Moral conscience and communicative action

Paulo Pasta: Yellow Cross, 2008 Oil On Canvas 240 X 300 cm (2715)


Presentation of the new Brazilian edition of the book by Jürgen Habermas.

Published in 1983, shortly after the Theory of communicative action, the present book by Jürgen Habermas, Moral conscience and communicative action, contains, in addition to articles that defend and illustrate the work of the reconstructive sciences, the important text that lays the theoretical foundations of discourse ethics. Dedicated to Karl Otto Apel, the book consists of four articles.

The first two, shorter, are based on lectures given in the previous two years: the first of them, “Philosophy as a keeper of place and interpreter”, exposes the proposal of a division of labor between empirical and philosophical research inspired by the genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget; the second, “Reconstructive social sciences versus understanding”, takes Lawrence Kohlberg's moral theory as a model to clarify the interpenetration between causal explanations and reconstructive hypotheses.

The third and fourth articles are the most ambitious, and voluminous, in the book: the long essay in which he expounds the foundational program of discourse ethics, “Discourse Ethics: notes for a foundational program”, and the other extensive essay, which gives title to the book, “Moral conscience and communicative action”, in which Jürgen Habermas tries to put into practice the recommended division of labor between empirical and philosophical research with Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of the development of moral conscience. Thus, the two central tasks of the book consist of, on the one hand, characterizing and directing the work to be carried out by the reconstructive sciences and, on the other hand, laying the foundations of a very important new reconstructive science: discourse ethics.

Discourse ethics – says Jürgen Habermas in this book we are presenting – “refers to (and is itself dependent on) a theory of communicative action” (p.214). The same happens with the most important reconstructive sciences that try to unravel the universal structures of linguistic communication or other human competences. However, although the reconstructive sciences are especially linked to the concept of communicative action, their role has not been explicitly developed in Theory of communicative action published two years earlier. In it, developments of the most important reconstructive science so far, universal pragmatics, do appear, but they are interspersed in the parts of the book called “Intermediate considerations”, always in outline form and subject to more in-depth analysis.

In a way, Habermas builds the theory of communicative action presupposing developments to be carried out by the reconstructive sciences, developments that ended up not being fully carried out either by Jürgen Habermas or by other authors. We have to recognize, in this sense, our author's admirable ability to construct theory assuming entire research programs yet to be developed.

The fact is that, in this 1983 collection, and still in the wake of Theory of communicative action, the strongest and most ambitious theses appear on the role that the reconstructive sciences should play, still seen as promising. We know today that the fate of these sciences was not what was expected. There is, however, an exception. Discourse ethics was the only part of the broad project of the reconstructive sciences in which Habermas continued to work, and it was the revision of the theses originally defended there that led the author to the new stage that begins with the publication of Facticity and validity. Not by chance, the book Moral conscience and communicative action is often remembered for the seminal essay devoted to the discourse ethics substantiation program.

In a sense, the vicissitudes of discourse ethics provide us with the guiding thread for understanding the development of all of Habermas' subsequent theory of law and democracy. It seems opportune to remember the original theses and some landmarks of the long journey started in that 1983 book.

The ethics of discourse

It is worth remembering the main theoretical steps that lead to the foundation of discourse ethics, as exposed in the 1983 book:

– The research that leads to discourse ethics has as its starting point an analysis of types of social actions in which it is shown that social action cannot be conceived as a strategic interaction, being, in fact, an action oriented towards understanding, or communicative, in which actors are guided by validity claims linked to speech acts. This step depends, in turn, on an analysis of the communicative use of language. The central idea is that linguistic communication cannot be modeled instrumentally. Language cannot be understood only as an instrument. Language used communicatively imposes obligations on us that would not only be illocutionary, but linked to action (p.59). ss.).

– In this step, a reconstructive science, universal pragmatics (or “theory of formal pragmatic meaning”), performs the task of explaining the meaning of normative validity claims (in analogy with truth claims), calling for their rescue or resolution discursive. The pretensions of normative validity raised in the communicative action, when questioned, lead to a more demanding type of interaction, which consists exclusively in the exchange of arguments: the practical discourse (p.68 ss.).

