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Lecture 03

2.2 Ideal Discourse

At the end of last class we came to the conclusion that the best – if not the only – way to settle normative discourses (disagreements, conflicts, dilemmas or disputes over value- and norm-related issues) is to engage in rational communication. Understood as an ethical theory (as Habermas wants it to be understood), it means that discourses of a certain “ideal” type can yield in ethical knowledge (what is “good”, or “what should be done”) that fulfills the claim for universal validity (in the sense of “any other group at any other place at any other time in more or less the same circumstances would have come to the same conclusion). Several conditions have to be fulfilled for a discourse to count as “ideal”. Habermas’ ideas can be summarised in the following list of conditions:

„Good“ is what a group of representative people elaborates in a discourse situation in which:

  • all participants are using the same linguistic expressions in the same way.
  • no relevant argument is suppressed or excluded by the participants.
  • everyone capable of speech and action is entitled to participate, and everyone is equally entitled to introduce new topics or express attitudes needs or desires.
  • no force except that of the better argument is exerted.
  • all the participants are motivated only by a concern for the better argument.
  • no validity claim is exempt in principle from critical evaluation in argumentation.
  • everyone would agree to the universal validity of the claim thematized.

Let’s have a closer look at the details and the implications of the conditions.

2.2.1 Language

For a discourse to be fruitful and efficient, it is of utmost importance that the participants understand each other. This is far from trivial! First of all, we can think of people who speak different languages (different mother tongues). When the languages are very different (for example a European and an Asian language), even the best translations sometimes convey the meaning of statements in a wrong or insufficient way. What person A means in a certain (e.g. “positive”) way is understood by person B in a different (e.g. “negative”) way. Here is an example: I told a very open-minded and outgoing Chinese exchange student at my department in the German university that she “kontaktfreudig” (it means “happy to make friends”, “easy to start conversation with people”). This is a very positive word in German. She checked the dictionary and found “樂於​交往​的” (which, as far as I know, has a negative notion in the sense of “easy to hook up”, “slutty”). My positive intention (making a compliment to her) made her angry. This is a simple case, but imagine a group of international businessmen, politicians, scientists or a UN assembly where people talk in their mother tongue and interpreters try to capture the meaning and translate that into the proper words of their clients’ languages.

Language problems, however, also occur among people who speak the same language. Members of different professional disciplines often have different associations with a technical term. A scientist, an engineer, a politician and a CEO might have totally different things in mind when they talk about “risk”, for example. Other multi-faceted words are “freedom” or “well-being”. In discourse practice, a great deal of time is spent on clarifying and defining the terminology that is used. In the worst case, people are not aware of their different language usage or even talk at cross-purposes (“牛頭​不​對​馬嘴”), inevitably leading to misunderstandings and further confusion.

2.2.2 Power

Several of the ideal discourse conditions refer to aspects of power. To put it negatively, power pathways and their manifestation are the major obstacle for discourses to be ideal. It should be the “best argument” that wins, one that withstands scrutiny, that is logically and empirically coherent and consistent, and one that is convincing for as many people as possible. In reality, however, arguments are often supported (and others suppressed or excluded) for reasons of power. For example, an influential person pushes his or her own viewpoints through (power of position): “It is X because I say X!”. Another big impact have expressions of (self-) interests, causing irrational and implausible arguments (power of ego): “I want X, therefore X!”. Also, whenever someone refers to common customs, practices and habits, as in “We do X because we have always done X!”, this power of tradition rules out rational and reasonable arguments.

Moreover, forms of power also impact the reply to weak arguments. Even though people know that an argument is not good, they don’t dare to contradict it or make alternative (better) suggestions. Sometimes it is a matter of hierarchy (“Boss said X, therefore X!”), of respect (“Mom said X, therefore X!”), or of fear (“I think X is right, but influential person A said Y, so I better also support Y to avoid disadvantages!“).

2.2.3 Participation

In principle, we may say that the more people participate in a discourse the higher is the chance that all possible viewpoints are captured and find their way into the conclusion. This is often not practicable. Naturally, a discourse is limited to a few people. In some fields (for example science and technology), relevant stakeholders, experts or affected groups are excluded from the discourse (not necessarily with bad intentions though). In a roundtable on “Nanomedicine”, I discussed with scientists, regulators and people from industry, but no doctors or patient representatives were present, because it wasn’t possible to organise it (no doctors were found willing to join, for example). A different thing happened in Taiwan in the debate on constructing a fourth nuclear power plant: After one meeting with very emotional and angry citizen, the political and industrial stakeholders decided to continue the debate without “the irrational public” in order to proceed without further disturbances – an active exclusion of relevant viewpoints.

