards, that is. This expectation
is consistent with the close links between the moral and the rational that we earlier
identified in our review of Kant's rational ethics, and the
way we found these links explained in Kant's work (Ulrich, 2009b;
cf. 2011b, c). But there are, of course,
different ways of explaining why, to what degree, and how exactly the moral is
linked both to the rational and to the universal, to mention just a few:
- A language-analytical
perspective, for example, may observe that moral obligations are often expressed
by "must" or "ought" statements, which grammatically stand for a general,
whether deontic or
logical necessity; but, the argument goes, "there cannot be any necessity …
unless there is some law-like, universal proposition which holds" (Hare, 1981,
p. 8). (A parallel observation could be made in the realm of theoretical
reason for statements such as "everything heavy must
fall" or "it should rain tomorrow," where
the grammatical form expresses a natural necessity and accordingly
some law-like principle of nature; but our focus here is
on practical reason.) From such a perspective, the grammar of moral claims (their
confronting us with "must" kind of statements or unconditional "ought's") tells us as
much about their
generalizing nature as a lot of elaborate and sophisticated moral theory does (cf.
Tugendhat, 1993, pp. 35-f).
- In Aristotelian virtue
ethics, which is a precursor of rational ethics rather than belonging to it (but
it provides a relevant example inasmuch as it does assign a role to reason
and rational deliberation), the general character of
moral virtues originates directly in their source, the tradition of the
community. It teaches us the nature and value of virtues and of conforming ways of conduct through
example, education, and habituation. Although they flow into praxis
through the agent's prudent deliberation and insofar have indeed a rational side,
Aristotle thus locates their general nature (i.e., their obliging force for
in the community of citizens rather than in reason. Accordingly they
embody virtues of character rather than of thought: "We cannot be intelligent
without being good." (Aristotle, 1985, VI.12, 1144a36; cf. Ulrich, 2009a, p. 10)
- From a Kantian perspective
of rational ethics, on the other hand, the general in moral reasoning derives
from the intrinsic requirements of reason, among which consistent thought
is the most fundamental one. A key conjecture in our earlier analysis (Ulrich,
2009b) is that consistent reasoning about moral questions does not permit agents
to claim for themselves exceptions from the principles they expect others to
respect. General principles hold not only for others but also for the one(s) who
stipulate(s) them. That is why we find it so
appalling if people exempt themselves from moral expectations
everyone else respects, for example, if members of parliament –
law makers – do not
observe the laws they make for the people and instead treat
themselves to particular rules. Counter to a frequent but uninformed objection against Kant's
ethics, his universalization principle, as we also noted before, is thus far from amounting to a
bloodless rationalistic principle that would be remote from practice, quite the contrary,
it captures strong and very real moral sentiments and expectations:
"We cannot demand from others what we refuse to respect. It is a practical
impossibility." (Mead, 1934, p. 381)
- From a discourse-ethical
perspective, finally, there is an intrinsic reference in moral claims to the
general pragmatic presuppositions of discourse, presuppositions that
we cannot avoid
assuming whenever we enter into argumentation. We have discussed these presuppositions
in detail before and there is no need to do it again. They translate into the two
methodological core principles of discourse ethics, the discourse principle (D)
and the universalization principle (U); the former embodies the rational core
and the latter the moral core of the general presuppositions
at work. Moral theory thus becomes a particular, moral
application of a general theory of argumentation,
or as Habermas (1990b, p. 44) puts it, a "special
theory of argumentation." And moral practice, we might add, becomes a special
case of promoting rational discourse – the basically simple (but in its
implementation complicated) core idea of discursive ethics.
appreciate the value of each of these different perspectives, and I do. All have a true and relevant core. My personal preference,
though, probably still leans towards Kant's universal, emancipatory, and cosmopolitan concept of
reason, which for me continues today to be one of the most powerful foundations
of, and calls to, critical and moral reasoning (cf. Ulrich, 2011c). This
preference is a practical rather than theoretical one; it is motivated less by
an assessment of the theoretical merits of these different perspectives (none is
without its difficulties) than by the different potentials I see in them for
supporting moral practice, including the development of individual moral
competence in the sense of Kohlberg (1981) and of discursive moral competence
in the sense of Habermas (1990b, 1993). In the terms of my current "Reflections on
reflective practice" series, I tend to see in Kant's understanding of moral reason an
untapped potential for critical pragmatization (i.e., for translation into tools of
critical practice) that reaches further than the contemporary
language-analytical and discourse-ethical perspectives.
