A discourse ethics


Many thinkers of the modern period have recognized that open dialogue can benefit our individual decision-making. John Stuart Mill clearly argues this in On Liberty: “There must be discussion to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinion and practices gradually yield to fact and argument…”(Mill, 41)

Such a focus on the importance of dialogue is an especially key component of one Neo-Kantian approach that has developed out of critical theory (a social theory first developed in the mid-twentieth century) — namely discourse ethics. While Kantian in inspiration, discourse ethicists are very critical of Kant’s general “formal” and  subjectivist approach to reason, arguing that (a) individual reasoning is always already contextualized by our social background conditions in ways Kant did not clearly recognize; and (b) dialogue also facilitates better subjective reasoning. We should thus reflect on and implement conditions that facilitate rational dialogue; and, we should engage in dialogue with the aim of generating consensus around universal principles.

If we are to attempt, as Kant would have us, to generate for ourselves a set of principles for action that are rational, or even if we want to generate codes for the government or institutions, like hospitals or universities, that are as reflective of as broad an array of relevant interest groups as possible, we would do well to think about the procedures and various conditions for such dialogue and to implement the best procedures for fair and inclusive argument. We would then do well not simply to rationally examine our consciences in isolation, but to include others in a dialogue to see what insights they might have.

In its depiction of the concrete conditions for ideal dialogue, discourse ethics has a dual focus on (a) procedure for the dialogue, and (b) the competences of those involved in the dialogue. Juergen Habermas, who is the best known proponent of this ethics, highlights that the procedure should aim for inclusiveness, equality among the participants, and freedom from domination and coercion. The speakers competencies should include the ability for consistency in thought,  sincerity, the focus on reaching outcomes that can be accepted by all, and the like. The dialogue should be set up so that the argument that is ultimately agreed upon is accepted because of “the force of the better argument,” not because of irrational factors that could play a role in generating agreement.

To elaborate a bit: Discourse ethicists think it is important that we do what we can to ensure, for example, that the agreement is not generated because of peer pressure, fear of punishment by those in authority, or the manipulation of facts. This requires the sincerity of those involved, for example, that they not be trying to manipulate others in the dialogue, or that they not threaten them with punishment of some kind — maybe job loss, if we are speaking of a dialogue in a company, or bad recommendations, the threat of a refusal to to be promoted and so on.

Though there is reason to doubt that we can achieve the ideal that Habermas described in his early work (the “ideal speech situation”), or reach  consensus on many substantive questions of ethics that are not procedural, it is in the spirit of discourse ethicists to maintain that we create at least fairer outcomes in the use of reason the more we approximate this ideal and organize dialogue in a way that facilitates fair and equal voice by speakers who have the requisite competences. For greater success in reaching a Kantian ideal, we need to rationally structure the context that influences and frames our thinking; and we then need to engage in honest dialogue with competent speakers who are not merely strategically reasoning to achieve their own special interests but who are aiming to achieve consensus.

In concrete settings

Applied to concrete questions, discourse ethics argues, first, for broad scale structural change to society so that there is greater equality of opportunity and groups against whom there has traditionally been prejudice or exclusion from positions of power are given access. Second, in everyday institutions, discourse ethics often argues for the value of diversity and for nonhierarchical organizational structure. Committees and workgroups in various domains, discourse ethicists will argue, will benefit from the diverse perspectives of many of those who have not had a voice in society; and those committees, workshops and the like should be organized so that all participating have an opportunity to participate equitably.

Applying the perspective of discourse ethics to a hospital ethics board, for example, we would likely want to ensure that representatives of all groups affected by the policies are at the table and have effectual input in the conversation.

