Andy Blunden August 2003

In the beginning was the Word:
Annotations on Habermas’s
communicative ethics

The inclusion of the Other. Studies in Political Theory. Jürgen Habermas. M.I.T. Press, 1998.

Habermas’s 1998 book presents his ‘friendly’ criticism of Rawls, his views on the future of the nation state, and in its first chapter, a succinct and updated summary of his communicative ethics. While Habermas has made some important moves in modernising Kant’s eighteenth century foundational work on ethics, I believe that Habermas’s ethics is fundamentally flawed, and I want to use the summary of his theory in this book, so far as possible, as the focus for a criticism of the school of communicative ethics which has grown up behind Habermas.

Kant reconstructed the ethics of his Lutheran Church by substituting for the revealed word of God, the use of Reason; Habermas reconstructs Kant’s ethics with a two-fold move:

“As a child of the eighteenth century, Kant still thinks in an unhistorical way and consequently overlooks the layer of traditions in which identities are formed. He tacitly assumes that in making moral judgments each individual can project himself into the situation of everyone else through his own imagination. But when the participants can no longer rely on a transcendental preunderstanding grounded in more or less homogeneous conditions of life and interests, the moral point of view can only be realised under conditions of communication that ensure that everyone tests the acceptability of a norm, implemented in a general practice, also from the perspective of his own understanding of himself and of the world ... in this way 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.” [p. 33-4]

With God unable to tell us what we should do, and being unable to rely on Reason and our own imagination, we must discuss with each other to learn how to put ourselves in each others’ shoes, so to speak, and reach a mutual understanding. But while Kant was able to provide himself with universal maxims about what he should do, the only practice for which Habermas offers guidance is practical discourse; the shared life-world of the participants retreats to the status of a background of discourse.

As we will see, in this latest work, Habermas moves in the direction of trying to resolve this disembedded character of his ethics. However, investigation of human interaction outside of practical discourse is severed from his “universal pragmatics” at its foundations:

“[Universal pragmatics] thematises the elementary units of speech (utterances) in the same attitude as linguistics does the elementary units of language (sentences). The aim of reconstructive linguistic analysis is the explicit description of the rules that a competent speaker must master in order to form grammatical sentences and to utter them in an acceptable way. ... A general theory of speech acts would thus describe exactly that system of rules that adult speakers master insofar as they can satisfy the conditions for a happy employment of sentences in utterances — no matter to which particular language the sentences belong and in which accidental contexts the utterances are embedded” [What is Universal Pragmatics?, 1976, p 272]

It is my contention that any theory which takes as its elementary unit of analysis a simple speech act or utterance, disconnected from the activity within which it is made, can be nothing more than a mere formalism. Severed at its root from the real human relationships of collaboration and conflict, which tie the participants in discourse and motivate their interaction, which give them something to talk about, such a theory must entirely miss essence of its subject matter, since language is for the purpose of coordinating activity or it is just a game.

I would like to contrast this disembodied approach to ethics and a theory of communicative action with the approach taken by the Vygotsky school in their work, initially focused on the psychology of art, cognitive psychology and linguistics.

Vygotsky explained the methodological concept of “unit of analysis” in contrast to “element” as follows:

“By unit we mean a product of analysis which, unlike elements, retains all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further divided without losing them. Not the chemical composition of water but its molecules and their behaviour is the key to the understanding of the properties of water. The true unit of biological analysis is the living cell, possessing the basic properties of the living organism.” [Thinking and Speaking, Vygotsky, 1934]

Identification of the proper unit of analysis, then, is a crucial foundational gain for any field of research. Vygotsky arrived at the conclusion that the proper “unit of analysis” for studying the relation between thinking and speaking was “word meaning":

“The conception of word meaning as a unit of both generalising thought and social interchange is of incalculable value for the study of thought and language. It permits true causal-genetic analysis, systematic study of the relations between the growth of the child’s thinking ability and his social development. The interrelation of generalisation and communication may be considered a secondary focus of our study.

“Unit analysis points the way to the solution of these vitally important problems. It demonstrates the existence of a dynamic system of meaning in which the affective and the intellectual unite. It shows that every idea contains a transmuted affective attitude toward the bit of reality to which it refers. It further permits us to trace the path from a person’s needs and impulses to the specific direction taken by his thoughts, and the reverse path from his thoughts to his behaviour and activity.” [Thinking and Speaking, Vygotsky, 1934]

On the basis of this conception of the unit of analysis, Vygotsky was able to trace the development of language on three planes: that of the evolution of the species, of the cultural and anthropological development of society over the millennia since the beginnings of human culture, and ontogenetically, in the development from childhood to adulthood. Vygotsky was thereby able to trace the separate but intersecting patterns of development of both thinking and speaking and their mutual conditioning, from pre-linguistic thinking and pre-intellectual speech up to thinking “beyond words” and the process of translating thoughts into the written word and artistic practice, including ethical behaviour. Central to his discoveries which resulted from this work was how the specifically human modes of thinking and speaking grew out of collaborative activity.

Vygotsky’s co-worker, Alexei Leontyev, went on to define activity as the basic unit of analysis for psychology.

“psychological analysis of activity consists ... not in isolating from it its internal, psychological elements for further isolated study but in bringing into psychology such units of analysis as carry in themselves psychological reflection in its inseparability from the moments that give rise to it and mediate it in human activity.” [Leontyev, Activity, Consciousness, and Personality, 1977]

And as is famously known, after 15 years of study of political economy, from 1859 Marx took as the unit of analysis for his study of capital, the commodity.

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” [Capital, opening paragraph]

For Marx, “commodity” was the external material form given to social relations between people arising out of the cooperation of people in the labour process.

In each of the above cases, what marks method of analysis is that both the moment of material collaboration between people and the ideal form utilised and produced by this collaborative activity are united together in a single unit of analysis.

Thus the nature of a form of knowledge is given by its “unit of analysis”. In Hegelian terms, this is the abstract notion a theory makes of its subject matter, which is concretised in its further development. Habermas’s theory, by contrast, taking as its unit of analysis a simple element, the utterance, which can only be added, post facto and externally, to human action, which lies in the background of analysis, can only be formal because at the outset it has missed the inner conflict and dialectic which lies at the root of the human condition.

Ethics is about what we should do; as such it concerns itself with above all not just with reaching mutual understanding, but with practical activity with other people. Ethical maxims are meaningful only to the extent that they are connected with practical activity with other people. Generally speaking, any activity which is done in isolation from other people, and without any effect or motivation directed toward or responding to other people, is amoral and lacking in ethical content.

Practical discourse, in the sense in which Habermas uses the term, is a practice, and the understandings which arise through practical discourse about ethics are an ethics of discourse, but they do not necessarily have any relation or relevance to any other practice, apart from discourse. In communicative ethics, the life-world of the participants has well and truly retreated into the background. As soon as the participants enter into some other practical interaction, they must leave their discourse ethics at the door.

For a study of ethics which has relevance to human life outside of the philosopher’s study, the unit of analysis must include purposive interaction between at least two people, the activity of doing something with or against someone else, in a unit of analysis which contains both the intentional actions of each of the participants and the “third” party — the “project” in which they participate, the collaborative activity itself. In addition to you and me there has to be a “we”, otherwise you and I have nothing to talk about.

Consequently, the unit of analysis of ethics must be collaboration, jointly-purposive practical activity, both collaboration in the normal positive usage of the word as cooperation or co-labour-ation, and conflict or struggle directed against another person — in a word, practical-critical activity. I will use the word “collaboration” henceforth in this sense, as other-directed, practical-critical, objective-subjective activity.

I hope the reader can bear with me in this eccentric use of the word “collaboration”. It means for example that the struggle over the division of the product of labour, the wage struggle, is described also as a relation of “collaboration”, a collaboration between employer and employee to determine the just distribution of profits. But equally, whenever two people collaborate on a project, for example an artistic production, if it is a genuinely creative exercise, then the participants will struggle over how it is to be done. Likewise, the learning process always involves a teacher (or the author of a book!) correcting, guiding and challenging the student and the student for their part challenging and questioning the teacher. This concept of collaboration as containing an essential moment of conflict is well established in the study of teaching and learning, as for example in the Socratic tutorial and in the student critique as well as what is called collaborative learning.

The kinds and structures of collaborative activity are manifold and various, as are the kinds and structures of communication. We can only make sense of interaction by considering communicative action together in a single unit of analysis with the material, objective activity with which it is connected. That these two elements — communicative and practical — do not coincide, is only as should be expected, for communication would be meaningless and unnecessary if everywhere and always it coincided with the objective material interaction to which it was connected. There is communication without cooperation (e.g. TV) and cooperation without communication (e.g. factory work), but the two are never entirely separate, and at their points of intersection they mutually structure each other. When we take as our starting point just one element, such as an utterance, then we avoid contradiction, such as that between the reality referred to by an utterance and its significance for someone else, such as the meaning of the utterance and the actions of the person uttering it, such as the meaning of the utterance and the activity with which it is connected. But by avoiding the contradiction we likewise miss the vital interconnection between communication and cooperation which is central to ethics.

In an ideal speech situation, the participants may be assumed to be truthful and to have perfect knowledge of their own motivations. Such a move creates the illusion that the contradiction between the meaning of an utterance and an immediately given reality is a matter of secondary importance, relegated to the conditions of discourse, and not bearing on the essence of the matter, and assumed to eliminable. This is adequate for formal linguistics but unsuitable for ethics.

