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Lecture 02

2. Discourse Ethics

This chapter will briefly outline the basic ideas and philosophical foundations of discourse ethics. It will be philosophically incomplete and superficial, because the “deep” metaphysical reflection of the topic will not be of major relevance for the actual focus of this course, the practical application of discourse competence. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to think through some initial prolegomena before the field of ontology and epistemology is left for (meta-)ethics.

2.1 Philosophical prolegomena (緒言)

The question is: “How do we come to justifiable normative judgments and choices?”. This has an ontological dimension (“What is this world that we find ourselves in?”) and an epistemological one (“What is normative/moral knowledge? How do we know values?”). In the following I will present different approaches to answer these questions. They can be related to particular eras in the history of mankind (or of philosophical thinking), but also to a sophistication of worldviews as it develops in an individual human being from childhood to older age (with growing wisdom, so to say).

By using our cognitive tools we perceive the world we are living in. The most naïve view is that of a real world that presents itself to us. Our task, then, is to watch it with a clear mind (and clarifying the mind is a practice of philosophy) so that we are able to see as many facets of it as possible in order to increase the chances of a “successful” and fulfilled life in this world. This was the idea of the Ancient Greek philosophers, starting from Heraklit and Parmenides up to Sokrates, Platon and Aristoteles. It was all about “the world”. Its features and properties (its “truth”) can be recognised by us so that we – by careful watching and philosophical reflection – get the most realistic image of it. Only then we can fulfil our most “human” task of overcoming our natural boundaries and get closer to the divine, closer to perfection. This is the basic idea: The specifically “human” element in us is the ability to go beyond ourselves, to exit the inevitable and be free. With an accurate picture of the real world that surrounds us in mind, this movement towards the divine is facilitated significantly!


There are two dangers in this idea, and both are deeply entrenched in the further course of European-Western philosophy. The first is the dualistic division into “outside” and “inside”, into “outer world” and “inner me”, finding its climax in the reflections of René Descartes (17th century). The second is the realist scientific worldview with its idea of “discovering” knowledge about real features of the world. Even though this realism has been replaced by constructivism in recent decades, many scientists, engineers, researchers, but also most scientific laymen are still convinced that the knowledge we can acquire by scientific investigation describes a somehow manifested actuality. Moreover, the idea that scientific concepts (like “the electron” or “gravity”) represent real entities can be expanded to normative concepts: Value is found as intrinsic element of the real world. There is “good” out there, you just need to see, understand and follow it.

Immanuel Kant is the most prominent philosopher who modified this image of world perception. His basic idea was that we can only get aware of those features of the world that we have a pre-formed image of, that means that somehow match with our previously made experiences. He distinguished “things-as-such” (the features of the real world) from the things as they appear in our mind.


As a consequence, we can never know for sure what the actual world is. It remains obscured. The world that is represented in our mind is fed by an image of the world, and at the same time it feeds this image (for example by making new experiences that requires a modification of the image). In this view, “world” is all about the subject (or: the observer). Some even went so far to say that “world” only exists in the mind.

With this understanding of human possibilities to know anything about the world, dualism and realism are not overcome, yet. The apparent monism that “world is only idea (in the mind)” (we call that idealism) is a hidden dualism because it only emerges in view of its counterpart “materialism” that states that “world is only matter”. Moreover, it is still the somehow given (real) world with its “things-as-such” that impacts the human perception. In order to increase the chance that our image of the world is identical to the actual world, we need to attempt to uncover the hidden features of the world. The scientific method, in this view, is then a discovery of the world and what is to be known about it.

This direction was reversed by phenomenology, most prominently pushed forward by Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger. The subject can’t be taken as a passive observer and constructor of the world. The cognitive process of observation itself gets into the focus.


