Beyond Universalism and Relativism: Habermas’s Contribution to Discourse Ethics and its Implications for Intercultural Ethics and Organization Theory
PHILOSOPHY AND ORGANIZATION THEORY (RESEARCH IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF ORGANIZATIONS), pp. 155-180, H. Tsoukas, R. Chia, eds., Emerald Group Publishing, Bingley, UK, 2011
IOU Working Paper No. 119
33 Pages Posted: 30 Nov 2010 Last revised: 30 Apr 2011
Date Written: April 28, 2011
The aim of this paper is to analyze Jürgen Habermas’s contribution to the philosophical debate on universalism and relativism, and to consider its implications for organization studies and organizations operating in an intercultural environment. What is at issue in these discussions is whether and in what way a universal justification of reason and rationality can be achieved in the light of the pluralism of existing norms, values, and life-styles in the social world. Proponents of a universalistic perspective argue in the tradition of Kant and the Enlightenment, stressing the idea of a unity of practical reason. In contrast, proponents of a relativistic perspective are sceptical of this idea of a universal conception of reason and advocate a pluralism of cultures and forms of social life. Hence the label “relativism” stands for the understanding that concepts of reason and rationality are historically and culturally contingent, and cannot be justified transculturally or applied to radically different cultures (see Habermas, 1994: 135 ff.). The critics of a universalistic perspective formulate two reservations: (1) the advancement of a universal concept of reason represents an act of domination of a particular perspective and leads to an unjustifiable suppression of the pluralism of cultures and forms of life (e.g. Foucault, 1980). (2) The validity and acceptability of a theoretical or philosophical claim can only be judged within the particular set of rules of the culture and form of life in which it is embedded (e.g. Lyotard, 1984; Lyotard, 1992; Rorty, 1989; Rorty, 1990).
In the following we will describe the critique of a universal concept of reason that has been forwarded by sceptical and postmodern philosophers. As a response to this we will both outline the contribution of discourse ethics and analyze the theories of Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas. Habermas and his Frankfurt colleague Apel developed an interesting alternative to the relativistic position. We will analyze the justification of discourse ethics and will also point out some problems in its argumentative logic. In the light of this critique, we will outline some characteristics of an intercultural ethics that is based on constructivist philosophy and point to some encouraging prospects on the consolidation of the debate between relativistic and universalistic philosophers.
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Keywords: Organization Theory, Discourse Ethics, Universalism, Relativism, Intercultural Ethics
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