Dr. Antje Gimmler

Lehrstuhl für Philosophie II

Universität Bamberg

96045 Bamberg

ab 1. Nov.: Philipps Universität Marburg

Fb. 03 Gesellschaftswissenschaften und Philosophie

The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas

One of the most famous phrases of the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas is: in discourse the unforced force of the better argument prevails. Or to put it in the words of hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who gives this a popular turn: What the Others are saying could be right! As everyone knows, this ideal is very difficult to achieve in scholarly and everyday discussions. But there is a obvious deficit in practical philosophy - namely, its fundamentally "unresolved openness" [Unabgeschlossenheit] concerning its problems and its various attempts at their solutions. This fundmental, unresolved openness becomes a great virtue in discussions - the virtue of fallibilism.

I make use of this special kind of unresolved openness in the following. A brief presentation of some basic elements of Habermas's discourse ethics will be followed by some problems and questions that are important from my point of view. The question that lies behind my presentation is: How much of practical impact does ethics need? And because this Internet forum is named 'meta-ethics' I want to explain first what I mean by meta-ethics in my comments. Is every sort of reflection on morality' meta-ethics? Or is meta-ethics a special kind of reflection, one that seeks to establish a theory about ethical theories, with the further aim of finding a justified theory for application in concrete situations? Historically 'meta-ethics' is a issue of the analytic philosophy and of the linguistic turn. Meta-ethical reflections could be interpreted as a propedeutic, one which clarifies the use of moral jugments in terms of language analysis [Sprachanalyse] - a clarifying that has to be followed by a normative ethics theory. But understanding meta-ethics as a pure theory, one that is convinced all moral questions could sufficiently be handled on the neutral and theoretical level of language analysis (especially in ideal language philosophy), is excluding an orientation to application even in its self-understanding.

In what respect does Habermas's discourse ethics contain meta-ethical - that is, propedeutic - elements? The answer is initially easy: Meta-ethical reflections are a part of discourse ethics in defining what is a moral question and what is not. Beyond the embeddedness of discourse ethics in the development of western rationality and in the process of differentation of rationality (in its three types of theoretical, practical and expressive rationality) is a meta-ethical framework in a broad sense. Habermas chooses a specific way of combining theoretical meta-ethical statements with the practical world, the "lifeworld" contexts [lebensweltlichen Kontexten], in his discourse ethics. From this point of view, discourse ethics is neither pure meta-ethics nor applied ethics. It undertakes to combine the claim of universality that is inherent theoretical knowledge with the application of theory to practice. And it even claims to conjoin the sphere of theoretical justification of the theory with the sphere of practice.

One point in question in Habermas's discourse ethics (and I restrict this presentation to the version of Jürgen Habermas, which I take to be the important one) is the relation between empirical foundation and transcendental method, between context orientation und decontextualization in the so-called 'moral point of view,',which is the phrase Habermas uses to describe the specific dimension of morality, i.e., normative questions.

1. Three characterics of discourse ethics:

Cognitivism: First, discourse ethics starts from the assumption that even moral problems are capable of being solved in a rational and cognitive way. This is against a moral scepticism which asserts that questions of practical reason could not be decided on rational grounds: "The non-cognitivistic conceptions are reducing the value of the whole world of moral intuitions based in everyday-life." (J. Habermas, "Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln," S.65) With this confession to a cognitivism in moral theory, however, Habermas does not intend to assimilate the specific phenomenon of 'morality' to what is the domain of cognitivism, 'truth.' To say it in analytic terms: normative sentences could not be treated as propositions or as assertive sentences. There is obvious difference between "You ought not kill" and "This grass is green". Hence the term "moral truth" is a quite difficult one, as Habermas himself recognizes. And thus he claims for normative sentences only the 'weaker assumption of a validity claim that is analogous to the validity claim of truth'. This weaker assumption implies two consequences. First, with this restriction Habermas take a step back from transcendental foundations as 'final grounding' [Letztbegründung]. Secondly Habermas situates the validity claim of normative sentences in a social-evolutionary context: the differentiation of the validity claims of normative justification and of truth is the result of the process of modernization. Discourse ethics is a normative ethics for pluralistic societies which no longer have a single, overarching moral authority.