Expert boards

Expert boards would still often be needed. But, from the point of view of discourse ethicists given structural inequalities there are likely to be issues with many such boards. Specifically, because there has been inequity in who has access to positions of influence in our society, there is a good chance that many expert boards, like the panel of ethics and medical experts under discussion, might predominantly reflect the perspectives of a subset of the groups affected by the policies. It is not uncommon today, for example, to still see such boards largely comprised of Caucasian males. Though this may be difficult to address in the short-term, over the long-run discourse ethicists would highlight the need to try to ensure that people from all social groups have the possibility to train in areas that would eventually make them suitable to be expert members of these and other such boards that right now are generally comprised of less diverse subgroups of society.

The need for non-experts

None of that means that even existing expert groups, however, would have no participation from historically under-represented social groups. On many such boards — certainly on the kind of ethics board under disccussion — there is a need for non-experts who could reflect on possible outcomes that the experts might not be aware of, given the social position of these non-experts outside the dominant group, for example.

Is discourse ethics reductive?

One concern with the approach of discourse ethics is that it might seem that its position that individuals tend to reflect their respective social groups is reductive. Surely not every woman represents the woman’s voice, every African-American, the African-American voice, and so on. People are not so identified with their group identities as women or African-Americans or what have you that they cannot think independently. There are certainly many times when a particular white male might agree with a particular African American more than another African-American does. Similarly, a particular African American man might agree with a particular woman more than another woman does, et cetera.

The position here outlined need not assume such reductionism. No woman need be reduced to a woman’s voice, and no African American or Caribbean need be reduced to the voices of their respective subcultures. The idea is rather that, in aggregate, representatives from these diverse communities would likely express relevant concerns or perspectives (of those groups that they belong to) that would not typically be known to a group of Caucasian male doctors or ethicists. It involves a tendency of aggregates.

Diversity beyond typical identity groups

Discourse ethicists would typically underline the importance of diversity or representation in social institutions and organizations, not only from different gender and ethnic groups, but also in some cases from economic classes, or perhaps even from groups representing nonhuman interest groups, like animals or nature. Voice alone however will often not be enough. It is also important that it be effectual. In various cases, thus voting would also be appropriate to ensuring consequential voice.


In sum, it is important to see that discourse ethics is fundamentally critical of the subjectivist view of reason. Reason is reflected in social processes and its use is affected by how we set up our organizations in the real world. Of primary importance are the basic legal structures of a society. These can be set up formally or have informal practices that exclude people from certain possibilities, for example. These have a fundamental impact on how people understand good and bad, right and wrong, and so on. However, the way we set up interaction in our various more local social organizations is also important and impactful. At both the macro and micro levels, we will benefit from trying to create conditions that allow voice for as many people who are affected by the institutions under discussion as possible. In the everyday work in our lives, whether in government, business, in the nonprofit public sector, creating conditions for collaboration and dialogue on important issues will facilitate more rational outcomes. This is especially important for the rule and policies of the organizations that affect all those involved in them. Discourse ethics will emphasize what affects all should, as far as possible, be decided by all.

Addendum on Habermas and Kant

While discourse ethics is neo-Kantian, it does not have many of the elements of Kant’s original theory. Besides the focus on dialogue rather than subjective reflection I will highlight three more differences. 1) It does not focus on a good will. A good will is important, since it is the condition of sincerity needed for dialogue aimed at understanding. But Habermas would balk at the idea that the good will is the only thing good in-itself. 2) Discourse ethics also doesn’t abstract from consequentialist thinking in the way Kant does. Habermas fundamentally has a pragmatist orientation and sees our thinking in various domains as related to human needs and interests. Discourse is valuable precisely because it has been shown to lead to more rational consequences. 3) The focus of discourse ethics is on a general theory of justice much more than a thick theory of the good. While Habermas is one of the most optimistic European political theorists/ethicists of his generation that we can reach consensus about some elements of procedural justice, he does not have the same optimism about consensus on a broad theory of the good life. By contrast, he thinks the best theory of justice available is one that allows political cohabitation in a cosmopolitan order of people with diverse thick conceptions of the good life.

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