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Other Applied Philosophy

In Search of a Methodological Foundation for Applied Ethics

Louis Logister
University of Nijmegen

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ABSTRACT: The problems that face contemporary applied ethics are indissolubly related to some characteristics of postmodern civil society. In this paper I will try to take a stand in the discussion between a proponent of a particularistic approach and one who favors a universalistic approach to the present difficulties that accompany human action. Karl-Otto Apel combines in his ethics of discourse a focus upon universal and normative structures of communication with a Kantian transcendental method of thought. Paul van Tongeren follows Aristotle and Nietzsche in arguing that the local and historically determined contingent traditions are the basis on which to approach our ethical questions. After giving a brief presentation of their respective contributions to the discussion, I shall end with some reflections on the difference between, and the merits and demerits of, a universalistic and a particularistic ethics.

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Until very recently in the history of mankind, most people lived in rather small communities. Their knowledge of and their influence on distant cultures was rather limited. With the rise of modern science, resulting in the present communication era, things changed considerably. Today, man's cultural evolution has reached a point where the local and the global dimensions of his actions are hard to distinguish.

Another feature of our existence at the present 'fin de siècle' is the declining influence of the great narrative traditions. In our liberal democracies the new leading narrative is that of the free market, accompanied by the imperative of unlimited profit making and consumerism. The lack of a consensus on many basic social values which results from the declining influence of the 'great stories' of our traditions, generates a mentality of 'collective individualism' and value relativism. In this situation we face the danger of initiating a process in which the rather fashionable ideals of pluralism and tolerance turn out to be mere indifference. (1)

The problems that face contemporary ethics are indissolubly related to these characteristic features of post-modern civil society. In this paper I will try to take a stand in the discussion between proponents of a particularist approach and those who favour a universalistic approach to the present difficulties that accompany human action. After giving a brief presentation of Karl-Otto Apel's and Paul van Tongeren's contribution to the discussion, I shall end with some reflections on the difference between, and the merits and demerits of, a universalistic and a particularistic ethics.

Karl-Otto Apel: Argumentative Discourse Communication

Karl-Otto Apel tries to show the need for a macro ethics which he considers as a response to a new stage in the cultural evolution of men. (2) By criticising two insufficient conceptions of contemporary professional ethics, he outlines and explicates the apparent difficulties of a rational grounding of such an ethics. Finally, he suggests a solution from the point of view of a transcendental pragmatics of human communication.

Apel observes a structural non-synchronism of traditional morals with the actual requirements of a common and joint responsibility for the planetary effects of human activities. Our contemporary society is in need of new moral demands. The features of these demands can no longer be understood in terms of micro or meso ethics. The social subsystem of international economy is an example which shows that a new challenge has been posed to man's moral responsibility. Through the anonymous, long-distance interactions generated by this system, the effects of our economic actions in daily life are often no longer imaginable. Another example of the new challenge to man's moral responsibility is his changed relationship with his ecosphere. The enormous technological progress and the increased demand for natural resources has made the global bio-sphere extremely vulnerable. These examples show that natural equilibrium between the stages of ethics and the stage of range and effectivity of man's actions has dissolved. We can observe the development of a planetary situation which demands a new ethics of co-responsibility, a planetary macro ethics. According to Apel, this demand of co-responsibility for the results of our collective activities can not be answered by the conventional morals represented by the present social institutions but calls for a new rational foundation.

The first conception of contemporary professional ethics Apel criticises is the complementarity system of positivism and existentialism. This system, which has dominated western ideology for a long time, consists of a rational and an irrational part. The rational (positivistic) part is conclusively defined by the value-neutral rationality of science. Ethics, conceived of as a matter of private emotions and decisions, belongs to the irrational (existentialistic) part of this system. The paradoxical character of this system is shown by the fact that the technological consequences of this value-free science call for a rational foundation of a planetary ethics of co-responsibility. According to Apel, we might find an argument against this complementarity system when we realise that science consists not only of the subject-object-relation of cognition, but also of the relation of communication between co-subjects. Even a value-free natural science presupposes an ethics of an ideal communication community with regard to the inter subjective relations of its practitioners.

