Baha'i Library Online

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COLLECTIONSPersonal pages, Unpublished articles
TITLECommunicative Interaction: Relating Habermasian Universalism to Baha'i Consultation
AUTHOR 1Jonah Winters
ABSTRACTThe philosophy of Jurgen Habermas has been influential in formulating definitions of morality. These theories are similar to the unique use by Bahá'ís of "consultation" as a tool for creating civil societies and nonrepressive moral codes.
NOTES Written for a graduate course on Postmodernism and Religion, University of Toronto, 1996.
TAGS- Philosophy; Consultation; Jurgen Habermas



C.S. Lewis gives the metaphor of morality as being like a fleet of ships. Three essential factors are needed to describe the proper functioning of this fleet. First, the ships must neither collide nor interfere with each other's paths. Second, each ship must itself be in proper working order. These two considerations are interconnected, he explains. If the ships get in each other's way or collide, their internal workings will of course be disrupted; conversely, if a ship's functioning is faulty, it could be the cause of a collision. The third consideration transcends the first two: where is the fleet of ships going?[1]

The meaning of the metaphor is obvious. To achieve nondisruptive societies, humans must 1) interact in ways that preserve a sense of fairness and harmony, 2) achieve an internal moral code which fosters such types of interaction, and 3) arrive at at least a minimal consensus of purpose or goal. For one speaking from the standpoint of a moral code legitimated transcendentally, as does the Christian Lewis, it is the divine authority which dictates the purpose or goal, and human subjective and intersubjective orderings are defined therefrom. However, for one who does not presuppose a transcendental guiding force, the way to a moral path is not so clear. Must a philosophy define a transcendental purpose before it can prescribe behavioural patterns, or must individuals receive a moral education which will allow them to create or discern ways of interacting and the goal of interaction, or is it a social code which will allow the other two concerns to become clear?

Religious and nonreligious systems of thought have tended to approach this problem from opposite ends, the religious systems claiming ultimate and totalizing prescriptive authority and the nonreligious systems seeking instead a moral code which the unaided human mind can construct. Two new approaches to the issue of legitimizing ethics have appeared relatively recently. The Bahá'í religion,[2] founded and formulated between 1844-1921, offers a paradigm of social and religious pluralism and metaphysical relativism founded on the principle of consultation. Here, ethics is given a unique definition as necessarily both transcendentally and consensually defined. Jürgen Habermas, writing in the last four decades, preserves a limited sense of transcendentalism à la Kant,[3] but in the main he legitimates moral norms through his theory of "communicative action" and its central tenet, universalization.[4]

The approaches to ethics and pluralism of the Bahá'í religion, especially as found in its notions of consultation, and of Habermas have a fair deal of similarity. Moreover, further correspondences between the two can be constructed which could enrich each of them. I will explore some of these similarities through the eyes of Habermas's communicative action and conclude with some brief observations on religious pluralism. I will first summarize Habermas's theory of universalization, then Bahá'í views of consensus and relativity before attempting to relate the two. In the interests of situating this discussion and its relevance, I have chosen to begin the examination with a cursory presentation of the history of the debate in modern times.


Much of the mood of modern philosophy can be characterized as critical, "crisis" coming from the Greek word krisis, meaning "a separating," "a trial," or "a decision."[5] Inspired in part by the apocalpyticism of the nuclear age, and the broad though subtle sense of change occasioned by the turn of the millennium, humanity has, in theologian Udo Schaefer's words, "an overwhelming sense of our being poised at a decisive point in the history of the world" as it faces either "the annihilation of humanity" or "a fundamental transformation of our consciousness, our attitudes, our ethical values, and our political existence."[6]

Much of this current crisis can be traced back to the Enlightenment. As an Aufklärung, a "clearing up," or "explanation," the Enlightenment celebrated the powers of human reason. It awoke a keen interest in science and the promotion of religious toleration, and a desire to construct governments free of tyranny.[7] As Max Weber put it, the Enlightenment expressed the belief "that no mysterious forces exist..., and that, in principle, all things can be mastered through calculation. This amounts to a demystification of the world."[8] This sentiment marks the beginnings of philosophical (as contrasted with the various forms of artistic) modernism. To modernism we owe many commendable things: notions of political and social equality, democracy, the burgeoning of science, as well as negative things, such as the hegemony of instrumental reason (this will be defined more fully below, pages 5-6).

Speaking generally, the Enlightenment focus on rationality was first criticized by the Romantics, who felt that it stifled emotion and imagination. In this century, criticism has become more incisive. The suspicion has grown that the project of the Enlightenment has legitimized "instrumental" powers of rationality, uses of the reasoning nature that can lead to exploitation and abuses of power. The cause of this suspicion, according to Helmut Peukert, is "the assumption that our enlightened rationality does not measure up to the consequences of its actions."[9] The emancipating spirit of the Enlightenment has been distorted and lost, partly due to a misuse of reason made possible by Kant's insightful, but exploitable, delineations of reason. The "Critical Theory" of the Frankfurt School realized that the separation of reason from brute nature did allow for a freeing of human rationality, but also a disjunction between humanity and the natural world that transformed the latter, and ultimately other humans as well, into objects of domination. "Reason thus degenerates into an instrument of domination," writes Peukert.[10] For many thinkers, the project of the Enlightenment is irredeemable. Postmodernists, for example, find that "eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of human subjectivity, reason, and knowledge have broken down beyond retrieval." In place of ultimate rationality, they prefer to see the human subject as decentered and relativized, inhabiting a world too pluralistic to be described by totalizing theories such as Kant's.[11]

Religion, too, has undergone heavy criticism in the past three centuries, but not in a way parallel with the criticisms of the Enlightenment. Rather, it has suffered criticism directly at the hands of the Enlightenment. In 1755 David Hume published his Natural History of Religion, which traced the origins of religion to a primordial sense of fear and anxiety. Hume wrote that in its lowest form, polytheism, religion was nothing other than "sick men's dreams," and in its highest form, monotheism, it was no more than "the nobler parts" of the human mind.[12] Though the Romantic movement did witness somewhat of a religious revival, exemplified amongst the philosophers by Hegel and amongst the theologians by Schleiermacher, the emphasis on the use of reason to obtain individual understanding remained more palatable than authoritative or authoritarian spirituality.[13] Transcendental philosophy was eschewed, even by the Transcendentalists. The positivistic empiricism of Comte, when combined with the discovery of evolution by Lamarck and Darwin, stamped religion with the lasting stigma of supernaturalism, defined by the 1886 Encyclopedia Britannica as the "antithesis" of rationalism![14]

Certainly, religion was largely to blame for its own disrepute, for its institutions, in the case of almost every religion in history, have abused both political and spiritual authority. Often, though, the critics have erred in their choice of which object to criticize; instead of retaining respect for and belief in authority but locating that authority elsewhere than religious institutions, as Schleiermacher so admirably did, many critics have rejected belief entirely. For example, Matthew Lamb points out that, confronted with the tragic wars of religion, "Enlightenment intellectuals tended to criticize religion rather than war."[15] Bertolt Brecht, writing in 1949, summarized well the attitude that still reigns today: "Belief has prevailed for a thousand years, but now doubt has taken its place... Doubt is cast on time-honoured truths, and what always used to be taken for granted is now questioned."[16]


Habermas calls the Enlightenment and modernity "incomplete projects." In using these two telling words, he is claiming that 1) each is a project, a clearly-defined movement with aims and a direction, and 2) neither should be discarded if its aims seem not to have been realized, because the movements still have potential; they can be redeemed.

