Discourse ethics

Discourse ethics

Discourse ethics is a view in moral and political philosophy that holds that moral principles should be acceptable to all those affected by their consequences.1 Discourse ethicists defend the view that the best moral norms can only be rightly defined intersubjectively. That is, the way to find these norms should be through dialogue, by weighing arguments against each other.

According to discourse ethics, we should act in line with the best principles we can agree on after we publicly debate about our individual moral opinions. In the public debate, all the arguments in favor of and against different viewpoints must be formulated, examined, and compared. It is through this process that we can reach an agreement about the best moral position.

As we will see below, this approach in ethics can have deep implications for all sentient beings. Because they all can be potentially affected by the decisions we make in our societies, their interests should be considered in those decisions. It has this implication in common with other ethical theories.

Conditions for a fair discussion that takes everyone into account

The dialogue should take place under certain conditions that can guarantee that the viewpoints of everyone affected by a certain moral decision are adequately considered. This requires the following:

1. The goal of the discussion must be to understand the different views about the moral issues at stake, to weigh them against each other, and to be ready to discard and/or change our views. The desire to find an agreement and the willingness to discard views that do not hold up to scrutiny must be the underlying forces that drive the debate.

2. No moral view can be left out of the discussion. Any previous agreement can be reviewed in the light of new facts or arguments. No opinion or discourse that could be considered must be kept out of the debate, since the validity of a moral norm can only be dismissed by rational arguments given in the discussion.

3. The discussion must be public and should involve the largest number of participants possible, especially, where possible, those who are affected by the matter being discussed. The discussion will be incomplete if there are participants whose perspectives are not taken into account. Although it is often impossible to include the voices of each and every individual who will be affected by a moral norm, those who do participate must exercise an empathetic shift in perspective and accept as valid only those norms that those affected by them would agree with.

4. The participants must not be subject to any influence other than that of the strongest argument. Thus, there must be no outside authority or coercive forces in play at the time of the discussion.

5. The participants must accept and act upon the strongest argument, this is, the one that best stands up to the objections overall.

Enfranchising the interests of nonhuman animals in discourse ethics

According to what we have seen above, the goal of the discussion is the intersubjective production of universally agreeable moral claims through rational civic engagement, which, once achieved, must be accepted and followed by all. This, as explained above, also extends to those affected by the decisions made in the discussion.

This means that we must not mistake the moral agents recognized by discourse ethics, those who are capable of acting morally; moral discussants, those who are able to take part in moral discourse; and moral subjects, that is, those who regardless of being or not moral agents or moral discussants, can still be morally harmed.2

Participating in the discussions prescribed by discourse ethics requires considering the needs of the moral subjects, those who cannot represent themselves but who are nonetheless affected by the decisions being made.3 This includes not only those who cannot take part in the debate due to logistical issues, but also those who are unable to take part due to a lack of discursive competence. Having complex cognitive or linguistic abilities are not necessary conditions to be a moral subject, since different non-linguistic or pre-linguistic beings still deserve moral treatment despite their inability to take part in the discussions.4 In other words: all moral subjects as defined above must be regarded as morally considerable beings.

This means that human infants or those humans with intellectual functional diversity can be and are every day subject to decisions made by the agents in such discussions, and all of them require our moral consideration. The same applies to nonhuman sentient beings, as the argument from species overlap indicates.5 No line between human beings and animals should be drawn regarding their inclusion as morally considerable beings.6 Otherwise, we would be accepting a morally unjustified view, an instance of anthropocentric speciesism. This would be at odds with the aim in discursive ethics of avoiding arbitrariness.7

The problem here is not where we draw the line dividing those beings that have interests that are morally considerable and those that do not. Rather, our aim should be to include all beings with interests as morally considerable. So the question is how to best incorporate the interests of all these beings in our decisions.

What considering the interests of nonhuman animals implies

Many of our actions and omissions affect nonhuman animals in a wide variety of ways. This means that they can be the objects of the deliberative process, since they are going to either suffer or benefit from the things being discussed and the moral norms being reached in those debates. This should be considered in the the question of the legitimacy of the use of animals as resources that humans can benefit from. Giving serious consideration to the interests of nonhuman animals is incompatible with accepting such use. No one would accept it if they were to be exploited as nonhuman animals are.

If we disregard this incompatibility, we are not accepting what discourse ethics prescribes, and are letting the views we held beforehand condition our reasoning here. An impartial approach that considered the interests and arguments in favor of nonhuman animals just as we consider the interests and arguments in favor of human beings would lead us to reject speciesism. By continuing to accept animal exploitation, we are refusing to discard a view that we would have to conclude is morally objectionable if we considered the arguments impartially.

