Communicative vs Objective Ethics
Quick guide to
Discourse Ethics Objective Ethics
(By comparison with some original texts)
Habermas's Discourse Ethic In A Nutshell
Habermas's moral theory is meant to address a particular historical situation in which morality may appear to be on shaky ground. Broadly speaking, the situation in question is a modern, liberal society in which the older, metaphysical understanding (that could, for instance, assume that natural rights were moral absolutes) has collapsed and given way to a more historical and sociologically sophisticated understanding that all our categories, including the moral ones, are social constructs. To the post-metaphysical self-understanding that is not uncommon in modern, pluralistic societies there are no absolutes, and it can then appear that the prevailing morality is groundless.
Objective Ethics (OE) posits the metaphysical ground of ethics in freedom which, due to its paradoxical nature, is contra all and any absolutes. Although all our moral categories are social constructs, they tend to shape our freedom and the more successful, the more ethical they are. The absence of moral absolutes in pluralistic societies does not mean that there are no universal values and goals. All of these are different conceptualizations of freedom.
The task Habermas sets himself is to reassure the post-metaphysical pluralist that there is a foundation for morality in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse itself.
These presuppositions themselves are rooted in objective ethics because they are nowhere to be found in real world, they are idealizations. The real discourse is relative to historic context, although its structures become more and more ethical, they move in direction of freedom.
Morality doesn't need a metaphysical ground because one is provided by the nature of language itself.
The nature of language is to be a tool of real world relations. Language serves equally well both power relations and egalitarian communication. When we analyze the origins of language (that is animal communications) we see intimidation as one of its main functions, which does not presuppose, say, mutual respect or "understanding". What is more, even animals have the ability to deceive others by using their "language". Therefore, to be able to use language for rational, ethical discourse, people already have to possess ethics to trust each other and to respect other's view. This "a priori" ethics does not necessarily emerge from language but more probably is a result of previous cooperation and common life. We can see the prototype of such ethics in herd animals' morality.
The morality in question is characterised by the concern to accord everyone equal respect - and this is treated as an uncontentious principle that virtually everyone in a post-traditional society accepts. It is fair to call this morality Kantian, and it is fair to say that Habermas has been trying to bring Kant's moral philosophy up to date in a way that ditches Kant's solipsism.
Habermas first reinterprets Kantian morality so that it ceases to assume that moral agents can judge for themselves with an autonomy that implies a historical vacuum. The new Kantian moralists recognise that their deliberations can only get going because of a background of inherited values that are part and parcel of their particular culture, and they accept that partly because of their own fallibility the truth about moral rightness is something that can only be established through dialogue. Instead of the Kantian moral subject trying to work out in a solipsistic way which policies would meet with universal agreement, the concern for universality is played out through a dialogue which is open to everyone. The dialogue upholds the Kantian concern for universal respect as long as no voice is excluded and the norms that come out of it are those that everyone can agree to.
OE places more stringent requirements on all who wish to take part in a discourse - to be ethical, not just reasonable. The participants have to strive to find moral truth / rightness and do not use the discourse as a means for their egoistic goals.
In Habermas's words: Kant's principle of universal respect - known as the categorical imperative - "receives a discourse-theoretical interpretation in which its place is taken by the discourse principle (D), according to which only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the agreement of all those concerned in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse."
Normative necessity does not follow from consensus because consensus itself is not normatively necessary. In other words, discourse has to have a shared goal and this goal lies outside of the discourse, it has to be set by ethics as it is done by OE. Without the goal (and its foundation - freedom) the found norms would be subjective. Objectivity of norms is defined by their emancipatory function - that is, only those norms are objectively ethical that provide more freedom for the participants. This goal can be achieved by objectively ethical participants only. If participants are guided by their egoistic interests, the agreement is either not possible or is unethical (or ethical by coincedence only). Without the common goal the parties in dialog will agree only on varied versions of "war of all against all" because this kind of war is the lowest common universal denominator of unethical beings' personal goals.
OE uses a similar "fundamental principle" for what it should be - the procedural basis of a just law (the source of formal norms), not as a moral absolute or the foundation of ethics.
In addition to this reinterpretation, Habermas wants to come up with a better justification as to why we ought to uphold the principle of universality that is at the core of our morality in a pluralistic society.