Habermas traces disillusionment with the two projects "by recalling an idea from Max Weber." Weber, he writes, saw that the unified world-views of religion and metaphysics "fell apart." This led to reason becoming separated into three autonomous spheres--those of science, morality, and art, which became institutionalized in the respective structures of "cognitive-instrumental," "moral-practical," and "aesthetic-expressive" rationality.[17] While the differentiation of reason into autonomous spheres has been very useful in analyzing human thought and action and in promoting the growth of systems such as science and capitalism, it has also led to negative effects. More, Habermas has stated that even the often-assumed benefits of the Enlightenment have not necessarily been achieved: "The promises of prosperity, freedom, and justice associated with the Enlightenment project of scientific control over nature and a rational organization of society have signally failed to be realized, and we have no reason to suppose that they will be in the future."[18]

Habermas resolves both attitudes of criticizing and praising rationality. On the one hand, he acknowledges that instrumental reason has "colonized the lifeworld." By this he means that the branch of rationality concerned with means more than with ends has proved so successful in the realm of techne, of practical application, that its methods and aims have been applied to the other realms of rationality where it doesn't belong, such as human interactions or aesthetic judgments. It has become a force of oppression within the lifeworld, i.e. the sphere within which the individual acts and the locus where the private though communicatively-condition subject interacts with his or her communication partners.[19] When rationality becomes narrowly defined and misapplied in this manner, its potential to emancipate and enlighten disappears and rationality becomes harmful. On the other hand, Habermas does not want to discard rationality wholesale. To adopt attitudes such as those of the postmodernists I gave above would, he would fear, lead to a moral relativism such that normative ethicality would become impossible and any attempts to create universal ethics would be seen as mere oppression. Instead, he offers a theory within which instrumental reason is prevented from overflowing its bounds. Then, as it ceases to colonize the lifeworld, the other two spheres of reason can be reapplied to their appropriate uses and hence preserved.

The question Habermas seeks to answer is this. "Should we try to hold on to the intentions of the Enlightenment, feeble as they may be, or should we declare the entire project of modernity a lost cause?"[20] The bulk of his social theory has as its goal the development of an alternative to either extreme, one that makes moral judgments possible and at the same time repels the forces colonizing the lifeworlds. His most recent, and perhaps largest, contribution towards solving this problem is his theory of "communicative action."

Communicative action solves both of the above problems. It allows the various spheres of rationality to be retained without exceeding their bounds and becoming oppressive, and it allows philosophy to prescribe normative ethics without that ethics being either merely relativistic or transcendentally authoritarian.

Communicative action is, in brief, "an attempt to ground ethics in the form of a logic of moral argumentation" in which "participants coordinate their plans of action consensually."[21] It is "action" because, in contrast with a method of discovering moral laws interior to the thinking subject, like Kant's monologically-reasoned ("discourse of one") categorical imperatives, Habermas's moral laws are discovered only dialogically ("discourse between"). Since dialogical, the broad term for this deontology is Discourse Ethics. It is only active discussion and debate between subjects, not passive contemplation within one subject, that can inductively reason moral laws. It is "communicative" because it is only through discursive argumentation, an active discourse concerning contested norms, that an atmosphere can be achieved within which truth claims can be tested and either validated or rejected.

There are a few specific points I'll make about communicative action which will help to clarify its nature. First, we must distinguish between "communicative" and "strategic" action. The latter is not true discourse; it is speech used "to influence the behavior of another by means of the threat of sanctions or the prospect of gratification" whose goal is to cause the hearer to act in accordance with the wishes of the speaker.[22] These he terms "illocutionary" speech acts, which are, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, speech acts "such as ordering, warning, [or] undertaking."[23] There is not necessarily anything wrong with illocutionary speech acts. Indeed, the actions of commanding or making promises are vital for everyday communication. However, they are not discourse, for discourse requires an exchange of statements and ideas. It is only when "all external or internal coercion other than the force of the better argument" is ruled out that truth claims can be assessed.[24] When they are imported into communicative action, the process is interrupted, for the participants are no longer wholly free to express themselves unfettered.

Second, communicative action is not a new theory and, of course, many of its tenets are millennia old. What is new is, not just Habermas's clear formulation of it, but also the use he makes of it. It represents an "ideal speech situation," but does not rest unreasonable utopian hopes on its realization. This is a point easy to misunderstand. His intention is apply Enlightenment methods and ideals to social restructuring, yet his writings often give the impression of being far too theoretical to have practical application. David Klemm says that "[Habermas's] lectures presuppose a world in which those most rooted in European cultural life are brought to the pinnacle of power," adding humorously that "he seems to imagine his students as future corporate heads or political leaders."[25] Habermas is aware of and addresses this issue. "Admittedly," he writes, my [communicative action] hypotheses do require distinctions not easy to operationalize."[26] Rather, its concern is with ideal process, even if one that, "in light of its goal of reaching a rationally motivated argument, must satisfy improbable conditions."[27] It is, as he says in many places, action oriented towards reaching understanding. The truth claims communicative action seeks to discover are always contextual, never final. Every community will have to embark upon the process in discussing every contested norm; continuing action will never arrive at ultimate and final conclusions applicable to another contested norm or to the same norm contested by a different community. It is in the process of actions oriented towards reaching understanding, not its final results, that allows the debate to priorize discourse and preclude strategic speech.

A third aspect of communicative action is the one most relevant to the topic at hand. Habermas's discourse ethics shifts the focus of deontology from alternatives such as metaphysical and religious justification of norms, a priori positing of transcendental ultimate principles used to legitimate ethics, or simple positivistic empiricism as a source by which to arrive inductively at morality, to a focus on the processes a community can employ to agree upon and consensually validate ethical judgments. It may prima facie appear that such a procedural approach may either relegate morality to crude relativism or suffer moral judgments never to be finalized. However, integral to the communicative procedure is Habermas's notion of universalizability: all members of the community must enter into the discourse, and only those norms which all participants accept as being optimal for the best form of the good life for all people directly or indirectly affected by the implementation or observation of that norm can be considered moral.

It is this principle of universalizability which 1) renders speech situations necessary in validating a norm which is ultimately an unachievable ideal, and 2) renders notions of continual, contextual process more relevant than final results. It is also this principle of universalizability which allows communicative action the possibility of preserving freedom and the good life while yet retaining the power to make prescriptive moral pronouncements. In light of an ever-more pluralistic society, universalizability may hold a key to furthering and helping to resolve much of the debate on religion's relevance to the modern world. After a few introductory notes on the Bahá'í religion, I'll explore this principle more deeply.

Similar to the way in which postmodernists like Lyotard view "metanarratives," many thinkers see the truth claims of religion as being authoritarian. These transcendent claims, since not empirically-derived, are not fallible, and systems of thought which define themselves as infallible are justifiably suspect. Also, since these ultimate truth claims are a priori to each religion, with no empirical content, they cannot easily be reconciled with a pluralistic community. These two facts, lack of fallibility and inability to encompass diversity, have often allowed religion's truth claims to become metaphysically totalitarian and the clerical orders to become politically totalitarian. As David Tracy summarizes, "Any religion, whether past or present in a position of power demonstrates that religious movements, like secular ones, are open to corruption... Whoever comes to speak in favor of religion and its possibilities of enlightenment and emancipation does not come with clean hands nor with a clear conscience."[28] This criticism is particularly cogent with religion because religion in many ways epitomizes pluralism. Its truth claims are, to the believer, not trivial but paramount. Yet, not only is there a wide variety of religions, but, as Tracy further points out, an even wider pluralism within religions. "The religions, in fact, are even more intensely pluralistic than art, morality, philosophy, and politics," he says.[29] The Bahá'í religion proposes to offer solutions to these two well-founded criticisms of religion.

