A Critical Assessment of the Application of Habermas’s Discourse Ethics to Political Deliberation
Jürgen Habermas’s work centres on his theory of communicative action. Habermas develops a set of theoretical tools that can be used to identify and analyse distortions in communication caused by power imbalances. He defines discourse as communication that raises moral questions and states that moral questions must be agreed upon in real discourse. Habermas sets out the conditions needed for real communication that would allow the members of a society to define their own institutions and societal structures. In Measuring Political Deliberation, Steenbergen et al attempt to apply Habermas’s discourse ethics to the social challenge of deepening democracy by attempting to create a reliable and usable measurement instrument for the quality of discourse in political deliberation, a discourse quality index (DQI). This essay will explore the key aspects of Habermas’s discourse ethics used in this application, critically assessing both Habermas’s theory and this specific example of its application.
Writing about political institutions and societal structures in the post-war period and heavily influenced by the rise of Nazism and the student-led protests of 1968, German intellectual Jürgen Habermas does not seek to provide a blueprint for reform – he does not believe that theories should. Indeed, at the heart of Habermas’ thinking is the belief that theory can only be proved through deliberation and in its application. Habermas’ work covers a wide range of academic fields, including philosophy, sociology, social policy and linguistics, and draws on and responds to a number of theories and theorists, notably Marxism and Weber’s rationalization theory (Outhwaite 1996). He sets out the conditions needed for real communication that would allow the members of a society to define their own institutions and societal structures (Thomas McCarthy in Habermas1973: viii). The broad scope of Habermas’ work and its practical intent has led to its application to a diverse range of social problems in many different ways. Ricardo Blaug identifies three types of application of Habermas’ Critical Theory: those that use his normative theory to generate cultural criticism; those that apply his theory as an empirical theory with which to study the social world, creating critical sociological research; and those that use his theory as a test for legitimacy (Blaug 1997: 102).