First of all it has to be admitted that there is something quite neat about the discourse ethic. It very neatly fits the Kantian concern with the universalisability of our norms into a modern understanding of truth as socially and historically mediated. However, despite the neat updating of Kantian morality and despite the way the discourse ethic is able to make connections with a contemporary democratic and human rights discourse, there is still so much that makes it ethically irrelevant.
First of all there is the practical irrelevance of the principle of universality when people actually discuss moral issues. As Habermas points out, the discussion always relies on a background of shared beliefs and this means that on most, if not all, substantive moral issues it will be impossible to reach agreement with everyone who might have an opinion about the matter. Hence, for a decision to actually be reached some points of view will have to be disregarded. In practice boundaries have to be drawn, meaning that we specifically do not seek the agreement of everyone.
Furthermore, Habermas's universality is not as universal as it might at first appear. He acknowledges that the discourse ethic says nothing that would unsettle those who still belong to traditional ethical communities. As he puts it: "To be sure, structural features of communicative forms of life alone are not sufficient to justify the claim that members of a particular historical community ought to transcend their particularistic value-orientations and make the transition to the fully symmetrical and inclusive relations of an egalitarian universalism." So the pluralist is not looking for the agreement of anyone who still feels bound to a traditional way of life. The all important debate is a debate for commited pluralists - a debate which will inevitably involve dismissing the views of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists for whom the principle of universality can not yet mean very much.
Another feature of the discourse ethic that renders it well-nigh irrelevant is its formalism. By simply describing the ideal form of a moral debate it cuts itself off from saying anything whatsoever about substantice moral issues. Most of those who are concerned about morality in the modern world are probably concerned with the withering of ethical life - the way in which morality is becoming increasingly irrelevant. This is one of many trends that those who are concerned about morality might well want to criticise. In relation to these concerns the discourse ethic is completely irrelevant.
One of the advantages of the discourse ethic for Habermas is its neutrality. Only a neutral principle (one that is all form and no content) can provide a sure basis for consensus in a pluralistic society. The theory is also supported by a narrative of increasing universality, which is his answer to the question of how the transition to a post-traditional morality can be justified. Older forms of ethical life were limited to the family, the tribe or the city, but Kantian morality in its discursive incarnation surpasses all such limitations in the direction of a pure universality. Because in practice there is no universal community to address, the claim to universality can only be made good if the universal principles achieve neutrality, and this is what squeezes out all the substance of the culturally specific ethical life. Habermas seems to say: If the substance has to go in order to achieve universality, so be it. But for many of us it is that very lack of substance - the withering of ethical life - that is the primary issue.
It is becoming harder and harder to say anything meaningful in public about morality. Anyone who tries to speak out about the morality of short selling on the stock market, for intance, sounds like some quaint relic from the past rather than someone raising a claim to truth that must be taken seriously and debated impartially. The detailed arguments of economists about the beneficial effect of short selling on the liquidity of the markets sound much more authoritative, and these purely technical considerations completely brush aside the issue of the morality or immorality of the practice. The discourse ethic is silent here, having nothing to say about that marginalisation of a substantive matter like this.
Another reason for the irrelevance of the discourse ethic springs from the sort of rationalism entailed by the claim that norms must be agreed upon solely because of the rational force of better reasons. This just doesn't connect with, for instance, the concern about the degradation of the environment. Those concerns are based not on some kind of theoretical knowledge but on a recognition of things like the beauty of nature, the power of the sublime in nature, the value of diversity and the significance of maintaining some semblance of harmony. People have to be brought up to recognise and appreciate these values. If they don't "see" them, there won't be the necessary shared background for meaningful arguments about particular environmental policies.
Then there is the problem of the apparent irrelevance of action for the discourse ethic, even though moral discourse is all about what ought to be done. Older forms of ethical life were guided by, for instance, the hope for salvation, which helps to motivate moral action. Hopes like this are excluded from the procedural morality of discourse. Those who participate in the discourse are presumably motivated to find the truth, or something resembling it, but this is not a motivation which would then inspire action once a norm has been agreed upon. Whether or not one actually does anything seems to be completely irrelevant.
Habermas is aware of this: "uncoupling morality from questions of the good life leads to a
motivational deficit...Discourse ethics intensifies the intellectualistic separation of moral judgment from action even further by locating the moral point of view in rational discourse. There is no direct route from discursively achieved consensus to action. Certainly, moral judgments tell us what we should do, and good reasons affect our will; this is shown by the bad conscience that "plagues" us when we act against our better judgment. But the problem of weakness of will also shows that moral insight is based on the weak force of epistemic reasons and, in contrast with pragmatic reasons, does not itself constitute a rational motive. When we know what it is morally right for us to do, we know that there are no good (epistemic) reasons to act otherwise. But that does not mean that other motives will not prevail."
An example: We might have a discussion about war and decide that no war is ever moral because it is never in anyone's interest to be shot, and then we might just go home and mow the lawn while the shooting continues in some suitably distant land. There is no contradiction in believing that war is immoral and doing nothing to stop it.
Even speaking out against war seems to be pointless because that kind of speech is not directed at identifying the truth but at forcing the immoral to pay attention to the voice of morality even while they dismiss the relevance of the arguments.
Although Habermas passes over this as if it were a minor hitch, but it is surely a damning indictment of a moral theory if it makes talking about morality seem to be the only morally valuable pursuit.
Part of what makes action seem irrelevant is the absence of any concern with particulars. The discourse in question is always a discourse about generalities: "Is abortion morally acceptable?" "Is human cloning acceptable?" etc, etc. It is a discussion of the norms society is to recognise, not a discussion of what ought to be done in the particular cases that we find ourselves involved in. this is really where the greatest irrelevance of the discourse ethic becomes apparent. If I am called up to fight I must take a stance with respect to my country, the war and the reasons for it, the death and suffering that will be caused, my own possible death and the way my actions will be judged. This situation in which I have to act one way or the other is far removed from the debate about when a war might be considered just and under what circumstances.
To put it bluntly, the discourse ethic is not an ethic for life but just for the practice of talking about life. What could be more irrelevant that an ethic that has nothing to say about life?
So many of our ethical concerns are concerns with the fate of particulars caught up and abused by various social systems - they are not concerns with a lack of universality. The concerns for the environment are concerns with the fate of this very particular earth and the very particular places of value that it still has. In a similar way, we are more concerned with the disappearance of indigenous cultures than we are with the fact that so few of their beliefs could ever gain universal agreement. We are concerned about them in their particularity not as mere instances of the universal. For Habermas, though, the universality of reason is everything and the particulars pale into some prerational insignificance.
In a sense, the central moral issue of the age is the reconciliation of the social universal and particularity. Apart from the environment there are issues about the disintegration of (very particular) communities and their increasing powerlessness in the face of globalised economic forces, the increasing irrelevance of history and a loss of a sense of identity and rootedness. From the perspective of the prevailing forces of rationalisation (that insist upon the removal of distortions from an increasingly global market) these fail to register as issues that might call the rationality of a liberated market into question. Habermas's one-sided concern with universality affirms this, making it irrelevant to those of us who see that there has to be some other rearticulation of the universal and the particular.