A keyword of the Bahá'í religion is "unity in diversity." Though not a new concept, no religion incorporates it so thoroughly in its very foundation as does the Bahá'í. Two facts relevant to the above discussion fall out of the unity in diversity philosophy. First, all religions are valid for their place and time, and thus no religion is more true than any other, yet each religion has a particular contextual relevance, and thus one religion can fairly be deemed more appropriate in a certain context than another. Second, religion has both the authority and the responsibility to prescribe moral laws for its context, but most of these laws can only be formed by and applied within the specific culture to which the laws relate. So-called "fundamental spiritual verities" (such as the existence of the ineffable divine) aside, most matters of ethics are determined by a process of consultation. This is a method for achieving standardized sets of ethical and political governance the animating principle of which is radical democracy. I'll introduce both of these, and expand on the latter in part five, below.

First, the plurality of religions is, not just a social inevitability, but a social necessity. As a religion within the Abrahamic tradition, the Bahá'í postulates an ultimate ground of being which can be termed God, and which can anthropomorphically be described as wishing to communicate with and educate humanity. Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í religion, gives as a central Bahá'í tenet God communicates with humans at various points in history, on average once every few hundred or thousand years, through reflections of the divine called "Manifestations." (These are not "manifestations" in the ontological sense, for the Christian concept of incarnation is rejected as a man-made theology. It is God's attributes, not his essence, that are mirrored in these human prophets, or "Educators.") As the pre-modern world did not have the benefit of world-embracing communication, the "Educators" often had to appear within a variety of cultures and give a seeming variety of teachings, each fitted to the individual culture and its needs. In the so-called Axial Age, for example, Bahá'u'lláh declares that more than one prophet (e.g. the Buddha and Zarathustra) appeared at approximately the same time. Prophets have also appeared diachronically, as did Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad within the same geographical area, to unfold "progressive revelation," in which a group of people has received similar teachings, but at ever more advanced stages and in fuller expressions. Thus, all "revealed" religions are seen as deriving from the same divine source, and are therefore equally valid. As such, the religion does not recognize the concept of conversion, and Bahá'ís are forbidden to proselytize. It is stressed that, when one adopts the Bahá'í set of beliefs, one need not abandon one's previous set and, indeed, the continuing vitality of the Bahá'í communities requires that a diversity of religious practices and interpretations be preserved and even encouraged.[30]

These facts preserve the pluralism of religions without resorting to any of the three common distinctions of exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism, each of which has its problems: 1) The Bahá'í religion makes unique claims for itself without ascribing to these claims exclusivist authority, for all revealed religions and even many "nonrevealed" ones, such as Taoism, stem from the same divine source; 2) it is not inclusivist, for inclusivism, though enshrining tolerance, yet ascribes preferential status to only one religion (usually Christianity); and 3) it is not properly pluralistic, for pluralism, if taken to its logical conclusion, results in the relativist aporia of not being able to judge between competing claims. As the religion the most recent, most relevant to contemporary issues, and having the greatest scope of teachings, the Bahá'í religion does forward a claim for attention and unique, unequalled relevance, while yet emphasizing that even its claims are, ultimately, as contextual as those it replaces.[31]

The above, summarizing the Bahá'í response to plurality among and between religions, is sufficient background of most aspects of the religion relevant to this topic. The other criticism, that religion's truth claims, since not fallible or consensually reached, are authoritarian, is also, Bahá'ís believed, resolved by a unique teaching of their religion. This, the single tenet of the religion most directly applicable to Habermas's communicative action, is the Bahá'í concept of consultation. I have chosen, for the sake of comparison, to refer to consultation here as "communicative inter-action." Briefly, consultation is the prescribed method for making decisions in which all members of the decision-making body, be it a legislative group or an entire community, are enjoined to share their thoughts before a democratic decision can be reached, and no single member is allowed either to dictate decisions or to campaign either for or against any one decision. Rather, only those verdicts arrived at communally can be considered valid. I will explore consultation and its parallels with communicative action more fully after presenting Habermas's principle of universalizability.


Habermas uses the term "universal" in two related but different senses. A moral law, to be moral, must achieve a balance between being applicable to all parties within a defined community, i.e. transcendent to the particular, and also consensually derived, i.e. dependent upon the particular. The first meaning of universal is that, to be a law, there must be a clear sense in which the specific moral principle is universalizable, or applicable and binding to all equally. The second meaning of universal is that all rational humans must have the ability to participate in constructing the law, else its universal application would become an authoritarian imposition. All humans have a "universal species competence," which for Habermas is founded in communicative action and speech-act theory, to comprehend ethical issues, weigh between differing options, and participate in a debate as to which option should become a standardized norm for one's community. I'll address these two meanings in this order.

Seyla Benhabib expresses succinctly the place and import of Habermas's notion of universalizability. "Only those norms and normative institutions are valid," she writes, "which individuals can or would freely consent to as a result of engaging in certain argumentative practices." Those practices are, of course, the processes of communicative action. Whereas Kant declared that a norm could be universalized if an individual moral agent could will, without his or another's interests being compromised, that it be a universal maxim for all, Habermas's opinion, continues Benhabib, is that norms can only be universalized "after engaging in a special kind of argument or conversation."[32]

It may prove to be clearest if I first present Kant's notions of universal morality and some objections to it, for these are clearly notions both informing Habermas's theories and to which he is reacting. A central insight into morality is that certain principles must be regarded as of a higher status than others. We may posit as a moral law, for example, that spouses should not commit adultery. While this may sound like common sense, it is not justifiable on its own; there must be a higher moral principle which would be violated by its occurrence. An example could be that, assuming that the marriage was conditioned on a vow of fidelity, adultery breaks the code of honesty. Another example could be that adultery would disrupt the unity of the family, which might be considered of supreme importance. The problem here is that, while each higher level of principles may seem more common sense and intuitively correct, an infinite regress looms. That is, just as sexual monogamy could be conditioned on marriage fidelity, and that fidelity could be conditioned on honesty, likewise honesty might be conditioned on the higher principle of social coherence, and so on. If the regress is infinite, then ultimately none of the levels of moral principle would be grounded in an ultimate level. And, as the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, unless some "ultimate moral principles could be shown to be justifiable, no other moral judgments can be shown to be justifiable."[33] If we can't ultimately ground marriage fidelity, then by extension we can't even judge an event such as the Holocaust to be impermissible.

Kant sought to ground moral principles in self-reflection. Any action which a rational, reflecting subject could judge to be moral would be, given one necessary condition: universalizability.[34] Habermas himself points out how central this aspect was to Kant. "Kant noted time and time again [that] moral norms must be suitable for expression as 'universal laws.' The categorical imperative can be understood as a principle that requires... universalizability."[35] If we placed no conditions on the reflecting subject, this exercise would obviously result in a purely subjective morality. Kant resolved this by declaring that, regarding any particular moral law, the reflecting subject must rationally understand that all affected by the law be equally desirous of it. For example, an individual might wish that his or her debts be cancelled, and hence contemplate how nice it would be if all debts were cancelled. However, as soon as he realizes that that means that the money owed to him would also be nullified, he would not wish the law to be universally applied. By this diligent application of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," a rational subject could, on his own, posit universal moral laws.