Justice vs. Good: Another second basic decision results from the cognitivistic theory of ethics: questions of morality are defined as questions of justifying norms. The mediating structure of 'substantive ethics' [Sittlichkeit], which is crucial to Hegel's central critique of Kant's moral theory, is in Habermas' theory only important for particular forms of life [Lebensformen] and contexts. In his conception of the lifeworld [Lebenswelt] Habermas has worked out the limitedness [Begrenztheit]of this horizon - a limitedness which is culturally, historically, and socially mediated, and within which takes place the substantial determination of our imaginations and aims to fulfill individually our 'good life.' The phenomenal domain of morality, as Habermas understands it, is, in his view, structured by intersubjectivity quite differently from the phenomenal domain of substantive ethics [Sittlichkeit]. The 'moral point of view' has a force to transcend the particularity of the contexts. We are entering the sphere of morality when we are in conflict with others, when there is conflict and dissent ['dissens']. Moral theory has the task of preparing our means of responding [Instrumentarium]to a partial destruction of the lifeworld [Lebenswelt]. Moral theory provides a sort of mending or repair. Thus Habermas differentiates strictly between 'questions of the good life' and 'questions of justice'. (In this direction lies also the difference between 'norms' and 'values.') This is quite plausible because determining what a 'good life' is, under conditions of a value pluralism, has to be necessarily a limited determination. For that reason, Habermas emphasizes the role of a formal moral theory, such as discourse ethics, in creating the 'free spaces' [Freiräume] needed for a pluralism of many different 'good lives.'

But certainly moral questions arise in contexts of the lifeworld, where our beliefs and decisions are shaped by values, habits and prejudices. Here reappears the problem: to what degree must moral theory transcend the particularity of the lifeworld, so as to ensure impartiality and justice - without, on the other hand, being so general and universal that it is no longer relevant as a criterion for moral conflicts?

Universalization: The essential point of discourse ethics by Habermas is formulated in the principle of universalization and what it entails - namely, the principle of discourse. Habermas reformulates the Kantian version of the principle of universalization in terms of intersubjectivity. To begin with, the principle of universalization explains what our everyday, but postconventional intuition would outline for us as a strategy for solving moral conflicts: the principle of impartiality. This basic assumption of impartiality already draws a line between a cognitivistic and universal ethics and an ethics oriented towards solidarity, as advocated by Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice, 1982). The psychologist Carol Gilligan criticized L. Kohlberg's theory of moral development, especially its emphasis on the level of 'postconventionality' as the highest and 'best' level of moral judgment. Gilligan's critique applies first of all to Kohlberg's reduction of moral judgments to a formal procedure of justice - a procedure which is ultimately a procedure of 'postconventionality.' While Gilligan's critique of biases in Kohlberg's model is quite fruitful, a first problem in her approach is that she provides no way of distinguishing coerced solidarity from voluntary solidarity. There is a second problem inherent in decisions guided by solidarity: those decisions could be easily unjust and unfair decisions for those who are are affected by those decisions, but who are not part of the shared community [and thus excluded from the discussions in the first place].

Habermas insists on the principle of impartiality that first makes possible a formal framework for both different mores and acts of solidarity. Concommitantly, the principle of universalization (U) is formally stated as follows: A norm is valid only if "all affected can accept the consequences and the side affects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction for everyone's interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities)." (J. Habermas, "Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification," Cambridge, MIT Press 1990, p. 65) In this way, the principle of universalization formally determines those conditions which must be met if the claim of legitimacy - the claim advanced by moral commands and norms - is really justified.

This principle is at the same time a principle for argumentation, because it summarizes the normative implications bound up with the situation of 'entering into an argument.' These implications can be summarized as follows: equal participation of all who are affected; the postulate of unlimitedness, i.e., the fundamental unboundedness and openness concerning time and persons; the postulate of freedom from constraint [Zwangslosigkeit], i.e., the freedom, in principle, of discourse from accidental and structural forms of power; and the postulate of seriousness or authenticity [Ernsthaftigkeit], i.e., the absence of deception and even illusion in expressing intentions and in performing speech acts. We have to presume these principles counterfactually, even when we know that people usually don't act that way.