In any case,
regardless of the particular understanding of the general in the moral towards
which one may lean, it is clear that knowing and arguing "the general" is not
given naturally to humans. Ordinary human experience, knowledge, and reasoning
is unavoidably fragmentary, conditioned as it is by a limited, always only
partial grasp of the infinitely rich and diverse world in which we live. Both
anthropologically and theologically speaking, one might argue that the general
is the prerogative of gods and saints. Which is to say, the playing field of humans is the
particular. It will be interesting to see what the sages of ancient Indian thought
have to say on the issue, but that is for later.
On discourse ethics, or talking rationally
about the general
in the moral
although it talks about practice, is
usually a lofty affair. After what we have observed thus far concerning the
role of the general
in the moral, it should not surprise us that this is so. It
is therefore one of the interesting and innovative features
of discourse ethics that it proposes to change this state of
the matter. It proposes to situate morality in the social practice of argumentation rather than
in the philosophers' ivory tower. This is what – at least initially – the communicative turn of ethics was
all about, or more precisely, what it could have meant.
I fear the subjunctive mood is indicated here. As innovative
as discourse ethics is in theory, as little it has changed in
practice. The philosophical shift of focus from
the theory to the practice of moral reasoning has been postponed.
Yet there is indeed an imperative need for such a shift of focus.
Moral reasoning is about responsibility, but theory cannot ultimately
take on responsibility for practice. Practice itself, rather than
some theory about practice, has to attend to its moral
implications and hence, to the
role of the general in the moral. Which is to say, not philosophers but the people concerned
are the proper instance (or, speaking with Kant, the court of appeal)
for "universalizing" normative claims.
is, then, a need for supporting the discursive turn of moral
practice in moral practice. The basic idea of discourse
ethics should remain on the agenda – also on the agenda of moral
theory, if only it would indeed begin to give priority to the
social practice of moral argumentation over the philosopher's
own argumentation. If moral theory is not to miss its aim, it
needs to abandon (or at least, expand) its quest for theoretically
perfect models of moral argumentation in favor of less perfect
but practicable models. Not only the practical but also the
theoretical interest of reason requires such a shift of focus.
For strictly speaking, if it were indeed possible to design
and implement a theoretically sufficient model of moral justification,
it would leave no meaningful room for actual moral practice.
If the philosophical experts have all the answers, what point
is there in having ordinary people formulate theirs? Moral theory
has indeed got it wrong thus far: its aim of telling
us how morality can be secured theoretically is not only impractical,
it is also undesirable. It is not only hopelessly ideal, it
also pursues the wrong ideal. Rather than contenting itself
with the vain and undesirable search for perfect models of rational
justification, moral theory will be well advised to try and
help ordinary people in approximating a communicative
turn of ethics in practice, whatever (hypothetical) loss of
theoretical perfection it may imply.
ethics: yes, but… We might then try to approximate (not to say,
simulate) the "general" element in moral reasoning through real-world
discourses to which
all those concerned are admitted, and the "rational" element by the ways we
organize and conduct such discourses. After some 30 years of discourse ethics,
this is hardly a new idea, but it remains a neglected idea.