The justification begins from the idea that anyone who says anything about what is moral or immoral participates in a form of (discursive) action that has a particular set of pragmatic presuppositions. It is worth clarifying that this is a not a discussion in which people express what they want and try to come to a compromise - it is a discussion in which people try to establish what norms it is right for society to follow. To put the crux of Habermas's argument as simply as possible: Anyone who claims to say something true about morality implicitly raises an issue that can be criticised and in order for this claim to win out it must meet with the rational assent of those who join the discussion. Whether the speaker realizes it or not, if truth is the issue here, the speaker is obliged to appeal equally to the rational assent of everyone else. In this way the discourse ethic is uncovered by identifying what debates about moral norms presuppose, and Habermas's claim is that something very similar to Kant's categorical imperative is presupposed by the discursive act of saying what is or is not moral. Speakers concerned to establish the truth about morality are inevitably obliged to accord equal respect to all those whose assent must be relied on in the collective endeavour to establish what the truth of the matter is.
Rationality is not a substitute for ethicality. The most rational thing is to pursue own interests, therefore, "moral truth" has nothing to do with pure rationality. Equal status of participants is not a result of rationality because to honestly value equality (not to use it as a means of deception) is a free moral choice. To discover a practical moral truth (ie ethical norms) participants have to accept beforehand a theoretical moral truth (ie freedom) on which they are to base their communication. The very attempt of people to "try to establish what norms it is right for society to follow" is a result of their ethical and not rational choice. As identified by OE, the "uncovered" ethical presuppositions is freedom.
(Note: the use of "truth" in this reconstruction of Habermas's argument is misleading since Habermas draws a distinction between the truth of claims that refer to an independent objective reality - as is the case in science - and the validity of moral claims that do not refer to some reality indpendent of our history and culture. However, in the context of the critique we want to develop here the distinction is irrelevant. The important point is that the morality of the discourse ethic is all about debating moral norms with all the impartiality and the concern for the strongest arguments that characterise the endeavour to establish the truth of the matter.)
OE also requires impartiality, however, it is impossible without taking an objective not subjective world view. How else can the result be convincing? The idea of "strongest moral argument" is nonsense because its criterion is rationally impossible. If the argument is based on logic (ie is deterministic), subjective interests necessarily prevail. If the argument is based on freedom, rationality gives way to ethics because freedom cannot be analyzed rationally.
Having found a ground for the principle of universal respect in the pragmatic presuppositions of discourse, Habermas restates how significant this discourse ethic ought to be in our current historical situation:
"The discourse principle provides an answer to the predicament in which the members of any moral community find themselves when, in making the transition to a modern, pluralistic society, they find themselves faced with the dilemma that though they still argue with reasons about moral judgments and beliefs, their substantive background consensus on the underlying moral norms has been shattered. They find themselves embroiled in global and domestic practical conflicts in need of regulation that they continue to regard as moral, and hence as rationally resolvable, conflicts; but their shared ethos has disintegrated."
The only way out of all and any conflicts is consensus based on freedom, that is the complete rejection of violence.
Habermas also acknowledges that it is possible for the pluralist to give up on morality, accepting perhaps that man is a wolf to man and believing that within the framework provided by liberal society pretty much anything goes. He also acknowledges that people can resolve their differences without recourse to moral discussion. It is still not uncommon for those who are not expected to agree with us to get shot or bombed before being given a chance to participate in the kind of discussion Habermas describes. Interestingly, the discourse ethic does not call this into question because it implies nothing about what ought to be discussed or what ought to be seen as a moral issue. We can quite consistently observe the principle of universal respect when trying to establish the truth about morality on Monday and then resume shooting on Tuesday because, apparently, national interests are at stake, not moral principles. He assumes that people want to resolve their differences through a discussion of what is the morally right thing to do, and with his discourse ethic he wants to say that participants in that discussion are bound by a principle of universal respect because this is something that their discursive activity presupposes.
OE puts an unconditional obligation on every intelligent being to abandon violence and engage in social contract.
Interestingly, Habermas envisages the possibility that some unworlded individuals in this pluralistic society might want to collectively work out a shared ethical framework as rich as the older one but now with a secular basis. Quite bluntly he says that "such an effort is doomed to fail." The problem is that without an old-fashioned ethical life it seems inconceivable that there could be agreement about what constitutes a good life or what ought to be our highest aims.
Although the members of the pluralistic society cannot agree on whether football is a sin (because they can't agree whether the word "sin" has a meaning any longer) they can agree on the morality of keeping the discussion open and respecting everyone's point of view.
Freedom is the prerequisite for "good life" and therefore is the "highest aims". An effort to base (secular) ethics on freedom not only is successful but also entails "the morality of keeping the discussion open and respecting everyone's point of view" which underpins the discourse ethics.
Habermas wants to go beyond this because anyone wanting to participate in this discussion will soon face the question of how people are to judge what, in reference to any particular practice, is the right thing to do. Okay, they must keep the discussion open so as not to sacrifice the search for truth/validity, but how are they to come to any agreement in a pluralistic society in which agreements are so hard to reach?
