From Simon Chambers "Discourse and Democratic Practices" The Cambridge Companion to Habermas
Communicative actors are primarily interested in mutual understanding as
opposed to external behavior. Therefore, they attempt to convince each
other that there are inherently good reasons to pursue one course of action
over another. Only the "force of the better argument" should
have the po wer to sway participants. Discourse, as an idealization of
this kind of activity, must set conditions such that only rational, that
is, "argumentative convincing," is allowed to take place. It
must be a structure that is immunized in a special way against repression
The immunization is gained through a set of rules designed to guarantee
discursive equality, freedom, and fair play: No one with the competency
to speak and act may be excluded from discourse; everyone is allowed to
question and/or introduce any assertion whatever as well as express her
attitudes, desires, and needs; no one may be prevented, by internal or external
coercion, from exercising these rights.
Whereas in his earlier writings these rules were associated with practical
or moral discourse, Habermas now adds two more types of discourse: pragmatic
and ethical. Pragmatic discourse concentrates on means/ends issues, ethical
discourse on the self-understanding of individuals and groups, and moral
discourse on generally valid moral principles. All are governed by the
rules of equality, freedom, and fair play. All are directed at mutual understanding
through the power of reasoned argument. However, only moral discourse sets
itself the high standard of rational consensus.
Democratic deliberation entails all three types of discourse. The more
the issue under public discussion involves deep foundational issues of justice
the more important consensus becomes. However, the rationality of public
opinion and will formation in general does not depend on citizens reaching
a rational consensus on all issues. A discursively formed public opinion
can represent a process of Bildung or education in which citizens
build better foundations to their opinions through discursive interaction.
Through discursive interaction on various issues from who are we? to the
best means of securing deficit reduction, citizens become more informed
about the issues; they become aware of what others think and feel; they
reevaluate their positions in light of criticism and argument; in short,
by defending their opinions with reason their opinions become more reasoned.
The result of such interaction that public opinion and the exercise of
democratic responsibility are embedded in reasoned convictions, although
reasoned convictions do not always need to reflect a consensus on an issue.
Questions of legitimacy, on the other hand, are also questions of justice
and on these issues consensus is still to be aimed at.
Even if we understand discourse as not always aimed at rational consensus,
a discursively formed public opinion requires more than guaranteeing that
no one is excluded from discourse, that everyone may speak his or her piece,
and that no one may be coerced. Discourse under the aforementioned conditions
will be successful only if participants adopt attitudes of equal respect
and impartiality. The rules of discourse stipulate that we must treat one
another as equal partners in the process of deliberating about principles
that will govern our collective interaction, who we are, and what we want,
and the means to achieve a collective good. This means that each individual
must be given the opportunity to speak her piece and stand up and say yes
or no to a proposal. But, in addition to the negative requirement that
individuals be given the space and opportunity to speak, productive discourses
contain the positive requirement that individuals listen to one another,
respond to one another, and justify their positions to one another. To
treat one another as equal dialogue partners means that we must start from
the assumption that each participant has something potentially worthwhile
to contribute to the discourse; that each participant deserves to have his
or her claims considered. This embodies the Kantian idea that respect involves
treating people as ends in themselves and not merely as means. Strategic
actors view their dialogue partners as means: as either limiting or enabling
them in the pursuit of their ends. Communicative actors view their dialogue
partners as ends in themselves as autonomous agents whose capacity for
rational judgment must be respected. Most day-to-day interaction is a combination
of these two orientations. Discourse, as an idealization of communicative
action, asks participants to exclude all strategic and instrumental attitudes
toward interlocutors from the conversation.
Impartiality is achieved by putting oneself in the position of the other
and trying to see the situation from her perspective. Only in trying to
understand how the world looks to other people will participants be flexible
and open enough to undertake a genuine evaluation of their opinions. Discourse
is directed at mutual understanding. At a minimum, this means understanding
the real issues that divide you from your interlocutor. At a maximum, this
means coming to a shared understanding. Even the minimum case calls for
impartiality. Deep disagreement is not always or even primarily a case
of misunderstanding. Deep disagreement is often a case of understanding
too well the gulf that separates you from others. But disagreement, like
agreement, can be more or less rational depending on the reasons one has.
Rational disagreement requires that you understand the claim that you are
rejecting, and this calls for putting yourself in the other's place. If
participants are unwilling to make a sincere effort to assess their motives,
ends, and needs in light of the motives, ends, and needs of their interlocutors
the discursive process, no matter how structurally equal, will go nowhere.
Equal respect and impartiality are implied by the structure of rational
argumentation. If (and this is, of course, a big if) we are interested in
convincing with reason then we should deal with our interlocutor as someone
who could be convinced with reason, that is, as a rational autonomous
agent. If we hold out any hope of success in this endeavor, then we must
also be willing to make our arguments appeal to the other's point of view.
Although these requirements contain substantive moral assumptions about
how we should be talking to each other, they are still formal in that they
do not determine how the conversation will turn out, or even what we should
be talking about.
The theory of democratic legitimacy that emerges from this analysis is
one in which citizens are called upon to collectively and critically evaluate
the institutions and norms of their society through the procedures of discourse.
These procedures ensure that the process of evaluation is fair and that
deliberation is rational. But what would it mean to undertake such a conversation?
How do we translate this into real-world practices? When we try to envision
discourse as something concrete that citizens undertake, two points emerge.
The first is that the internal attitudes of equal respect and impartiality
become central. Rules of inclusion, equality, and non-coercion do not guarantee
that discursive opinion and will formation take place. Only when citizens
approach disputes as discursive rather than strategic actors do we have
a discursive practice. Second, the more public debate conforms to
the ideal of discourse the less useful it is as a tool of democratic decision
making. Discourse involves a trade-off between efficiency and the goal
of mutual understanding. The more our conversations are directed at mutual
understanding, the less efficient they are in producing a determinate outcome
that can be acted upon. This does not, however, marginalize discourse as
an essential component of democratic legitimacy.