– This leads to the theory of moral argumentation – or the logic of practical discourse. By “practical discourse”, in the singular, it is understood, at this moment, a form of moral argumentation that aims to prove the validity of norms in general, whether moral or legal. Jürgen Habermas had not yet drawn a distinction between different types of speech. In this context, the principle of universalization (“U”) is postulated, understood as a rule of argumentation that allows reaching a symmetrical agreement on the moral validity of norms. The moral point of view is something that is incorporated into the procedure of an intersubjectively conducted argumentation (p.112 ss.).

– The next step is the “U” test. It is at this point that Jürgen Habermas uses the transcendental pragmatic argument based on performative contradictions, interpreting it as an empirical proof in the sense of the reconstructive sciences. Everyone who enters into arguments has to make general pragmatic assumptions (equal participation rights, veracity, absence of coercion, etc.). Furthermore, everyone has intuitive knowledge about how we justify ways of acting (or norms that underlie them). From this it follows that all who enter into arguments accept “U” (p.167 ss.).

Discourse ethics is undoubtedly a very peculiar moral theory. In addition to understanding itself as a reconstructive science, the theory of communicative action plays a central role in it. The starting point for its foundation is a theory of social action, and the end point, a theory of moral argumentation. As we have seen, the first step is to show that social action is not properly conceived as a strategic interaction, but as action oriented by validity claims, that normative validity claims are implicit in social actions and necessarily point to a discursive resolution; then, the transcendental pragmatic argument can "prove" "U" as a rule of argumentation of practical discourses.

But you cannot prove it just by presupposing argumentative rules. It is necessary that the addressee of the argument has already been socialized, knows what it means to have moral obligations and can link this knowledge to the argumentative obligations. Only if these conditions are met, when participating in moral discourse can he accept the requirement to consider everyone's interests impartially and to adopt a self-critical attitude towards his own interests. In this conception of ethics, the strength of the moral obligation comes from the norms that are introduced into practical moral discourses because they have become problematic. Moral duty is, for Jürgen Habermas, in the morally binding norms that operate as a mechanism to coordinate interactions in the world of life. It is these social norms that we can critically examine and morally justify in practical discourse.

Discourse ethics is a moral theory based on a strongly “normativist” conception of moral justification. It presupposes that in everyday moral controversies people argue – in the so-called “practical discourse – primarily about the validity of norms, and not about the validity of ways of acting in the situation in the light of norms. It is a non-substantive moral theory, but a procedural one, centered on the question of the justice of social norms, a theory that, with regard to moral foundations, therefore puts any question about the “good life” in the background. In the words of Habermas: “the principle of universalization works like a blade that makes a cut between 'the good' and 'the fair' […]” (p.185).

The reconstructive project that sheds light on the foundation of an ethics of discourse also includes the attempt to expose and analyze the genesis of the moral point of view made explicit in the form of the moral principle “U”. That is, according to Jürgen Habermas, “the principle of universalization […] can be understood as a reconstruction of those everyday intuitions that underlie the impartial evaluation of conflicts of moral action” (p.193). The reconstruction of these everyday intuitions is investigated by Habermas based on Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development. It is about understanding that the universalist moral point of view, assumed in post-traditional societies, is actually the result of an individual and collective process of moral conscience.

Jürgen Habermas is interested in understanding the different “stages of moral consciousness” studied by Kohlberg that lead from a more particularized and contextualized perspective towards a decentered and universal (moral) perspective, in which individuals acquire the capacity to act morally, that is that is, to act taking into account the symmetrical interests of all others concerned.

In this sense, it can be said that the last two essays in the book complement each other in a very narrow way: in the first one, discourse ethics is based on the pragmatic presuppositions of argumentation in general; in the final text, the moral principle “U” is investigated as a point of arrival, so to speak, of a complex process of formation of moral conscience. It is important for Jürgen Habermas to present, therefore, the logic of development presupposed in the universalist moral theory, that is, to elaborate a reconstruction of the stages of moral conscience.

As noted, several of the theses of this 1983 version of discourse ethics had to be watered down or modified.

It was these modifications that led to a theory of discourse aimed at incorporating the dimension of law and democracy, a theory that was based on his book Facticity and validity, which still exerts great influence today.

From discourse ethics to discourse theory

In 1989, Jürgen Habermas visited Brazil, giving lectures in Porto Alegre, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. One of the lectures given was entitled “On the pragmatic, ethical and moral use of practical reason”. Therein is introduced a great change. Jürgen Habermas no longer speaks of “practical discourse”, in the singular, but of three different discourses or uses of practical reason.