Hegel criticized the Kantian moral formula, calling it, Benhabib says, "inconsistent at best and empty at worst."[36] The problem, Hegel pointed out, is that whether a moral law can be universally, if monologically, legitimated does not make it moral. No concrete maxims can be unequivocally derived from the pure form of the moral law alone, and if they do, adds Benhabib, "it is because other unidentified premises have been smuggled into the argument."[37] Habermas succinctly pinpoints Hegel's critique of Kant's deontology in "Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel's Critique of Kant Apply to [Habermas's] Discourse Ethics?" with four specific criticisms. One of these is that Hegel objected to the abstract universalism of Kant's ethics. Since Kant was seeking universal moral norms, his enterprise required that the contemplating subject abstract beyond all empirical data and particulars; were the moral verdicts arrived at influenced by particulars, then they could not be transcendent enough to qualify as universal. The problem Hegel had with this, Habermas says, is that a judgment validated by that universal "necessarily remains external to individual cases and insensitive to the particular context of a problem in need of a solution."[38]

Nietzsche and Adorno expressed even stronger, less reserved criticism of Kant's categorical imperatives. Nietzsche stated forcefully that, if the relation between the particular and the universal is not properly constructed, then life is "essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation."[39] Hegel, while reformulating much of Kant, appropriated his transcendentalism with the assumption that the dialectic between the universal and the particular would render each equally strong and autonomous. Adorno, though, with a critique very similar to that of Nietzsche's of Kant, opined that Hegel's universal will overpower the particular, and that Hegel's, and by extension Kant's moral theories become violent acts.

Habermas summarized above Hegel's critique of Kant's universalism by saying that it overlooked and ultimately ignored the particular. Elsewhere, Habermas refers to this same objection using the notion of fallibility. Doubtless he was influenced here by Popper's notions of falsification, by which a scientific generalization can never be conclusively verified, but can be falsified. It is only this fact of falsifiability, or, in Habermas's (translated) terminology, "fallibility," that a theory can be judged scientific. By contrast, a theory--even if seemingly scientific--that cannot be falsified is considered unscientific. For example, Popper considered Marxism and psychoanalysis to be nonscientific because not empirically falsifiable,[40] and we shall see that Habermas judges religion in the same way and partially for the same reason.

In light of both Kant's highly influential ethical system and some of the objections given to it, such as the ones listed above, Habermas formulated his theories of discourse ethics. In doing this he both preserved aspects of Kant and Hegel, such as the necessary universalizability of normative moral laws, but he also rejected aspects, especially the way in which these deontologies transcended the particular. While many aspects of discourse ethics and communicative action directly relate to and contrast with previous Enlightenment and modernist ethical theories, one aspect of Habermas's thought in particular will be addressed here, and that is the notion of universalizability.

Kant sought to legitimate universal principles, not through the deus ex machina of religious authority, as had been standard in most Occidental philosophy in the previous millennium and a half, but through the procedure of rational contemplation. Habermas wishes to preserve, in large part, this project. As J. M. Bernstein says, Habermas acknowledges the collapse of (authoritarian) tradition as a force of reason, opting instead for a recognition and upholding of the particular, especially as manifested in the plurality of lifeworlds, yet all the while maintaining a firm hold on "the commitment to universalism."[41] "My problem," says Habermas, "was a theory of modernity, a theory of the pathology of modernity from the viewpoint of the realization--the deformed realization--of reason in history."[42] In short, he wanted to retain the ability to make moral pronouncements, which requires, in his project, the continuing validity of rationality. If this sounds like an obvious solution, then one must keep in mind the derogation of rationality in much of post-Enlightenment, and especially postmodernist, thought. Both of these, from Nietzsche and Weber through to Derrida and Lyotard, have often tried to supplant rationality with "decisionism," deconstructionism, poststructuralism, and relativistic pluralisms.

Habermas has taken upon himself the seemingly contradictory task of rejecting a pure, nonfallible transcendentalism such as religious claims and Kant's categorical imperatives, opting instead for an empirically-grounded ethics, yet at the same time one that can make universalistic prescriptions. This, obviously, appears at first glance to be impossible. He accomplishes it, and accomplishes it well, by reinterpreting universalism.

In Kant's monological rationality, a thinker could arrive at the normative categorical imperative by him- or herself, and if another thinker disagreed with him, it was practically irrelevant. Habermas founds his rationality dialogically. Universal truth claims, communicative action's version of the categorical imperative, are only reached through a process of community discussion. This process is not mere conversation, for it has strict guidelines and goals. Discourse ethics states that if a moral norm, such as not committing adultery, becomes contested within a community, then what that community needs to do is discuss, or, using this word in a technical sense, "argue" about the contested law. After all participants have had their input, and after they have carefully listened to the input of all other participants and honestly reconsidered their opinions, then the community will, if the debate is allowed to continue long enough, eventually come to an agreement about the moral law in question. This agreement will, speaking practically instead of metaphysically, now become a universal truth. This process is not simple conversation, because a central element of it is rationality. All participants have a communal obligation to examine carefully, not just the thoughts of others, but their own opinions. This consideration must be sincere, honest, and completely candid. Any opinion that is not ultimately founded on clear rational reasons--(Why do I believe that, what's really my intention in wishing this, do I have any open or hidden agenda, have I really taken the other person's standpoint into consideration, do I fully understand the consequences of implementing or abandoning this norm?)--must be dispensed with, and only an extended discussion with others, not subjective contemplation within one's own lifeworld, can expose hidden agendas and purify the dialogue of "strategic" influences. Since the conclusions of the argument have been reached rationally, the new, renewed, or newly-validated moral norms can rightly be considered normative, and since the conclusions of the argument have been reached consensually, they can rightly be considered justified, and since all members of the community have participated fully in the discussion, they can be considered universal.

Habermas defines his principle of universalizability (U) with a few slightly different formulations.[43] In summary, it is this: Any moral norm is valid when and only when all those potentially affected, directly or indirectly, by its implementation, alteration, or abandonment have freely come to understand, accept, and approve of these consequences. To rephrase it (hopefully) more simply, no one will be expected to submit to a moral law or its effects unless and until he or she has come to fully understand and agree with all of its affects. Conversely, of course, once each member of the community has agreed upon the moral norm, he or she is morally responsible to obey its dictates. "A norm which passes the test of universalizability only deserves general recognition on condition that it is actually obeyed by everyone," Habermas explains, and, conversely, "the following of a valid norm can only be expected from someone who can be sure that all others are also obeying the norm."[44] (U) is thus universal for two reasons: one, all affected must universally agree to the norm, and two, when it is agreed upon, it becomes universally applicable to all. Thus does (U) solve the above two objections to Kant's universalism: it abandons monological reflection in place of dialogue, and without losing any rational legitimizing force.

