Liberation Philosophy, Discourse Ethics, and ‘the Face of the Other’

Glen T. Martin

Virginia Humanities Conference, April 2008

We live in a time when twenty percent of the Earth’s population, more than one billion persons, barely survives without adequate food and is clinically malnourished, with by far the greatest suffering falling to the world’s women and children.Indeed, forty thousand children die of starvation related causes daily, while one hundred thousand children are permanently blinded annually for lack of five cents worth of vitamin A in their diet. Meanwhile, the massive transfer of wealth from the poorest 90% to the richest 10% of the earth’s population continues. According to the World Health Organization, there has been a $50 billion net transfer of wealth world-wide from the “poor” to the “rich” nations within the 1984-1994 period alone, as well as approximately ten trillion dollars in military expenditures during this same period.

I hope to show here in what ways the ethics of liberation arising from such third world thinkers as Enrique Dussel presupposes the ethics of discourse emanating from such first world thinkers as Karl Otto Apel and Jurgen Habermas. Yet liberation ethics supersedes the ethics of discourse in terms of its insights into the depths and realities of the human condition.  I also hope to indicate the way liberation ethics for a transformed world order through ratification of democratic world law under the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. Such revolutionary praxis as directed toward the ratification of the Earth Constitution can only bebased on a liberation ethics of solidarity and radical transformative action, abolishing the center-periphery constitution of the present world order.

Contemporary philosophers concerned to address these massive issues have often moved in at least two fundamentally different directions. One the one hand, “critical social theorists” in the tradition inspired by such thinkers as Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, and Karl-Otto Apel argue that structural analysis of the history and functioning of those institutions which have created the current world crisis is necessary for the clear understanding and action required to address presently entrenched structures of power, dehumanization, and degradation in the hope of a better future. The promise implicit in a technology and science that can produce the wealth necessary to satisfy real human needs can only be realized if technology and science are used to serve human needs and the common good rather than for the private profit and power of a tiny elite. The institutionalized relations of power and property, protected and reinforced by an ideological curtain obscuring the reality of these relationships, must be exposed and understood in the light of human potential for more rational, free, and egalitarian social structures.

In particular, Habermas and Apel approach the problem of institutionalized domination and exploitation through the insights of discourse ethics that find the foundations of universal equality, dignity, and democracy embedded within the presuppositions that make communication itself possible.  The ability of all normal people to use language, therefore, implies the assumption of universal equality and a universal communication community that necessarily includes the marginalized and excluded voices of the third world.  The primary praxis of the discourse philosopher, therefore, becomes how to transform the present world systems of domination and exploitation progressively into systems premised on the equality, freedom, and democracy presupposed by language and serving, therefore, as a universal discourse ethics applicable to all humanity.  Apel writes:

…As I see it, the way towards the ‘liberation of the poor’ comes as a result only through the persistent attempt to transform the framework conditions [Rahmenordung] of the world economic system, which may be influenced primarily through politics, in the sense of a ‘social market economy’ on a global scale, and which would be acceptable to all affected. (Apel 1996, p. 21)

On the other hand, some contemporary philosophers have been concerned to address what might be termed “the spiritual roots” of the present world crisis, the misorientation, misdirection, and deformed human self-understanding that has prevented the human spirit from realizing its potential for a life of caring, sensitivity, openness, and freedom. These latter philosophers often see institutions as reflecting our general human spiritual condition rather than as determinative of that condition. Institutions may indeed have the effect of degrading, distracting, and cutting the human spirit off from those dimensions or depths, from that openness to “mystery,” through which a fully human life may arise (see Marcel 1962, pp. 90-91). Yet the “call” inherent in the human situation remains available (see Ricceur 1969).

 Emmanuel Levinas and Enrique Dussel, in my view, are thinkers within this latter tradition.  Dussel combines critical social theory in the tradition of Marx with a mode of spiritual awakening, following Levinas, to a call and demand audible and recognizable in the “face of the excluded Other.”  For Levinas and Dussel, the face of the Other reflects an infinity that cannot be assimilated to the finite categories of the so-called “ontological” point of view.  The infinity in the face of the Other places an absolute ethical claim upon us, a claim that both thinkers identify as “eschatological” (Levinas 1969, pp. 21-30;  Dussel 1985, pp. 20-21).

Karl Otto Apel sums up his argument that discourse ethics is sufficient to address the cry of the oppressed poor by critically referring to Dussel’s emphasis on the revolutionary aspect of Marx’s thought as “dogmatic certainty” (1996, p. 20).  He criticizes the ethics of liberation for its lack of an “evidence basis” – “for discourse ethics departs,” he writes, “from the esoteric-transcendental-philosophical point of the Ultimate Grounding of normative validity in general (Überhaupt)”.  Yet here is precisely the issue: is the transformation of the world from one of exclusion, domination, corruption, and exploitation truly possible without a sense of the eschatological and transformative imperative inherent in the sense of the sacred, from what Apel refers to as “the esoteric-transcendental-philosophical point of the Ultimate Grounding”?   Apel is plainly skeptical of the Marxist or Dusselian conception of “the new man,” the transformed human being supposedly possible when all the conditions are removed that alienate, degrade, and dehumanize human beings throughout history to the present.  Yet discourse ethics nowhere demands this “new human being” as do both Christian ethics and the revolutionary ethics of Karl Marx.

