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What Is Discourse Ethics?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Discourse ethics has two principle aims: to find ethical truths through discussion and to set the ethics of discourse. There are four governing principles of discourse ethics, including sincerity, openness, respect, and fair self-examination. With this in mind, Jurgen Habermas, one of the founding thinkers on ethics in modern discourse, said that "the better argument prevails." His ideas and those of his fellow thinkers have been criticized for being too utopian, however, and for ignoring the issues of prejudice.

Also called argumentation ethics, the discipline is built on the ideas of Habermas and fellow German philosopher, Karl-Otto Apel. Both built their works on Immanuel Kant's moral theory as well as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's criticisms of Kant. Philosophers such as Hans-Hermann Hopp, Stephan Kinsella, Frank van Dun, and Roger Pilon have helped to develop libertarian theories on discourse ethics.

Certain presuppositions underlie discourse ethics, and help to guide how such discussions should be conducted. Based on Kant's moral theory, the discussion should be open to any person who is able to speak and where an expression's meaning is mutually understood by all participants. Furthermore, no arguments should be omitted by anyone, and the ultimate aim of all participants is to discover the best argument. These principles as laid down by Habermas and Kant led to to the development of three ideas of discourse ethics: cognitivism, justice vs. good, and universalization.

Cognitivism is the belief that logic can be applied to ethical issues. This means that the resolution of a moral issue does not have to be made in relation to religious teachings or gut feeling. Instead, rational thought can, through logical processes, decide upon an unbiased and reasoned truth.

Justice versus good has been equated with the living world and the imagined world; this is to say that justice is the real world and good is the imagined. Morals, it is argued, are the product of the mind and the dream world and morality is therefore the justification of accepted practices. Justice, on the other hand, comes about by the application of impartiality.

Impartiality also plays a role in universalization. In this idea, all participants in an ethical dilemma have the moral or universal duty to maintain the guiding principles set out in the presuppositions. Habermas believes the side effects of total impartiality — emotional reactions to decisions that go against prevailing morals — are preferable to the alternative. The alternative is censure and prejudice. By adhering to these principles, participants and institutions can apply rigorous self-examination and will also be free of coercion.

The freedom of the individual from coercion is the founding principle of libertarian discourse ethics. Libertarianism states that equal rights and non-aggression are key to the achievement of genuine discourse. Therefore, libertarians believe all humans should be free from coercion of any kind and that any aggressor is unable to morally oppose punishment.

A number of criticisms have been leveled at discourse ethics. First, it has been accused of being too utopian and therefore too impractical. Furthermore, Hegel believes that despite attempts to remove ethics in discourse away from the history and culture, it is still bound by it. It has also been accused of ignoring issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality, but this makes sense because if discourse is to be totally utopian and free, then such things should not matter at all because all participants are 100 percent equal.

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Discussion Comments
By anon984887 — On Jan 12, 2015

Should we not aspire to unbiased, ethical debate? Should we not strive to achieve it? I think that every day, everyday people achieve outcomes in multi party scenarios which have large parts of discursive ethics engaged and informing those outcomes. While an assumption of complete impartiality may be impossible to make, the very act of discourse and of virtuous intent, aligned with cognizance and principle, might often lead to a just resolution.

I personally think that it may be as necessary to the development of ethical practice as is the commitment to ethical practice itself.

By burcinc — On Mar 26, 2014

@bear78-- That's not true. Anyone can participate in discourse if the discourse is ethical. It doesn't matter how much he or she knows, it's about contributing with sincerity.

In ethical discourse, participants do not judge or label one another, the goal is to gain new insight about an issue or topic and that can only occur if different people with different backgrounds and opinions participate.

I also don't think that this type of discourse is unethical. It might not be easy and it does require effort and some understanding of what ethics is. But it's certainly not impossible.

By bear78 — On Mar 25, 2014

I agree that discourse ethics is a sort of utopia. How can discussions be open to everyone? Not everyone is knowledgeable enough about a subject to participate in discussion. So that by itself limits who can participate.

By serenesurface — On Mar 25, 2014

What discourse ethics basically foresees or aims for is "open discourse." But I don't think that discourse can be 100% open because as the article said, people have prejudices.

We all carry certain ideologies and worldviews. Some of them are our conscious ideas that we have thought about critically. Some of our ideologies however are subconscious and affect the way we see and understand information, as well as how we discourse.

Although we can gain to discourse as openly as possible, the discussion will never be a completely open one. It's just not realistic in my opinion.

What does everyone else think about this issue?

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