It is nigh impossible to think of ‘the ethical’ or moral consciousness outside of the sphere of language (i.e. Communication)”. A discussion in relation to the work of Jurgen Habermas.
By Roy Hornsby

“Neo-historicism bases itself upon a supposition which is represented today in practical philosophy by the neo-Aristotelians. It is supposed that a praxis makes itself understandable and allows itself to be judged only in relation to the life contexts and traditions in which it is embedded. That is plausible, as long as we can have confidence that practices, as they are passed on and endure from one generation to another, prove their worth only on the basis of this stability of tradition. This conviction expresses a type of anthropological basic trust [Urverlrauenj].

Historicism lives off this trust. Such trust is not completely unintelligible. In some way we do rely – in spite of all the spontaneous, natural bestiality in the history of the world – upon a deep-seated layer of solidarity in the face-to-face intercourse of human beings with one another. The questionless continuity of what is handed down to us also draws its sustenance from this trust. “Tradition” means just that we carry something forward as unproblematic which others began before us. We imagine normally that these “forerunners,” if they were to meet us face-to-face, could not totally deceive us, could not play the role of a deus malignus. I believe that exactly this basis of trust was destroyed at the threshold of the gas chambers.

The complex preparation and the elaborate organisation of a coolly calculated mass murder, in which hundreds of thousands, indirectly a whole people, were entangled, was carried out with an air of normality. It was straightforwardly dependent upon the normality of a highly civilised social intercourse. The monstrous occurred without interrupting the smooth breathing of everyday life. Since then a conscious life is no longer possible without distrust for continuities that assert themselves without question and also want to draw their validity out of their questionlessness.”
Habermas, J., Ethics, Politics and History, from an interview conducted by Jean-Marc Ferry.

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The feeling that is revealed in the preceding interview and the significant references to both the solidarity of the face-to-face intercourse between human beings and the perfidy involved within an apparently normalised social intercourse suggests that it was not possible for Jurgen Habermas to contemplate ‘the ethical’ or moral consciousness and disregard the spheres of language and communication. The aim of this paper is to discuss the work of Habermas in relation to these issues.

It is not hard to imagine that Habermas and other German philosophers of the post Imperial Europe in the 1950’s must have recognised that there was a need to redeem modernity. The Jewish/German thinkers had suffered during the Holocaust and were asking themselves how the allies could be so barbarous in the age after the enlightenment as to turn their backs on the suffering minority groups. It had become hard to conceive of a ‘kingdom of ends’ after the horrors of the Second World War in Germany had revealed a ‘kingdom of means and barbarity’. It is also easy to imagine that Habermas sought to question his predecessor’s theories and their critiques of modernity and rather than extend the philosophy of history, Habermas turned to the philosophy of language in order to find something that may contain ethics and morals.

In his inaugural lecture at Frankfurt University in 1965, Habermas proclaimed that:

“The human interest in autonomy and responsibility [Mundigkeit] is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori. What raises us out of nature is the only thing whose nature we can know: language. Through its structure, autonomy and responsibility are posited for us. Our first sentence expresses unequivocally the intention of universal and unconstrained consensus.” (McCarthy, 1978, p. 287)

The theory of communicative competence is an attempt to make good this claim by reconstructing the normative basis of speech as a system of “universal and necessary” validity claims. The rationale behind the need to identify and reconstruct the universal conditions of possible understanding is that language cannot be comprehended unless an understanding is achieved in it. Understanding is the function of speech but that does not necessarily mean that every speech action is oriented toward reaching an understanding. However, when validity claims are suspended due to deceit of some kind the communication becomes parasitic upon speech oriented towards understanding. (McCarthy, 1978).

Habermas made various attempts to develop a program of the reconstruction of a corrupted historical materialism. Not coincidentally, he was working on a theory of communicative action at the same time. He felt that the theory needed revision in many respects and reconstruction, as opposed to ‘restoration’ or ‘Renaissance’, was the way to deal with it as it signifies taking the theory apart and putting it back together again. He felt that the theory of communication could solve not only problems of a philosophical nature but perhaps also help to solve problems relating to theories of social evolution. He felt that there had always been a danger of slipping into a bad philosophy while ever there was an inclination to suppress philosophical questions in favour of a scientistic understanding of science. This he relates back to a theoretical tradition of Marx and adds that the kind of knowledge that can decide the creditability of historical materialism is in the choice of the basic concepts that determine the object domain of communicative action (Habermas, 1976).

Habermas claimed further that the bourgeois consciousness had become cynical, that their ideals had gone into retirement and that there were no longer any norms and values that immanently might appeal with the expectation of an agreement. He then proceeds with a statement that is influential in relation to the thesis of this paper:

“A philosophical ethics not restricted to metaethical statements is possible today only if we can reconstruct general presuppositions of communication and procedures for justifying norms and values.
In practical discourse we thematise one of the validity claims that underlie speech as its validity basis. In action oriented to reaching understanding, validity claims are “always already” implicitly raised…….If this is idealism, then idealism belongs in a most natural way to the conditions of reproduction of a species that must preserve its life through labor and interaction, that is, also by virtue of propositions that can be true and norms that are in need of justification.” (1976, p. 97).