Habermas follows his principle of universalization, (U), with the principle of discourse ethics, (D). His principle of (D) is in some ways a prerequisite of (U). It states, in short, that only those norms are valid which meet with the approval of all participants in the dialogue. (D), states Habermas, "stipulates the basic idea of a moral theory but does not form part of the logic of argumentation."[45] That is, with (U) a contested norm cannot be accepted by all participants unless all affected agree on its final formulation and the effects it will have on each participant, while (D) limits morality to only those norms that have been approved through a process of discourse. It may seem that there is a fair bit of overlap here, for (D) provides the foundation of the legitimizing project, while (U) merely clarifies the scope of application of the norm. Habermas acknowledges that (D) is in a way a prior concern--"(D) is the assertion that the philosopher as moral theorist ultimately seeks to justify"[46]--yet he still wishes to accord a higher status to (U)--"The only moral principle here is the universalization principle."[47]

Critics have also noted this apparent overlap. Its source seems to be a confusion about the same criticism levelled against Hegel: does universalizability entail violence to the particular? That is, does the existence of a higher-level definitive morality deprive the individual of any personal morality?[48] I'll use these objections as a springboard to the discussion of the second crucial sense of Habermas's notion of universalism, which is slightly unrelated to the above. Namely, he speaks of universalism not just as the final, end result of a dialogue, but also as an a priori competence of a rational beings. His communicative action is an addition to a branch of "reconstructive" sciences that deal with what has been termed "universal species competences." In this context, this means that rational humans universally have the ability and, ultimately for Habermas, the obligation to engage in communicative action. Before defining the terms "reconstructive" sciences and "universal species competences," I'll first treat the above objections in some detail, for they will prove useful in introducing and explaining more fully the foundation of Habermas's principle of universalization.

Benhabib, for example, declares (U) to be redundant, adding "little but consequentialist confusion" to the basic principle of (D).[49] What criticism such as Benhabib's seems to boil down to is a fear that (U) represents a resurrection of the same sorts of ethical authoritarianism of which the Enlightenment so completely cleansed philosophy. Benhabib explains that, as she sees it, Habermas's (U) does little more than guarantee consensus, to exemplify which she quotes Rousseau's dictum "on les forcera d'être libre."[50] Her point is clear. She fears that Habermas draws too complete a disjunction between the age old questions of the good life and questions of justice--that is, between questions of individual morality and standardized social morality--for, while universalizability is determined by consensus, and the final verdicts of a community's consensus are taken as necessarily moral, yet universalizability does not automatically mean moral. That is, just because a community universally agrees upon a norm, this consensus does not legitimate that norm as valid. An example is that members of certain Indian societies have unanimously believed that a widow should voluntarily immolate herself upon her husband's funeral pyre. This has not necessarily been an imposition on the women's code of morality, for they, too, often accepted this norm.[51] However, the fact of their acquiescence must not be so construed as to justify this as a moral act. One could object, for example, that a moral law higher than the communal has been violated, such as Kant's categorical imperative could object, or one could say that, though some women accepted the norm, they did so without having been exposed to sufficient alternatives and points of view.

Habermas's universalizability principle fails precisely because it is transcendental, Benhabib seems to object. It fails because it abstracts "away from the embedded, contingent, and finite aspects of human beings," and thus is "blind to the variety and richness" of human diversity. This can lead to "morally disturbing and counterintuitive consequences."[52] Albrecht Wellmer, too, points to this aspect of communicative action's discourse ethics as problematic. Wellmer points out that, at the level of abstraction at which universalization occurs, "one has already abstracted from all differences between speakers, i.e. from all concrete determinations."[53] This is true insofar as that all participants must be willing to surmount their individual lifeworlds with their personal opinions and desires if they are, first, truly to be able to listen empathetically to the views of their co-participants, and, second, to be willing to change their preconceived notions, if needed and so convinced, and accede to the consensus of the group. Though Wellmer concedes that there could be other ways of interpreting universalizability,[54] he concludes that "a transcendental (or universal) pragmatic ultimate justification of a communicative ethics is not possible."[55] It can never be achieved because the participants can never fully transcend the presuppositions and preconditioning that they bring to the dialogue.

These two objections seem to rest on the relation between the universal and the particular, Benhabib's that the universal is prejudiced over the particular, and Wellmer's that the universal can never fully be justified. Habermas, though, is not insensitive to this criticism, and indeed seems to anticipate it. He does so by founding his discourse ethics, not just on dialogical consensus, but on presuppositions that he makes about the capacity of all humans to engage in dialogue. This brings us to the second fundamental aspect of universalization: Habermas's theories of universalism do not just relate to the ontological and deontological status of a consensually-defined moral norm, but also to the foundational achievability of this project. The dialogue of discourse ethics, he declares, is within the purview of all rational beings.

To repeat, the principle of discourse ethics, (D), states that only those norms can be valid which have been approved of by all participants, and the principle of universalizability, (U), states that the participants can only approve of the norm if 1) all who would be potentially affected by it have participated in the debate, and 2) if it is, after being legitimated, applied to all. This theory clearly presupposes a condition that is both necessary and sufficient: all those affected by and debating a contested norm must have the capability both of understanding the issues and of expressing their opinions on it. There must be a universal competency.

Moral laws in our modern, pluralistic, rational world can no longer be legitimated apodictically, that is, as handed down from an infallible and unquestionable transcendent source, be it the Pope or Kant's monological categorical imperative. A contested moral law can only be addressed and debated from the standpoint of the individual lifeworld. However, the speaker must be rational. A speaker who is youthful, poorly educated, or mentally ill would, it seems, not be considered rational in the Habermasian sense. This, however, is not quite what Habermas intends; by "knowledge," he is thinking more of "knowing-how" than "knowing-that," a distinction preserved in many languages, such as French, between "savoir," to have factual knowledge, and "connaître," to understand or to have familiarity with.[56]

Scientific endeavors that are concerned with such "pre-theoretical" knowledge have been termed "reconstructive sciences." These include, in Richard Bernstein's list, Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development, and Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development.[57] All three hypothesize, though in differing ways, that certain facets of human thought and behaviour are internal structures occurring universally in all humans.[58] These are considered reconstructive because these undertake the reconstruction of pretheoretical knowledge. Their underlying idea, explains Thomas McCarthy, is that all acting and speaking subjects implicitly know how to "achieve, accomplish, perform, and produce" without having to have been taught to do so.[59] In contrast with empirically-founded endeavors such as in the natural sciences, the reconstructive sciences explore symbolic and social realities, seeking "deep structures" of competence in (usually) the human species. Hence, "universal species competences," which Habermas terms, in his adoption of them for the agenda of communicative action, "universal pragmatics."

The data of reconstructive sciences is provided, not only by observation and testing, but also by introspective reportage of the subjects.[60] However, they are not transcendent. This, as Richard Bernstein points out, is, for Habermas, their most important methodological point. These sciences "are themselves subject to appropriate canons of confirmation and falsification."[61] This is crucial because it places Habermas's ethics on a scientific footing that Kant's, being merely internal and transcendental, could never claim.

The point of adopting such reconstructive sciences is that Habermas wishes to make ethics pragmatic and more socially relevant. "The reconstructive sciences designed to grasp universal competencies break through the hermeneutic circle in which... the interpretive social sciences are trapped," he writes.[62] Transcendental philosophies such as Kant's and Hegel's, while perhaps metaphysically convincing, did little to effect a social relevance. Habermas finds communicative action to be founded, at least implicitly and often explicitly, in the very act of speaking. Here he summarizes it succinctly enough to warrant quotation in full:

In the attitude oriented toward reaching understanding [i.e., a community's communicative action re especially a moral norm], the speaker raises with every intelligible utterance the claim that the utterance in question is true..., that the speech act is right in terms of given normative context..., and that the speaker's manifest intentions are meant in the way that they are expressed.[63]

Put another way, every time a person speaks, he or she applies the three validity claims of truth (what I am saying to you represents a true statement as best I understand or perceive it), sincerity (I mean this statement, I am not lying) and rightness (what I am saying is appropriate in terms of our shared social realm.[64] While it is obvious that not all speech acts include these validity claims--e.g., if one is speaking imperatively or strategically some or all of the three might not be relevant--all communicative speech acts do.