 An act of perception, in this view, is not a mere “streaming-in” of stimuli, but an active “looking-out” (figuratively! it covers all senses, not just the visual!) into the world. By nature, this is a highly selective process. Insights from biology, physics, psychology, anatomy, and other scientific disciplines that tell us about the human condition deliver a better understanding of how we construct “world” by making experiences. The crucial point is the human cognition, the “lens” that we are unable to take off. It confines the cut of the world that we are able to pay attention to, and it also colours and shapes the incoming signals. One of the most impressive experiments that was conducted to show our selective perception was this: People were asked to watch the video of a volleyball match and count how often the ball was passed between players all dressed in white. A man in a black gorilla costume appeared in the center of the scene during the match, beating his chest and making silly movements. The big majority of watchers didn’t see him, even though he was clearly visible among the white dressed players. Now, we can say that it was “unfair”, because the people were asked to concentrate on the ball, they can’t be blamed. But isn’t “life” exactly like that? We are always so busy focusing on certain clear cut aspects of life, occupying our full attention, that occurrences beyond this don’t find a way through to our awareness. Nobody can be “blamed” for that, however, since this is simply a neutral observation.

Phenomenology stresses the importance of “experience”. Every experience (drawn to every act of cognition) involves the entire set of experiences made in the past. An experience is the manifestation of all experiences. A simple example: When seeing only the front of a house, we “know” that this is a three-dimensional building because we know the concept “house” from former experiences. In every perception of a part of the world, we are awareness of the entire world, because only in this relation the experience makes sense. This sense-making is the basis of all experience. Not only do we align all experiences with our worldview (constructed from previous experiences), we also can only experience what fits into our margin of “sensefulness”. That’s why we don’t see the monkey during the volleyball match, because a monkey has no place in the world “volleyball”. The house front is automatically “completed” in our mind to an entire house. When walking around it we might find that it deviates from our imagination, for example the exact size, shape, etc., but these are just details. In the same way, we almost always succeed in identifying an item as a “table”, even when it is a very unusual modern art design, because its entire embedment into our world (including its functionality) is constantly present. Sometimes our imagination is fooled, misled, surprised or puzzled. When we walk around the house front and find that it is only the decoration of a movie set, for example. Then we either have to re-align the constructed reality (here: from the world “house as living space” to the world “movie making”), or we have to construct new meaning from the new experience.

How can we be sure that the way we construct meaning from experience is in any way supported by real features of the surrounding world, and by that somehow “justified”? How do I know that what I “see” is the same thing as that what you “see”? There could be a simple answer: by talking about it!


Both our world constructions don’t represent the actual world sufficiently, but if we integrate our two – almost necessarily deviating – images into one, we might get closer to what may count as “real”. This “discourse approach” to world conceptualisation was promoted in the later 20th century by Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Niklas Luhmann and others. Mankind is a species that constitutes its environment through communication and collaboration. World construction is, therefore, always a process from the “inter”-space: inter-personal, inter-relational, inter-cultural. My world becomes my world by setting it into relation to yours. My experience is only valid (or not) in view of your experiences (and all others). In case there are insurmountable differences, we need to engage in a conversation (or a discourse) in order to create new clarity.

However, communication is not a trivial thing. Its most important tool is language. This includes our spoken language using words, but also numerical systems (mathematics) and symbolism, non-verbal interaction, body language, etc. Language itself is conditioned and constituted by experience, which means that we only have linguistic expressions for what is already part of our experience (made by any of our ancestors. Translatability of “thoughts” and other cognitive impressions is a difficult endeavour, not only between the different languages of different countries or cultures, but even on the very basic level of interpersonal conversation. Therefore, philosophy spends a great big deal on clarifying and defining words and terms. When all that is done it is still not guaranteed that one really understands the other, because experience is not fully transferable. With sufficient exchange of information I might be able to anticipate your experience, but since my framework of experiences and their connection is different from yours, I will never be able to see the same thing in the same light. Actually, “world” can be defined as exactly this “framework of connected experiences”. Then, it makes sense to talk about “worlds” rather than “the world”, because what is “world” for you is more or less different from what is “world” for me. Identifying and getting aware of the overlapping parts of our world is as interesting and inspiring as the deviations.