The participants may be assumed to all get an equal chance to speak, and that everyone affected has such a chance, but how can anyone be affected by a discourse? Any implied effect, which lies in the background, is in fact actually structuring participation in the discourse in the first place. Who is affected and how? what interests do they have? how can their claim to be affected be validated? what is the relevant project? None of these questions can be answered sensibly while the project which the discourse is about is left in the background. Putting oneself into a discourse or taking oneself out is a practical act. Equally, speaking up, turning up for the meeting, fixing the venue for a meeting and so on are practical acts. Creating and learning a language are practical activities carried out in collaboration with other people, in the first place, outside of and prior to any given discourse. How do we know the consequences of an activity and who may be affected? Surely this is a question which cannot be resolved within the parameters of discourse, but lies above all on the plane of practical activity.

Habermas divides thinking into three domains, each with its own “interest": the empirical-analytical sciences which utilise instrumental (or technical) thinking and interest is in the process of production and satisfaction of human needs and in which things and people are simply used as objects; the humanities and social sciences which are concerned with interaction with other, and has a practical interest in “securing and expanding possibilities of mutual and self-understanding in the conduct of life”, and critical theory which has an emancipatory interest, an interest in emancipating humanity from seemingly natural constraints. Power and ideology reside within the domain of interaction; labour is located within the domain of instrumental reason. While this schema serves to facilitate investigation of each domain in itself, it also very effectively functions to isolate each domain from the others. This defect in the basic structure of Habermas’s theory has its ramifications throughout.

Words may point to other words, meanings to other meanings, but unless at some point there is some material effect, not just “in the last instance”, but in a way which is present in the discourse at any given moment, then “discourse” is just a game.

Let us begin looking through just one paragraph on the first page Habermas’s recent book.

Habermas says:

“In everyday contexts we make statements through which we demand certain conduct of others (i.e., hold them to an obligation), reproach ourselves or others, admit mistakes, make excuses, offer to make amends, and so forth. On this first level, moral utterances serve to coordinate the actions of different actors in a binding or obligatory fashion” [p. 3]

This is not true. Only to the extent that two actors are already involved in some joint project, can an utterance by one serve to coordinate the other’s action; it cannot create that effect ex nihilo. If two people are in different parts of the world speaking different languages and pursuing different lives, how can an utterance by one impose a binding or obligatory commitment on the other? If two people pass each other as strangers in the street, then the extent to which an utterance by one can bind the actions of the other is zero unless they know already each other, recognise each other by dress or other signals or perhaps are forced into collaboration by space restrictions or some emergency that requires a common response or one threatens physical danger to the other. In every case the scope to which an utterance may be bind is determined by the measure of material interdependence or commonality exists which has provided some basis for the existence of a “we” between them (inclusive of the possibility of injury to one by the other or conflict).

Habermas further elaborates the above observation:

“'Obligation’ presupposes the intersubjective recognition of moral norms or customary practices that lay down for a community in a convincing manner what actors are obliged to do and what they can expect from one another” [p. 3.]

But to sum up the material basis underlying practical discourse simply in the notion of “community” with its moral norms or customary practices, be they unitary or multifarious, be they observed by and relevant to the given participants or not, is in the first place, to presuppose an idealised version of modernity wherein no practical relations exist between person and person other than membership of the community. We add to this that there is in fact no unitary, unproblematic constellation of moral norms and practices other than the law of the land and its means of enforcement. What has been presupposed then is an atomised society with a state power.

Two strangers passing in an urban street can count on almost nothing in terms of “moral norms or customary practices,” and yet if this were simply the norm, it is difficult to understand how modern life is possible at all. “In everyday contexts” we in fact transact with people in all sorts of very definite, if extended and complex, relations with us, based around specific forms of collaboration and mutual dependence or conflict. The total strangers we pass in an empty street are in general not able to incur us any obligation. Most students of urban life agree that the existence of moral norms and customary practices in interactions between strangers is the immensely valuable outcome of a complex process of interconnecting networks of collaboration extending across the population of a city, with policing very low down on the scale of importance. Many of the most crucial elements of this network have more to do with urban geography — the distribution of buildings, design of streetscapes, patterns of traffic, mobility of the population, differences in wealth, etc. — than speech acts.

“'In a convincing manner’ means that the members of a moral community appeal to these norms whenever the coordination of action breaks down and present them as prima facie convincing reasons for claims and critical positions. Moral utterances are made against a background of potential means on which we can draw in moral disputes”. [p. 4]

But this relation of moral utterances to the means they draw on as to that of a background is false. The “background” is itself a product and manifestation of interaction, that is to say of collaboration, and only bears on a given “discourse” to the extent that the discourse/project is materially interconnected with the relevant means/project. These means will be very different in different cases, depending on the activity which the discourse is coordinating. For example, a worker and her employer arguing over how a job should be done in a particular workplace, will draw on a different range of ‘resources’ than, for example, musicians scoring a song together or a couple choosing a house or moral philosophers arguing about the rational basis for moral claims.

“Moral rules operate in a reflexive manner; their power to coordinate action is confirmed on two interconnected levels of interaction. On the first level, they regulate social action immediately by binding the will of actors and orienting it in a particular way; on the second level, they govern the critical positions actors may adopt when conflicts arise. ... if morality did not possess a credible cognitive content for members of the community, it would have no advantage over other, more costly forms of action coordination...” [p. 4]

From where can rules of any kind, moral rules inclusive, gain their cognitive content? If introspection is insufficient, just how much further forward are we in having recourse to shared introspection? Listening to another person’s view can help us put ourselves in their shoes in our imagination and argumentation is an important mode of learning, but still, information about other people’s thinking takes us only so far. The idea that anything can be known by reason alone can no longer be defended. Multiplication of reason into that of many different people does not resolve the problem, even if it does help us escape the narrow confines of our own experience. Clarification of ideas is possible however by means of putting them into practice, which in all but the narrowest instrumental domain of activity means collaboration with others, and it is in such collaboration that one does indeed learn what could never be discovered alone.

If we accept that ethical development is a learning process and it is in this context that we demand that moral interactions have a cognitive content, then it seems valid to utilise the concepts of learning to understand ethical and moral change. Habermas has suggested, in fact, that cultural development can be conceived of as a learning process.

“The systematically reconstructible patterns of development of normative structures ... describe a developmental logic inherent in cultural traditions and institutional change. ... If one conceives of social movements as learning processes through which latently available rationality structures are transposed into social practice, so that they eventually find an institutional embodiment ...” [Einleitung, p12, 40]

I think this insight is both true and useful. However, the only cognitive psychology that Habermas knows is that of Piaget, as indicated in the idea of “latently available rationality structures” waiting to be woken up and activated. Piaget’s theory, by Piaget’s own admission, is quite unable to account for ‘cultural’ learning.

The evidence that Piaget’s theory cannot account for cultural development (learning by a culture, posing and solving problems over a period of generations) is provided by Piaget in his work, Genetic Epistemology.

“The fundamental hypothesis of genetic epistemology is that there is a parallelism between the progress made in the logical and rational organisation of knowledge and the corresponding formative psychological processes.” [Genetic Epistemology, Piaget, 1968]

In this book, Piaget observes that the earliest forms of algebra utilised by the child are those that only appeared on the scene at the end of the history of algebra. These are the very abstract systems which were traditionally placed at the end of the mathematics curriculum. Attempts by the advocates of “modern mathematics” to implement Piaget’s theory in the 1960s and 70s, by teaching the most abstract forms of algebra to students first, before moving on to the more concrete forms, are generally accepted as having been a disaster. Not least because even the teachers didn’t understand them. The other confusion implicit in this application is the failure to recognise the difference between the acquisition of intuitive or implicit knowledge, used in practice but not yet grasped abstractly, on the one hand, and abstract knowledge that may be used to consciously reconstruct what was formerly done unconsciously. This difference is given for example in the difference between being able to speak more or less grammatically in one’s native tongue, and being able to articulate the laws of grammar and construct sentences in accordance with a grammatical rule. The latter facility is achieved only in the passage from a socialised youth to an individuated adult, whereas the former facility is acquired in the passage from an individual, unsocialised dependent child to becoming a socialised youth.

This distinction, between childhood learning and school learning, is not identical with the difference between historical/cultural learning, which always begins with supremely self-sufficient mature adults able to survive in the wild, and ends with individuals dependent for their survival on social constructs, both ideal and material. This process must be different from the ontogenetic learning process which begins with an individual child, dependent and unable to survive without the assistance of adult carers, and ends with a mature and socialised adult.

The learning processes manifested in the biological evolution of the human species, in the cultural and anthropological development of civilisation, and in the ontogenetic development of children and adults, follow quite different paths.

Consequently, the valuable insight, that historical development can be conceived of as a “learning process” helps very little until we are able to have some practical insight into the material processes underlying the different developmental logics underlying different learning processes.

Piaget’s well-known conception of the unity of accommodation and assimilation in the active learning of a child dealing with her physical environment aptly captures the developmental logic of the earliest stages of development of sensori-motor intelligence, of what we could call in the context of discussing Habermas, instrumental thinking. However, as soon as the child embarks on the process of socialisation as such, the objectivist methods of analysis used by Piaget’s team fall down. These methods were deemed appropriate for natural science in the days of classical physics and applied in human sciences such as anthropology, wherein the “observer” takes care not to interfere with or influence the subject whose behaviour is being studied. For learning is a process of socialisation which in its very essence is collaboration with other people. Society does not constitute a background to learning, or a filter or “resource” from which languages and norms can be taken when required. Nor is society an environment which applies natural selection to accidental changes in tradition or individual behaviour. Society exists for the child in and through the child’s collaboration (inclusive of conflict) with the people around her.

If a child is brought into the laboratory at regular intervals, the “observer” will indeed observe what could be taken to be an autonomous learning process, moving through stage after stage. However, what is observed is just the outcome of learning, not learning itself; the learning has been going on at home, in between sessions at the laboratory, under “uncontrolled” conditions, where the child’s parents and other members of the child’s circle, collaborate with the child, challenge her, stimulate her, discipline her, help her.

