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Discourse Ethics


Discourse ethics (DE) has two aims: to specify the ideal conditions for discourse, and to ground ethics in the agreements reached through the exercise of such discourse. DE thus instantiates the intuition that if people discuss issues in fair and open ways, the resulting conclusions will be morally binding for those appropriately involved in the conversation. Such a view of ethics has special relevance in a scientific and technological world characterized by expanding means of communication. DE may also arguably provide the best framework for understanding the ethics of scientists and engineers operating within their professional communities.

Theoretical Framework

Discourse ethics is primarily associated with the work of Karl-Otto Apel (1980) and Jürgen Habermas, who conjoins his own theory of communicative rationality and action (1981) with Apel's insights (Habermas 1983, 1989). Apel and Habermas root DE in Immanuel Kant's emphasis on the primacy of moral autonomy for both the individual and the moral community (Apel 2001) and in Aristotle's understanding of the importance of human community praxis as the crucible in which all theory must be tested. More broadly DE includes the work of John Rawls (1971), Stephen Toulmin (Jonsen and Toulmin 1990), and Richard Rorty (1989). As Robert Cavalier notes, each of these thinkers argues for "widening reflective equilibrium by embedding empathy and detailed reciprocity into moral reflection and by placing the deliberative process within the intelligent conduct of communal inquiry" (Cavalier Internet site). DE has deeply influenced not only philosophy and sociology—but also, in keeping with its praxis orientation, such applied fields as business ethics (Blickle et al. 1997) and nursing (Marck 2000).

Apel-Habermasian DE seeks to circumscribe—and justify—the ideal speech situation in which members of a democratic community, free of domination (herrschaftsfreie), engage in a rational dialogue or debate in order to achieve consensus about the fundamental rules of the community. Drawing on the Kantian understanding that rules are morally legitimate only as free human beings consent to follow them, Habermas argues that such community rules may emerge from discourse that meets certain necessary (but not sufficient) conditions—the first of which is freedom and equality for participants. In his essay "Justice and Solidarity" (1989), Habermas summarizes the basic intuition of discourse ethics with the statement that "under the moral point of view, one must be able to test whether a norm or a mode of action could be generally accepted by those affected by it, such that their acceptance would be rationally motivated and hence uncoerced" (Habermas 1989, p. 6).

In "Diskursethik: Notizen zu einem Begründungsprogram" [Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification] (1983), Habermas further emphasizes the importance of perspective-taking on the part of all discourse participants: Possible norms for a community can be legitimate only if they emerge from a discourse setting that "constrains all affected to adopt the perspectives of all others in the balancing of interests" (Habermas 1990, p. 65). These conditions of free but rational debate, shaped by such perspective-taking, issue in legitimate universal norms—meaning that (a) all who are affected by a proposed norm are willing to accept the consequences and side effects likely to follow from observing that norm, and (b) these consequences are preferred over those of other possible norms under consideration.

Seyla Benhabib notes that such norms are better characterized as quasi-universal. They are morally legitimate for the specific discourse community whose debate and dialogue generates them. But diverse communities, shaped by different histories, traditions, and contexts, may come to agree upon a range of possible norms rather than a single monolithic set (Benhabib 1986). In this way, consistent with its Aristotelian and Kantian roots, DE establishes an ethical pluralism—in contrast with both monolithic ethical dogmatism (asserting that only a single set of norms can be right) and relativism (asserting that any set of values and norms is as acceptable as any other).

To circumscribe such discourse more carefully, Habermas refines a set of rules first proposed by Robert Alexy (1978). According to Habermas (1990, p. 86), these are:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

2c. Everyone is allowed to express his (or her) attitudes, desires, and needs.

3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his (or her) rights as laid down in (1) and (2).

Finally, partly in response to feminist and postmodernist critiques that his discourse ethics exhibits a masculine form of rationalism, especially because of the exclusion of emotion, Habermas argues that a sense of solidarity is also required between participants.

In short the conditions for the practical discourse out of which (quasi-) universally valid norms may emerge include the free participation and acceptance of all who are affected by such norms, as such norms meet their interests—where such participation is shaped by rational debate, perspective-taking, and solidarity.

Discourse Ethics in Technology and Science

Discourse ethics thus intends to define the conditions of a free and democratic discourse concerning important norms that affect all members of a community. It aims to do so in ways that are directly practical for the real and pressing problems facing both local and more comprehensive communities. In this light, DE would seem well-suited for circumscribing discourse concerning pressing issues provoked by science and technology.