Further to this Habermas says that there are connections between communicative action theory and the foundations of historical materialism but that, after examination of individual assumptions of evolutionary theory, there are problems necessitating a reflection on communications theory. He continues:

“Whereas Marx localised the learning processes important for evolution in the dimension of objectivating thought – of technical and organisational knowledge, of instrumental and strategic action, in short, of productive forces – there are good reasons meanwhile for assuming that learning processes also take place in the dimension of moral insight, practical knowledge, communicative action and the consensual regulation of action conflicts……..In its developmental dynamics, the change of normative structures remains dependant on evolutionary challenges posed by unresolved, economically conditioned, system problems and on learning processes that are a response to them. In other words, culture remains a superstructural phenomenon, even if it does seem to play a more prominent role in the transition to new developmental levels than many Marxists have heretofore supposed. This prominence explains the contribution that communication theory can, in my view, make to a renewed historical materialism.” (1976, p. 97 – 98).

Clearly, Habermas is uncomfortable with the deficiency and deterioration of what he describes as a corrupted situation and is energetically positioning his argument in the direction of a communicative ethics. He comments that law and morality mark the core domain of interaction and specialise in maintaining an endangered intersubjectivity of understanding in cases of action conflicts (Habermas, 1976).

Initially, Habermas builds his work upon Kant of whose Categorical Imperative he says:

“Although Kant opts for the grammatical form of an imperative (“Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”), his categorical imperative in fact plays the part of a principle of justification that discriminates between valid and invalid norms in terms of their universability: what every rational being must be able to will is justified in a moral sense.” (1990, p. 197)

He does not totally diverge from Kant’s universalism but additionally embraces Aristotelian prudential ethics of the contingently situated person with the tenet of man as a doing creature who is also in possession of speech. To some degree he retains Kant’s Categorical Imperative but scales it down to a principle of universalisation (U) with ‘discourse ethics’ by a procedure of moral argumentation (Habermas, 1990).

Habermas’s theory builds upon the premise that human beings are unique rational creatures that possess the ability to converse with each other without necessarily being dominated by coercion or instinct and he recognises the ‘vulnerability’ of the individual. Where we have the power to counteract the vulnerability of others who have become individuated through socialisation, ‘moral intuitions’ instruct us on how to be thoughtful and considerate. There is interdependency between the individual and the collective in a shared ‘life-world’ [Lebenswelt] and it is the communicative action of its members that produces a ‘language community’ (Habermas, 1990). ‘Life-world’ is the schema that you carry with you in an everyday sense, something that can be used to make judgments of reality and to help build a self-understanding of who you are. It is symbolic of how we may hope to orient ourselves as beings in relation to other beings. Habermas also points out that he must prove his ethics to be universalist and not just the prejudicial reflection of an adult, well educated, white, Western male of today (Habermas, 1990).

In the idealised ‘life-world that Habermas conceptualises, cases of disagreement ought to be brought to agreement by argument as much as possible. Here, communicative action might be the mechanism by which agreement is brought about. What this means is that some kind of agreement is achieved that is considered fair and just by all individuals involved. And nobody is forced to do what he/she is not convinced that he/she morally should do or tolerate (Wellmer, 1985). Habermas contends that practical discourse is an exacting form of argumentative decision making:

“Argumentation insures that all concerned in principle take part, freely and equally, in a co-operative search for the truth, where nothing coerces anyone except the force of the argument.” (1990, p. 198)

An agreement, once reached, can be called rational in the sense that no arguments are brought forward against it, nor are any suppressed (Wellmer, 1985).

Of his argument that interactions are communicative, Habermas says:

“The participants co-ordinate their plans of action consensually, with the agreement reached at any point being evaluated in terms of the intersubjective recognition of validity claims. In cases where agreement is reached through explicit linguistic processes, the actors make three different claims to validity in their speech acts as they come to an agreement with one another about something. Those claims are claims to truth, claims to rightness and claims to truthfulness……Further, I distinguish between communicative and strategic action. Whereas in strategic action one actor seeks to influence the behavior of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification in order to cause the interaction” (1990, p. 58).

Habermas takes a cognitivist approach to moral philosophy when he says:

“I hold the view that normative rightness must be regarded as a claim to validity that is analogous to a truth claim. This notion is captured by the term “cognitivist ethics.” A cognitivist ethics must answer the question of how to justify normative statements….. Only those norms may claim to be valid that could meet with the consent of all affected in their role as participants in a practical discourse….. For a norm to be valid, the consequences and side effects of its general observance for the satisfaction of each person’s particular interests must be acceptable to all.” (1990, p. 197),

How best to justify a normative statement is a most important question facing a cognitive ethicist.