Let me illustrate the idea of “constructing meaning from experience” in a little more detail by the image of a “tree of knowledge”:


The roots constitute the sources of all our experiences. Everything we know about the world is constructed by our cognitive equipment: senses, central nervous system, brain. Parts of this system are memory, consciousness, emotions and other psychologically observable and explainable features. In simple terms: we observe, process, think, feel, recall and react. Then, we securely know that we are the centre of the universe. All experiences necessarily are made by us from the self-perspective. Nobody can make experiences for someone else. Same as a thought doesn’t exist beyond its being-thought, experience doesn’t exist beyond its being-experienced. The perception of a self (or an ego) inevitably goes along with the definition of everything else as the other. This illusion of separation creates the idea of world as something external. Within this world-space we experience desires and needs that feed our constant fear of non-existence and ceasing-from-existence. We experience many forms of suffering (in the literal form as pain, in the figurative form as non-satisfactoriness) and yearn for safety and security. This list of basic features is certainly incomplete, but I believe it is sufficiently precise to adumbrate the key point: all humans (as long as not physically or mentally disabled) share these features, and all humans build their decisions, viewpoints and their life on this foundation.

The trunk is the channel through which we process all these experiences in order to manifest them in our being-in-the-world (using Heidegger’s term). Experiencing is a process (for some scholars even an act) that only works in view of an experience background that is present in the experiencer, an active sense-making. This might be the biggest difference to Descartes’ tree of knowledge: It is illusionary to believe that the act of sense-making for all humans is always only scientific, exploiting knowledge of “the real world” (nature). As seen above, since Kant and latest since the convincing insights provided by constructivism, there are many more options. First, we all run on a kind of default setting. If not otherwise reflected or mindfully brought into our conscious awareness, the choices and decisions we make are controlled and determined by the cognitive and behavioural patterns acquired since we are born, under strong influence of our emotions, our education and other previous experiences that I like to summarise as the matrix. In this default setting we tend to be selfish, self-centred, vulnerable, manipulable and susceptible for external powers. Then, there is dogmatism and indoctrination: Someone tells us in one or the other form what certain experiences mean and what we have to conclude from them. In the light form, this includes the parental and institutional education at home and at schools. In the more drastic form we can find that in most religious instances (church), in some political systems, and in parts even in science; in short: in all systems that have anything to do with power of some over others (in the widest possible meaning). There are also more conscious and skeptical ways of sense-making: we can deal with observations and experiences empirically by setting them into perspective with other observations and experiences, we can contest them and refine our understanding of them. The most basic tool for this is logic. An important aspect of these strategies to “construct meaning from experience” is that they are more sustainable and stable the more a person is mindful and free in the choice of options. I like to understand the Buddhist teaching of “enlightenment” as the “perfect” way of meaning construction, one that works with a 100% mindful awareness of all the proceedings in the world. This is an ideal and impossible state, but understood as one to which we should try to get as close as possible.

In order to understand my choice of branches (here: religion, culture, politics, economy, science, technology) it is important to realise that this model applies for both individual humans and societies at large. Let me start with the societal level. In current societies, these spheres are the most present ones. Almost all societies developed or adopted institutions of organised religion or at least some kind of spirituality, organise themselves in some form of politics, established systems of production, trade and consumption (economy), started investigating nature and society (science) and invented more or less sophisticated tools that make human life easier (technology). Culture might be an outstanding point here, and some might disagree upon its presence in this set of social spheres. What I mean with it here are all the features and characteristics that serve as the identity-giving connecting fabric of a society: language, art, morals, codes of behaviour, Zeitgeist (時代精神). Different societies express these branches in different fashions and to various extents, both regionally (an Asian society is different from a European one) and temporally (the Greek society of 500BC differs from the contemporary Greek society). From the historical perspective, some ancient branches disappeared while new ones flourished, others dried out or grew stronger. Let’s take, for example, the German tree: It is a completely secular society, so the religion branch is very small. Germans are – especially in view of their horrible history – convinced of their political system and very “political” in the sense that many topics on the political agenda are discussed – the Politics branch is rather strong. The same can be said for the economy branch, even though it is certainly smaller than the US-American economy branch since German are generally quite sceptical with consumption. Science might be one of the biggest branches: We can only know for sure what we have contested and analysed, including nature, art, religion, etc. Everything must be able to stand a critical investigation, otherwise it is either meaningless or wrong. Technology has shaped the German society quite significantly, but – in analogy to economy – people are skeptical with innovation and rather conservative.