Habermas proposes the principle of universalisation: "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." Presumably this is derived from an interpretation of what is required by genuine respect for the other parties to the moral debate. From his clarification of the reference to coercion here, it is clear that any kind of emotive language or rhetorical arm-twisting or spin is prohibited to ensure that it is the truth (or validity based on the strongest argument) that holds sway, not, for instance, the charisma of personalities or the power of images. As he puts it, if this principle is followed, "nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favor of the acceptance of a controversial norm."
Even without coercion, unethical rational participants may still settle for a version of "war of all against all": "free market", "democracy" or any other kind of violent social structure, because it is their lowest common denominator. While it may be acceptable to discourse ethics, objective ethics requires participants to discover structures for really free and pluralistic societies.
(original text: http://tornhalves.blogspot.ca/2008/09/habermass-discourse-ethic-in-nutshell.html)
Discourse Ethics: the conditions for developing universal norms
The first of [the conditions under which universally valid claims might be expected to emerge] is the original freedom of all members of a community. Echoing the classical Enlightenment argument requiring the consent of humans as freedom, this freedom means: in a discourse in which a community seeks to establish a norm or procedure - acceptance of proposed norms and procedures must rationally motivated, i.e., free and uncoerced (Habermas, "Justice and Solidarity," 6).
OE additionally requires that the participants be ethically motivated and possess complete information.
A related condition is equality. Equality means, in part, that all participants have an equal voice in the discussion regarding proposed norms and procedures. In particular, consensus emerges here as a requirement - i.e., the uncoerced agreement of all who are affected by a proposed norm or procedure.
OE treats consensus as eternal, ie the subject of limitless future revisions.
These two conditions are not "the intrinsic constitution of the practice of deliberation" but some of the instrumental requirements for successful consensus. In other words, if the participants are determined to find objective truth, they should use this ideal mode of communication. But do they in practice? Of course, not - nobody uses these conditions, they are practically useless. This goal - and therefore these conditions - has to be put in place in order for the discourse ethics to work. But these very conditions (and of course the goal) could not be the result of any prior consensus! The goal could be set by objective ethics only. It requires the participants to engage in deliberations about the ultimate common good - freedom.
Discourse Ethics: the Rules of Reason
To circumscribe such discourse more carefully, Habermas takes up rules first proposed by Robert Alexy as "the Rules of Reason" (1990, 165-167). In Habermas's formulation in "Discourse Ethics," these are:
1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
OE, however, limit the participation to only those who accept the principles of OE.
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 attitudes, desires, and needs.
3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2). (86)
Such rules are seen to circumscribe the ideal speech situation, one which stresses equality and freedom for each participant - especially
freedom to participate in the discourse in critical ways so as to express one's own attitudes, desires, and needs, and
As David Ingram puts it, community members' participation in discourse will be "unobstructed by ideological prejudices, temporal limitations, and external domination - be it cultural, social, political, or economic" (Ingram, 1990, 148).
freedom from coercion of several sorts.
This deontological requirement makes the discourse half irrelevant - what to talk about if these kinds of violence are already suppressed? OE, however, consider consensus and corresponding emancipation as eternal process - the participants may be free only when they strive to be free. To this end, OE also requires the participants to fight their instincts - ie be free from "internal" domination. Otherwise their consensus will still be unethical.
Discourse Ethics and Solidarity
Finally, Habermas acknowledges that these procedural rules must further be complemented by a sense of solidarity between participants. Such solidarity involves concern for the well-being of both one's fellow human beings and of the community at large. As Habermas has put it recently,
Under the pragmatic presuppositions of an inclusive and noncoercive rational discourse among free and equal participants, everyone is required to take the perspective of everyone else, and thus project herself into the understandings of self and world of all others; from this interlocking of perspectives there emerges an ideally extended we-perspective from which all can test in common whether they wish to make a controversial norm the basis of their shared practice; and this should include mutual criticism of the appropriateness of the languages in terms of which situations and needs are interpreted. In the course of successfully taken abstractions, the core of generalizable interests can then emerge step by step.
("Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls's Political Liberalism," Journal of Philosophy (XCII:3 [March, 1995] 117-8)
This is a step in the direction of OE, a balance between egoism and altruism. Although "solidarity" with all possible free beings is still impossible, we may assume that "the core of generalizable interests" will emerge, nonetheless, as the only one truly universal value - freedom.
(Original text: Robert Cavalier, http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/cavalier/Forum/meta/background/HaberIntro.html)
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" concerning its problems and its various attempts at their solutions. This fundmental, unresolved openness becomes a great virtue in discussions - the virtue of fallibilism.