Until the scientist intervenes in the child’s activity, and helps her to learn, the learning process will remain a mystery to the scientist. By leaving the real world in which the child lived, in the background, the objectivist methods used by Piaget failed to grasp the mechanism underlying the developmental logic, which when viewed externally, took on the appearance of an already-programmed sequence of stages. Criticism of Piaget is a large, complex and controversial question, and we can only refer to it here.

So, we return to the question: if it is agreed that moral rules and norms must have cognitive content, and must be convincing, if they are to be effective in regulating the interaction of people, from whence comes this cognitive content and how does it come about that they are convincing?

We confront this problem in the specific context of the conditions of modernity. But is it adequate to describe this condition in terms of diversity of tradition, multiculturalism and secularism? Can we just take these ideological phenomena as facts from which to begin, and from which we seek to understand the life-world constituted by modernity? If we simply accept secularism and muilticulturalism as ideological facts, then we are powerless of move out of the domain of exchanging prejudices, of formal, moral discourse, disembedded and simply set against life as a background. From this standpoint, learning takes on the appearance of a combination of autonomous and independent processes on the one hand, and pedantry on the other.

I say this because traditional beliefs and religions are the ideal aspects of ways of life and relations of authority, delegation, cooperation and legitimacy, which are engaged in practical collaboration (and conflict) with one another every day. Generally speaking changes to currents of belief arise out of already acting changes in these social relations, not the other way around. Ideas do act as motivators and catalysts of change: “an idea becomes a material force when it grips the masses”. But social movements themselves only arise on definite material bases.

It is this kind of contention which Habermas has set himself against very early on in the development of his views, postulating the autonomous development of interaction independently of the relations of production, which he in turn conceives in terms of instrumental action. However, it seems to me that his too narrow conception of the labour process has acted as a “straw man” to justify an untenable autonomy given to the ideological sphere, and this severing of the ideological sphere from the domain of life, that is to say, of collaboration, has led to an idealistic conception of interaction itself. There is inherently no sharp dividing line between ideology and work; the dividing lines which exist are social constructs: churches, businesses, and other institutions built around specific social functions, rules of religious freedom and separation of church and state, the economy. The conception of ideology and work as separate domains of enquiry presupposes an existing separation of work and ideology in social life. I don’t believe that such a division is sustainable under conditions of modernity. Ideology is today one of the forces of production.

Modernity has been characterised by the growth of competing institutions of legitimacy and authority outside of an established church. These competing institutions, the secular governmental authority for one, as well as the scientific establishment, multiple churches, industry, capital, neighbourhood and extended family communities, ... operate by means of real social levers, coordinating the activity of people, as well as social movements which organise around ideas as such. The activity of individuals coordinate the interaction between these different institutions which can never be isolated from one another.

Thus, the extent to which speech acts and moral norms may be or not be binding on actors can be determined only by reference to the now-complex interweaving of these various kinds of institutions and social levers. In other words, I think it is wrong to draw from the fact that not everybody refers to one and the same sacred history as the source of authority for moral norms and rules, the conclusion that the source of authority for moral norms and rules can therefore only be rational discourse, understood in terms of rational, argumentative discourse in the idealised form in which Habermas presents it.

I fully accept that Habermas has provided something real in his description of the preconditions for argumentative discourse and the proposition that anyone entering into argument, and consenting to provide reasons for their actions or beliefs, is acting as if they rely on force of argument alone. However, what counts as a good reason and what counts as fact is always a matter of contention, and all attempts to resolve these kinds of differences will lead back, by a shorter or longer route to relations of collaboration in which the participants in a rational discourse are involved.

“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” [Theses on Feuerbach]

It is therefore in the specific relations of collaboration through which the participants in a rational discourse are interconnected that both the capacity to bind one another and the capacity to find convincing reasons will be found. Not in the background “community” in abstract.

So when Habermas talks of “the community” for which morality must have “a credible cognitive content” we have to ask what is meant by this abstraction “community”. Now it seems that Habermas has in mind the public political authority when he says “community”, for it is only the government, judiciary and police which have authority to make and enforce moral norms and rules on anyone and everyone within their borders, and it is common to talk of “the community” in this way, with the government acting on behalf of and as the community. But isn’t it a big part of the problem that in fact very few people to any significant extent regard themselves as “co-legislators” in the making of law and isn’t it precisely the public political processes which are the problem, alongside the fact that the government itself is only one among many players in determining the ethos of modern life? Surely we can only deal with the fact of multiculturalism by starting from its roots in the collaborative relations between people that is reflected in multiculturalism.

Many of the problems of modernity are in fact resolved not by argumentation but by economics — on the one hand, by the uncoordinated actions of millions of people, very often bringing a result that none of the actors individually would have wanted, on the other by the deliberative use of big money contrary to the general interest. Norms like the average full-time 44-hour working week, TV programming crammed with advertisements, declining public services and infrastructure are ethical problems which may not be resolved by reaching an understanding through argumentative discourse. We need an ethical theory that is not tied to one specific form of practice, but geared to the real conditions of modernity.

With these words of introduction, in which I have declared my standpoint, I am going to turn to page 33 of Inclusion and read through to the conclusion of Chapter 1 on page 46, following Habermas’s outline of his theory of communicative ethics.

Annotations on Inclusion of the Other

It is no accident that the categorical imperative is directed to the second person singular and that it creates the impression that each individual could undertake the required test of norms for himself in foro interno. But in fact the reflexive application of the universalisation test calls for a form of deliberation in which each participant is compelled to adopt the perspective of all others in order to examine whether a norm could be willed by all from the perspective of each person. This is the situation of a rational discourse oriented to reaching understanding in which all those concerned participate. This idea of a discursively produced understanding also imposes a greater burden of justification on the isolated judging subject than would a monologically applied universalisation test.

In the first place, this asks the impossible, for a person cannot see from the perspective of another, and in the second place, this misses the perspective which matters: our perspective. If you and I are involved in something and resort to practical discourse in order to reach an understanding, it is neither advisable not necessary that I enter into your entire interpretation of history in order to reach an understanding with you. However, it is both possible and necessary that we should reach an understanding specifically about what we are going to do together. We don’t have to solve the problems of the world between the two of us, but if we can reach an understanding about what we are going to do together, then that will undoubtedly flow on to other interactions we each have.

Kant may have been so readily inclined to foreshorten an intersubjective concept of autonomy in an individualistic direction because he failed to distinguish ethical questions sufficiently from pragmatic questions.

By this I understand that in considering what one should will, Kant gave too much attention to what the consequences of people so willing would be. If this is what meant, then I believe that Habermas is more not less guilty of this failure, because Habermas demands that we must take account of the foreseeable consequences of a norm on all those who may be affected. Big ask!

Anyone who takes seriously questions of ethical self-understanding runs up against the stubborn cultural meaning of an individual’s or a group’s historically changing interpretations of the world and of themselves. As a child of the eighteenth century, Kant still thinks in an unhistorical way and consequently overlooks the layer of traditions in which identities are formed. He tacitly assumes that in making moral judgments each individual can project himself into the situation of everyone else through his own imagination.

There is no basis for exaggerating the difference between modernity and traditional societies by supposing that there are no shared conditions of life and interests among citizens of the modern world. In fact, conditions of life and interests are shared more than ever before, and consequently, the possibility of placing oneself in another’s shoes is more ubiquitous than ever before, and that is in fact exactly the source of the demand for an “updating” of our ethical conceptions. Attention should therefore be given the shared conditions of life created by modernity rather than abstracting from them, now that we are aware that they are not entirely homogeneous.

But when the participants can no longer rely on a transcendental pre-understanding grounded in more or less homogeneous conditions of life and interests, the moral point of view can only be realised under conditions of communication that ensure that everyone tests the acceptability of a norm, implemented in a general practice, also from the perspective of his own understanding of himself and of the world. In this way 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.

Habermas’s proposed thought-experiment extends to “all those concerned”, a very problematic category. The last few words: “in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse” limit those concerned to those equipped to participate in “practical discourse”. Further, in a practical discourse everyone has an equal say, despite the fact that not everyone is affected equally. People can only and must speak in a practical discourse in their capacity as someone affected by the application of the norm. If the building of a disabled access ramp is under discussion, people may speak as payers or as users and equality would be more towards equal weight being given to payers as a group and users as a group, rather than individually. If the right to die were being discussed, people may speak about their own death or with expertise or as a carer, but has a right-to-lifer a right to speak, except in connection with their own death?

The right to speak on a subject is an important ethical question. People are entitled to ask “Is this any of your business?” On the other hand, we have the interesting exception to this is the instance where someone affected by an activity who is unable to speak for themselves, where someone’s human rights is being violated. Thus we have the issue of protection of children and so on. Children cannot participate in practical discourse, even though we can imagine what their view of child-abuse might be. Here is a distinction between the ethical question and the question of pragmatic discussion: the community steps in on behalf of the participant who is unable to speak. Habermas however excludes the person who is unable to participate in practical discourse even though they are affected by its consequences. That’s academia for you!

I began with the question of whether the cognitive content of a morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody can still be justified after the collapse of its religious foundation. In conclusion, I would like to examine what the intersubjectivistic interpretation of the categorical imperative can contribute to answering the question. Here we must treat two problems separately: First, we must clarify how much of the original intuitions a discourse ethics salvages in the disenchanted universe of postmetaphysical justification and in what sense one can still speak of the cognitive validity of moral judgments and positions (VIII). Second, there is the final question of whether the content of a morality that results from the rational reconstruction of traditional, religious intuitions remains bound, in spite of its procedural character, to it original context (IX)

At just what point in history did “equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody” exist? By “everybody” of course is always meant “everyone of us”, with religion being one of those institutions by means of which “us” is constituted; and at what point in history did “we” all enjoy equal respect next to the priests and our betters? Religious and other ideologies have in the past both constituted the “us” and established just the kind and degree of solidarity appropriate for “us”. Those institutions which have gone have been replaced by other institutions — the world market, the nation-state, corporations of various kinds and a myriad of abstract identities. It is not a question of disappearance and absence but of change and substitution.


