Volume 6, 1998
Habermas on Virtue
Although Habermas has never worked out a conception of virtue and indeed criticizes this notion whenever he uses it, his theory crucially depends on the virtuous attitude of participants in discourse — be it in the realm of democracy and law or that of morality. In this paper, in which I deal only with the ethical foundations of morality, I argue first that the norms of discourse which are gained from a presuppositional analysis of speech as such have to be complemented by the sensitive perception on the side of the recipients. Only when the claims are understood in their full significance for the speaker does the discourse live up to the ideal which is already anticipated in every speech act. This presuppositional analysis shows secondly that it is mainly the virtuous attitude that is morally relevant and not those capacities for acting morally that the agent already possesses. However, the virtuous attitude genuinely entails the obligation to strive to perfect all those capacities that enable us to sensitively understand the other's claim. A discussion of the (discursive) capacities that have to be promoted leads to the singling out of sensitivity as contrasted to immediate empathy. It is the reflexive transcendence of the agent's evaluative patterns that allows this emotion to sit well with a post-conventional morality. Finally, I discuss a possible caveat of Wellmer and Habermas who might claim that the proposed conception of virtue would only be valid for participants in discourse, but not for agents acting in the life-world. However, because the discursive virtue is of wide latitude, it does not fall under this objection.