The question “What should I (rationally) do?” can have different meanings. One is the basic sense of duty to choose the best means to an end. This use of reason is called pragmatic by Jürgen Habermas. The question of what I should do takes on another meaning when it is linked to a person's understanding of their own life. Whether or not I should do something in this regard depends on the values ​​I adhere to. This use of reason, which understands the identity of the person, and therefore appears grammatically only in the first person, is called ethical discourse. When used in the first person plural, it is an ethical-political discourse. The third use is moral.

When the question of what I should do acquires a moral sense, it can no longer be associated with any of the senses of good. It is not a question of having to do something because it is good for an end, nor of having to do something because it is good for me or for us. It's about having to do something because it's fair. Questions of justice, by their very nature, take us beyond the horizon of a way of life.

In this differentiation of discourses, practical reason is disaggregated into the aspects of what is adequate for an end, what is good and what is just. Given the existence of discourses, in the plural, the big question that arises is whether there is any hierarchy between them. Is there a primacy of moral discourse? Can one still speak of practical reason in the singular? Jürgen Habermas' answer, which becomes clearer in the last paragraph of the lecture when it was published, is as follows: “Moral theory must leave this question open for the philosophy of law. The unity of practical reason can only be realized unequivocally in a network where public forms of communication and practices are asserted, in which the conditions for a formation of the collective will have acquired institutional solidity.

This great change in the conception of practical reason, this shift from what was “the” practical discourse to discourses, in the plural, and this opening to reconsider the role of law and politics in modern societies was undoubtedly influenced by numerous criticisms that it received. In my opinion, it was Albrecht Wellmer who best pointed to the central problem presented by the 1983 version of discourse ethics. According to Albrecht Wellmer, an implausible conception of morality was defended in it, because it confused questions of justice with questions of democratic legitimacy. Discourse ethics, pointed out Albrecht Wellmer, did not adequately distinguish between morality and law:

The connection of law with morality in the U principle is achieved at the price of a conceptual assimilation of moral problems to legal problems. In principle U, a universalist moral principle is “mixed” with a principle of democratic legitimacy, and this occurs in such a confused way that, in the end, it is not convincing either as a moral principle or as a principle of legitimacy.

In 1992, Habermas published Facticity and validity, the book in which he completely redefines the architecture of theory. The moral principle of universalization “U” no longer appears at the top of the theoretical construction, and also no longer intends to be a principle of legitimacy. At the top of the construction we have the so-called principle of discourse (D), which expresses the idea of ​​impartiality in practical judgments, but in a neutral way, still indifferent to the distinction between morality and law. It has to be specified in each case so that it can serve as a corrective criterion, respectively, for moral norms or for legal norms: in the first case, it adopts the form of the moral principle of universalization “U”; in the second, it takes the form of the principle of democracy.

In the passage from discourse ethics to discourse theory, practical reason, which in the 1983 version had already ceased to be understood as a subjective faculty to become communicative reason, is now incarnated in institutions and political processes. In this new configuration, there is a new understanding of the relationship between morality and law. Not only is the jusnaturalist subordination of law to morality avoided, but the positivist thesis of complete separation between law and morality is also rejected.

A proper understanding of the conditions of social life in the modern state requires taking seriously the separation between morality and law as different domains of norms of action, but at the same time accounting for the relationship that exists between both domains. There is no hierarchy between the discourses. Legal norms can be justified by pragmatic, ethical-political or moral reasons, in speeches or negotiations that we can presume to be rational.

In this 1983 book by Habermas, there are thought-provoking and powerful ideas. Some gave rise to theoretical developments of the greatest relevance for the current discussion in moral and political philosophy, in law and in the social sciences, in controversies about justice and democracy or in the rich debates carried out by feminism; others, as we point out here, lost strength later, being updated. Certainly the publication of this translation of Moral conscience and communicative action it will stimulate a resumption of research that allows recovering the intention of the reconstructive sciences and, more specifically, the ethics of discourse itself.

* Marina Velasco and pProfessor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).


Jurgen Habermas. Moral conscience and communicative action. Translation: Rurion Melo. São Paulo, Unesp, 2023, 312 pages (

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