For Habermas, the principle of universalization and these concommitant postulates should be applicable to the critical examination of practical, everyday norms. The principle of universalization is applied in the principle of discourse: "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." (J. Habermas, Discourse Ethics, p.66) The problem lies in the subjunctive parenthetical phrase: Are we supposed to think that the practical discourse could also function adequately with substitutes, with advocates in place of those who are affected? As an example, we must decide as advocates for generations yet to come. But Habermas, as I understand him, wants to disqualify discourse in those cases in which "expert discussions" assume a "place-holder" function for those who cannot represent themselves, precisely because the principle of discourse requires that all who are affected - not simply their assumed advocates - be able to participate: "Required is a 'real' argumentation in which those who are affected cooperatively participate. Only a intersubjective process of understanding can produce an agreement that is reflexive: only then can all participants know that each has been convinced by all." (my translation, Jürgen Habermas, Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt 1983, S. 77) This is a challenging demand that could only be achieved in rare cases. But Habermas has worked through this problem theoretically in emphazising the institutionalizations of discourse proceedings.

Habermas situates those institutionalized discourses that come closest to achieving the idea of justice, as formulated in the principles of universalization and discourse, as a connection between a real resolution and the counterfactual idealization of discourses. "This trivial necessity of instutionalizing discourses by no means contradicts the counterfactual elements of the [ideal] presuppositions of discourse. On the contrary, the attempts at institutionalization themselves obey the normative aims that are taken involuntarily from the intuitive preunderstanding [Vorverständnis] of what is argumentation." (my translation, J. Habermas, Moralbewußtsein und kommunikatives Handeln, Frankfurt 1983, S. 102) In Habermas's discourse ethics, the concrete examples of institutionalizations of moral discourses tend to be vague. Habermas seeks to overcome this gap in the discourse theory of law and democracy presented in Faktizität and Geltung (1992), translated as Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

2. Problems and Questions:

One of the main problems concerning the Habermasian discourse ethics that emerges from this - very short - presentation is, whether he succeeds in his important conjunction of claims that are capable of justification by universalization, on the one hand, with, on the other hand, those particular contexts where the claims are generated and are going to be applied.

a) The contextual embeddedness of moral theory (and with it, of a pragmatic form of moral argument) is approached by Habermas when he critiques Karl-Otto Apel's effort to establish a "final foundation" [Letztbegründung] via transcendental argumentation. Habermas points out quite rightly that the fact that in disputing the validity claims of truth, normative rightness and authenticity [Wahrhaftigkeit], we must nonetheless apply precisely these norms to our dispute - this does not entail any foundation, much less a final foundation for these validity claims. This could be interpreted as a transcendental-logical mistake by K.-O. Apel. For Habermas, however, this shows only that we actually have no alternatives in argument. The validity claims are 'pragmatic universals'. His critique of Apel does not imply that the validity claims are not valid.

b) The separation of questions of justice (that, as moral (and legal) questions are, suitable questions for practical discourse) from those questions concerning individual ways of life is based on the presupposition that only intersubjective conflicts are relevant for morality. For Habermas, the process of self-understanding and self-determination [Selbstverständigung] of subjects in choosing their way of life is not a issue for moral theory. But it is in fact a point in question as to whether just here are connections that are difficult for a moral theory to avoid. From Habermas's point of view, subjects' plans for their individual ways of life and their self-conceptions are connected with moral theory not only through possible conflicts but through the intersubjectivity of the process of establishing one's identity and and sense of self. Habermas recognizes that conditions of the lifeworld must cooperate with moral theory if they are to allow us be a moral subjects at all. And so he criticizes all 'individualistic reductions' of morality, such as Rational Choice theory. But Habermas also decisively abandons the notion that morality relies upon a shared, substantial consensus. Communitarian thinkers such as Michael Walzer and Charles Taylor have been considering in what respect this could diminish, however, willingness to participate in practical discourse and to perform the perspective-taking required by discourse ethics. One way to enable autonomous subjects' self-understanding and self-determination is the democracy model of civil society in Between Facts and Norms. The formality of discourse ethics is consistently continued here in Habermas's theory of political order.

c) Habermas thinks of the principle of discourse and the image of the ideal discourse as criteria for selecting in a negative way. This is one ground of the fallibilism to which discourse ethics lays claim. But because Habermas himself is considering the institutionalization of discourses - criteria for a negative selection aren't sufficient. There is a need for developing positive criteria for making those institutions possible. And here is - from my point of view - the greatest potential of the discourse ethics. As shown in the so-called mediation procedure [Mediationsverfahren] the principles of discourse can be applied in the form of argumentation rules for finding solutions for limited domains, for concrete questions and for different interests. The discourse ethics is not a ethics that gives norms for every moral conflict that might arise, for example in biotechnology, etc. But the discourse ethics is effective in providing tools for a communicative framework in which political and moral conflicts are resolved.


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