Communicative Competence and Communicative Ethics

Date of Completion


Document Type

Open Access Capstone

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

First Advisor

Arthur Millman


My primary goal in this thesis is to show that Jurgen Habermas's formal pragmatics and communicative ethics offer an important contribution to theoretical issues concerning rationality, communication and moral theory. Formal pragmatics involves an inquiry into the conditions for the possibility of mutual understanding. Since language is the primary medium through which two or more persons achieve mutual understanding, formal pragmatics is a theory about communication. According to Habermas, the success of mutual understanding presupposes that all participants in communicative practices recognize the rational features of speech. A communicatively competent speaker is one who at least tacitly recognizes that every utterance capable of contributing to mutual understanding rests on the presupposition that reasons can be offered to defend or criticize the utterance. Communicative ethics involves an attempt to construe traditional formalistic/deontological moral theory within a communicative framework. This, in turn, is premised on the claim that interpersonal relations are central to moral deliberation and dispute resolution and that communication is central to interpersonal relations. The goal of a theory of communicative ethics is to provide a procedure according to which participants involved in the public discussion of norms can evaluate proposed moral claims in a fair and impartial manner. I argue that formal pragmatics offers a plausible account of the competences of every speaker capable of participating in successful communication. My task in examining Habernas's theory of communication, moreover, is to show that communicative reason is built into all instances of successful communication, From this clam I go onto show that the idea of communicative reason can be used as the foundation for a moral theory. My task in examining communicative ethics is to demonstrate its adequacy as a moral theory, an adequacy highlighted by the communicative ethical interpretation of a procedure for adjudicating moral norms. The greatest challenge to Habermas's work is posed by postmodern critics who reject the universalism that undergirds the concept of communicative reason. Universalism is the view that non-arbitrary principles for rationally assessing competing claims, principles that are valid in all contexts. I briefly examine some of the standard social and political objection to universalism (e,g. that it mistakenly conflates particularity with universality) in an attempt to show that at the very least the debate on universalism as not yet ended.


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