With the devaluation of the epistemic authority of the God’s eye view, moral commands lose their religious as well as their metaphysical foundation. This development also has implications for discourse ethics; it can neither defend the full moral contents of religious intuitions (1) nor can it represent the validity of moral norms in realist terms (2).

That modernity poses the same problem for ethics that it posed for epistemology makes sense. One is therefore reminded of “The Theory of Knowledge as Social Theory”, and we anticipate the same problems.

(1) The fact that moral practice is no longer tied to the individual’s expectation of salvation and an exemplary conduct of life through the person of a redemptive God and the divine plan for salvation has two unwelcome consequences.

Firstly, I question the implication that this particular conception of God is adequate to most pre-modern societies, and secondly that heaven and hell as reward and punishment can be legitimately used to reduce pre-modern morality to pursuit of self-interest taking the after-life into account. But it is not necessary to read Habermas in that way. Let us assume that he here refers to those “sanctions” which enforce moral norms and rules in the last instance, in the same way as force is used in modern society only as last resort.

On the one hand, moral knowledge becomes detached from moral motivation, and on the other, the concept of morally right action becomes differentiated from the conception of a good or godly life.

These are interesting theses. From the first I gather that moral knowledge may come, for example, from parents, teachers, colleagues, friends, etc., while moral motivation comes from those with the authority to apply sanctions, whereas in former times, it is supposed, the priests both instructed in morality and provided access to eternal life. If this is what is meant, then it seems that motivation needs to be expanded to include positive motivation, but in any case, I don’t find it convincing. The separation is relative; very often learning what is moral is inseparable from gaining the motivation to act morally. Further, I don’t believe that moral knowledge and moral motivation were inseparable in earlier times either, surely there was also relative separation? In modern times, the various institutions of the functional division of labour provide instruction on how to achieve the good life and the rewards for success. There is also the state, which provides sanctions to each and everyone, and moral common sense built up by participation in everyday life, which infiltrates the life of institutions. But all this needs analysis. One gets the feeling that for Habermas, the players are the state on the one hand, issuing punishments (the economy giving rewards?) and conscience giving instruction on what is moral (and schools and churches?). It is not clear. Habermas does not seem to ever investigate this.

I also question this is an absolute contrast. Was there ever a time when simply obeying moral imperatives constituted the good life, for more than just one section of society?

Discourse ethics correlates ethical and moral questions with different forms of argumentation, namely, with discourses of self-clarification and discourses of normative justification (and application), respectively.

Firstly, Habermas’s use of the terms “ethical” and “moral”. By “ethical” he means knowing how to lead the good life and choosing to lead it, being able to narrate one’s own story. This is what I would call “virtue”. By “moral” he means knowing and doing right, but mainly not doing wrong, by other people. This is what I would call “duty”. But let us go with Habermas in his use of the terms.

Habermas says that discourse correlates ethical and moral questions. That’s right, but this is by no means an exclusive property of “practical discourse” in the terms envisaged by Habermas. Any discussion centred around a shared activity will achieve this correlation.

But it does not thereby reduce morality to equal treatment; rather, it takes account of both the aspects of justice and that of solidarity. A discursive agreement depends simultaneously on the non-substitutable “yes” or “no” responses of each individual and on overcoming the egocentric perspective, something that all participants are constrained to do by an argumentative practice designed to produce agreement of an epistemic kind. If the pragmatic features of discourse make possible an insightful process of opinion- and will-formation that guarantees both of these conditions, then the rationally motivated “yes” or “no” responses can take the interests of each individual into consideration without breaking the prior social bond that joins all those who are oriented toward reaching understanding in a transsubjective attitude.

OK, this is saying that if all concerned hold a meeting on the subject, everyone has the right to speak and we all pay attention to what others are saying and so on, we draft up a resolution and if we can all vote in favour of it, then the resulting resolution constitutes a just and fraternal understanding. This of course is nothing particularly new; the controversy always arises when the participants find they are not able to reach unanimous agreement on a resolution, either through lack of skill in procedure, bad will on the part of some or simply irreconcilable differences. The really interesting questions arise precisely when the participants arrive at irreconcilable differences.

Further, this hardly goes to the problems of modernity, since modernity is characterised by very extended ramifications of actions by any one person on any other across the world, difficulty in getting people to a meeting together and an infinitely wide spectrum of views needing to be reconciled. The test of Habermas’s approach then is not the idea of meeting together and coming to an understanding, but rather, how he deals with these various obstacles to reaching an understanding.

But surely Habermas really means these meetings to be thought experiments and not actual meetings. But then the whole point of the critique of Kant falls in a heap, for delving into your imagination to speculate about how a meeting might go is no better than using your imagination in the way of Kant’s formulation without Kant’s lack of confidence that the others in the meeting see things the same way. The advantage of Rawls’ thought experiment is that he modelled the position of the founding Fathers of the Republic and their successors in the High Court and Legislature. How the participants are to proceed in that case is clear. After all they are imagining themselves into events that have really taken place in the past at least. But since Habermas must imagine a meeting of everyone, and must imagine what everyone else in the meeting could be expected to agree to, the mental exercise has become impossible; it is just a fantasy.

However, uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a motivational deficit. Because there is no profane substitute for the hope of personal salvation, we lose the strongest motive for obeying moral commands.

But if this meeting where one is supposed to find mutual understanding on moral norms were to be the same collective with which one’s conception of the good life was identified, then this uncoupling would disappear wouldn’t it? This leaves of course the problem of lack of morality in relation to those with whom one has no practical relation, or to the extent that one has no practical relation.

Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse.

So true. The separation is indeed “intellectualistic” since it is truthful discourse alone, whereas “in real life” discourse is situated within a joint practice; how familiar is the figure of the skilled arguer who means well, but never delivers, in contrast to the character of the comrade who says little but is always there for you.

There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action.

Of course, because discourse and action have been separated at the outset of the analysis.

Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that “plagues” us when we act against our better judgment.

True, but our actions also affect our will and give us reasons.

But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail.

Tragedy aside, doesn’t “weakness of will” indicate that a person does not fully know themselves and is not fully able to coordinate their own activity? And isn’t the assumption of knowing oneself one of the preconditions for ethical discourse? In any case, the failure of discourse of this kind to bind the will originates from the initial separation of discourse from practical collaboration.

With the loss of its foundation in the religious promise of salvation, the meaning of normative obligation also changes. The differentiation between strict duties and less binding values, between what is morally right and what is ethically worth striving for, already sharpens moral validity into a normativity to which impartial judgment alone is adequate.

Secular life provides plenty of opportunity for the coordination of the moral and the ethical (in Habermas’s usage of the terms). God is only one such conception, which in a society with an established religion, is shared by everyone. But this does not mean that a person, even someone who must find their own destiny and write their own biography, cannot coordinate what is right and what is good. Only it is not shared by everyone, but it is not therefore subjective and individual, for people engage in definite forms of social practice, with others and within the history of those practices, and we are all at least bit players in each others’ stories. I think Alasdair MacIntyre’s conception of virtue and its exercise within historically elaborated practices is the key here.

The shift in perspective from God to human beings has a further consequence. “Validity” now signifies that moral norms could win the agreement of all concerned, on the condition that they jointly examine in practical discourse whether a corresponding practice is in the equal interest of all.

But of course, people do not simply and directly enter into the life of the entire world as such; they enter relation into with everyone else in the world through definite forms of practice. And especially when they are required to consider questions beyond their immediate radius of experience, people rely on the advice of others and figures they vest with authority. And isn’t this just what takes place within a church? People do not look directly into the mind of God, they are instructed as to the Word by priests and elders of one kind or another, just as they are advised now by news-readers, politicians, better-informed friends, etc., etc.

This agreement expresses two things: the fallible reason of deliberating subjects who convince one another that a hypothetically introduced norm is worthy of being recognised, and the freedom of legislating subjects who understand themselves as the authors of the norms to which they subject themselves as addressees. The mode of validity of moral norms now bears the traces both of the fallibility of the discovering mind and of the creativity of the constructing mind.

But this was of course always the case. Religious history, especially that of Protestantism and Buddhism, is full of disputes on the interpretation of the Word, just as civil rights lawyers argue about whether hitherto perfectly legal practice is in fact “unconstitutional”; the only thing now is that such disputes are not confined to the cloisters. It’s like 15th century Germany when everyone participates in the theological disputes of the day. And it is difficult to see the difference in content of such disputes from that proposed by Habermas, except that religious disputes are always structured by relations of authority, Papal infallibility etc.. But really God’s real intention is a form of argument which must lead back to reconstruction in the light of a conception of God. The conception of “God” is a reified form of the form of life, by this reification, made impervious to criticism. Habermas’s move is this: since one is free to think and believe anything you like, instead of a God beyond persuasion, there is the opinions of everyone else. In a sense, “public opinion” replaces God. Also, religious discourse probably pays more attention to precedent.

(2) The problem of in which sense moral judgments and attitudes can claim validity reveals another aspect when we reflect on the essentialist statements through which moral commands were previously justified in a metaphysical fashion as elements of a rationally ordered world. As long as the cognitive content of morality could be expressed in assertoric statements, moral judgments could be viewed as true or false But if moral realism can no longer be defended by appealing to a creationist metaphysics and to natural law (or their surrogates), the validity of moral statements can no longer be assimilated to the truth of assertoric statements. The latter state how things are in the world; the former state what we should do.

The issue of relativism comes up here. A statement which has claim to truth is implicitly universalist, but in general statements, especially ethical claims, have truth in relation to some historically situated project. Communicative ethics no more than any other approach can rescue universalism in ethics.