Indeed DE can be seen to be implicitly at work in a first instance in the Technology Assessment (TA) movement. Beginning in the 1970s in the United States, and then developing further in Europe, TA seeks to develop ways for programmatically assessing the risks and benefits of proposed or emerging technologies, in order to determine whether the technology ought to be developed and deployed in light of central social values, such as protecting both human life and the larger environment. Rather than having decisions regarding new technologies made solely by a relatively narrow circle of scientists and market-dependent corporations, one version of TA has sought to democratize technology development by enlarging the circle of decision-makers to include non-technical citizens' representatives. One dramatic instantiation of such democratic technology assessment emerged in the consensus conferences developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States in the 1970s (Jacoby 1985) and then expanded upon, initially in Denmark in 1985 (Klüver 1995). Such consensus conferences were occasioned by the issues raised by the Human Genome Project and genetically modified (GMO) foods, and were composed of carefully structured dialogues involving scientific and technological experts, policy experts, political representatives, and lay or non-technical citizens. Subsequently held throughout Scandinavia and Europe, they have also been applied to issues raised by emerging information technologies (for example, see Anderson and Jæger 1997).

Although not explicitly developed as such, consensus conferences are clearly consistent with the goals and sensibilities of DE, beginning with the intuition that democratic control of science and technology depends on citizens' discourse intended to generate consensus on those values and norms affecting the members of a community—in this case, with regard to the possible development and implementation of technologies with both obvious and not-so-obvious benefits and risks for human beings and their environment. Indeed Barbara Skorupinski and Konrad Ott (2002) have argued that the European consensus conferences, as efforts to develop what they call participatory Technology Assessment (pTA), are rooted not only in basic notions of democratic governance, but also precisely in the work of Habermas. They review six examples of such consensus conferences from the 1990s—including a Danish conference on GMO food, as well as Swiss and German conferences on genetic technology—to argue that these represent a sometimes imperfect implementation of DE. Similarly Richard Brown (1998) has argued that the environmental justice movement, including the specific history of Love Canal, can be evaluated in DE terms. To make his case, however, Brown develops a notion of science as narration in order to fit science more directly into the rhetorical and communicative DE frameworks.

Along with its ability to provide a framework for promoting the external democratic discussion of technology, DE may in a second instance also illuminate the internal structure of the scientific and technical communities—especially in terms of professional ethics. Robert Merton, the mid-twentieth-century founder of the sociology of science, analyzed the ethos of the scientific community as producing knowledge that is universal, commonly owned, not tied to special interests, and fallible (Merton 1942). Since Merton there has been considerable debate about the status of these norms, especially insofar as detailed case studies in the history and sociology of science have revealed the often parochial, egotistic, self-interested, and dogmatic behavior of scientists. Using DE, however, it might be possible to reconstruct the norms of professional science as precisely those principles that promote technical communication, and thus properly articulated and taught by means of professional ethics codes.

Pragmatic Discourse Ethics

Although discourse ethics has not been applied explicitly to analyzing or interpreting professional ethics in science or engineering, the explicit work in relation to TA has been carried forward in special areas. For example, Matthias Kettner (1999) has elaborated additional conditions for moral discourse, such as bracketing of power differentials and nonstrategic transparency (that is, avoiding lies of omission), especially as applied to issues in bioethics. Similarly Jozef Keulartz and his colleagues, in Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture (2002), sought to bridge Habermasian DE and pragmatism to deal with issues in agricultural ethics. In particular Paul Thompson (2002) draws on the American pragmatist tradition to avoid what he argues is a crucial failure of DE in Habermas—namely, that the emphasis on ideal speech situations tends to focus on debate about ethics (meta-ethics), rather than, as needed, move forward consensus-building about pressing issues.

DE has further played both a theoretical and practical role in connection with the Internet and the World Wide Web. For example, DE has been used to structure online dialogues regarding important but highly controversial social issues such as abortion. These dialogues in fact realize the potential of DE to achieve consensus on important community norms, insofar as they bring to the foreground important normative agreements on the part of those holding otherwise opposed positions, agreements that made a pluralistic resolution of the abortion debate possible (Ess and Cavalier 1997). In 2002 DE served as the framework for the ethics working committee of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), as they sought to develop the first set of ethical guidelines designed specifically for online research—and with a view toward recognizing and sustaining the genuinely global ethical and cultural diversity entailed in such research. The guidelines stand as an example of important consensus on ethical norms achieved by participants from throughout the world.

The Future of Discourse Ethics?

Despite its promotion of a pluralistic universalism—namely, one that recognizes a wide range of possible discourse resolutions as shaped, for example, by diverse cultural traditions—discourse ethics is more prominent on both theoretical and practical levels in the Germanic cultures of Northern Europe than elsewhere. This regionalized predominance reflects a still larger cultural divide between the United States and Europe in terms of how to take up important ethical issues in science and technology. Thus Jeffrey Burkhardt, Paul Thompson, and Tarla Peterson (2000) note that European analysis and discussion of agricultural and food ethics is marked by a strong preference for deontological approaches to ethics, in contrast with the U.S. preference for utilitarian approaches. This same contrast can be seen in European approaches to data privacy protection and research ethics (as more deontological) versus American approaches (as more utilitarian).

