Background:

Jurgen Habermas was born June 18, 1929 in Dusseldorf, Germany. As both a philosopher and a sociologist, his work in the fields of social and political theory ranged from the examination of epistemology, language, the public sphere, and the philosophy of religion .[1]
Habermas studied philosophy at the University of Gottingen and received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Bonn in 1954. Throughout the late 1950s he continued to conduct sociological research at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany.[2]

During the 1960s, Habermas was a professor at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Frankfurt. From 1971 to 1983 he held the Director’s position at the Max Plank Institute in Starnberg, Germany and in 1983 accepted a position with the University of Frankfurt as the Chair of Philosophy, a position that he held until his retirement in 1994.[3]
Habermas is well known for his research and contributions to political and social theory. He has received numerous awards for his scholarship including an Adorno Prize (1980), a Sonning Prize, and a Kyoto Prize (2004).[4]
Habermas’ contributions to academia through his sociological, political, and philosophical work are extensive. Perhaps his most significant contribution to the field of communication is his Theory of Communicative Action and his conception of discourse ethics.


Communicative Action and Discourse Ethics:

Habermas asserts that the basic unit of human language and communication is “speech-acts”. “We make assertions, give orders, ask questions, make promises, etc.”[5] In developing his theory of communicative action (TCA), he conceptualizes that the fundamental goal of communication is to reach mutual understanding.[6]
Habermas identifies four rational conditions that are necessary to achieve this mutual understanding through communication:
1. Comprehensibility – being able to use language in a way that is comprehensible to others.
2. Truth – discussing concepts, ideas, and objects that others acknowledge as having concrete existence.
3. Trustworthiness – approaching communication with honesty, transparency, and openness.
4. Legitimacy – acting in accordance with quasi-universal values and norms.[7]

In his development of TCA, Habermas refers to the “ideal speech-act” as an instance when all conditions are met and understanding is successfully achieved. However, he acknowledges that such ideal communication occurs rarely in reality. He asserts that when the rational conditions for human communication are violated, the “repair-mechanism” for this violation is discourse.[8]

For Habermas, discourse is the means by which mutual understanding is attained. Ethical communication is achieved through communication that is “dialogical, two-way symmetrical, and cooriented.”[9] Through his TCA, Habermas asserts that ethical truths can be identified through dialogue and that ethical dilemmas can be resolved through two-way symmetrical discourse between affected parties or individuals.[10]


Discourse Ethics and Public Relations:

Habermas’s theory of ethical discourse is applicable to organizational ethics and the role that the public relations function plays as the ethical conscience of the organization. His ethical framework offers a significant alternative to the situational approach to ethical decision-making that predominates public relations[11] . While Habermas did not aim to transform the common organizational approaches to ethics, he asserted that his discourse ethics provided a path to effectively redirect ethical theory.

Discourse ethics emphasizes the importance of achieving mutual understanding and determining ethical truths through dialogue, as opposed to monologue[12] . Essentially, “the basic structures and procedures of communication are central to identifying and grounding moral principles”.[13]

The key features of Habermas’s ethical discourse are reciprocity, symmetry, and understanding. Such principles are compatible with Grunig and Hunt’s two-way symmetrical model of public relations, a model that now represents excellence in public relations practice[14] . Discourse ethics anchors the identification of ethical truths in rational thought and meaningful discourse. Habermas contended that such dialogue must be open, fluid, and honest; principles that also form the foundation of effective public relations.

A primary goal of public relations practice is to make morally sound decisions while maintaining consensus whenever possible. From a Habermasian perspective, consensus in public relations can be attained through efforts to ensure that an organization’s publics understand the rational basis of decisions and actions. For Habermas, such consensus is achieved through understanding and thus, through discourse.[15]

Habermas contends that discourse ethics provides a framework for moral objectivity, asserting that the moral worth of a decision is ascertained through unrestricted dialogue among affected members of a community[16] . His contribution to the fields of communication and ethical theory have been significant, leading many scholars to build on his assumption that a dialogical approach to communication is necessary for a sound ethical system.
  1. ^ Bohman, J. (2007). Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved October 19, 2009 from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/.
  2. ^ European Graduate School. (2008). Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved October 20, 2009 from http://www.egs.edu/resources/habermas.html.
  3. ^ Soylent Communications. (2009). Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved on October 20, 2009 from http://www.nndb.com/people/961/000093682/.
  4. ^ Soylent Communications, 2009.
  5. ^ Burkart, R. (2007). On Jurgen Habermas and public relations. Public Relations Review 33(3), 249-254.
  6. ^ Holub, R.C. (1991). Jurgen Habermas: Critic in the public sphere. London, Routledge.
  7. ^ Burkart, 2007.
  8. ^ Burkart, 2007.
  9. ^ Leeper, R.V. (1996). Moral objectivity, Jurgen Habermas's discourse ethics, and public relations. Public Relations Review, 22(2), 133-150.
  10. ^ Cavalier, R. (1996). Introduction to Habermas's discourse ethics. Retrieved on October 20, 2009 from http://www.unh.edu/democracy/pdf/repository/cavalier_introduction-to-habermas.pdf
  11. ^ Leeper, 1996.
  12. ^ Leeper, 1996.
  13. ^ Meisenbach, R.J. (2006). Habermas's discourse ethics and principle of universalization as a moral framework for organizational communication. Management and Communication Quarterly, 20(1), 39-62, p. 42.
  14. ^ Leeper, 1996.
  15. ^ Burkart, 2007.
  16. ^ Leeper, 1996.