There is an ambivalent correlation between the society as a system and its individual members. Each individual contributes to the characteristics of a society, but it is also society that shapes individuals and sets the margin for their self-expression. A religious society will most likely produce religious members. The process of social change and progress, therefore, is usually very slow. However, what is valid for the society at large is also valid for the individual: Everybody develops all branches in one or the other way and to a certain extent. Remember: these reflections are about “constructing meaning from experience”.

Example 1: Some experiences affect our understanding of features of our surrounding (our world construct): We long to understand nature and the world. Depending on the epistemic channel that a person prefers and applies, answers are found in the branch of religion or in science (This is a descriptive statement! It does not evaluate the legitimacy of choosing religion or science to answer questions about the world fabric adequately! This is done elsewhere.).

Example 2: Experiences concerning the fulfilment of needs can either be manifested in economy (for example as materialism), in religiously or spiritually motivated modesty, or in scientific explanations of human psyche.

All parts – roots, trunk, branches – are dynamic and subject of change. Some roots grow deeper and stronger when a person puts a focus on certain types of experiences or when outer conditions (for example, the type of job, or the family situation) draw the person’s attention to particular aspects of life. The channels in the trunk are cultivated and expressed to different extents, too. Children mostly follow their default setting, but during youth and adolescence they discover new strategies for constructing meaning. Some become open-minded empiricists, others indoctrinated religious fanatics (just to be sure: there are also open-minded religious people and dogmatic fanatic empiricists). Once a channel is formed and solidified, it is very difficult to change the setting, yet not impossible. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that many branches co-exist peacefully. A scientist can be outspokenly religious by separating the types of knowledge strictly – empiric physical knowledge into the science field, normative spiritual knowledge into the religion field. It would take an enormous amount of active ignorance to claim that “there can only be scientific knowledge” (as done by atheists) or “there can only be religious belief” (as done by religious fanatics).

We can think of countless examples in what way this metaphor depicts the development and constitution of social spheres like politics and economy as the result of meaning-construction. This would exceed the scope of this class too much. Instead, I’d like to draw the attention towards the fourth element in this illustration: the fruits. When a branch flourishes, there are fruits growing that a person or a society has to harvest. A strong economy branch will support wealth and material well-being, but also greed and competition. A strong religion branch will increase the capacity of hope and identification with the community, but also fascism (separating the own beliefs from the others’ beliefs) and dogmatism (for example promoting creationism and denying biological evolution). Some fruits are sweet, others are poisonous or stink. It is these fruits that make people conclude that some branches are more valuable and viable than others, that some branches are better kept small or even cut off while other branches deserve more care and nourishment. Atheists often deny the legitimacy of the religion branch. Anti-capitalists see a social threat in the economy branch. Political reformists and anarchists would like to reshape the politics branch according to their political ideals. Reportedly, there are even “science-deniers”. Very often, the suggested “cures” focus on the materialisations and embodiments of meaning-construction within the realms of the respective branches: Atheists want to defame or ban the historical religious books, anti-capitalists want to abolish money or the monetary system, anarchists aim at freedom from any political leadership. History has proven that forceful and violent attempts to reach these goals will almost always end up in conflict and misery. Try to take away the Bible from a religious Christian, and he will stick to it even more, like a child to exactly that toy that you try to take. It will also not be possible to change that person’s roots. The only sustainable chance is to encourage people to open and use different channels of meaning-construction. If you want to change a religious person, present to him alternative interpretations of worldly phenomena, philosophical ways to reason virtues rather than divine laws, or how meaning of religion changes when church is unmasked as a political rather than a spiritual institution. Don’t expect the religious person to change easily. He will try to change you instead: explaining different conceptualisations of “God”, “loving-kindness” as the core element of religious insight, benevolence and grace of charity as spiritually motivated virtues. Ask yourself first, if your own personal choice of how to construct meaning from experience is always exclusively right! The same can be said in the case of “money”: Is it really money that we should condemn as the root of all evil and the cause of greed and injustice? Or is it because we give it too much meaning?