It remains what a well-understood discursive
turn of our understanding of morality would aim to do. I have no choice
but putting it this way, I fear, given that I don't see discourse ethics doing
it. Discourse ethics for me remains a challenging theoretical
framework, in the twofold sense that it could potentially make
a real difference out there in the world of practice, if it
were properly pragmatized, but also that discourse ethics thus
far has not been able to point the way (or better, several ways)
to such pragmatization, and perhaps also does not lend itself
to it at all, given that it has remained fraught with, and consequently
focused on, enormous internal difficulties. So much so that
I had to conclude, at the preliminary end of the analysis undertaken
thus far, that its attempt to reconstruct moral justification
as a social practice of argumentation breaks down when
it comes to actual practice, and more specifically that its
universalization principle (U) cannot carry the burden
of justifying moral practice that discourse ethics assigns to
it (Ulrich, 2013a, p. 38f).
brief summary may be useful for those readers who have not or
not recently read the previous analyses (see Ulrich, 2009c,
d; 2010a, b; 2013a). Discourse ethics proposes an insightful
discourse-theoretical framework for the moral justification of
disputed norms of actions. It develops to this end an
argumentation-theoretically grounded model of practical discourse, to which
I have referred as the Toulmin-Habermas model of argumentation. So far,
so good. I have learned quite a lot from this framework, theoretically speaking.
Regrettably though, this framework never gets discourse-practical, despite
talking so much of "practical discourse." Its account of practical discourse remains a
theoretical explanation of the concept of moral justification; a sophisticated
but impractical piece of moral theory. In effect, it identifies rational argumentation
about moral questions with justification of moral
claims. Given the importance of the general in the moral, we
are in for trouble!
… but moral
justification is impractical From what we have learned about the
connection of the moral with both the rational and the general, it is
clear that we cannot expect plain sailing from discursive moral theory to
discursive moral practice. In its attempt to do justice to the universalizing
element in moral justification, discourse ethics proposes an approach to
discursive moral theory that makes discursive moral practice fall
by the wayside. Discourse ethics is so ambitious as
a theory that it ends up with a concept
of moral discourse that is exactly that – a "perfect" (and, I fear,
also "perfectly") theoretical concept that is
accordingly removed from the world of practice. In this concept, the initial
intent of taking moral
justification efforts from the philosophy books to the social life-world of
practical people – the practical ambition – got lost.2)
To do justice to
Habermas, I would argue that it is the nature of the problem of moral
justification itself – the way in which moral theory traditionally ties moral
practice to perfect justification of norms – that is the stumbling
block, rather than poor theorizing by Habermas. One might wonder though why
he did not seek to renew this theoretical tradition so as to
give the practical ambition a better chance. The methodological demands of
moral universalization are simply too high. The problem, then, is not Habermas'
discursive turn of moral theory as such but rather, the assumption that moral practice can
(and should) be grounded in moral theory as it is traditionally understood. At
the bottom of this assumption lies what I am tempted to call a specific version
of the primacy of theory tenet of logical positivism and critical rationalism
(see Ulrich, 2006d and 2007a).
A majority of moral theorists appear to have tacitly adopted the view that practice depends for its proper grounding on theory. The tenet is even
more doubtful in the field of practical reason (ethics) than it is in the
field of theoretical reason (science); for what is the value of moral theory if
it is not conducive to improving moral practice? After all, moral practice
constitutes both the subject and the aim of moral theorizing. It is moral
practice which provides the touch-stone for moral theory and not the other way
sufficient justification of practice poses
demands to which practice cannot live up. The way moral theory traditionally
formulates the problem, as the question of how norms of action can be shown
to hold generally (or universally – the terminology we use makes
no difference to the substantial issue) turns the problem into
a mission impossible; there will, in practice, be no
such norms at all. A thus-conceived moral justification is not
practicable. The only moral principle that can thus be justified
is the moral idea itself, which is what discourse ethics (more
or less) achieves; but the question remains of how the moral
idea can be translated into specific norms of action. Human practice has to work with the particular. To vary
the earlier, slightly ironic statement, according to which the general is the prerogative of gods
and saints whereas the playing field of humans is the particular, we might
now be tempted to say: the general is the prerogative of theorists, while the playing
field of practitioners is the particular. But of course, that would mean
to get it wrong. Clearly, if there are such close ties between
the moral and the general as I have suggested, practice has
to come to terms with the general or it will fail to adequately
handle its own normative core.
essential theory-practice gap We probably need
to become a bit more precise. The problem of moral justification
has both a theoretical and a practical dimension, whereby we
need to understand its "practical" side both in the
philosophical and in the everyday sense of the word. In its
philosophical sense, the practical (normative) entails claims
related to the general; in its everyday sense, the practical
(applied) is limited to the particular. The crux of the matter
is how to bring these two sides together. There is a tension
between the general and the particular in moral practice
that I think is really constitutive of the problem of moral
justification. That is what makes it so difficult to handle.