That is, deontological approaches are associated with Kant and his emphasis on duties to individuals, which is required by their status as rational, autonomous beings. Kantian deontology is a central influence in DE. By contrast, utilitarian approaches—long associated with the Anglo-American philosophical tradition shaped by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill—seek instead to determine the greatest good for the greatest number through a kind of moral calculus that prefers those acts which maximize benefits and minimize costs. Markets, in particular, are justified on utilitarian grounds: While individuals and groups will inevitably lose out in market competition, such competition is justified as leading to greater economic efficiency and thus greater good for at least the greater number. Deontologists are wary of such strictly utilitarian approaches, precisely because they can result in the rights and interests of a minority being sacrificed for the ostensible benefit of the majority.

The Germanic reliance on DE in consensus conferences is thus consistent with the larger preference for deontological approaches. Indeed the European Commission continues to fund important initiatives concerning the ethical dimensions of emerging technologies such as GMO foods, human cloning, stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning research. By contrast the United States abolished the Office for Technology Assessment in 1995. Paul Riedenberg's observation about data privacy protection appears more generally true: The United States pursues a market-oriented (and thus more utilitarian) approach, in contrast with the European reliance on "socially-protective, rights-based governance"—an emphasis on the role of government to protect deontological rights and values (Reidenberg 2000, p. 1315).

In particular the success of consensus conferences in Europe—especially Scandinavia—appears tied to a well-defined set of conditions, beginning with the commonly held value that "democracy is only possible in a society where all citizens are enlightened enough to make an informed and conscious choice" in electing their representatives and voting—where such enlightenment further requires high levels of general education (Anderson and Jæger 1997, p. 150). Moreover the frameworks for Danish consensus conferences explicitly note that "market forces should not be the only forces involved" in deciding the design and deployment of information technology, which should further serve such fundamental deontological values as "free access to information and exchange of information" and "democracy and individual access to influence" (Anderson and Jæger 1997, p. 151). Consensus conferences thus exemplify what Reidenberg describes as the European emphasis on socially-protective, rights-based governance, in contrast with the U.S. utilitarian preference for market-oriented approaches.

Insofar as consensus conferences approximate DE ideals, societies must be committed to citizen enlightenment, as fostered by a strong educational system, and to citizen involvement in democratic processes, including those such as consensus conferences, as fostered by free access to information. In the twenty-first century, however, budgets for education systems continue to shrink and countries around the world are increasingly influenced by the U.S. emphasis on market forces alone to resolve important social issues. This is clearly a move away from socially-protective, rights-based governance in general, and from a belief that government should foster citizen assessment and possible regulation of technological development and deployment in particular. Spending taxpayers' funds on consensus conferences for the assessment of emerging technologies is explicitly criticized. Such circumstances are hardly promising for the application of DE to pressing issues in science and technology.

Nevertheless more promising conditions for DE as applied to democratic procedures for assessing science and technology may emerge in the future. Indeed such conditions are necessary for the sake of democratic procedures in TA. In addition the human, social, ethical, and financial resources required for DE and consensus conferences are the resources needed to realize and further more broadly the Enlightenment project of liberation and democracy.


SEE ALSO Consensus Conferences; Constructive Technology Assessment; Democracy; Deontology; Habermas, Jürgen; Internet; Kant, Immanuel; Rhetoric of Science and Technology; Technology Assessment: Germany and Other European Countries; Office of Technology Assessment.


Alexy, Robert. (1978). "Eine Theorie des praktischen Diskurses" [A Theory of Practical Discourse]. In Normenbegründung–Normendurchsetzung, ed. Willi Oelmüller. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh. An English translation by David Frisby is included in The Communicative Ethics Controversy, eds. Seyla Benhabib, and Fred Dallmayr (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press [1990]).

Anderson, Ida-Elisabeth, and Birgit Jæger. (1997). "Involving Citizens in Assessment and the Public Debate on Information Technology." In Technology and Democracy: Technology in the Public Sphere—Proceedings from Workshop 1, eds. Andrew Feenberg, Torben Hviid Nielsen, and Langdon Winner. Oslo: Center for Technology and Culture. A seminal discussion of consensus conferences as applied to information technology: Co-author Anderson remains a leader in organizing consensus conferences both in Denmark and abroad, including the United States.

Apel, Karl-Otto. (1980). "The A Priori of the Communication Community and the Foundations of Ethics." In Towards a Transformation of Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Apel, Karl-Otto. (2001). The Response of Discourse Ethics to the Moral Challenge of the Human Situation as Such and Especially Today. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters. Mercier Lectures, Louvain-la-Neuve, March 1999. A recent and accessible overview of Apel's understanding of discourse ethics and its contemporary relevance.