Habermas's notion of the universality of these validity claims is, upon reflection, obvious. Also, it indicates two other aspects of discourse which further imply the potential of moral behaviour: humans possess an inherent goodwill, and they seek to live communally. Communication is motivated by goodwill, for why would one communicate a (nonstrategic) thought if one did not believe it to be true and wish to share it sincerely? Acts of communication also imply a universal desire to interact with a communal give-and-take, for, if it were otherwise, one would not need to speak with another human, but could either speak to one's cat or, as in Kant's scheme, simply reflect internally. Thus, it is in communicative speech that Habermas founds discourse ethics and the possibility for prescribing universal morality.

Habermas's intention is to find an empirical and reason-based ground for a universalizable ethics. "Through speech-act theory," he explains, "I just wanted to get hold... of a notion of rationality that does have certain normative implications."[65] Since all humans, no matter what culture they are in and what language they speak, unconsciously include the above validity claims with every spoken statement, his theory of universal pragmatics can become just that: universal. This has profound implications for ethics in a pluralistic and modern world, for it suggests that mutual understanding, community solidarity, and universalizable morality is, not just possible, but built into the very competences we as a species universally possess. Moral judgments can be rationally and empirically-based without resort to positivism, they can be universally applied without the threat of a sort of apodictic moral totalitarianism, and they can, indeed they must, be reached through a process of community dialogue the informing motivation and guiding principle of which is action oriented towards reaching understanding. The moral laws arrived at after this process can unhesitatingly be labelled "truth."


The Bahá'í religion sees itself as the only force capable, in the present world, of bringing about world peace and constructing avenues along which humankind can achieve its fullest potential.[66] The base of its claim to be able to do so is its principle of unity in diversity, and especially consultation.

Bahá'u'lláh taught that diversity is as essential to a properly functioning society as, say, differences in pitches, rhythms, and instruments are essential in a symphony. Bahá'ís believe that the only way to preserve pluralism of opinion, interpretation, and culture is to have all people, nations, and cultures consciously agree to do so. This agreement requires, in at least a minimal sense, a unity of belief. Only if all diverse elements consciously agree to respect and retain diversity will the multifarious political interest groups, cultures, religions, and even language communities cease trying to gain dominance or, in less purposeful domination activities such as the growth of colonial languages at the expense of native ones, can hegemonies be prevented.[67] The way Bahá'ís seek to effect this paradigm shift is, largely, through teaching communities the principles of consultation.

I will present the Bahá'í notion of consultation in the following paragraphs and, to keep from being repetitive, I will make any appropriate observations relating consultation to Habermas's communicative action in the same presentation. The parallels between the Bahá'í system and Habermas's two senses of universalism will be evident.

Consultation may sound, prima facie, like little more than a fancy term for an old and common understanding of how productive dialogues should be conducted. This would be a misreading, for it contains a few innovative elements. "The purpose," writes 'Abdu'l-Bahá, son of Bahá'u'lláh, "[is] that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth," and "the shining spark of truth comes forth only after the clash of differing opinions."[68] Every member of the consulting body, be it an entire community or a smaller ruling body,[69] is encouraged and, if hesitant, solicited to share his or her thoughts. The directive is that, "before the majority of the Assembly comes to a decision, it is not only the right but the sacred obligation of every member to express freely and openly his views."[70] They must, in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words, "proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views."[71]

Partly for the sake of ensuring that these guidelines are followed, every idea and suggestion put forward is not considered the idea of the person who mentioned it, but the property of the group as a whole. That is, no one is given either credit or blame for his ideas. This prevents both individual credit and ad hominem attacks, which has the effect of greatly limiting strategic communication. This addresses a common objection to Habermas's theories, namely their unattainable utopian character. It has been noted (see above, page 8) that a discourse in which the participants detachedly subject all of their preconceptions and opinions to impartial rationality seems highly counterfactual. In consultation, where ideas cease being traced to the provenance of their thinker and instead belong, impersonally, to the group, there is much more practical ability to subject them to critical and objective analysis, and much less of a tendency to guard and unreasonably argue for or against any particular idea. Consultation thus embodies Habermas's injunction to let no force but that of the better argument prevail and removes some of the primary obstacles to the ideal speech situation.

One of Habermas's main concerns was to promote a social ethics that would prevent the rise of totalitarian governments and encourage democracies, and much of his theory of discourse ethics is oriented towards that goal. Religion, for Habermas, was a prime example of dictatorial morality. Kenneth MacKendrick writes in a recent paper that "Habermas sees the truth claims of theology as being self-validating and unredeemable in discourse - and therefore unreflexive, unaccommodating, and unaccountable."[72] The Bahá'í religion has similar concerns, and orients consultation as a response to them. Shoghi Effendi, who figured prominently in organizing the religion in the twentieth century, wrote that Bahá'ís must "bear in mind that the keynote of the Cause of God is not dictatorial authority, but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation... Consultation, frank and unfettered, is the bedrock of this unique Order."[73] Consultation helps to foster democracy by, first, enjoining that all participants have their say, and encouraging this by preventing any decisions being made autocratically. A decision can only be made if there is a quorum, which on all present-day Bahá'í administrative bodies is at minimum five.[74] Thus, the most totalitarian a Bahá'í government could become is oligarchic. However, since even this hypothetical oligarchy could only be elected democratically,[75] it is difficult to imagine Bahá'í administration and, by extrapolation, its deontology, being authoritarian.

Habermas's universalizability principle is reflected in the Bahá'í notion of truth being consensual and reached through consultation. For Habermas, a moral law can only be declared to be true, and subsequently enforced, if all affected have had the chance to discuss it and have agreed on it. Since no transcendental authority, be it a categorical imperative or God, is ever invoked to legitimate a norm, only norms defined consensually can, pragmatically, be considered as truth. Likewise, for Bahá'ís, it is only in the process of consultation that most truth claims can be defined and rationally validated. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains this in a quote relevant enough to be included in full:

He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion; for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide... Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others... If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own... By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth.76

That is, the "spiritual verities" aside, most of humanity's truth claims are only reached and legitimated through the process of consultation. Once a decision is reached by majority vote, it is considered, in a way reminiscent of Charles Peirce, to be pragmatically true. Further, similar to the teaching that ideas belong to the group and not to individuals, these consultative truths are taken to represent the body politic and not the opinion of those who voted for it. The international Bahá'í governing body explains that "[a]s soon as a decision is reached it becomes the decision of the whole Assembly, not merely of those members who happened to be among the majority."[77] In this way is Habermas's notion of universalization applied to consultation: it applies to all equally, as does his (U), but, being conditioned on majority rather than conformity, it is more practically achievable.