If one assumes that, in general, sentences can be valid only in the sense of being “true” or “false” and further that “truth” is to be understood as correspondence between sentences and facts, then every validity claim that is raised for a nondescriptive sentence necessarily appears problematic. In fact, modern moral scepticism is based on the thesis that normative statements cannot be true or false, and hence cannot be justified, because there is no moral order, no such things as moral objects or facts.

The situation in the sciences is where the truth or falsity of descriptive statements has to be connected to the whole scientific practice of which it is a part. That is the form in which a description of “the way things are in the world” takes. The same pertains in the domain of moral judgments. That is to say, validity claims for scientific statements are true or false in a similar way to that of moral statements, i.e., in relation to a specific project, or historically articulated practice and its associated institutions.

On this received account, the concept of the world as the totality of facts is connected with a correspondence notion of truth and a semantic conception of justification. I will very briefly discuss these questionable premises in reverse order.

The world as a totality of facts is of course inherently metaphysical, although corresponding to spontaneous consciousness which reifies concepts as facts. The world as a totality of projects makes more sense. That’s how the way things are in the world is constructed.

A sentence or proposition is justified on the semantic conception if it can be derived from basic sentences according to valid rules of inference, where a class of basic sentences is distinguished by specific (logical, epistemological, or psychological) criteria. But the foundationalist assumption that there exists such a class of basic sentences whose truth is immediately accessible to perception or to intuition has not withstood linguistic arguments for the holistic character of language and interpretation: every justification must at least proceed from a pre-understood context or background understanding. This failure of foundationalism recommends a pragmatic conception of justification as a public practice in which criticisable validity claims can be defended with good reasons.

Public discussion of scientific results is the means by which the analysis of a finite project is integrated into the diversity of interconnected practices constituting the institution of science. It is wrong to emphasise the “talking” side of this practice. People talk about something.

Of course, the criteria of rationality that determine which reasons count as good reasons can themselves be made a matter for discussion. Hence procedural characteristics of the process of argumentation itself must ultimately bear the burden of explaining why results achieved in a procedurally correct manner enjoy the presumption of validity. For example, the communicative structure of rational discourse can ensure that all relevant contributions are heard and that the unforced force of the better argument alone determines the “yes” or “no” responses of the participants.

It seems to me that the counterfactual element of everyone’s word having equal sway and the force of argument only carrying weight needs to be given some consideration. In real life, the word of people who have greater experience or a proven record in some domain counts for more. Is this inherently elitist? I don’t think so. For example, I have a right to make claims about activities with which I am intimately concerned over the word of others who have no such involvement.

The pragmatic conception of justification opens the way for an epistemic concept of truth that overcomes the well-known problems with the correspondence theory. The truth predicate refers to the language game of justification, that is, to the public redemption of validity claims.

I question that the relevant justification can validly be described as a “language game”, because this pre-supposes an independent realm of language, disconnected from practical, or non-verbal, activity. It seems that Habermas has in mind something for “pragmatic” conception of justification which allows it to be reduced to a “language game”.

On the other hand, truth cannot be identified with justifiability or warranted assertability. The “cautionary” use of the truth predicate — regardless of how well “p” is justified, it still may not be true — highlights the difference in meaning between “truth” as an irreducible property of statements and “rational acceptability” as a context-dependent property of utterances. This difference can be understood within the horizon of possible justifications in terms of the distinction between “justified in our context” and “justified in every context.” This difference can be cashed out in turn through a weak idealisation of our processes of argumentation, understood as capable of being extended indefinitely over time. When we assert “p” and thereby claim truth for “p” we accept the obligation to defend “p” in argumentation — in full awareness of its fallibility — against all future objections.

But I think this misses the point. Analysis of the sense of statements reveals them to be rationally understandable ultimately only as referable to the coordination of human action. The application of the “working hypotheses” idea to such statements does not have such a radical impact on their sense as it does to a sentence which itself makes metaphysical claims.

In the present context I am less interested in the complex relation between truth and justification than in the possibility of conceiving truth, purified of all connotations of correspondence, as a special case of validity, where this general concept of validity is introduced in connection with the discursive redemption of validity claims. In this way we open up a conceptual space in which the concept of normative, and in particular moral, validity can be situated. The rightness of moral norms (or of general normative statements) and of particular normative injunctions based on them can then be understood as analogous to the truth of descriptive statements.

In other words, scientific statements are shown to be just like what ethical statements are already obviously.

What unites these two concepts of validity is the procedure of discursively redeeming the corresponding validity claims. What separates them is the fact that they refer, respectively, to the social and the objective worlds.

But Habermas is, I believe, confused on epistemology here. If I say “concrete is hard”, and I deconstruct (so to speak) what I mean by “concrete” and “hard”, I can (and must) be able to interpret these words in terms of collaborative human actions; that is not at all to say that there are not objective natural properties involved, but they can only be verified, communicated and experienced in human terms. It should not be assumed that it is simply a process of communication; making hard concrete and establishing the truth that concrete is hard are active, practical processes, not something that can be achieved by speech alone, even if speech were sufficient for competent adults to communicate the fact. It is the same with moral norms: it is not enough to be able to communicate a norm: for it to be meaningful and proven, is an active, practical issue.

The social world, as the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relations, is accessible only from the participant’s perspective; it is intrinsically historical and hence has, if you will, an ontological constitution different from that of the objective world which can be described from the observer’s perspective. The social world is inextricably interwoven with the intentions and beliefs, the practices and languages of its members. This holds in a similar way for descriptions of the objective world but not for this world itself.

True. The objective world in itself cannot be true either. It just is.

Hence the discursive redemption of truth claims has a different meaning from that of moral validity claims: in the former case, discursive agreement signifies that the truth conditions of an assertoric proposition, interpreted in terms of assertability conditions, are fulfilled; in the latter case, discursive agreement justifies the claim that a norm is worthy of recognition and thereby itself contributes to the fulfilment of its conditions of validity.

Which underlines the fact that all such argumentation is to a greater of lesser extent a struggle. The analogous process of the way in which a statement about the objective world is self-fulfilling (or self-defeating) comes from the fact that people do have an impact on Nature. The proof of the validity of a statement about the world is tied up with the ability to create and destroy the relevant conditions, after which, the fact is no longer an objective given in the same way, but becomes part of the human world, something which we can produce. Likewise, in moral discourse, it is not enough to persuade your interlocutors that a norm is reasonable. The real point is to be able to bring it about. That is, moral norms are practical questions.

Whereas rational acceptability merely points to the truth of assertoric propositions, it makes a constructive contribution to the validity of moral norms. The moments of construction and discovery are interwoven in moral insight differently than they are in theoretical knowledge.

This is not entirely true. The assertion that a given moral norm is true does help bring it about; likewise, the declaration that people could fly or that polio is eliminable, also helps bring it about. Likewise, a moral norm has to be “workable”. Utopian claims for equality do not gain our acceptance if they are unworkable. A moral claim has to make sense as project for its realisation.

What is not at our disposal here is the moral point of view that imposes itself upon us, not an objective moral order assumed to exist independently of our descriptions. It is not the social world as such that is not at our disposal but the structure and procedure of a process of argumentation that facilitates both the production and the discovery of the norms of well-ordered interpersonal relations.

But production of a moral norm is not just a discursive project.

The constructivist meaning of moral judgments, understood on the model of self-legislation, must not be forgotten; but it must not obliterate the epistemic meaning of moral justifications either.

Which means that recognition of a moral claim requires a practical struggle, just as truth claims about the world also have to be redeemed in practice.

Now, it could be interjected here that my repeated confrontation of Habermas’s practical discourse with practice is unwarranted. At the outset of the construction of his theory, he divided thinking (and therefore activity) between instrumental (using the material world to satisfy needs), interaction with other people who must be treated as subjects not objects, and in accordance with socially constructed norms of collaboration, and emancipatory/critical in which naturalised social constructs are challenged. “Practice” is thus a word which has its proper home in the domain of interaction along with “practical”, i.e., moral, philosophy.

My own view is that this division of activity and thought cannot be sustained, but is itself the ideological reflection of the institutionalisation of a division of labour within modernity.

But apart from that, it seems clear to me that Habermas is all the time talking about discourse, and not interaction in its broader sense of including both linguistic/ideological interaction and practical/material interaction. At the end of this chapter he indeed confirms this impression by observing that the communicative ethics he has derived cannot be operationalised for any practice other than argumentation between moral philosophers.


Discourse ethics defends a morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody. But it does this in the first instance through a rational reconstruction of the contents of a moral tradition whose religious foundations have been undermined.

So here Habermas aims to reproduce what Kant did, but he does not ask how this moral tradition was practically constructed in the first place. Surely, in setting out to “rationally reconstruct” a moral order, one has some intention of going on to practically consolidate and “rationalise” that order, so wouldn’t it would be worth first asking how that moral order was practically constructed in the first place?

The sense in which a citizen of the modern world takes solidaristic responsibility for everyone is the way in which a stranger is treated with respect and civility as a human being, but is precisely not based on “rational reconstruction”, perhaps “hypothetical” discourse though. I mean it in this sense: that the essence of this moral order is that one treats somebody solidaristically, even though you've never met them, far less engaged in an ideal discourse with them. It seems to me that the “morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody” originated above all by practical interaction between people: both the practical interaction involved in the labour process and the practical interaction involved in looking out for each other while living together in cities.

If the discourse-theoretical interpretation of the categorical imperative remained bound to the tradition in which it originates, this genealogy would represent an obstacle to the goal of demonstrating the cognitive content of moral judgments as such. Thus it remains to provide a theoretical justification of the moral point of view itself.


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.

