Discourse Ethics in the Digital Era: the Case of Habermas

14 December, 2017

In her book Discourse Ethics in the Digital Era: the Case of Habermas, recently published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Egyptian researcher Asma Hussein Malkawi addresses the following question: can Habermas’ theory of the ethics of debate as a mechanism for agreement and resolution of differences and realizing ethical standards be mainstreamed through rational debate in traditional modes of communication or via new digital communication technology?

Observing that communications and communication technologies advance, differences and conflicts between groups, peoples and nations grow sharper, Malkawi spotlights the search for a new philosophy of human communication, in an era of enormous transformation in the means of human communication, with great impact on perception of concepts that shape our existence.

Malkawi’s book (256 pp. with index and references) consists of four chapters with the first, “Habermas' theory of philosophy and the transformations of the age”, establishing that it is essential for a new communicative philosophy for the digital age to be applicable in actual practice, then reviewing the practical potential of Habermas’ communication theory.  Malkawi found that Habermas maintains that “communicative rationality” will bring science closer to philosophy, "because reaching agreement through dialectic and debate is common to both scientific and philosophical discourse." In contrast, philosophy lacks the constitutive rules or authority to guide and judge other cultural practices, though it may continue to contribute to the discussion by providing new arguments for or against opinions presented, and interpretation to help reach an agreement between different areas of life, through dialogue and discussion.


Characteristics and ethics

In the second chapter, “Characteristics of digital communication: conceptual transformation and features of a theory of communication,” Malkawi assesses prominent features of the digital age and applies Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics to highlight the existential transformation associated with digital networks such as Facebook that influence key constituent elements of human existence such as communication and connection; communities and groups; time and place; identity and language; and freedom and media. The author outlines the features of what might be called a “coup” in the conceptual structures linked to use of digital communication networks, an existential break that necessitates reconsideration of concepts and adoption of a new intellectual and ethical approach suited to the digital age that can maximize its gains and potentials while yet building on proposals of Arab Muslim thinkers.

In the third chapter “Discourse ethics: theoretical foundations and central concepts,” Malkawi takes up in detail the intellectual framework that gave rise to Habermas’ theory of the ethics of communication, discussion and dialogue, examining the stages of development of critical discourse theory since the first generation of the Frankfurt School, seen as key in the formation of Habermas’ vision. Habermas strives in his moral theory to build a universal basis for assessing the appropriateness and validity of speech or conversation, suggesting a “generalized theory of universal pragmatics to reconstruct general assumptions for a consensual act of speech.


Possibilities and challenges

In the fourth and final chapter, “Discourse ethics in the digital age: possibilities and challenges,” Malkawi undertakes to reconcile the reality of digital communication and the theory of Habermas’ discourse ethics. She explores the reality of ethics in the pages of Facebook, by surveying pages visited and counting the frequency of visits, analyzing these in order to reach a definitive finding on Facebook’s activation of the rational and moral debate on both sides.

In her quest to answer her central research question on whether Habermas' discourse ethics theory on levels of basic public and private needs applies only to traditional modes of communication, or can also be applied via new digital communication technology, Malkawi strives to test two key concepts underlying the theory of discourse ethics: the public domain and the ideal speech situation. She then tests the extent to which two levels of theory are realized, in discussion of general issues and of applied ethics concerning specific issues.

Malkawi writes in her closing, "It can be said that communication technology, as one of the outputs of modernity, provides modernity itself the opportunity to repair its own ills from within, using its own tools.  Digital communication applications can address these ills, which derive from the absence of morality and human values themselves in modern and post-modern societies. If it fails to do so, it will have announced its own demise.”  

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