There is further aspect to this, and one which also differs slightly from Habermas's system. His communicative action can, as I mentioned, be criticized for its ideal status. A discursive community will only reach agreement on a contested moral norm after a sufficiently protracted debate. For the force of the better argument to prevail, every participant must be convinced that his or her opinion, if differing from the final verdict, was wrong. This is not because he is forced into accepting the consensus, but because the honest and sincere application of reason showed him which opinion was the better, and he changed his mind. This course of events is clearly pragmatically counterfactual, for it is highly unlikely that such a debate could truly be continued long enough and that the participants would be rationally dispassionate enough for all to become wholly convinced of one and only one outcome. Decision making in the Bahá'í system of consultation does need to continue to this utopian ideal. Bahá'í writings emphasize repeatedly that a unity of opinion is the best option, but not essential. Discussion can stop when a majority is reached. Bahá'ís do not consider these consensually-defined truth claims to be metaphysically true for, since most religious beliefs are contextual, metaphysical considerations are often de-emphasized.[78] Rather, it is a pragmatic truth. After a community has reached a decision, all members are to accept it. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains that

If they agree upon a subject, even though it be wrong, it is better than to disagree and be in the right... Though one of the parties may be in the right and they disagree that will be the cause of a thousand wrongs, but if they agree and both parties are in the wrong, as it is in unity the truth will be revealed and the wrong made right.[79]

Though this may sound illogical, the Bahá'í theory is that it is the quickest way to perceive which course of action is superior. If five people in the community act on one decision and four act on an opposing one, a much greater time and effort will be required to determine which course was the superior than would be required if all nine acted wholeheartedly and in accord, even if their course turned out to be the inferior.[80]


Habermas uses the notion of universalism in two ways; one, that all must and, as the theory of universal validity claims of speech acts shows, can participate in judging a moral law, and two, that all must agree on the law and, once they have, the law must apply to all equally. He avoids any sort of ethical autocracy by requiring that only the better argument hold sway, yet acknowledges that this does represent an "ideal speech situation." Habermas solves this problem partly through recourse to reconstructive sciences, i.e. sciences which study universal species competences. Through this method Habermas theorizes that our every spoken utterance includes validity assumptions that approximate the ideal speech situation.[81] That is, the very fact the we are, universally, linguistic and communal beings serves to reify the abstraction of the ideal speech situation.

The Bahá'í system of governance and communicative structuring, especially consultation, addresses the same issues that Habermas's communicative action does and prescribes many of the same solutions. Consultation, though, draws clearer lines describing the nature of the individual communities which seek to create a communal ethics, and it draws these lines partly by defining the relativistic communal norms in contradistinction to a universal community, namely the one in which all member states have agreed to the overarching norm of unity in diversity. Even though Habermas sees a potential reification of the ideal speech situation in the universal validity claims of speech acts, there still seems to be an aporia in the process of communicative action, an aporia which would inevitably preclude the final step of universalization of the norm. Namely, is it feasible to expect that a community can be so dispassionate as to let nothing but empathetic rationality reign? Consultation offers a solution to this--rather than theorize about moral laws that can only be applied following a complete and rational agreement, the Bahá'í consultation offers another kind of universal species competency. It teaches the universal necessity of, first, sharing fully and openly one's thoughts, but after doing so to be detached from one's personal ideas and opinions, and to priorize instead a consensus reached by agreeing to act in accord with majority decisions.


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[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1960), pp. 70f.

[2] Though the term "Bahá'í Faith" is the most common, it carries overtones of piety and apologetics. The term "Bahá'ísm" is often encountered in academic works, but this is regarded by Bahá'ís as expressing the same misunderstandings that led to the (now recognized as improper) term "Mohammedanism" for "Muslim." The option used here is the most felicitous. See Robert H. Stockman, ed., "A Curriculum Guide for the Bahá'í Faith" (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í National Center Research Office, 1994), p. 2.

[3] See J.M. Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the future of critical theory (Routledge: London, 1995), p. 191.

[4] Throughout this paper I will be using the term "universal" and derivatives of it. Here I should clarify what universalism, in this context, is not. Two of its most common meanings in academia, both of which here it is not, are in 1) comparative religion, where it simply means a religious system claiming world validity, or a concept defined as applicable to all experiencers, and in 2) metaphysics, where it usually relates to the nominalism/realism debate as to whether or not there is a universal Form, or archetype, which gives identity to particular instances of the universal. What it is I will define later.

[5] From Krinein, "to divide" or "to choose," and hence "to judge" or "to examine."

[6] Udo Schaefer, trans. Geraldine Schuckelt, Beyond the Clash of Religions: The Emergence of a New Paradigm (Prague: Zero Palm Press, 1995), pp. 17f.

[7] American Heritage Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Electronic Edition (InfoSoft International, Inc., 1994), s.v. "Enlightenment."

[8] Quoted in Schaefer, Clash of Religions, p. 27.

[9] Helmut Peukert, "Enlightenment and Theology as Unfinished Projects," in Don S. Browning and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, eds., Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 43-65, p. 46.

[10] Peukert, "Enlightenment and Theology," p. 48.

[11] David F. Ford, "Epilogue: Postmodernism and Postscript," in David F. Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians: An introduction to Christian theology in the twentieth century (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), pp. 291-297, pp. 291f.

[12] Quoted in Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1986), p. 19.

[13] See Sharpe, Comparative Religion, p. 28.

[14] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "supernaturalism." Accessed from the Internet (Linkname: OED Logo Oxford English Dictionary; URL:

[15] Matthew Lamb, "Communicative Praxis and Theology: Beyond Modern Nihilism and Dogmatism," in Don S. Browning and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, eds., Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 92-118, p. 108.

[16] Quoted in Udo Schaefer, "Ethics for a Global Society," in The Bahá'í Studies Review, Volume 4 Number 1, 1994, pp.47-56, p. 51.

[17] Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity--An Incomplete Project," in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 3-15, pp. 8-10.

[18] Quoted in Jürgen Habermas, Peter Dews, ed., Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas (London: Verso, 1986), p. 5.

[19] See David M. Rasmussen, "The System/Lifeworld Distinction in the Context of Power," in David M. Rasmussen, Reading Habermas (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1990), pp. 51-54.

[20] Habermas, "Modernity--An Incomplete Project," pp. 9f. Italics in original.

[21] Jürgen Habermas, trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen, "Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification, in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), pp. 42-115, pp. 57f. This presentation of communicative action will, unless otherwise noted, largely be taken from ibid., esp. pp. 57-76, "The Principle of Universalizability as a Rule of Argumentation," and "Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action," in ibid., pp. 116-194, esp. "The Perspective Structure of Action Oriented toward Reaching Understanding," pp. 133-141.

[22] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 58. Italics in original.

[23] Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "illocution." I am simplifying this: Habermas also makes use of a further distinction of "perlocutionary" speech acts, which are even more strategically-oriented. These distinctions are all drawn from J. L. Austin. Cf. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "perlocution," which quotes Austin's How to do Things with Words, p. 102: "We can similarly distinguish the locutionary act 'he said that..' from the illocutionary act 'he argued that..' and the perlocutionary act 'he convinced me that..'." Italics mine.

[24] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 89.

[25] David E. Klemm, "Two Ways to Avoid Tragedy," in David Jasper, ed., Postmodernism, Literature and the Future of Theology (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), pp. 7-20, p. 18.

[26] Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 141. Habermas expands on this point in Dews, ed., Autonomy and Solidarity, pp. 259-261.

[27] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 88.

[28] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 85.