The second conception of contemporary professional ethics which Apel criticises is a neo-conservative trend of the so-called rehabilitation of practical reason. This ethics of the good life according to the reflection of local traditions can be traced back to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Communitarist thinkers as Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre have their doubts about the possibility of a historical and cultural independent grounding of morality. Because of its relativistic nature, this rather anachronistic trend provides no solution to the problem of a macro ethics of human co-responsibility.

Thus, Apel stresses the need of a universally valid ethics. This does not mean he wants to dissolve the pluralism of particular forms of life which characterises our present society. What we need is not a global culture, but a universally valid ethics of equal rights and co-responsibility for the solution of the common problems of mankind. According to Apel, the principles of justice must be based on the moral institutions which are provided by the non-contingent presuppositions of the institution of argumentative discourse. Without this non-contingent fact of reason as a foundation of the universality of morality, a global macro ethics would be impossible. Even philosophers who deny the necessity or the possibility of presupposing universally valid norms try to find intelligible arguments to defend their position. We cannot bypass the fact that the discussion of controversial subject matters in an argumentative discourse is not contingent or incidental. When we participate in discussing the possibility of a global ethics we can convince ourselves by reflection that we must pre-acknowledge certain normative principles. The reflection on these principles of discourse is transcendental in the Kantian sense of the term. Besides the willingness to enter the discourse, we accept the norm that only by arguments of reason we try to find out whether it is possible to find a rational foundation for an applied ethics.

So by raising the problem we enter the level of an argumentative discourse by which we have already acknowledged a certain ethical rationality and some fundamental normative principles. Nobody who participates in the discussion can combat the validity of this rationality and its accompanying norms without becoming entrapped in a performative self-contradiction. Everything that is only controversible by a performative self-contradiction is ultimately grounded. (3)

According to Apel, this non-contingent fact of reason is the only human institution that can provide a possible, reasonable solution to moral controversies. Because, by relying on these preconditions of communication, we acknowledge certain normative preconditions of all communication by arguments that cannot be counted among the historically contingent background conditions of the different cultural traditions of morality. What Apel develops is a transcendental-pragmatic foundation of a universally valid principle of co-responsibility. In other words, he gives the foundational possibility-condition of such an ethics. The problem of the organisation of the collective co-responsibility of all mankind goes beyond the metaphysical aim of his argument. The norms of communication do not give us solutions to particular concrete problems, but only the procedure which ought to be followed. Apel holds the dialogue to be the ultimate basis of an ethics which embraces the whole world including our contemporary complex societies.

Paul van Tongeren: Ethics and Tradition

Paul van Tongeren stresses the meaning tradition has for morality. (4) Without being directed by a tradition we would not know how to distinguish right from wrong. However, for contemporary people, being morally independent seems to be an important value in itself. Conformism to a tradition appears to contradict personal responsibility. But, this contrast between traditionalist and anti-traditionalist views becomes less clear when we realise that tradition is not something static but rather an ongoing process in which the participants actively shape that in which they participate.

According to Van Tongeren, the task of an ethicist is in the first place to try to display the meaning of an ethical problem. Meaning is something which is essential for our existence as human beings. Without the ability to understand and express meaning it would be difficult to distinguish us from animals. Thus, if we neglect the aspect of meaning trying to solve ethical problems, we abstract from that which distinguishes these problems as typically human.

The meaning of something is not an objective fact we can search for somewhere outside our mind. On the other hand, if meaning would be something purely subjective we would not have to ask what meaning really means. It is clear that meaning is somehow related to inter subjectivity. With Aristotle Van Tongeren concludes that we need to be social to be able to give meaning to something. The meaning we give to something will only be meaningful to us if this meaning is confirmed by others. Because the community we are living in extends through time, Van Tongeren thinks it is necessary not only to consult our contemporaries but also our predecessors to be able to grasp the meaning of something. Hence the relation between meaning and tradition. (5)

But, how can we know the good from the bad if the meaning of those words can only be sought in the historicity of the discussion between interpretations? In his second Unfashionable Observations Nietzsche stresses the benefits as well as the disadvantages of a kind of conduct which can be called a historical attitude. (6) Nietzsche describes the human person as someone who stands between the un-historical animal on the one side and the all-knowing god on the other. The human position between these two extremes is not a well-defined place somewhere in the middle as it would be in an Aristotelian value-ethics. The correct stance towards our historicity does lie somewhere between the forgetfulness of animal naivety and the relativistic indifference of an omniscient human being. This position expresses itself as a continuous tension between the two contradicting poles.