For the research program aimed at reconstructing the universal validity basis of speech Habermas proposes the name of ‘universal pragmatics’ (Habermas, 1976) the initial task of which is the reconstruction of the general presuppositions of consensual speech actions [Sprechhandlungen] (McCarthy, 1978). These speech actions rest on a background consensus formed from the reciprocal uprising and mutual recognition of four types of validity claims:

“The speaker has to select a comprehensible expression in order that the speaker and hearer can understand one another; the speaker has to have the intention of communicating a true propositional content in order that the hearer can share the knowledge of the speaker; the speaker has to want to express his intentions truthfully in order that the hearer can believe in the speaker’s utterance (can trust him); finally, the speaker has to select an utterance that is right in the light of existing norms and values in order that the hearer can accept the utterance, so that both speaker and hearer can agree with one another in the utterance concerning a recognised normative background.” (McCarthy, 1978, p. 288)

Primarily the discussion to this point has been about the moral philosophy of Habermas. We need to now turn to the subject of discourse ethics. Firstly, what is a discourse? If a phonological or lexical sign is the basic unit of language then the sentence is the basic unit of ‘discourse’. Linguists refer to language systems or linguistic codes and discourse can be described as a language-event or language usage. The linguistics of the sentence supports the theory of speech as an event (Ricouer, P. 1977). Ricouer retains four traits from the linguistics of the sentence which elaborate the event of a discourse;

1. The instance of ‘discourse’ is always realised temporally and in the present.
2. The instance of discourse is self-referential as it refers back to its speaker by a complex set of indicators such as personal pronouns.
3. In discourse the symbolic function of language is actualised as it refers to a world which it claims to describe express or represent.
4. In discourse all messages are exchanged and in this sense, discourse has not only a word, but also another person or interlocutor to whom it is addressed (1977, p. 317).

 Discourse can only take place where there are at least two participants and Habermas says that discourse ethics prevails on the following two propositions:

i. Normative claims to validity have cognitive meaning and can be treated like claims to truth.
ii. The justification of norms and commands requires that a real discourse be carried out and thus cannot occur in a strictly monological form, i.e., in the form of a hypothetical process of argumentation occurring in the individual mind. (Habermas, 1990, p. 68).

 Habermas uses the three types of rules that Alexy describes to acknowledge the normative presuppositions of a practical discourse. Firstly, the logical-semantic rules of argumentation are:

(1.1) No speaker may contradict himself.
(1.2) Every speaker who applies predicate F to object A must be prepared to apply F to all other objects resembling A in all relevant aspects.
(1.3) Different speakers may not use the same expression with different meanings (Habermas, 1990, p. 87)

 He notes that presuppositions of argumentation at this level have no ethical content. The rules of jurisdiction and relevance at the second level do have some ethical content.

(2.1) Every speaker may assert only what he really believes.
(2.2) A person who disputes a proposition or norm not under discussion must provide a reason for wanting to do so (Habermas, 1990, p.88).

 The third level of rules that Alexy puts forth is:

(3.1) Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.
(3.2) a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.
b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.
c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs.
(3.3) No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (3.1) and (3.2) (Habermas, 1990, p. 88).

 Habermas stresses that discourse rules are merely the form in which we present the adopted and known pragmatic presuppositions of a special type of speech, not the rules as in the rules for a game of chess for instance (Habermas, 1990).

Because rational human beings recognise that they are vulnerable and seek collaboration with others in their community, Habermas has devised a moral principle (U) that every valid norm must fulfil:

(U) All effected can accept the consequences and the side effects its general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests (and these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation) (1990, p. 65).

 Habermas introduces (U) as a rule of argumentation and says that it makes agreement in practical discourses possible whenever matters of concern are open to regulation in the equal interests of everyone. He then formulates the principle of discourse ethics (D) which stipulates:

(D) Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse (1990, p. 66).

 Discourse ethics is founded not on the ‘I’, but more correctly on the ‘we’ and on the basis of a ‘mutual understanding’ between all parties. Habermas questioned how it is that a ‘mutual understanding’ is arrived at and surmised an oral transaction between two or more speaking human beings to be the glue of mutuality. Within the forms of communication there rests an implicit recognition of the other ‘I’. If the two ‘I’s’ can be referred to as subjects and there exists a discourse between those subjects then there exists an ‘inter’- subjectivity which has the potential for mutuality. We look for discourse ethics in the life-world of the ‘inter’.

Habermas observed the actuality of what ‘is’ human association and contemplated how those relationships ‘ought’ to be. The ‘ought’ refers to the expectation that citizens who are committed to the ethics of discourse find it reasonable that we should respect the rights and liberties of others. In deliberation of what constitutes the ‘good life’ and ‘how we should live’, Habermas could not avoid recognising the very tenet of our humanness – the ability that we possess to communicate through discourse and reach mutual understanding with each other.


Habermas, J. 1976, Communication and the Evolution of Society, Polity Press, Great Britain.

Habermas, J. 1990, Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Habermas, J. 1990, ‘Ethics, Politics and History’, from an interview conducted by Jean-Marc Ferry in Philosophy and Social Criticism, ed. D. Rasmussen, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McCarthy, T. 1978, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ricouer, P. 1977, ‘The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text’ in Understanding and Social Inquiry, eds. F. Dallmayr & T. McCarthy, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Wellmer, A. 1985, ‘Reason, Utopia and the Dialectic of Enlightenment’ in Habermas and Modernity, ed. R. Bernstein, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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