Benhabib, Seyla. (1986). Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. A magisterial study of and central feminist contribution to critical theory from Hegel and Kant through Habermas.

Blickle, Gerhard; Sabine Hauck; and Wolfgang Senft. (1997). "Assertion and Consensus Motives in Argumentations." International Journal of Value-Based Management 10: 193–203.

Brown, Richard Harvey. (1998). Toward a Democratic Science: Scientific Narration and Civic Communication. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.

Burkhardt, Jeffrey; Paul B. Thompson; and Tarla Rae Peterson. (2002). "The First European Congress on Agricultural and Food Ethics and Follow-up Workshop on Ethics and Food Biotechnology: A U.S. Perspective." Agriculture and Human Values 17(4): 327–332.

Ess, Charles, and Robert Cavalier. (1997). "Is There Hope for Democracy in Cyberspace?" In Technology and Democracy: User Involvement in Information Technology, ed. David Hakken and Knut Haukelid. Oslo, Norway: Center for Technology and Culture.

Fixdal, Jon. (1997). "Consensus Conferences as Extended Peer Groups." In Technology and Democracy: Technology in the Public Sphere—Proceedings from Workshop 1, eds. Andrew Feenberg, Torben Hviid Nielsen, and Langdon Winner. Oslo: Center for Technology and Culture.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1981). Theorie des Kommunikativen Handelns [The Theory or Communicative Action], 2 vols. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. English translation: The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society and The Theory of Communicative Action; Vol. Two: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, both translated by Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon University Press [1984/1987]). Habermas's central effort to develop a systematic theory of communicative rationality that might resolve the "legitimation crisis" of enlightenment reason in the twentieth century—an effort further elaborated in the following two works.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1989). "Justice and Solidarity: On the Discussion Concerning Stage 6." In The Moral Domain: Essays in the Ongoing Discussion Between Philosophy and the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas Wren. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. (1990). "Discourse Ethics: Notes on Philosophical Justification." In Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholson. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Published in Germany as "Diskursethik: Notizen zu einem Begründungsprogram," in Moralbewusstsein und kommunikatives Handeln (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp [1983]).

Jacoby, Itzhak. (1985). "The Consensus Development Program of the National Institutes of Health." International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 1: 420–432.

Jonsen, Albert R., and Stephen E. Toulmin. (1990). The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keulartz, Jozef; Michiel Korthals; Maartje Schermer; and Tsjalling Swierstra, eds. (2002). Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer. A central collection of important contributions towards ethical frameworks for technology that include discourse ethics.

Kettner, Matthias. (1999). "Discourse Ethics: A Novel Approach to Moral Decision Making." International Journal of Bioethics 19(3): 29–36. One of several significant extensions and revisions of discourse ethics by a contemporary German philosopher.

Klüver, Lars. (1995). "Consensus Conferences at the Danish Board of Technology." In Public Participation in Science: The Role of Consensus Conferences in Europe, eds. Simon Joss, and John Durand. London: Science Museum.

Lagay, Faith L. (1999). "Science, Rhetoric, and Public Discourse in Genetic Research." Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 8(2): 226–237.

Marck, Patricia B. (2000). "Recovering Ethics After Technics: Developing Critical Text on Technology." Nursing Ethics 7(1): 5–14.

Merton, Robert. (1942). "Science and Technology in a Democratic Order." Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1: 115–126. Reprinted as "The Normative Structure of Science" in The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations by Robert K. Merton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1973]).

Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. One of the most significant contributions to political philosophy in the twentieth century—one that shares with Habermasian discourse ethics an emphasis on consensus procedures as the means of developing legitimate moral norms.

Reidenberg, Joel R. (2000). "Resolving Conflicting International Data Privacy Rules in Cyberspace." Stanford Law Review 52(May): 1315–1376.

Rorty, Richard. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Skorupinski, Barbara, and Konrad Ott. (2002). "Technology Assessment and Ethics." Poiesis & Praxis: International Journal of Technology Assessment and Ethics of Science 1(2)(August): 95–122.

Thompson, Paul B. (2002). "Pragmatism, Discourse Ethics and Occasional Philosophy." In pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture, eds. Josef Keulartz, Michiel Korthals, Maartje Schermer, and Tsjalling Swierstra. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.


Association of Internet Researchers. "Ethical Decision-making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the Aoir Ethics Working Committee." Available from The first interdisciplinary, international ethical guidelines for Internet research, developed through an explicit application of discourse ethics.

Cavalier, Robert. Academic Dialogue on Applied Ethics. Carnegie-Mellon. Available from See in particular "Abortion: Religious Perspectives," available from

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