On the Universality of Habermas's Discourse Ethics

Dissertation, Mcgill University (Canada) (1997)
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This thesis investigates Habermas's attempt to establish a credible form of universalism in moral and political philosophy by means of the theoretical approach which he terms "discourse ethics." The central question motivating this study is whether Habermas succeeds in this ambition. Discourse ethics specifies a procedure which purports to enable all agents involved in a conflict of interest in which issues of justice are at stake to come to a rational and cooperative resolution. It proposes a position unique among contemporary approaches to justice in the strength and character of its anti-relativist stance: the plurality of human cultures and the situated character of human understanding do not, according to this theory, bar the way to arriving at a minimal form of moral universalism. Although the procedure specified in communicative ethics elucidates only a narrow range of concerns--those pertaining to justice in the strict sense--it aims to do so in a way valid across all human cultures. ;Habermas's strategy for the defence of a species-wide moral universalism is, I argue, both the key feature of his position, and the least well understood. Discussion of discourse ethics to date has focussed almost exclusively on the question of its appropriateness to the context of modern, Western pluralism. An important reason for this focus has been the intricacy of Habermas's argumentative strategy, which links the recent work on discourse ethics to his longstanding project of developing a theory of communicative action. ;The principle aim of this thesis is to clarify Habermas's position by explicating his programme of justification. In so doing, I draw attention to several problems in his approach as a mechanism for cross-cultural conflict adjudication, and endeavour to provide a more perspicuous account of the relation of Habermas's theory to its main philosophical competitors, especially Rawlsian deontology, and contextualism

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Mira Johri
McGill University (PhD)


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