This metaphor of “background” is unfortunate; a common ‘tradition’ which provides meaning for life and motivation for cooperation is the very thing that people are trying to do with one another. I accept the lack of a moral theory and vocabulary in which people can sensibly debate moral norms as being the case. People are living in a certain way, before they are able to theorise why they are living in just that way.

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 idea of a “shared ethos” disintegrating needs clarification. In the modern world people are actually collaborating, communicating and coming in contact with one another at unprecedented intensity. In what precise sense has this shared ethos “disintegrated” for the participants? Is it the lack of trust of strangers? The lack of mutual recognition? the lack of mediation? or the character of mediation? Or is it a theoretical deficit on the part of observers (or the participants in their capacity as observers)?

The following scenario does not depict an “original position” but an ideal-typical development that could have taken place under real conditions. I proceed on the assumption that the participants do not wish to resolve their conflicts through violence, or even compromise, but through communication.

This is a really false trichotomy; conflicts can be resolved in practice, which by no means entails violence, but for example joint-experiment, the well-known “democratic-centralist” method of resolving disagreements, which may have a bad name nowadays, but can hardly be ignored, as well as temporary or permanent agreement to disagree while testing out a perspective, leaving aside the parliamentary-democratic method of getting the numbers. These procedures may imply that in the last instance the participants wish to resolve the conflict by argument, but the difference that the argument is to be resolved by in the meantime changing the conditions under which the argument is to be made is no small difference. Otherwise the participants are viewed as static, unable to be genuinely affected by the confrontation. If the status quo is viewed as factual and unchanging in this way, then the possibilities for a happy resolution are very significantly reduced.

Thus their initial impulse is to engage in deliberation and work out a shared ethical self-understanding on a secular basis.

The words “shared ... self” imply that there exists a “shared self”. The extent to which this may be appropriate is dependent on practical relations between the participants. What is the “we” which constitutes the “shared self"?

But given the differentiated forms of life characteristic of pluralistic societies, such an effort is doomed to failure.

doomed only under condition that the participants adhere to Habermas’s advice and eschew resort to practice to resolve differences!

The participants will soon realise that the critical appropriation of their strong evaluations leads to competing conceptions of the good.

But for every element that is shared there are also elements which are in common. We are not talking nowadays about conversations between (for example) invading missionaries or colonisers and indigenous people; we are probably talking about civic activists in modern, cosmopolitan societies. I.e., people who in practice are involved in a specific form of life together and all kinds of projects.

Let us assume that they nevertheless remain resolved to engage in deliberation and not to fall back on a mere modus vivendi as a substitute for the threatened moral way of life.

But this modus vivendi is not just a “mere”; there is always, and must be an element of modus vivendi in modern life! People do not want to do everything together. Privacy and autonomy are important and valued parts of modern life. Going separate ways may be an excellent solution to a particular conflict, and working out how to go separate ways, and convincing an oppressive moralist to submit to “modus vivendi” may be the problem needing to be solved.

In the absence of a substantive agreement on particular norms, the participants must now rely on the “neutral” fact that each of them participates in some communicative form of life which is structured by linguistically mediated understanding.

Yes, except I reject the characterisation “communicative”, as if it could demark a domain of interaction which excludes practical collaboration.

Since communicative processes and forms of life have certain structural features in common, they could ask themselves whether these features harbour normative contents that could provide a basis for shared orientations.

The interconnectedness of all practical life in modernity certainly does “harbour” normative contents and they do certainly provide the basis for shared orientations, but of course, they are not unitary.

Taking this as a clue, theories in the tradition of Hegel, Humboldt, and G. H. Mead have shown that communicative actions involve shared presuppositions and that communicative forms of life are interwoven with relations of reciprocal recognition, and to this extent, both have a normative content.

Yes, and it is this which needs to be considered in the first place. For example, the equal value of the labour of all people, the equal right to vote, the equal right to recognition of one’s body as inviolable.

These analyses demonstrate that morality derives a genuine meaning, independent of the various conceptions of the good, from the form and perspectival structure of unimpaired, intersubjective socialisation.

But isn’t this process of socialisation very much tied up with earning a living, finding security, love and a vocation, and a million other things which people are doing together in modern societies?

To be sure, structural features of communicative forms of life alone are not sufficient to justify the claim that members of a particular historical community ought to transcend their particularistic value-orientations and make the transition to the fully symmetrical and inclusive relations of an egalitarian universalism.

True, what is needed is to look at the material-practical forms of life and exactly how and to what extent they provide the basis for “egalitarian universalism” or not. And relations are not necessarily fully symmetrical and inclusive, for people do not want to invite everyone into their homes or give up control of their pet projects to anyone passing in the street.

On the other hand, a universalistic conception that wants to avoid false abstractions must draw on insights from the theory of communication.

Not just communication.

From the fact that persons can only be individuated through socialisation it follows that moral concern is owed equally to persons both as irreplaceable individuals and as members of the community, and hence it connects justice with solidarity. Equal treatment means equal treatment of unequals who are nonetheless aware of their interdependence.

Yes, “individuated through socialisation”, but individual children have to be socialised, before their socialisation may pass over into individuation.

What is meant by “the” community? This is in danger of prejudicing the idea of autonomy co-existing with community. Surely the target of the enquiry is the “loose ethos” which binds citizens who are also involved in communities of “thick ethos"?

Moral universalism must not take into account the aspect of equality — the fact that persons as such are equal to all other persons — at the expense of the aspect of individuality — the fact that as individuals they are at the same time absolutely different from all others. The equal respect for everyone else demanded by a moral universalism sensitive to difference thus takes the form of a nonleveling and nonappropriating inclusion of the other in his otherness.

True, but I missed the justification for this statement. The statement is pulled from intuition which up till now has received no introduction. Before we had an all-inclusive unitary community, now we have multiculturalism. This equal-but-different relation arises naturally in one-to-one relations, but is endangered by the one-to-many relation of the legislator to citizen. I don’t see that Habermas has confronted the ethical implications of scaling his thought-experiment to society-wide relations, i.e., of mediation.

But how can the transition to a posttraditional morality as such be justified? Traditionally established obligations rooted in communicative action do not of themselves reach beyond the limits of the family, the tribe, the city, or the nation.

The implication is that it is only pre-modern forms of association which generate bonds of sociability, norms of conduct and an ethos, but this is not true. Modern society is interwoven with a multiplicity of bonds of association of all sorts. Traditional morality reflected and organised traditional forms of sociability and division of labour, or collaboration. In fact, historically, these societies entered into trading relations with each other; also of course, there were the relations of domination which gave birth to the modern nation. In any case, in ancient societies, there were moral norms governing the way one should treat strangers.

However, the reflexive form of communicative action behaves differently: argumentation of its very nature points beyond all particular forms of life.

... but is very abstract and lacking in content. Exchange of products and care for the air, water, soil, flora and fauna also have these characteristics.

For in the pragmatic presuppositions of rational discourse or deliberation, the normative content of the implicit assumptions of communicative action is generalised, abstracted, and freed from all limits — the practice of deliberation is extended to an inclusive community that does not in principle exclude any subject capable of speech and action who can make relevant contributions.

There is no doubt that the idea of investigating the implicit basis for entering into rational argument provides a crucial insight into the ethical basis of modern life. But hold on a minute! To go on to talk about creating an inclusive community by the practice of rational discourse is going too far. Even while being too inclusive, it also excludes those who cannot participate in rational discourse (e.g., children) but who nevertheless must be counted as people having universal human rights. Communities are created through practical projects, and deliberation is always oriented around definite constructive projects.

This idea points to a way out of the modern dilemma, since the participants have lost their metaphysical guarantees and must so to speak derive their normative orientations from themselves alone.

But, it seems to me, what is lacking is any form of mediation in between a single, isolated individual and the entire world. And what is not mentioned is the practice in which people are involved, usually an historically developed and institutionalised practice, which provides an important basis for reflection. There must be an element of regularising relations as they are already proceeding, and identifying problems in existing intercourse as in need of solution. It is these actual activities which constitute the mediation between one individual and the whole world.

As we have seen, the participants can only draw on those features of a common practice they already currently share.


Given the failure to identify a shared good, such features shrink to the fund of formal features of the performatively shared situation of deliberation.

I guess what is meant by this is that the only thing all human-beings capable of rational discourse share, is the capability (or disposition towards) rational discourse. Obviously the words of a professional moral philosopher! But in most cases they never meet each other, far less actually engage in discourse, and yet our lives are already linked in a world-wide net of interaction at the level of practice.

The bottom line is that the participants have all already entered into the cooperative enterprise of rational discourse.

In the beginning was the Deed, however.

Although it is a rather meagre basis for justification, the neutral content of this common store may provide an opportunity, given the predicament posed by the pluralism of worldviews.

The “pluralism of worldviews” belies the unity of the world market and the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Remember, it is not so much that traditional world views have disappeared as that they have been brought into mutual contact with other traditional world-views. Plus the fact that collaboration is always possible despite differences in worldview.

A prospect of finding an equivalent for the traditional, substantive grounding of a normative consensus would exist if the form of communication in which joint practical deliberation takes place were such that it makes possible a justification of moral norms convincing to all participants because of its impartiality. The missing “transcendent good” can be replaced in an “immanent” fashion only by appeal to the intrinsic constitution of the practice of deliberation. From here, I suggest, three steps lead to a theoretical justification of the moral point of view.

“The practice of deliberation” needs to be replaced by “the deliberation of practice”. After all, the whole point is to regulate “living together”. Granted, Habermas’s idea of giving consideration to the rules of discourse by means of which people discuss together how they are going to work together is a great idea. But we cannot split the practice of talking together about doing together from the doing together itself.