Another Nietzschean distinction Van Tongeren identifies in his dealing with historicity is the one between an antiquarian, a monumental, and a critical attitude to the past. People with an antiquarian attitude look into the past to understand the present. Those with a monumental attitude forget everything in history but the great examples. Those who have a critical attitude towards history try to judge and even correct the past from an un-historical point of view, from a position of assumed independence.

According to Nietzsche the historical being: 'not only consists in being the tension between the un-historical and the supra-historical but also the tension between the three different attitudes towards history.' (7) Thus, in our stance towards history we have to choose between interpretations. To avoid the dangers of this plurality of interpretations we have to use the above mentioned tension between the contradicting extremes of the un-historical and the supra-historical. Nietzsche defines this way of self-becoming or this organisation of chaos as the desire for tradition.

Being aware of the practical limitations of his statement, Van Tongeren concludes that the most important task of a philosophical ethics is: 'to insert the human person into the tradition and thereby help him or her to realise a meaningful life.' (8)

Some Reflections on these Ethical Conceptions

It is clear that in opposition to Apel, Van Tongeren advocates a particularistic view on ethics. In his opinion, the basis for ethics is a contingent one. Ethics has to search for its roots in a local or historically determined tradition. Van Tongeren states: 'As philosophical ethicists confronted with the questions surrounding organ donation, for example, we must read Plato and Aristotle and St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Descartes and Hobbes and Nietzsche and Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, bringing their interpretations of corporeality, among other things into dialogue with one another.' (9) He stresses the importance of the dialogue, but his dialogue is not a dialogue between traditions, one of our main problems today, but a dialogue within a single tradition. Does this not mean, in the present situation of a multicultural society, that we not only have to read Plato etc., but also traditional texts from African, Asian and all the other traditions which are part of contemporary society?

Imagine a situation in which we want to elucidate a conflict of meaning or illuminate the difference of opinion between two people in our society who stem from different traditions, for example a Christian or an Arab tradition. To avoid being accused of Western ethnocentrism it would be necessary to read not only the above mentioned authors, but also Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. Van Tongeren might be right that the normativity of moral principles can only be understood by looking at their sources. The problem is that many people in our society grew up and find the sources of their meta-ethical significance in particular traditions which differ considerably from our own Western moral tradition.

Something else in Van Tongeren's text might cause confusion. We read that it is necessary to renew the meaning of moral concepts by re-establishing their connection with a tradition which functions as a source of meaning. Van Tongeren states that the most important task of philosophical ethics is to help a person to realise a meaningful life by inserting him or her into the tradition. But, if tradition is understood as an ongoing discussion or fight between various attempts at grasping meaning, how can ethicists be able to 'assist those, whose position or lot in life places them in a problematic situation' to act in the proper way? (10) How can we insert someone into something which is defined as continuously changing in a way that is rather out of control? Van Tongeren presents us a sagacious analysis of the difficulties that accompany the relation between history and ethics, but refrains from giving us a concrete tool to work with outside the theoretical discipline of philosophical ethics.

Being aware of the planetary effects of our actions, Karl-Otto Apel recognises the importance of an ethics of co-responsibility that transcends local traditions. In view of the impending dangers for terrestrial life he considers it rather anachronistic to say that ethics has to be based on locally different forms of ethos. (11) But, an ethics that becomes separated from any tradition faces the danger of becoming so abstract that it will be shorn of all content. The norms resulting from Apel's ethics of discourse seem to be rather formal and procedural. Thinking in the tradition of Kant, it is not his intention to ground a universally valid idea of the good life.

