Original Research - Special Collection: Morality in history

Reflections on Habermas’s discourse ethics

Pieter N.J. Duvenage
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 45, No 1 | a3009 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v45i1.3009 | © 2024 Pieter N.J. Duvenhage | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 September 2023 | Published: 19 March 2024

About the author(s)

Pieter N.J. Duvenage, School of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa


In this article Habermas’s discourse ethics is critically interpreted. The article starts with a brief intellectual biography of Habermas (section 1), showing that his life and work has always had a strong ethical and political dimension – leading to the concept of discourse ethics. Next, it is indicated how Habermas’s work in the 1970s culminated via four steps in his major philosophical work – the Theory of Communicative Action (section 2) published in 1981. In the next two sections Habermas Theory of Communicative Action is applied to ethics and morality in the form of his discourse ethics – the heart of this contribution (section 3). In this process the following four aspects of Habermas’s discourse ethics are discussed: Its qualified Kantian deontological dimension, as well as its universalist, cognitivist, and formalist dimensions. In the following section (4) the discussion of discourse ethics is shifted to Habermas’s theory of law, deliberative politics, and democracy which is a further application of ideas developed in his Theory of Communicative Action. The contribution then ends with some critical remarks on Habermas discourse ethics and sketch of law and politics (section 5) Three arguments are presented in this regard. First, Habermas argument is judged to be too closely related to abstract rationality. Secondly the distinction that Habermas makes between morality and ethics is critically investigated. Finally, the Habermasian use of justification in his argument is critically compared with the concept of application. These points of criticism, though, indicate that the debate on Habermas’s discourse ethics is ongoing.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This article deals with the concept of discourse ethics (in the Kantian tradition of ethics) as developed firstly by Karel Otto Apel and later refined by Jurgen Habermas for his own purposes. The line of argumentation developed here has significant relevance for philosophy, moral theory, law, and theology. Discourse ethics can be considered as a contemporary version of Kantian deontological ethics after the linguistic turn.


Habermas; Karel-Otto Apel; public sphere; communicative reason; discourse ethics; deliberative politics.

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