The Value of Sincerity

Preliminary definitions:

Discourse Theory of Ethics: is the attempt to establish norms of critical judgement for everyday communication

Communicative Action: commitment to a rationalist account of intersubjective agreement. It appropriates the notion of the lifeworld (a collection of unquestioned cultural norms derived from differentiated value spheres, which contain sources of validity claims). It strives for understanding on the basis of non-coercive forms of argumentation.

Habermas has argued that moral theory should clarify the ‘universal core of our moral intuitions’ and ‘refute value scepticism’. Trust is a fundamental value in this kind of model of argumentative exchange, because, in trying to convince my conversation partner of the legitimacy of my arguments, I cannot rely on coercion; rather, I must trust the neutral force of the better argument to function as the ground of my validity. Argumentative competency also derives from my ability to differentiate between diverse modes of thinking, and to apply the proper form of judgement to each domain of thought.

There are three types of validity claim:

Domains of Thought Classes of Speech Acts Domains of Focus







Rightness (justice)

Sincerity (taste)

NB: note how ‘truth, rightness, and taste’ correspond to Kant’s division of pure, practical and aesthetic reason.

Though Habermas spends a considerable amount of time discussing how shared propositional knowledge and normative accord are amenable to consensus, he never explains why consensus ought to be the goal of communicative exchange. His account seems to miss out discussion of mutual trust, yet the sincerity derived from mutual trust is a fundamental aspect of our argumentative competency and a condition for intersubjective participation; in other words, when I enter into an exchange, I must be sincere in my beliefs, in my commitment to justification and in my desire for consensus. Moreover, we must be sincere about the ways in which we exercise power, for, as Habermas argues, agreement that is ‘brought about by manipulating one’s partner in interaction…cannot even be considered an agreement’.

Habermas is committed to non-coercive discourse, yet the structural role of sincerity remains unacknowledged as a feature of the ethics of communication. We engage in dialogue in order to reach agreement and because we trust our conversational partner; sincerity guarantees mutual trust. As such, issues of trust (and truth) can erupt in any dialogical encounter, and must be settled by sincerity acting as a guarantee of the validity claim at stake, as well as being an attribute in making any validity claim in the first place.

Performative contradiction can be both positive, as the principle guaranteeing non-coercive communication, and negative, as an indirect corrective for speech participants. The performative contradiction implies a certain ‘moral know-how’ built intot he structure of communication, which asserts its normative status when thinking goes astray. The performative contradiction is thus invoked as a standard of legitimacy, for in order to speak properly and have what one says considered to be valid, one is required to speak as though one is telling the truth oneself in public. Thus the ethical part of communication is the promissory obligation that what I say reflects what I truly think. By not holding anything back, participants satisfy the criterion of sincerity (imposed by the performative contradiction) and thus engage in communicative rather than strategic action.

Nonetheless, can sincerity by prompted by untruthful motivations, such as protecting one’s reputation against the accusation of lies or manipulation? And does this jeopardise the grounds of successful communication? It is striking that Habermas’s model looks surprisingly monological, when viewed from this angle, for, as Davide Panagia argues:

‘Though it is not absolutist in principle, the aesthetic features [performative contradiction] of communicative action make it so that there is only one possible mode of successful communication, namely, argument [rather than conversation]. The alternative is, indeed, contradiction and miscomprehension; an alternative that is, by its very nature, anathema to Habermas’s understanding of communicative action as “the unforced force of the better argument [that] determines the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses of the participants”.’ (835)


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