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Discourse Ethics


"Discourse ethics" refers to an approach to moral theory developed by Jürgen Habermas. It is a reconstruction of Immanuel Kant's idea of practical reason that turns on a reformulation of his categorical imperative: Rather than prescribing to others as valid norms that I can will to be universal laws, I must submit norms to others for purposes of discursively testing their putative universality. "Only those norms may claim to be valid that could meet with the approval of all those affected in their capacity as participants in practical discourse" (Habermas, 1990, p. 66). Normative validity, construed as rational acceptability, is thus tied to argumentation processes governed by a principle of universalization: "For a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects of its general observance for the satisfaction of each person's particular interests must be acceptable to all" (p. 197). Furthermore, by requiring that perspective taking be general and reciprocal, discourse ethics builds a moment of empathy or "ideal role-taking" into the procedure of practical argumentation.

Like Kant, Habermas distinguishes the types of practical reasoning and the corresponding types of "ought" connected with questions concerning what is pragmatically expedient, ethically prudent, or morally right. Calculations of rational choice furnish recommendations relevant to the pursuit of contingent purposes in the light of given preference. When serious questions of value arise, deliberation on who one is and wants to be yields insight into the good life. If issues of justice are involved, fair and impartial consideration of conflicting interests is required to judge what is right or just. Again like Kant, Habermas regards questions of the last type, rather than specifically ethical questions, to be the proper domain of theory. (Thus, discourse ethics might properly be called discourse morality.) This is not to deny that ethical discourse is rational or that it exhibits general structures of its own; but the irreducible pluralism of modern life means that questions of self-understanding, self-realization, and the good life do not admit of universal answers. In Habermas's view, that does not preclude a general theory of a narrower sort, namely a theory of justice. Accordingly, the aim of his discourse ethics is solely to reconstruct the moral point of view from which questions of right can be fairly and impartially adjudicated.

By linking discourse ethics to the theory of communicative action, Habermas means to show that our basic moral intuitions are rooted in something deeper and more universal than particularities of our tradition, namely in the intuitive grasp of the normative presuppositions of social interaction possessed by competent social actors in any society. Members of our species become individuals in and through being socialized into networks of reciprocal social relations. The mutual vulnerability that this interdependence brings with it calls for guarantees of mutual consideration to preserve both the integrity of individual persons and the web of their interpersonal relations. In discourse ethics respect for the individual is built into the freedom of each participant in discourse to accept or reject the reasons offered as justifications for norms, and concern for the common good is built into the requirement that each participant take into account the needs, interests, and feelings of all others affected by the norm in question. Hence, the actual practice of moral discourse depends on forms of socialization and social reproduction that foster the requisite capacities and motivation.

See also Habermas, Jürgen; Justice; Kant, Immanuel; Practical Reason.


Habermas, J. Justification and Application: Remarks on Discourse Ethics. Translated by C. Cronin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993.

Habermas, J. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Translated by C. Lenhardt and S. Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.

Rehg, W. Insight and Solidarity: The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Thomas McCarthy (1996)

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