There are also many entities that have a moral stance but no voice to raise. Animals, the environment, the eco-system, for example, often have to be taken into account in decision-making, but it is not clear what is their “moral interest” or who is eligible to speak for them and with what kind of argument. Children are often not able to argue on ethical issues, even though – especially in the field of medical ethics – they are strongly affected by ethical issues. The same can be said about (mentally) disabled people that lack rational farsightedness. Patients with dementia or people in comas also need representatives to speak for them, often with a high degree of uncertainty about what they actually need or desire.

In any case, the absence of important viewpoints, competences and expertise always results in incomplete knowledge (factual, normative, etc.). Conclusions made under these circumstances are not ideal.

2.2.4 Argumentation

One of Habermas’ points states that “the force of the better argument” should be the only one applied to determine the best argument. He certainly thinks of argumentative forces, based on logic, knowledge and reason, that are suitable for analysing arguments and reasoning strategies. However, this approach is corrupted by many influences. As mentioned above, many people are driven by (self-) interests and power considerations. Moreover, emotional features such as pride may dominate the argumentation strategy, causing a considerable degree of unreasonableness. Also, we can often observe a high level of ignorance, either the unintended kind (people just never heard of something), or an active rejection of reason (as in the current post-factual and ideology-driven debates in the USA).

An important feature of an ideal discourse is its goal-orientedness. In practice, however, the goal is often not that clear (for example, it has never been talked about), or it is not consequently followed. In such cases, discussion often circle around the same issues, making the discourse inefficient and tiring.

A problem for contemporary professional discourses in highly specialised fields (like medical treatments, science and technology) is that a good and broad overview over all its facets and possibilities requires a deep level of understanding and knowledge. The more complicated and complex an issue is the harder is it to convince people of the plausibility of one’s own arguments (and to understand theirs). A solid ethical argumentation, then, requires too much background knowledge. Moreover, some dilemmas and ethical conflicts are so complex (we will face many examples in the next classes) that their solution requires ethical expertise and knowledge of normative-ethical theories and principles. By far not all discourse participants have that!

Last but not least, Habermas’ ultimate point, the reaching of universalisability, is very hard to achieve. Instead, many discourses result in “island solutions” that can’t serve as orientation for similar future cases. Compromises that help solving the particular issue that is dealt with are happily accepted without thinking too much about general validity claims.


This brief discussion shows that there might be no such thing as “ideal discourse”. However, there are discourse skills and rules of discourse conduct that can help making us better discourse participants. In the following section, we will outline a few skills and competences that support this aim. Before that, I’d like to present an illustrative story.

Intermission story: Priorities

[You will find this story on the internet in several variations, some with sand instead of water and with the professor pouring his tea or a can of beer into the bucket in the end. Here, I modified the story according to the way I demonstrated it to you in class.]

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a can of water and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes.

“Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The space in it is the time that you have. The golf balls are the things that you need to be happy – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The water is everything else – the small stuff that you fill the rest of time with, like watching TV or looking at your smartphone. If you put the water into the bucket first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just water.”

2.3 Discourse Performance

I believe, we can relate the essence of this story – the importance of setting priorities – to the decisions we make and options we choose in our role as discourse participants. Reflecting on what are our golf balls – what to do so that we can go to bed in the evening and think “Yeah, that was a good day!” – can sometimes help step back and see things from a different perspective! “Do I really have to insist on my viewpoint, on my argument, on my interest, on my pride? Is it really all about efficiency, precision, success, fame, money?”. Maybe, we find that we go to bed with a higher degree of satisfaction and happiness after we made someone else (a colleague, a collaborator, a client, a family member, a friend) have an easier life, or when we step back from our stressed and pressured attitude towards our work, take it easier and remember the ultimate goal of all our talking, arguing and debating. Let me illustrate this with a picture of a pyramid:


On the bottom are the countless cases of colliding interest, conflicts, dilemmas and disagreements that we face in daily life. When we decide to work on such a case, we first need knowledge about it: What is actually going on here? When this is clear, we may check our values and virtues in order to find out what we really want and what we would argue for. On the next level we check our attitude, that means the approach we choose to take action to solve the problem, for example rationality, empathy, a pragmatic goal-orientedness, or others. With this, we reach a solution or get an advise for action. The overall goal is often something like well-being or the satisfaction of interests. This is how we usually solve issues: in a bottom-up approach from case to goal.