The situation is similar if we consider not just animal exploitation, but wild animal suffering. The disregard for what happens to animals in the wild can only be accepted if we are not taking their interests seriously. This would also be at odds with the idea of enfranchising their interests in the moral principles we should accept. Due to this, incorporating the interests of nonhuman animals would also imply the requirement to try to help animals in the wild when they need it.

Moreover, these conclusions would not only affect nonhuman animals currently living, but also all those sentient beings who may exist in the future, who may be several orders of magnitude more in number than the ones living today. In addition, we can conclude that this is something that should not only affect our personal decisions, but that should be incorporated in an institutionalized way in the public policies and legislative decisions made by the relevant agents in our societies.

Even if we proceed as discourse ethics prescribes, there is a risk that the interests of nonhuman animals will not be incorporated into the agreed-upon norms. There is a danger that those actively participating in the public discourse will continue to hold an anthropocentric speciesist viewpoint, despite the strength of the arguments we have seen above. We must bear in mind that every participant in the process will be someone who has been socialized in a speciesist culture. Since nonhuman animals (as well as some humans) are not able to take part in these debates for themselves, the formulation of moral norms regarding animals depends on humans taking on such responsibility. 8 But of course humans may fail at such a task.

What could be done to try to avoid this? We should insist that discussants must extend their points of view during debates to cover the interests of all who are affected. We can also try to devise some way to address the need for an advocatory representation, such as we use for humans who cannot represent themselves, to include the interests of nonhuman animals into the discussion of moral norms and legislation.9 It is also a model to incorporate in our decisions the interests of those beings who will exist in the future (including the far future). These are ways in which the norms reached would be agreed upon even by those who are not present, or those who lack the ability to argue, be they human or nonhuman.

Further readings

Apel, K.-O. (1980 [1973]) Towards a transformation of philosophy, London: Routledge.

Apel, K-O. (2001) The response of discourse ethics to the moral challenge of the human situation as such and especially today, Leuven: Peeters.

Arnett, R.; Fritz, J. & Bell, L. (2009) Communication ethics literacy, California: SAGE Publications, pp. 99-115.

Benhabib, S. & Dallmayr, F. (eds.) (1990) Communicative ethics controversy, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Calhoun, C. (ed.) (1992) Habermas and the public sphere, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Chevigny, P. G. (1980) “Philosophy of language and free expression”, New York University Law Review, 55, pp. 157-194.

Chevigny, P. G. (1982) “The dialogic right of free expression: A reply to Michael Martin”, New York University Law Review, 57, pp. 920-931.

Cohen, J. L. (1995) “Critical social theory and feminist critiques: The debate with Jürgen Habermas”, in Meehan, J. (ed.) Feminists read Habermas: Gendering the subject of discourse, New York: Routledge, pp. 57-90.

Habermas, J. (1983) Moral consciousness and communicative action, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1994 [1991]) Justification and application: Remarks on discourse ethics, Cambridge: MIT Press

Habermas, J. (1996 [1992]) Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy, Cambridge: MIT Press

Rehg, W. (1994) Insight and solidarity. The discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rehg, W. (2004) “Discourse ethics and individual conscience”, in Gottschalk-Mazouz, N. (ed.) Perspektiven der Diskursethik, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, pp. 26-40.


1 Benhabib, S. & Dallmayr, F. (ed.) (1990) Communicative ethics controversy, op. cit., p. 336.

2 Skirbekk, G. (1997) “The discourse principle and those affected”, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 40, p. 66.

3 Jürgen Habermas, in Between facts and norms, defines ‘those affected’ as anyone whose interests will be affected by the consequences of the general acceptance of the norms being discussed. Habermas, J. (1996 [1992]) Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy, op. cit., p. 107

4 Crelier, A. (2016) “La ética del discurso y los derechos de los animales no discursivos”, Erasmus: Revista para el diálogo intercultural, 18 (2), p. 13 [accessed on 2 August 2023]

5 Skirbekk, G. (1997) “The discourse principle and those affected”, op. cit., p. 65

6 Hanssen, B. L. (2001) “Ethics and landscape: Values and choices”, Ethics, Place & Environment: A Journal of Philosophy & Geography, 4, pp. 246-252.

7 Ibid.

8 This would be akin to what has been done in the past to protect other vulnerable and/or speechless human beings. Mendieta, E. (2010) “Interspecies cosmopolitanism”, Philosophy Today, 54, suppl., pp. 208-216.

9 Skirbekk, G. (1997) “The discourse principle and those affected”, op. cit., p. 67.