[29] David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, p. 86.

[30] In answer to the obvious question "why, then, another religion?" Bahá'u'lláh responded that education requires ever-increasing levels of knowledge fitted to a changing and ever more mature humanity. It is a fundamental tenet that Bahá'u'lláh's teachings will one day also be superseded by the next Manifestation. Indeed, Bahá'ís believe that every religion's scriptures declare that the religion will one day be superseded, but that very few adherents correctly understand these prophesies and accept this fact. Within Christianity, for example, see John 14:2-3, 16:6, and 16:12-13, Acts 1:11.

[31] A concise summary of these three approaches to the theology of religions can be found in Gavin D'Costa, "Theology of Religions," in The Modern Theologians, pp. 274-290. Cf. also John Hick, "Interfaith and the Future," in The Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 4 no. 1, (1994): pp. 1-8. For a Bahá'í evaluation of the three approaches, cf. Juan R.I. Cole, "'I am All the Prophets': The Poetics of Pluralism in Bahá'í Texts," Poetics Today, vol. 14, no. 3 (Fall 1993): pp. 123-141.

[32] Seyla Benhabib, "Afterword: Communicative Ethics and Current Controversies in Practical Philosophy," in Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, eds., The Communicative Ethics Controversy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), pp. 330-369, pp. 330f.

[33] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 7, "Ultimate Moral Principles: Their Justification," pp. 177-182, p. 179.

[34] Sometimes also referred to as "impartiality." Cf. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Ultimate Moral Principles," p. 180.

[35] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 63.

[36] Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 334.

[37] Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 335.

[38] Habermas, "Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel's Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics?", in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), p. 195.

[39] Quoted by Dews in Peter Dews, ed., Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas (London: Verso, 1986), p. 29.

[40] Webster's New World Encyclopedia, college edition (New York: Prentice Hall,1993), s.v. "Popper, Karl."

[41] J. M. Bernstein, Recovering Ethical Life, p. 191.

[42] Quoted in Richard J. Bernstein, ed., Habermas and Modernity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985). p. 4.

[43] Cf. Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," p. 65 and p. 93, and Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 120.

[44] Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity, p. 252.

[45] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 93. Cf. also p. 66.

[46] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 94.

[47] Habermas, "Discourse Ethics," 93.

[48] Cf. David E. Klemm, "Two Ways to Avoid Tragedy," p. 10.

[49] Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 344.

[50] Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 345. (I translate, "they will be forced to be free.")

[51] While there obviously have been exceptions, and the women who voluntarily submitted to this treatment were doubtless fewer than those who were forced to submit to it, the fact remains that some adult, rational women have freely agreed to it. This example differs from, say, forced genital mutilation of African girls, for the girls, being children, could not be considered old enough, or, in Habermasian terms, "rational" enough to fully understand and agree to the action.

[52] Benhabib, "Afterword," p. 356 and p. 342, respectively.

[53] Albrecht Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy and the Theory of Society," in Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr, eds., The Communicative Ethics Controversy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), pp. 293-329, p. 327.

[54] "One can also understand the choice of a [universal] reference system... in a different way: namely, as grounded in the interest of reconstructing a system of rules that will be recognized by speakers..." Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy," p. 327. Wellmer continues, explaining that we can see this level of abstraction, not as a discourse constraint forced upon the participants, but as one chosen in exactly the same method that a moral norm is chosen, i.e. consensually and willingly. However, though acknowledging this alternate explanation, he does not carry it through.

[55] Wellmer, "Practical Philosophy," p. 327. Italics in original.

[56] Cf. also Spanish, saber vs. conocer, and Arabic, 'alama vs. 'arafa.

[57] Richard J. Bernstein, in Habermas and Modernity, p. 16.

[58] Chomsky's generative grammar includes abstract principles of grammar that, not only are universal, but point to the possibility of language having a biological basis. Piaget's and Kohlberg's theories detail stages by which cognition (Piaget) and morality (Kohlberg) develop in all individuals in clear-cut stages, universal in their general structure in all humans and all cultures.

[59] Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1988), pp. 276.

[60] Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jürgen Habermas, pp. 278f.

[61] Richard J. Bernstein, in Habermas and Modernity, p. 16.

[62] Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," p. 118.

[63] Habermas, "Moral Consciousness," pp. 136f. Italics in original.

[64] Habermas also speaks of a fourth validity claim, comprehensibility, which stipulates that the sentence itself is a comprehensible one. I.e., "this ball is red" contains a level of clear, comprehensible meaning in a way that "'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe" doesn't. However, he concentrates on the three given above.

[65] Habermas, "Concluding Remarks," in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992), pp. 462-480, p. 463.

[66] Though there is not the space here to explain this fully, I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that the Bahá'í religion merely seeks to replace lesser forms of imperialism with a global one. Moojan Momen, an eminent Bahá'í scholar, writes: "The Bahá'í Faith is..., I would argue, in reality, a metareligion. It is not another religion that has come to take the place of the existing religions but rather a way of looking at the religious experience of the whole of humanity... What I see the Bahá'í Faith doing is taking the religious traditions of the world and developing these along their own traditional paths of spirituality... The world-wide Bahá'í community would act as a medium in which these different spiritual pathways would become globally available." Moojan Momen, "Beyond Pluralism" (unpublished article, 1995), pp. 1f.

[67] Interpreters are sometimes quick to exemplify this with the adage "to agree to disagree." This is misleading, because it implies contentiousness, a dead end in an argument. A more accurate axiom would be "to allow to be different."

[68] Quoted in The Universal House of Justice Research Dept., compiler, Consultation: A Compilation (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1995), Nos. 20 and 9, respectively.

[69] All administrative bodies in the Bahá'í religion, from local to international, are corporate, possessing at minimum nine members. Power of governance is never invested in individuals, hence each and every major administrative, legal, or interpretive ("spiritual") decision is made only through the process of consultation. In contradistinction, Habermas only sees religious institutions as resistant to democracy. See Kenneth MacKendrick, "Method, Theory, and Communicative Action: An Exploration into Jürgen Habermas's Contribution to the Study of Religion (unpublished paper, delivered at a symposium at the University of Toronto on April 27, 1996), p. 13.

[70] From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, in Consultation, No. 31.

[71] Quoted in John Huddleston, The Earth is But One Country (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 99.

[72] MacKendrick, "Method, Theory, and Communicative Action," p. 11.

[73] Quoted in Consultation, Nos. 22 and 26, respectively.

[74] See note 69, above. Cf. also Compilation on Bahá'í Administration (Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 96, and Helen Bassett Hornby, compiler, Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File, third edition (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1994), No. 585.

[75] Cf. Compilation on Bahá'í Administration. The proscription of positive or negative campaigning includes elections as well as discourse. An individual who publicly campaigns for his or her election to a governing body is automatically barred from consideration and, conversely, those individuals who are elected are expected to "serve" on the body (though not required, it is rare for someone to refuse). This procedure puts into practice the old Chinese adage that "He who most wants to lead is least fit to do so, and he who is most fit to lead least wants to."

[76] Consultation, No. 20. Italics added.

[77] The Universal House of Justice, quoted in Lights of Guidance, No. 584.

[78] Cf. Moojan Momen, "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics," in Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, volume 5 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988), pp. 185-218.

[79] Consultation, No. 12.

[80] 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes: "It is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong." Quoted in Consultation, No. 15.

[81] See Habermas, in Autonomy and Solidarity, p. 260.

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