It is a speculative ethical ideal which has no empirical grounds. To prove anything rationally (when no formal logic is applicable) is impossible. Even formal debates do not have formal criterion of a winner. That conclusion is especially evident in the field of philosophy - for more than 2000 years the presumably brightest representatives of homo sapiens could not agree on even the basic notions, not mentioning the complete closure of the contemporary (institutionalized) ethical discourse to outsiders. In other words, this purely ethical, unjustified assumption cannot serve as basis for logical conclusions. Any attempt to impose practical ethical norms deduced from it would be fallacious.
[...] 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.
This is the fallacy.
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'. 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.
Even though objective ethics has metaphysical foundations (freedom), logic cannot be applied to ethical issues. So ethical propositions (and the resulting norms) can be "right" ("true") but not "valid". Assertive sentences describe existing or past states of the world and may be true and valid because these states are in the domain of determinism. For instance, "There is water in the cup" is true when we can empirically confirm this fact or logically deduct it from known (true) premises (like "He has just poured water in the cup"). Ethical propositions, however, describe future states of the world and the desirability of these states depends on their "freedom condition". For instance, "Pour water in the cup" is true if this fact brings more freedom. But freedom is perceived by intuition, like we feel beauty for instance - it is pluralistic and yet objective, cognitive but not logical. Sometimes, we may also feel that a future state of the world will be right when it will conform to accepted (ie true) ethical norms (like "Pour water in the cup of a thirsty person" or "I must obey you"). However, conforming to accepted norms is still discretionary because complete equivalence of a norm and a future state of the world is impossible. This discretion is again based on intuition and a "sense" of freedom, not logic.
The truth of objective moral norms is based on freedom as opposed to their "validity" which is based on fictitious equal interests of all concerned - and this truth is bound to be found (it is convergent) as opposed to endless going around in search for validity.
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', which is crucial to Hegel's central critique of Kant's moral theory, is in Habermas' theory only important for particular forms of life and contexts. In his conception of the lifeworld Habermas has worked out the limitedness 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.'
OE is cognitive and substantive, it does not separate good and right. Any subjective "good" belongs to the private sphere (personal relationships). In the public sphere of society, (common) good is freedom, and justice is its weaker substitute. Freedom does not require justification, and practical norms are justified by freedom itself which they serve and protect. However, cognitive character of OE is not limited to justifying norms - OE also provides guidance for creating new norms.
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. 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. Moral theory has the task of preparing our means of responding to a partial destruction of the lifeworld. 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' needed for a pluralism of many different 'good lives.'
OE, as a moral theory, gives meaning to individual "good life" and provides shared values. It does not just serve as the tool of conflict resolution. Our individual "good life" is fulfilled by creative contributions to common good that may, incidently, include new ethical norms. Value pluralism, on other hand, when not based on common good is a version of moral relativism.
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. [...]
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)." 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.
The fact that everyone can freely accept something means that this something is of common value. This value signifies the impartial point of view. Although in particular contexts an accepted norm could be anything subjective, complete consensus is possible only on a basis of freedom. Thus, discourse ethics actually tries to approach freedom from the side of impartiality and universality.
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, i.e., the freedom, in principle, of discourse from accidental and structural forms of power; and the postulate of seriousness or authenticity, 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.
These are all requirements of the trusted social contract as specified by OE. However, they could not be fulfilled without ethical participants. On the other hand, unethical participants may enter into an argument with malicious intent.
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)
Again, the normative requirement to apply this idealization to real life is unfounded because it does not follow from any prior agreement. Besides, it will never work in real life since people are incapable of reaching rational agreement. OE, on the other hand, advances a similar requirement on the basis of freedom that requires people to change their behavior to be free.
[...] 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 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).
Institutionalizations (ie formal rules of real institutions) are still subject to acceptance by actors. No force could make unethical actors to always follow the rules and the rules themselves tend to be distorted if not enacted in the "proper" way, ie the same way as required by discourse ethics. Thus, discourse ethics is self-contradictory and needs a metaphysical foundation which could be provided only by OE.
2. Problems and Questions:
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" via transcendental argumentation. Habermas points out quite rightly that the fact that in disputing the validity claims of truth, normative rightness and authenticity, 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.
The similar problem of a "final foundation" is found with truth. Nobody can rationally establish what truth is because any proof already needs the definition of truth. But it does not mean that truth has no foundation in objective reality that can be established by intuition.
1. Consensus is impossible if a common foundation does not exist. But it does. The fact that people are still trying to reach general agreement (by writing books, for example) proves it - they feel that it exists. They communicate to establish this foundation.
2.In order to happen, consensus requires the very norms it has to produce. Therefore, without the foundation, it is not clear why anybody has to follow norms even if they was produced by particular consensus (coincidentally). The foundation which provided by OE, even though by intuition, makes consensus and its resulting norms normative.
(Original text: Antje Gimmler, http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/Forum/meta/background/agimmler.html)
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