The dignity of third world peoples as human beings has been negated insofar as they are understood on a scale of marginalization beginning with the imperial centers. In the ontology of sameness, where all of the totality is measured with respect to the self-affirmation of the center (egoistic, nationalistic, religious, or cultural) people lose their humanity and dignity to the extent of their distance from the center, to the extent of their position on the periphery. There is no “exteriority” to the totality of sameness, no space for the reason of the Other to assert a negation, a challenge to the totality itself. There is no possibility of a genuine solidarity that entirely negates the starting point of the egoistic self, center, culture, or race.

In the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas (1998) or Karl-Otto Apel (see Dussel 1996), the “ideal” or “transcendental” communication community comprehending the ethical equality of all persons is implicit in the presuppositions of language itself. If we abstract from the actual linguistic situation relations of domination, intimidation, strategic manipulation, or exclusion, we arrive at the counterfactual situation that makes communication itself possible. In this “ideal speech situation,” the equal right of each person to speak and enter into the discourse of challenging or validating the claims of other equal participants is presupposed. Language as our premier medium of communication could not exist were it not for this set of presuppositions at its core. Dussel accepts this analysis as a correct understanding of our human situation with regard to language (ibid. pp. 27-28).  The principle at the heart of discourse ethics is valid. Dussel asks “What would an association of free persons be?” and he answers: “It would be a community in which individuality is expressed in free and uncoerced communication” (1988, p. 11).

   However, for the philosophy of liberation the analysis of the factual limitations on communication – the facts of domination, intimidation, strategic manipulation, or exclusion – do not tell the whole story. There is a larger framework that makes the approximation of the ideal speech situation even more difficult. This larger framework is termed the ontological attitude: “ontology,” Dussel writes, “the thinking that expresses Being – the Being of the reigning and central system – is the ideology of ideologies, the foundation of the ideologies of empires, of the center” (1985, p. 5).

Because of this pervasive tendency of language systems to be imperial systems encompassing the totality of being within their center-periphery determinations, it is necessary to introduce the concept of negation, of exteriority, into the philosophy of discourse ethics. The philosophical description of the ideal speech situation that recognizes the equal right of every person to discuss the validity claims of others without coercion or exclusion does not sufficiently recognize that some will be entirely exterior to any system of communication constituted under present conditions of human ego-centeredness. The exteriority of the excluded must be recognized and affirmed in an act of genuine solidarity. It is an exteriority that may raise a voice negating the assumed totality of any system of communication in the name of a “reason of the Other” (1996, pp. 27-28) that speaks for universalizing the universe of discourse by exploding its center-periphery construction and recognizing the dignity and autonomy of the Other, the formerly marginalized of the periphery. The category of “the Other” as exterior to the totality of the system involves recognizing the integrity as persons of those exterior to our own set of assumptions about the world as well as the exteriority of each person as an infinity reflected in his or her face.

Here we come upon the foundational point of the discourse of liberation articulated by Enrique Dussel and others; the starting point of all thought and action directed toward democracy, justice, or human liberation must be the Other, the oppressed as necessarily exterior to any system of thought and action that does not take them as foundational in their right to speak as Other, as exterior to the system of assumptions that characterize our inherited world views (ibid., pp. 27-28). However, the face of the Other is not only exterior to the system of assumptions deriving from the imperial centers of the world. It reflects the irruption of the infinite sacred into the historical present of human beings with an eschatological demand for revolutionary transformation into what Dussel calls proximity: the being together of human beings in a community of love (agape) and mutual recognition that includes the sharing of bread together (1988, pp. 11-16), a sharing that is impossible under the capitalist system of institutionalized sin (ibid, Ch. 2). Here progressive European and North American thought, assuming as it does the traditions of Greek, Medieval, and Modern Euro-centric philosophy and actively engaged with the issues of democracy from a liberal and evolutionary point of view, fails to attain both sufficient universality and sufficient awareness of the revolutionary ethical imperative confronting human life to convert from ego-centrism to a solidarity centeredness.

Democracy as a moral ideal encompassing both individual fulfillment and social existence fails when constituted from the center, whether the social-economic center of the imperialist state, the cultural center of imperial civilization, or the individual center of the ego cogito. Democracy can only succeed as a moral ideal when it begins with the Other as Other, the excluded, the oppressed, the marginalized, or the nameless, and when this moral ideal us experienced as an absolute demand on all of us for transformation of our human condition from egocentrism to agape. This is the fundamental understanding of the philosophy of liberation. The demand for equality of all persons before the law, a fundamental premise of political democracy that exists today only as a counterfactual ideal, must make room for the voice of the Other, a voice from outside the institutionalized universe of discourse, a voice of civil and spiritual resistance challenging to the universality of the system itself, especially the capitalist system of cynical reason within which the liberal democratic traditions are embedded.

