Roundhouse Student Journal

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index

Martin King

The example discussed illustrates a problem with the objectivity claimed in the DQI. Discourse ethics is interested in the intersubjective achievement of understanding and process of decision-making. However, since the coder does not have access to authenticity or intersubjective attitudes concerning, for example, judgements, inferences, and respect, it does not accurately measure these features. Instead the DQI offers a hypothetical judgement about what is, for example, a good justification, without appealing to the participants it effects. It is claimed that this judgement is based on objective content in speech. This would seem to engage in the monological process that Habermas rejects, and furthermore it would imply that “good justifications” or “respect” are matters of objective fact, which Habermas’ discourse ethics suggests is inappropriate. What is more, the example discussed above suggests that this objectivity is not achieved, for the reading still relies on the interpretation of the coders. Thus it would seem that Steenbergen et al’s intention for the DQI is in conflict with discourse ethics theory. It could be argued that a better alternative measure of discourse would involve interviewing the participants regarding their attitudes, since they would surely be the last court of appeal regarding how they felt. The DQI could be used for this, although, given the restrictive nature of the codes, this may not be desirable. However, this is clearly not Steenbergen et al’s intention: it would not be objective, and different coders could produce different readings and be perfectly justified in doing so.

Implications of the DQI and Conclusions

Habermas’ Critical Theory was developed with the intention of being applied to practical problems. This discussion reveals problems with Steenbergen et al’s ambitions of producing an objective measure of deliberative politics based on discourse ethics; it suggests an application that attempts to provide an objective measure, but instead will tend to reduce, distort and misconceive discourse ethics. The DQI highlights how it is inappropriate to approach speech in discourse as an objectively observable phenomenon, since discourse also includes many subjective and intersubjective dimensions (such as the extent to which people feel respected within a debate, or are persuaded by a particular justification). These aspects would perhaps be better addressed by interviewing the participants themselves, rather than simply examining what was said. The problems faced by the DQI do not necessarily exclude the possibility of a meaningful application of Critical Theory to practical problems. Discourse ethics provides a persuasive account of what it is people seek when they seek greater fairness or democracy in ethical discussion. The theory may be used to consider actual acts of deliberation and political institutions, to interpret the extent to which fair deliberation is achieved, and to identify obstacles preventing more democratic decision-making. This discussion has indicated much material that is clearly relevant to Habermas’ theory in this respect, for example the functioning of parliamentary debates, which involves representative democracy, adversarial politics and unequal distribution of participation opportunities.

A Critical Assessment of Steenbergen’s Discourse Quality Index - Martin King [PDF file]

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