Are Apel's norms of communication really formal and divest of all material content? Let us consider what people must pre-acknowledge when they try to solve a concrete ethical problem in terms of an ethics of discourse? It is unlikely that people start a discussion on such a topic without presupposing the possibility to reach a common understanding. A consensus is impossible without the acceptance of some pre-existing materially relevant norms. Such norms can be certain principles of justice. There are other things which have always already to be acknowledged in an ethics of discourse as developed by Apel. First, we have to acknowledge that everybody who wishes to take part in the discussion has equal rights to do this, and has the right to participate on an equal basis. Second, in principle we have equal duties of co-responsibility for the effects of our common actions. Next to these equal rights and responsibilities, Apel states that we should only embrace solutions that are acceptable for all affected persons. This means that we have to represent the interest of future generations. (12) These procedural principles of Apel's discourse ethics show the democratic underlying of it. Considering these democratic principles, it is hard to maintain that this ethics is meta-cultural and without any content. In other words, it is tradition dependent and because of this it fails as an ultimate foundation of an universal ethics. Apel's ethics of discourse will only work under certain ideal conditions. His grounding process is based on the willingness of people to take part in the discussion. The position of non-dialogue, represented by some religious traditions, will be excluded as unethical. Advocates of the non-dialogue will accuse a dialogue-ethics as resulting from the social philosophy of the West.

The best way to approach Apel's discourse ethics is to consider it as a regulative idea that should accompany all our actions. An ideal that aims at sustainable human co-operation on a global scale, rather than a binding norm. (13) Given the present post-modern plurality, the difficulties of the founding of a universalistic ethics seem virtually insurmountable. But, why should a macro-ethics transcend all traditions? Are traditions particularistic in all their aspects? Are they all blind to the declining state of the globe and our moral responsibility to stop this process, or is there a transcending moment in their concern for humanity and its natural habitat?

Conclusion: A Nucleus of Overlapping Morality

While advocates of an universalistic ethics usually refer to Kant, advocates of a particularistic ethics point to the assumed alternative to Kant, viz. Aristotle, as their model communitarist. According to the latter, Aristotle's use of the term 'common good' demonstrates his commitment to local communities and their forms of life, and shows his scepticism towards a universalistic ethics. They deny the possibility of the birth of justice from reason. The egoistic individual is not able to ignore its selfishness, which is a precondition for justice. This might be true. Universalists do not deny the inevitability of a subject being determined by its tradition. But, we must realise that the individualism they advocate represents a justificational individualism and not an ontological one.

According to Van Tongeren we have to find the roots of morality in particular traditions. His approach to the problem is not a real alternative to a planetary ethics. A universalistic ethics, like the one advocated by Apel, justifies the norms and convictions of particular communities. It only subjects them to some relativation. Because many particularist thinkers do not differentiate between far reaching representations of morals and a certain nucleus of justice, they overlook the norms that nearly all traditions share. Apel recognises that some important normative conceptions are shared by all cultures at all stages of history. He characterises speech and reason as the founding expedients for the construction of a global ethics.

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(1) J. Verstraeten, "An Ethical Agenda for Europe", in: Ethical Perspectives 1 (1994), p. 5.

(2) K-O. Apel, "The Problem of a Universalistic Macroethics of Co-responsibility", in: S. Griffoen (Ed.), What Right Does Ethics Have? Public Philosophy in a Pluralistic Culture, Amsterdam, 1990, pp. 23-40.

(3) R. van Woudenberg, "Response to Karl-Otto Apel", in: S. Griffoen (Ed.), What Right Does Ethics Have? Public Philosophy in a Pluralistic Culture, Amsterdam, 1990, p. 45.

(4) P. van Tongeren, "Ethics, Tradition and Hermeneutics" in: Ethical Perspectives 4 (1996), pp. 175-183.

(5) Ibid. p. 179.

(6) Ibid. p. 183, footnote 6.

(7) Idem. Translation by myself.

(8) Van Tongeren 1996, p. 179.

(9) Idem.

(10) Van Tongeren 1996, p. 181.

(11) S. Griffioen and R. van Woudenberg, "We Must Not Forget Those Who Are Absent. Interview with Karl-Otto Apel on the Universality of Ethics", in: S. Griffoen (Ed.), What Right Does Ethics Have? Public Philosophy in a Pluralistic Culture, Amsterdam, 1990, p. 13.

(12) Ibid. p. 18.

(13) Ibid. p. 19.

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