(a) If the practice of deliberation itself is regarded as the only possible resource for a standpoint of impartial justification of moral questions, then the appeal to moral content must be replaced by the self-referential appeal to the form of this practice. This is precisely what is captured by:

Well, this is unjustified. It remains the case that what is being discussed is always what people want to do together, inclusive of conflict. The self-referential approach misses the point. The ethics of a particular discourse is based on the notion of the practice itself. The discourse of the Christian Church is based on the precepts of Christianity; the discourse of the women’s liberation movement reflects the precepts of women’s liberation, scientific discourse on the principles of science, etc.

(D) Only those norms can claim validity that could meet with the acceptance of all concerned in practical discourse.

There is a question as to whether Habermas’s “could” completely resolves the problem posed by Kant’s introspective appeal to Reason. In addressing itself to the entire population it remains an introspection or thought-experiment, though admittedly a superior one to Kant’s, in that Kant imagined only the idea of everyone adhering to a maxim; Habermas imagines everyone agreeing to adhere to a maxim.

Now, in a sense, all moral philosophy is thought-experiment. Einstein used thought-experiment to clarify the notions of time and space. Imagination could be applied to thought-experiments in the realm of ordinary distances and velocities, and in thought then, these actions can be extended to measurement of times and velocities which are actually beyond implementation due to the finite capacities of human beings, which can be overcome only in imagination. Likewise, we can imagine a discourse with, say, 20 people in the room together with us; the intuitions gained from this thought-experiment can then be extended in thought to a practically impossible discussion with 4,000 million people. Although the discussion could never actually be held, the thought-experiment should allow us to clarify the concepts which can be “extended” to the impossibly large context of discussions with “all those concerned.”

Let’s look at our thought-experiment. Are our participants being asked to consider moral norms that are to be adhered to by everyone present in every aspect of their lives? If so, then this is indeed restrictive, and one supposes that an extreme liberalism is the inevitable outcome, because if we are asked by a group of people to agree to something which we carry into the rest of our lives, then we are going to be very defensive. It is not just that the agreement would be very abstract (though that too), but we are choosey about what we agree with others indiscriminately. And yet we have lots of ties which we value highly, and for which we would sacrifice much in terms of autonomy.

I think the thought experiment should not be extended by increasing the number of people in the room by a factor of millions, but by multiplying the number of such discussions by millions. This is much more realistic, and consequently our thought-experiment has more chance of being judged valid. This is the advantage of Rawls’ thought-experiments: his participants act as representatives of others, thus the thought-experiments represents potentially real social relations, in which masses of people relate to one another and participate in discussions via mediation, i.e., representatives. This was also Hegel’s approach. But Habermas excludes mediation from his considerations.

John Rawls’ thought-experiment reproduces actual historical acts — the founding of a modern nation and enactment of its constitution, etc. But Rawls’ participants were delegated by anonymous electorates, and consequently the outcome is again prejudiced towards liberalism. If we were to imagine a different constitution, with a different relation between the legislators and their constituency, then we would get a different outcome. If mediation is part of our conception of the establishment of community, then we do not necessarily reconstruct the Hobbesian/liberal state. The question is: how is our nation to be founded (in imagination)?

Here the “acceptance” (Zustimmung) achieved under conditions of rational discourse signifies an agreement (Einverstandnis) motivated by epistemic reasons; it should not be understood as a contract (Vereinbarung) that is rationally motivated from the egocentric perspective of each participant. On the other hand, the principle of discourse leaves open the type of argumentation, and hence the route, by which a discursive agreement can be reached. (D) does not by itself state that a justification of moral norms is possible without recourse to a substantive background consensus.

For Habermas, the practical relation between the participants is a “background”. He leaves open whether understanding can be reached without recourse to the “background”. So D just says for a norm to be valid it has to be acceptable to everyone, without consideration yet of the practicalities of how the understanding required for validity, could be achieved or on what basis the participants themselves might judge it to be acceptable.

(b) The hypothetically introduced principle (D) specifies the condition that valid norms would fulfil if they could be justified. For the moment we are only assuming that the concept of a moral norm is clear. The participants also have an intuitive understanding of how one engages in argumentation.

And yet these seem to be substantial assumptions. People will appeal to criteria which make sense in terms of a shared project, but if there is no shared project, just a background, knowing how to make an argument under these conditions is a highly specialised skill.

Though they are assumed only to be familiar with the justification of descriptive sentences and not yet to know whether moral validity claims can be judged in a similar way, they can form a conception (without prejudging the issue) of what it would mean to justify a norm. But what is still needed for the operationalisation of (D) is a rule of argumentation specifying how moral norms can be justified.

So our thought-experiment which asked us to put ourselves into everyone else’s heads, is now extended to working out how our participants must adopt their moral point of view. This seems to me to negate the original value of the exercise.

The principle of universalisation (U) is indeed inspired by (D), but initially it is nothing more than a proposal arrived at abductively.

(U) 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.

So for a norm to be acceptable to all involved (each thinking as moral philosophers), the participants all need to know all the foreseeable relevant consequences. Get out the calculator. This brings us back to the consequences of the norm, and under conditions where the mooted consequences are clearly incalculable, since the entire globe is involved. Thus not only those who intuitively understand what is entailed in argumentative discourse are empowered here but also political economists hold a privileged position. Surely this as consequentialist as any variety of utilitarianism?

Also, the participants are to evaluate the consequences in terms of their “interests” and “value-orientations"? But who said that people evaluate in terms of “interests” and “values"? This is a measure of abstraction which cannot be taken for granted. Only the hypothetical agents of political economy work in that way.

I'd be interested to know where Habermas thinks this leaves capitalism. And if capitalism is not jointly acceptable to all concerned where does this take us? The values and orientations of the IMF bosses and the corporate killers are firmly pro-poverty, and the majority of the population of the US is unlikely to give up cheap petrol to eliminate poverty in the third world and degradation of the planet. Can these details be glossed over for the purpose of constructing universalism? In what sense are we reconstructing a tradition if, on the other hand, we find the existing way of life in flagrant and widespread violation of norms which people readily agree to in discussion? And who knows the consequences of abolishing capitalism?

Since his ethics seem to be able to describe neither the ethics of the honest law-abiding citizen of bourgeois society, who participates in the exploitation of people in the “Third World” but are not bothered by it enough to do something about it, nor those who are bothered by it and struggle for a change whose consequences they cannot know, nor the powerful elite of bourgeois society, who also mess with things whose consequences they do not know as well as willingly and actively engaging in the exploitation of other people, one wonders what real basis there is for this ethics.

Three aspects of this formulation are in need of clarification. The phrase “interests and value-orientations” points to the role played by the pragmatic and ethical reasons of the individual participants in practical discourse.

I question whether “interests” and “values” are the appropriate basic concepts here. Actually they are abstraction from a way of life. I think people act according to norms before they identify values and interests, which are a kind of quantification across a good life. Values are an abstraction from the process of exchange, and unless someone weighs up doing this against doing that, the question of value never arises. In order to make sense of pursuit of interests, it is necessary to make all sorts of complicated constructions of the self. All of these kind of mental operations add up to a liberal reconstruction of real life.

These inputs are designed to prevent the marginalisation of the self-understanding and worldviews of particular individuals or groups and, in general, to foster a hermeneutic sensitivity to a sufficiently broad spectrum of contributions.

One gets the feeling that all that is at issue is different religious doctrines and cultural mores which do not bear on the foundations of the labour process. But in any case, he’s well and truly marginalised me, because I do not operate as an “interest-maximising calculator”.

Second, generalised reciprocal perspective-taking (“of each,” “jointly by all”) requires not just empathy for, but also interpretive intervention into, the self-understanding of participants who must be willing to revise their descriptions of themselves and others (and the language in which they are formulated).

This is very noble. The capitalist, in the process of trying to reach understanding with a socialist, must be willing to describe herself as an exploiter, and the communist describe herself as a trouble-maker. I think Rawls is closer to the truth here, in terms of “overlapping consensus”. To reach understanding with someone with an alien view you have to search around to find a viewpoint which can be shared, which makes sense from both perspectives, rather than the vain hope that each can see things from each other’s point of view.

Finally, the goal of “uncoerced joint acceptance” specifies the respect in which the reasons presented in discourse cast off their agent-relative meaning and take on an epistemic meaning from the standpoint of symmetrical consideration.

All very jolly, just so long as the differences in perspective really amount to nothing. Any suggestion that the existing system of distribution is unjust is clearly ruled off the agenda. Can’t we simply recognise that modern society is riven by conflict? and unjust? Instead of trying to construct an ethics which has to be acceptable to people who are never going to agree to it (short of having their lives changed for them).

(c) The participants themselves will perhaps be satisfied with this (or a similar) rule of argumentation as long as it proves useful and does not lead to counter-intuitive results. It must turn out that a practice of justification conducted in this manner selects norms that are capable of commanding universal agreement — for example, norms expressing human rights. But from the perspective of the moral theorist there still remains one final justificatory step.

We may assume that the practice of deliberation and justification we call “argumentation” is to be found in all cultures and societies (if not in institutionalised form, then at least as an informal practice) and that there is no functionally equivalent alternative to this mode of problem solving. In view of the universality and nonsubsititutibility of the practice of argumentation, it would be difficult to dispute the neutrality of the discourse principle (D).

Well I dispute it, because (i) I am not willing to strive for understanding with someone whose practice does not line up with their words (Do as I do not as I say) (ii) a world of discourse empowers those that talk well but act differently, and (iii) It makes no sense to have such a discourse with people with whom one has no practical relation or potential for a practical relation.

But ethnocentric assumptions, and hence a specific conception of the good that is not shared by other cultures, may have insinuated themselves into the abduction of (U). The suspicion that the understanding of morality operationalised in (U) reflects eurocentric prejudices could be dispelled through an “immanent” defence of this account of the moral point of view, that is, by appealing to knowledge of what it means to engage in the practice of argumentation as such. Thus the discourse-ethical model of justification consists in the derivation of the basic principle (U) from the implicit content of universal presuppositions of argumentation in conjunction with the conception of normative justification in general expressed in (D).

