Ethics can be seen as a purely social construct, and so being determined by the powerful in the society (John Stuart Mill takes such a view in On Liberty). This view can also be further advanced to discuss a system of ethics whose creation and maintenance is based on democratic principles and institutions.

Are there any good references/authors/books/articles on this aspect?

  • 3
    Try Rawls' Theory of Justice:"Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality... Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms... everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This "veil" is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage".
    – Conifold
    Apr 23, 2017 at 21:03

1 Answer 1


Democratic ethics - Habermas' discourse ethics

Rawls certainly offers one approach to a democratic ethics. I'd like to suggest another approach, that of Habermas.

In the tradition of critical theory (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1997), Jorgen Habermas's main aim has been to construct a theory focusing on an analysis of advanced capitalist industrial societies and of democracy and the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context (Habermas, 1990, 1993, 1996, 2003). Over the last twenty years or so, Habermas has developed discourse ethics, which represents the pivotal program of his comprehensive social theory and tries to advance the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining an inclusive, universalist moral framework. For Habermas, members of modern, pluralistic societies find themselves in a dramatic situation of change, where the substantive background consensus on the underlying moral norms and values has been shattered and where global and domestic conflicts need to be regulated. Discourse ethics proposes a morality of equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody by outlining a way to arrive at a universally accepted and acceptable moral and ethical consensus through discourse (Habermas, 1990,1996,2003). The basic idea is that the universal validity of a moral norm cannot be justified in the mind of an isolated individual reflecting on an issue to be discussed but only in a process of argumentation between individuals. Every validity claim to normative Tightness depends upon a mutual understanding achieved by individuals in argument (Habermas, 1998).

Normative validity cannot be understood as separate from the argumentative procedures used in everyday practice, such as those used to resolve issues concerning the legitimacy of actions and the validity of norms governing interactions. Discourse ethics states that the sources of moral consensus are contained in the formal pragmatic preconditions of speech and language, the communicative action, and are not drawn from particular religious convictions or the conception of a "good life" internal to a particular group or culture (Finlayson, 2000); Habermas, 1996). To understand what Habermas means by that, we first describe the notion of communicative action and how it provides a basis for an approach to normative theory [GT : not included]. Second, based on the Habermasian concept of communicative action, we outline the principles of discourse ethics, which offer procedures for validating moral choices in discourses. Finally, we introduce forms of practical reason that play a significant role in Habermas's recent publications. As the focus of our paper is an analysis of social accountability initiatives and related discourses between MNCs and their stakeholders, we only discuss those Habermasian concepts that are necessary to understand and criticize these topics. We do not examine the economic and political institutions within which discourses take place. It should be mentioned, though, that Habermas (1996, 1999, 2003) recently places emphasis on political science and the theory of democracy. (Dirk Ulrich Gilbert and Andreas Rasche, 'Discourse Ethics and Social Accountability: The Ethics of SA 8000', Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 187-216 : 190-1.



Dirk Ulrich Gilbert and Andreas Rasche, 'Discourse Ethics and Social Accountability: The Ethics of SA 8000', Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 2007), pp. 187-216.

Habermas, J. 1990. Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_1991. A reply. In A. Honneth & H. Joas (Eds.), Communicative action. Essays on J?rgen Habermas's theory of communicative action: 214-64. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_1992. Postmetaphysical thinking: Philosophical essays. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_1993. Justification and application: Remarks on discourse ethics. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_1996. Between facts and norms. Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishing.

_1998. On the pragmatics of communication. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_1999. The inclusion of the other: Studies in political theory. Cambridge MA: Blackwell Publishing.

_2001. From Kant's 'ideas' of pure reason to the 'idealizing' presuppositions of communicative action: Reflections on the detranscendentalized 'use of reason.' In W. Regh & J. Bohman (Eds.), Pluralism and the pragmatic turn: 11-39. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

_2003. Truth and justification. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

  • Seen this question and the answer contained exactly my first thoughts...Dewey may be an alternative, but his ethical contents are a bit fuzzy.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 30, 2018 at 17:03
  • Yes, I agree about Dewey. There no hard clarity in his writings - always a certain slackness and indeterminateness. Thanks - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 30, 2018 at 17:06

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