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What is Communicative Action?

By J.Gunsch
Updated May 23, 2024
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The theory of communicative action was developed by the German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas. This theory falls under the philosophical genres of epistemology, ethics, and philosophy of language, and can be applied to social problems and politics. Communicative action explicates and lays the foundation for the importance of just democracies as well as the justification for emancipation from authoritarian political systems.

Communicative action seeks to resolve the problem of universal truths or laws in that it is difficult to extend morality across all cultures due to differing values and belief systems. This relativism prevents others from getting involved or judging conditions that may be inhumane or harmful to people on a local or global perspective by citing cultural differences. Communicative action asserts that through systematic discussion, universal truths and codes of appropriate conduct can be uncovered in a way that everyone involved may reach agreement and can benefit from equally.

Communicative action applied would ideally create a just society where all members follow the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have done to you”. In other words, communicative action generally rests on the ability for everyone to adopt each other's individual perspectives, and from that starting point, develop actions which would have just consequences for everyone. Without taking the view point of another, we risk acting out of ignorance or minimizing conditions that may cause much suffering to others.

Communicative action seeks to falsify ideas of relativism; that each culture or community has belief systems that cannot extend universally because of cultural practices and experiences. To begin, the theory of communicative action weakens this idea with the foundational assertion that reason is a universal capacity inherent in all human beings. It follows that if reason is the foundation of moral and ethical action, then reason alone can prescribe some universal moral truths and political laws.

Communicative action is systematically conducted in the following three steps. First all, affected members of a society or community set out to adopt a universal, impartial principle. Everyone must acknowledge the perspectives of others so as to create a balance of interests. Secondly, through discourse, a moral claim can only be made if everyone approves. Finally, no one is to be coerced into accepting a condition. They must be aware and freely choose to be affected by any and all benefits and consequences that result.

The rational discourse that results from communicative action has a trickle-down effect. By determining and laying out universal moral truths, communicative action can be applied on a smaller scale to mediate and solve acute conflict and crisis within a group. Communicative action aims to lay the groundwork for positive social change, but in the same light opens up justifications for one community involving themselves with other groups where their action may be considered controversial.

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