The moral justification problem is the question of how
we can claim a general (or "universalizable")
character for particular norms of action, norms that
would tell us what to do and what not in specific empirical
situations. Leave away either the particular or the general
and you have no moral problem at all.
follows that the problem with the moral theories we have considered
in the "Reflective practice" series is not that they
would need to throw over board their central principle – the
principle of moral universalization – but only, that they would
need to understand and use it differently. As I see it, the
principle explicates the meaning of the general in the moral,
for instance, in the form of the ancient Golden Rule, or of
the Categorical Imperative, or of Mead's (1934) notion of "universal
role-taking." No more, no less. That is, it tells us what
moral claims would mean if they could be justified.
It gives us the diagnosis of the problem we face. The flaw is,
all these theories assume that the principle not only describes
the problem but also supplies the solution. They confuse the
diagnosis of the problem with the therapy! Thus it comes that
they misunderstand moral universalization as a method
of justification. This is precisely what Habermas does when
he introduces the moral principle (U) as a "rule of argumentation"
(1990c, pp.86 and 95; cf. Ulrich, 2013a, pp. 35-38). But it
is not a method of justification, it is a theoretical ideal.
As such it explains the ideal but it cannot make it real; if
it could, it would not "really" embody an ideal. Either
you have a theoretical argumentative ideal or a practical argumentative
device, but hardly both. Therein I see the essential theory-practice
deficit that discourse ethics has inherited from previous approaches
to rational ethics: due to a one-sidedly theoretical
orientation, they all take the general in the moral so seriously
that there remains no room for moral practice. Whether we pursue, with Habermas, a discourse-theoretical or, with Kant,
a transcendental concept of justification – that is, practically speaking,
whether we rely primarily on a communicative ("dialogical") or self-reflective ("monological")
makes little difference in this regard. A considerable theory-practice gap is
preprogrammed in both cases. The essential shift of focus required is not just
one from self-reflection to discourse but rather, from one-sided
attention to the demands of moral theory, at the expense of
moral practice, to a systematic attempt at striking a balance
between the two.
ethics this gap (or lack of balance) shows itself in many ways, I mention only
the three examples of (i) the ideal character of its "general
pragmatic presuppositions" of discourse – their amounting to an ideal speech
situation, a phrase that Habermas now tries to avoid (cf., e.g., 1984, pp. 25 and 34; 1990c, pp.
82, 85-88, 93; 1998, p. 44; 2009, Vol. 2, p. 266); (ii) the consensus-theoretical
underpinnings of its identification of moral practice with rationally
secured, that is, justified and true, moral agreement (a rare
resource); and (iii) the rather vague and cursory manner in
which Habermas foresees the argumentative use of the moral principle
(U) within the Toulmin-Habermas model of argumentation as an
"auxiliary warrant" or "bridging principle,"
as if it were an operational principle that could actually warrant
inferences from particular to general normative statements (cf.,
e.g., 1990c, pp. 57, 63 and passim). I do not wish to enter
into these difficult details now, as I will return to them in the final part of my review of
discourse ethics (in preparation).
up – four preliminary conclusions We are reaching
the end of this first, introductory part, which is basically
a recapitulation and reflective consideration of where we stand
in our review of rational ethics. To prepare what comes after,
it seems useful to try and summarize our considerations in the
form of four essential, although still somewhat tentative (because
incompletely argued), conclusions.
of the problem of moral justification, and of
the difficulties of discourse ethics in providing a
practicable answer to it, is the tension between the
philosophically-practical and the everyday-practical
demands of morality. The former require that we do justice
to general ideas, and the latter, to particular circumstances.