Many people feel powerless in regard of huge overarching “systems” like church, political leadership, capitalism, technological progress, cultural matrix. They might criticise that my focus on strategies of meaning construction is too individual and idealistically ignoring that institutionalised systems and their power outweigh the impact of individual person belief and knowledge systems. Maybe, maybe not. I agree that a heavy precondition for my reflections is a certain degree of freedom of choice. People living in tyrannies might not have a chance to change the fashion of the politics branch. Capitalism is so deeply entrenched in people’s life that it doesn’t really give them a chance to choose their lifestyle. People in the poorest country on earth face such urgent existential problems that questions of meaning-construction turn out unaffordable luxury for them. However, most of us do have a choice. Systems only have power over us when we give it to them, which is mostly by not taking full advantage of our capacity to choose how we construct meaning from experience. Mindless people are easier to control than people with a clear and well-reasoned, well-informed worldview. Naturally, there will always be those people with deeper insights and a wider variety of choices (those with a thicker trunk) and those with rather limited possibilities (with thinner trunks, easily bendable in the wind of opposition). Here, we need communication and discourse on all levels (family-internal, among friends, in social groups and public in general) in order to plant seeds in each other to refine and sophisticate our meaning-construction strategies. We need to make sure, of course, that it is the better argument (in terms of logic consistency and viability) that wins, not the most powerful position or the most popular. Then, sooner or later, some branches decay while others flourish or new ones sprout.

The most important message from this picture that I want you to keep in mind is this: Your normative judgments are rooted in your experiences and you conclude them by applying certain strategies of meaning construction. Everybody else does the same! Therefore, in a discourse, we should always try to be aware of why the other person says what he or she says: What might be the roots? What form of meaning construction is applied? Then we can try to identify possible flaws, fallacies or misconceptions when we have good reasons for it. What we should not do is insisting on our own world conception and our own reality, claiming that this is the only valid one. This brings us to the important question of truth (“What is true?”).


A common understanding is that true is what corresponds to a real entity. This form of realism is especially widespread in science: A statement like “At time T there was an A in condition C.” can be contested by investigating if there really was an A in condition C at time T. For normative questions, there is a similar position called “moral realism”: When we talk about justice, for example, what we mean is an idea that corresponds to a principle that exists in the world and that we understood more or less precisely and correctly. As we have seen in our critical reflection on realism, this concept has some flaws. Constructivists suggested to define truth following a coherence theory: True is a statement when in a larger set of coherent (= logically consistent and not contradicting) statements it doesn’t contradict any of those statements. Remember the image: We can never know the actual world, so we have no access to it as a reference (as the proponents of the correspondence theory believe). Therefore, the only choice we have is to take all the knowledge that we do have (or believe to have) and check if our understanding is coherent. Here, truth has a very pragmatic notion: It is not of major importance if we got down to the very foundations of our universe! All that matters is whether our insights prove valid and useful or not within the range of our lifeworld with its purposes and goals. It even has been suggested to discard the entire concept of truth and talk of viability instead, a term that describes exactly that notion of “proving itself meaningful, useful and applicable”, or with other words: “As long as it works…!”. Another alternative is a consensus theory of truth that takes statements as true when all agents participating in its discourse agree upon it. This requires discursive rationality, a factor that we turn to now:


Making choices and decisions (no matter if on worldly matters or in the field of normative and moral issues) requires the capability to reflect and use our reason (we often just say “to think”). This feature of ours that most other life forms don’t have is called “rationality”. Classically, the most powerful position was that rationality works on the basis of our experiences stimulating our cognitive mechanisms that guide our judgments. As long as certain rules (of logic, of natural laws, etc.) are followed – that means, as long as we are not victims of a fundamental misconception or misunderstanding of the sensual input we receive – , we make empirical choices. In terms of morality, one viewpoint is that our emotions as source of experience play a major role in making moral decisions. We feel pain, want to avoid it, and – due to empathy – also feel urged to keep others safe from it. Imagine the situation of a child that fell into a well and a man saving it. Now imagine that the man latter confesses that he only did that because he was annoyed by the child’s loud crying and wanted it to stop. Would we still consider it a “morally noble act”? Probably not – it sounds pretty selfish. We consider it “noble” only when (and because) the man anticipated the child’s and his parents’ suffering and selflessly proceeded to “make the world a better place”. And he does that because of his emotional connection with the child. A similar idea is that of moral subjectivism: The act of moral judgment, based on a “sense” for what is good or right, occurs “within” people as the result of their very experiences and their empirical processing. The criticism on both views is that it easily leads to moral relativism or at least moral pluralism, both implying that many or even all moral judgments are “valid” and have to be respected and accepted. In that case, moral conflicts have to be solved simply by accepting all kinds of moral viewpoints as “correct”, but in such a situation there is no progress towards solving the conflict. But how do we come to judgments whether a normative position is plausible or not? Transcendental theories of ethics state that there is a “moral ground” from which to start and beyond which no reasoning is possible, and that every rational being with a sufficient capacity of reason will accept it. For religious people this transcendental source of reason might be God, for Kantians it is “pure reason”, for the Ancient Greek it is the “virtues”, for Confucians and Daoists it is “Dao”.

Habermas (and many others, of course) was not satisfied with this. He looked for a more fundamental source of value judgment that can be accepted by everyone independent of time, place and cultural background. For him that was discourse under the precondition of communicative rationality. Communicative rationality means the ability of people to enter a communication with the willingness and capacity to listen and understand, to express oneself correctly, with the chance to change one’s own or the others’ viewpoints, with empathic and emotional competence, and with a basic sense of cooperation. This is perfectly in line with his social theory of individual entities embedded in a social and cultural matrix that determines for a big part how these individuals construct meaning from their experiences (rather than as isolated individuals). This also meets the paradigms of social constructivism that claims that all social spheres such as politics, technology, economy, etc. are determined by the socially predominating normative viewpoints (and not vice versa). This (active) discourse among people with different normative (here: moral) viewpoints serves as the “selective” process that refines the countless views and reduces them to those that withstand scrutiny and critical reflection. As such, it stands in contrast to moral relativism, but also to the acceptance of transcendental arguments. Normative claims gain their validity from their success in discourse (again very pragmatic), as such being “universalisable”: When a sufficiently big group of discourse participants agree upon the validity or plausibility of a claim, it is very likely that everyone would; therefore, it is universally valid. In other words: If we accept the constructive character of viewpoint formation and deny moral realism and absolutism, we must make sure that the construction process is flawless and plausible, so that we come to valid and viable normative statements. This is achieved by discourse on the ground of communicative rationality.

Practice Questions

  • Do you find realism or constructivism more convincing? Why?
  • Apply the „tree of knowledge“ to yourself.
    • What influences your choices and decisions?
    • What forms your values and desires?
    • What about emotions?
  • How does Habermas avoid moral relativism?

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