However, it is very easy to get lost in cases and issues. Also, the choice of relevant knowledge and of ethical standpoints can only be made in view of one’s goals. Therefore, I suggest that a bottom-up solution strategy has to be dialectically complemented with a top-down mindset of priorities. I express that in this complicated way because it is really just a matter of attitude and mental clarification. First, we need to know (and remember at any time) our goals. In case of discourses it is usually “finding a solution” (no matter what that is) or “knowing what to do next”. Generally, as I like to put it, we all want to go to bed happily at the end of the day. The next question, then, would be what our attitude must look like so that this goal can be reached. We would usually agree that we need to be rational, have empathy with other people, be goal-oriented and pragmatic, and show a healthy degree of open-mindedness. When we are clear about our attitude, we can make sure that we act with high ethical integrity, that means in accordance with our values, virtues, norms and in view of our goals. This also increases the chance that our actual actions (what we do and say) is in accordance with our mental attitude (we don’t just want to plan to be rational and empathic, but we have to BE rational and empathic). Now we can enter the discourse with a reasonable mind, asking for the relevant knowledge, gathering information and engaging in clarifications of critical arguments. In many cases we will find that we solve more than one issue at one time, maybe finding solutions for several conflicts or disagreements that we need to deal with.

Let me illustrate this idea with the example of a couple that is fighting. When the two people are focusing on the content of particular cases, their arguments often circle around the same points, easily resulting in unfair reproaches and emotional outbreaks. Now imagine they start consequently from the top of the pyramid: Every discourse starts with remembering the goal: “We as a couple want harmony and peaceful love!”. Then, the immediate next question of each of them would be “What would I have to do to support this goal?”, maybe thinking of something like “listening to my partner“, “be understanding and respectful“, “considering the chance that I really upset my partner“. Aligning these attitudes with our partnership values (for example trust, honesty, forgiveness, etc.) gives a discourse on particular cases and the search for good knowledge-based arguments a whole new character. Again: This is just a matter of mindset and the priorities we set. The solution can only be found when taking the particular cases serious and approaching them from bottom to top.

In terms of the story, our goals are like the golf balls and the cases are like the water. When we fill our discourses with cases, there is no space for our goals to guide our way towards solutions, for our attitude to be supportive, for our ethical integrity to serve as orientation. Being aware about these elements of a discourse and being clear about one’s own personal standpoint concerning these aspects is the first important step towards “being a good discourse partner”.

With this we are in the midst of reflections on our discourse performance and on what kind of skills are needed to support the chance of getting closer to an ideal discourse. Awareness and attitude certainly belong to “soft skills” that can’t be taught in a technical way but must be trained and cultivated informally in daily life. Hopefully, our education at home and our life in society prepared us well! The same goes for character features such as open-mindedness, respect and friendliness: indispensible for good discourse conduct, but not teachable in classrooms. Besides these very general remarks, it is obvious that discourse requires the abilities to listen (and understand) and to talk (to express oneself in a rhetorically appropriate way). Furthermore, we need a certain level of emotional intelligence, especially emotional self-management and empathy. Emotion is one of the major obstacles for rational communication. Losing temper, getting aggressive, or losing self-confidence because of fear and anxiety, are common “killers” for efficient discourse. Therefore, it is an important skill to master one’s emotional balance and to understand and react properly on that of others.

More interesting for this course are all those skills that are “technical” competences since those are the ones that you will hopefully learn here in the coming weeks. I call them “philosophical skills” because philosophy has the competence to deliver important insights and techniques for each of them. First of all, we perform better in discourses when we sharpen our linguistic precision. You will always be more convincing when you are as clear as possible in your expressions. We have seen that a certain pragmatism is very helpful for rational communication. Philosophy knows valuable advise for this kind of mindset. Moreover, it teaches basic logic and empiric ways of thinking, both fundamentally crucial for making consistent and coherent arguments. Rationality and reason are domains of philosophical thinking ever since, and both are needed for making “better arguments”. Argumentation itself is the heart of discourse practice. By learning argumentation strategies, you are able to identify patterns in the argumentation of others, to analyse the plausibility and validity of arguments, and to formulate your own arguments in an appealing structure and with convincing clarity.


In the next classes we will turn to these argumentation strategies. We will get to know commonly applied and well established reasoning strategies and ethical theories. You will learn how to identify logical inconsistencies, fallacies and categorical misunderstandings. It will also help you to refine your own argumentation and, ultimately, to be more convincing and efficient in the discourses that you are engaged in.

Practice Questions

  • Can any discourse ever be „ideal“? How? Why not?
  • Think of discourses that you have recently been engaged in (for example with your partner, your family, a co-worker, your boss, a doctor, a professor or teacher, etc.).
    • Have there been problems (disagreements, misunderstandings, unsolved issues, temper, etc.)?
    • How would you evaluate your own performance in the discourse? Are there skills that you think you need to improve?
  • Why are matters of power so destructive for efficient discourse conduct?
  • What can you do when your discourse partner (or „opponent“) violates the rules of good discourse conduct?

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