The idea of the universal presuppositions of discourse is good. The trouble is still that what we have is only an ethics for discourse, and we are no closer to an ethics useful for any other joint practice.

This is easy to understand in an intuitive way (though any attempt to provide a formal justification would require involved discussions of the meaning and feasibility of “transcendental arguments”). Here I will limit myself to the observation that we engage in argumentation with the intention of convincing one another of the validity claims that proponents raise for their statements and are ready to defend against opponents. The practice of argumentation sets in motion a cooperative competition for the better argument, where the orientation to the goal of a communicatively reached agreement unites the participants from the outset. The assumption that the competition can lead to “rationally acceptable,” hence “convincing,” results is based on the rational force of arguments. Of course, what counts as a good or a bad argument can itself become a topic for discussion. Thus the rational acceptability of a statement ultimately rests on reasons in conjunction with specific features of the process of argumentation itself. The four most important features are: (i) that nobody who could make a relevant contribution may be excluded; (ii) that all participants are granted an equal opportunity to make contributions; (iii) that the participants must mean what they say; and (iv) that communication must be freed from external and internal coercion so that the “yes” or “no” stances that participants adopt on criticisable validity claims are motivated solely by the rational force of the better reasons. If everyone who engages in argumentation must make at least these pragmatic presuppositions, then in virtue of (i) the public character of practical discourses and the inclusion of all concerned and (ii) the equal communicative rights of all participants, only reasons that give equal weight to the interests and evaluative orientations of everybody can influence the outcome of practical discourses; and because of the absence of (iii) deception and (iv) coercion, nothing but reasons can tip the balance in favour of the acceptance of a controversial norm. Finally, on the assumption that participants reciprocally impute an orientation to communicative agreement to one another, this “uncoerced” acceptance can only occur “jointly” or collectively.

(i) means that discussion of anything serious must potentially involve the entire world. (ii) since arguing is an art requiring considerable education and an appropriate personality, this may be an implicit pre-supposition, but most people actually recognise the need for a kind of affirmative action, to compensate for difficulties people have in participating, (iii) meaning what you say is certainly basic, but it is well-known that people do not know themselves, and “meaning what you say” and “saying what you mean” are attributes which are rare and treasured, (iv) giving everyone an equal chance to speak actually means coercing others into not blurting out their racist and sexist prejudiced, for example. Nevertheless, the basic idea of universal presuppositions of entering into a rational argument remains, for what it’s worth. The shared project of entering into a cooperative-competitive debate for a better argument sets up a certain corresponding ethic.

Against the frequently raised objection that this justification is circular I would note that the content of the universal presuppositions of argumentation is by no means “normative” in the moral sense.

That is, the kind of “free rational discussion” required for our thought-experiment is not thereby something which we hold people ought to do; there is no normative obligation to engage in rational discussion or to help in searching for universally valid moral norms. And yet, when people are engaged in discussion around some practical project, there are a normative requirements as to how one should conduct oneself in a discussion and other interactions regulating or involved with the project, and these norms will flow from the nature of the project itself.

For inclusivity only signifies that access to discourse is unrestricted; it does not imply the universality of binding norms of action. The equal distribution of communicative freedoms and the requirement of truthfulness in discourse have the status of argumentative duties and rights, not of moral duties and rights. So too, the absence of coercion refers to the process of argumentation itself, not to interpersonal relations outside of this practice. These constitutive rules of the language game of argumentation govern the exchange of arguments and of “yes” or “no” responses; they have the epistemic force of enabling conditions for the justification of statements but do not have any immediate practical effects in motivating actions and interactions outside of discourse.

And in any case, it is only a hypothetical discourse, not a real one.

The point of such a justification of the moral point of view is that the normative content of this epistemic language game is transmitted only by a rule of argumentation to the selection of norms of action, which together with their moral validity claim provide the input into practical discourses. A moral obligation cannot follow from the so to speak transcendental constraint of unavoidable presuppositions of argumentation alone; rather it attaches to the specific objects of practical discourse, namely, to the norms introduced into discourse to which the reasons mobilised in deliberation refer. I emphasise this when I specify that (U) can be rendered plausible in connection with a (weak, hence nonprejudicial) concept of normative justification.

This justification strategy, which I have here merely sketched, must be supplemented with genealogical arguments drawing on premises of modernisation theory, if (U) is to be rendered plausible. With (U) we reassure ourselves in a reflexive manner of a residual normative substance which is preserved in posttraditional societies by the formal features of argumentation and action oriented to reaching a shared understanding. This is also shown by the procedure of establishing universal presuppositions of argumentation by demonstrating performative self-contradictions, which I cannot go into here.

I.e., if I argued that I was not interested in the force of a better argument, then by the very act of making that argument I have contradicted myself.

At least when people argued about the existence of God, they knew God’s word; here we discuss the existence of God in hope that later on we'll be about to ask him about how we should live.

The question of the application of norms arises as an additional problem. The principle of appropriateness developed by Hans Günther first brings the moral point of view to bear on singular moral judgments in a complete manner. The outcome of successful discourses of justification and application shows that practical questions are differentiated by the sharply defined moral point of view; moral questions of well-ordered interpersonal relations are separated from pragmatic questions of rational choice, on the one hand, and from ethical questions of the good or not misspent life on the other.

Well I don’t know that it’s a good idea to separate the question of moral norms, rational choice and the good life. These are of course distinct questions, but I can’t see that they can be answered separately. For example, Habermas’s caveat about “foreseeable consequences” presumes that the issue of rational choice is resolved. Habermas claimed that modernity has separated good from moral and I don’t see we can progress without overcoming this rupture. It is, in fact, participation in definite forms of practice that the good life is achieved, and it is those same forms of practice which can give a real focus to normative discourse.

It has become clear to me in retrospect that (U) only operationalised a more comprehensive principle of discourse with reference to a particular subject matter, namely, morality. The principle of discourse can also be operationalised for other kinds of questions, for example, for the deliberations of political legislators or for legal discourses.

But it fails there too, except in the sense that moral theory will be formulated through rational discourse between moral philosophers, while the actual construction of a new way of life goes on in the background. Habermas has made the project of clarifying the conditions of validity of moral norms by rational discourse the project or activity underlying his theory of ethics. Consequently, he has produced an ethics of discourse, which is restricted precisely to that activity. If, by contrast, he had taken activity as the unit of analysis, then the resulting reflections would have been able to range across the different kinds of activity within which discourse takes place. The result would have been an ethical theory of much wider applicability, relevant not only to academia, but in the outside world as well.

Is the There An Alternative?

I have referred to “exploitation” with the implication that there exists a moral norm to which exploitation is contrary. One could demand with good reason how I can justify such as an assertion, since it is to the question of how such moral norms could be justified which Habermas addresses himself. What good reasons could I bring to a discussion, which could be accepted by other participants in a moral discourse, and bring them to accept “exploitation” as contrary to a valid moral norm? Or must I rely on other criteria, in order to justify the assertion that exploitation is immoral and unjust?

To exploit someone is to take advantage of some vulnerability of a person in order to use them to attain one’s own ends at their expense. It in this sense that Marx introduced the idea of exploitation structurally inherent in the relation of wage-labour and capital. The same idea of exploitation lies at the root of the grievances of women against patriarchy. “Recognition” is related to “exploitation” by the fact that lack of recognition systematically creates the vulnerability and its exploitation. Both are connected with the structure of property relations, a.k.a., reified relations of recognition. The posing of a claim for recognition is another way in which a form of exploitation may be denounced, and both forms of claim go to the structure of property relations in the broadest sense; but the structure of property relations is usually naturalised in a given society, because through property, recognition is not granted or denied to the person as such, but mediated through the value and significance of objects or specific forms of activity or labour. Thus accusations of exploitation and failure of recognition appear as contrary to nature and common sense until the claims are established and objectified. Thus, when a claim is first raised, it is not the case that everyone affected could be expected to agree as participants in a practical discourse. Most men would never have agreed to the proposition that they were party to the exploitation of women, until the women’s liberation movement had caused a considerable amount of conflict at every level of society and more or less forced its opponents to accept the validity of the claim.

The fact is that any new claim for recognition, or any uprising against a form of exploitation or oppression, is not accepted as rational until after the claim has been substantiated and at least significantly large numbers of people start to act according to a new norm.

Further, I don’t believe that there is any objective way of determining the validity of a new claim in advance. Ethical conflicts are and must be decided in conflict and in practice, inclusive of the force of better arguments; not necessarily by violence of course, but certainly not just in words.

A rational reconstruction of modernity as it is currently constituted can only bring to light the ethical conflicts it harbours; any attempt to discover an underlying or overarching ethic which articulates across these conflicts can only constitute a premature declaration of the end of history. In the meantime, modernity is and must be a “modus vivendi”, that is, a situation in which groups of people with incompatible worldviews live side-by-side only because they have no other reasonable choice.

“Liberalism” is the ethical and political doctrine which is willing to concede new claims insofar as they can be incorporated without upsetting the “modus vivendi”. Attempts to give ethical consistency to liberalism will always fall foul of the problem that what is ethical becomes so only post facto. Liberalism is the outcome of very illiberal struggles.

Although the requirement that to be accepted as valid, a moral claim must be able to meet with acceptance in a “practical discourse” with all those who may be affected, is my view invalid, the challenge of finding a basis for moral claims which are neither metaphysical not religious remains. What I say is firstly that “all those affected” must be dropped as meaningless and prohibitive, and secondly that the unit of analysis must be an activity, inclusive of both ideal and practical components. The unit of analysis in turn resolves the problem of other-relatedness, for it is those with whom I am in collaboration and conflict who are the respondants and it is what we are doing together which the subject of deliberation.

In other words, our maxim must be: “What we do must be decided by us”.