As far as I can see at this stage, an adequate handling
of the tension cannot consist in giving priority to
either side. Doing so means to beg the question. Inasmuch
as the tension is constitutive of the very problem of
arguing moral claims, we either learn to do justice
to it or we will fail to achieve any progress. Striking
a balance is key, even if it means that discourse practice
will need to live with conditions of imperfect (rather
than theoretically ideal) rationality.
break-down of discourse ethics as a framework
for practice (the conclusion with which the last essay
on discourse ethics ended) is caused not so much by
its innovative side, the discursive turn of moral practice,
but by its not so innovative side, the continuing, one-sided
focus on a theoretical ideal of justification that it
inherited from its predecessors. The more this focus
is made the main concern, the more it tends to undermine
the potential of a discourse-practical approach
("practical" in both the philosophical and
the everyday sense) for managing the mentioned, crucial
tension and the more internal difficulties will consequently
come up, despite (or rather, due) to its enormous theoretical
effort. The situation in which discourse ethics finds
itself reminds me of Mark Twain's heroes, Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn, who recall one of their adventures
in a rowing boat on the Mississippi River: "When
we lost sight of the goal, we doubled our efforts."
principle of moral universalization, despite
the difficulties that it apparently causes us, is not
the main problem. It is the messenger rather than the
origin of the bad news. The origin lies in the ideal
and thus, "unrealistic" character of moral
justification that is due to its (unavoidable) generalizing
thrust. There's no point in blaming the messenger for
the bad news. Accordingly, the conclusion is not that
we should throw the principle over board but rather,
that there is a need for rethinking its role within
a framework of critical pragmatism.
suggest a similar conclusion holds for the basically meaningful notion of discursive moral practice.
The point is not that we should abandon the idea of
a discursive framework but rather, that we need to bring
it to bear on the key problem of managing the tension
between the general (a theoretical idea) and the particular
(a practical reality) in the moral, in rationally defensible
sum, there is a need for pragmatizing moral discourse so
that it can deal productively and critically with the general as an element of
the rational and moral. Clearly, then, we need a broader understanding of the nature
and role of general ideas such as, in particular, the moral idea (or the principle
of moral universalization) and the idea of communicative
rationality (or of rational argumentation on practical questions);
broader, that is, than our review of classical moral theories (including
discourse ethics) has
afforded it thus far.
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 part of a series of short exploratory essays
on the role of general ideas, such as particularly the moral
idea, in rational thought and action as seen from different
At least three or four more short essays
will be offered in the coming year, beginning with the Bimonthly
of January-February 2014.
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Ulrich, W. (2008b). Reflections
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Ulrich, W. (2009a). Reflections on reflective practice (4/7):
Philosophy of practice and Aristotelian virtue ethics. Ulrich's
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Ulrich, W. (2009b). Reflections on reflective practice (5/7):
Practical reason and rational ethics: Kant.
Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April
Ulrich, W. (2009c). Reflections on
reflective practice (6a/7): Communicative rationality and formal pragmatics –
Habermas 1. Ulrich's Bimonthly,
Ulrich, W. (2009d). Reflections on reflective practice (6b/7):
Argumentation theory and practical discourse – Habermas 2. Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December
Ulrich, W. (2010a). Exploring discourse ethics (1/2).
Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April
Ulrich, W. (2010b). Exploring discourse ethics (2/2).
Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June
Ulrich, W. (2011a). What is good professional practice?
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Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April
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rationality, morality, and politics. Ulrich's Bimonthly,
Ulrich, W. (2013a). Reflections on reflective
practice (6c/7): Discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, or the difficult
path to communicative practice – Habermas 3 (1st half). Ulrich's
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Ulrich, W. (2014). Reflections on reflective
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path to communicative practice – Habermas 3 (2nd half). Ulrich's
Bimonthly (in prep.).