Discourse Ethics

Chapter Summary

The theory discussed in this chapter is based around the idea that an ethical outcome is one that is agreed to by all those who are affected by it. The chapter explains the relationship between discourse ethics and democracy and introduces the notion of stakeholder democracy as a basis for ethical legitimacy. Some specific criteria that discourse needs to conform to in order to provide ethical legitimacy are outlined with specific reference to workplaces. The importance of the public sphere to discourse is highlighted, and attention is drawn to the possibility that the public sphere might be colonized by corporate agendas. The chapter ends by considering the activities of ICT corporations in relation to the public sphere. 

Self-test Questions

Some Features of Discourse Ethics

1.      How, according to discourse ethics, should we identify an ethical course of action?

2.      Describe two features that are characteristic of the style of democracy advocated by discourse ethics.

3.      Why might it be easier to reach consensus about ethics than it is to reach consensus about personal preferences?

4.      Give three reasons why it might be good to encourage the expression of dialectical opposition in ethical discourse.

Some Criteria for the Practical Application of Discourse Ethics to Employment Relations

5.      Why might it be easier to implement discourse ethics in the workplace than it is to apply it in relation to other stakeholders?

6.      What informal barriers might inhibit participation in workplace discourse and how might these informal barriers be overcome?

7.      Explain the difference between communicative action and strategic action.

8.      What, according to Jürgen Habermas, is the fundamental purpose of human communication?

9.      Name three dimensions across which, according to Habermas, participants in discourse must be of one mind if they are to reach shared understanding?

10.  Why is it important that all participants in workplace discourse are able to raise validity claims and challenge the validity claims raised by others?

Discourse and the Public Sphere: The Role of Media and Marketing Corporations

11.  Why is the public sphere important to discourse ethics?

12.  How might the Internet offer the potential to enable a more vigorous and diverse public sphere than has been provided by traditional media?

13.  Why are ICT corporations keen to gather data about their users?

14.  Describe two ways in which the data we provide to ICT corporations might limit the range of ideas and information to which we are exposed when we use the Internet.

15.  Explain how this might be described as a case of corporate colonization of the public sphere.

Web Links


The Civic Renewal Movement seeks to promote opportunities for citizens to participate in the style of democracy advocated by discourse ethics theory.  Its website contains information and discussion about this topic, a lot of which relates to the relationship between citizens, businesses and the state.


The Democracy at Work website provides information and discussion about workplace democracy, as well as examples of some companies that have put it into practice. 


The Stakeholder Democracy Network website provides information about its efforts to encourage the involvement of stakeholders in the shaping of corporate activity, along with examples of where this has and has not happened. It pays particular attention to community empowerment in the Niger Delta.


The agenda of the Occupy movement is based around the principles of discourse ethics. Its activities, structure, and processes illustrate some ways in which these principles might be applied to the identification of radical responses to socio-economic issues that affect everybody.