From the viewpoint of a discourse of liberation, both the philosophies of Apel and Habermas fail as accounts of how to realize what is universal within the discourse of modernity, since they fail to begin with the Other as Other. There is no other way to salvage the rational kernel of Greek and European philosophy, that is, what is truly universal, except by beginning with the Other as Other, for this beginning demands the overcoming of ego-centrism. The Greek-European-American philosophical tradition has long constituted itself as the center and hence has distorted all possible universality for its theories of democracy in spite of the fact that theory of democracy points indirectly towards true universality. When beginning from the center as center, democratic theory inevitably becomes complicit with the democratic ideology of the center which is promoted to mask domination and oppression. It “conflates,” as Dussel puts it, “universality with Eurocentrism and modernizing developmentalism” (1996, p. 132). All centers, all ego-centrism, requires a periphery by definition. To begin from a center is therefore immediately to lose the full universality implied in concepts like justice or democracy.

Just as the demand of Jesus of Nazareth requires conversion from ego-centrism to the non-attached love that is agape, so Zen-Buddhist philosopher Masao Abe attributes this same conversion to Buddhist self-realization:

From what position is it possible to grasp mankind as a single, living, self-aware entity? I believe that the foundation of this position is for each of us to awaken to his or her true Self, that is, each individual must break through his or her ego structure, thereby realizing original Self…. Why is this so? It is so because to overcome the ego is to overcome the very standpoint wherein one distinguishes between self and other. (1985, p. 251)

By ignoring this demand for spiritual transformation inherent in our human situation the ethics of discourse remains inadequate for the praxis of third world liberation. Human beings require not only the rationality of discourse ethics; they also require the spiritual transformation intimated by all of the great religions of the world.  Much of discourse ethics includes part of the tradition of “critical social philosophy” which mounts a liberatory critique of the system of capitalist domination. Habermas’ critique of capitalism, for example, includes the notion of the “colonization” of the lifeworld by rationalized bureaucratic and economic subsystems. It assumes a priori the universal possibility of truly democratic communication which can arise with the elimination of impediments to communication such as capital accumulation, social hierarchies, manipulative and strategic uses of language, racism, sexism, etc. Hence, Habermas offers a theory of democracy elucidated as liberty, equality, and community that he claims to be truly universal and provides a path to the realization of that universality. But this remains a fundamental flaw in Habermasian philosophy.

Habermas understands himself as extrapolating the rational universal core of the philosophical discourse of modernity. But this cannot be extrapolated from the philosophical tradition that has all along constituted itself, its culture, and its philosophical ego, as center. All centrism implies periphery. Any such merely abstract extrapolations remains part of the system of Eurocentrism that is necessarily imperialistic and aggressive. For the universal principles of discourse ethics never seriously mention love (agape), never mention the need for a spiritual transformation of human life from ego-centric existence to Other-centric existence of agape.  Discourse ethics assumes that there can be a slow evolution toward a universal discourse of equality, freedom and respect for human dignity. 

Liberation ethics, on the other hand, insists that this cannot be done without the revolutionary eschatological demand, inherent in the infinity and otherness of the human face, for a spiritual conversion from egocentrism to the solidarity centeredness of agape. The only way of appropriating the universal essence of communication is to begin with the Other, the exterior, with the absolute demands made upon my spiritual conversion by the face of the Other, and the right of the Other to initiate a negative moment, to challenge the supposed universalistic assumptions of the democratic discourse itself.

Otherwise discourse tends to remain what the deconstructionists have taken it mean – a mere logocentric totalizing of one’s cultural horizon. Otherwise it remains trapped in egoistic assumptions that will forever colonize a pretended openness to communication with a strategic manipulation of the dialogue in favor of self-interest.  Only the genuinely exterior as Other is outside the cultural horizon. And only the genuinely exterior as the sacred Other, demanding my spiritual transformation from self-interest to solidaristic-centered interest, can lead to the fullness of uncoerced communication. Only by beginning with the oppressed as first movement in philosophical reconstruction of the ideal speech situation or the ground of communication can philosophy achieve the true universality intuited by European democratic theory (1995, p. 87).

None of the political orientations of the center, broadly defined as libertarian, conservative, liberal, or radical, can fully articulate democracy as a moral ideal insofar as each begins from the cultural, social, or individual center. As Dussel points out, the temporal orientation of the center is always sameness, status quo, protection of its domination of the periphery, dependency theory (1985, pp. 24-25). Democracy and a conservatism of the center (especially in contemporary sense of the word “conservatism”) simply do not mix and conservative talk of “democracy” is most fundamentally an ideological cover-up for its protection of the sameness of imperial domination. Liberalism, on the other hand, does mount a critique of the system and gesture towards universality.

However, even liberalism fails to attain true universality because it fails to negate the center-system itself that is constituted in terms of the oppressed. Capitalism requires owners of the means of production and those who must sell their labor to the owners. The powerful nation-state requires armaments and enemies to justify its continued existence as an autonomous unit apart from the rest of humanity. The global marketplace requires cheap resources from the global commons for exploitation and conversion into private profit. The white minority requires non-white races to in order to define itself as “white.” The macho male requires gender defined females against which to contrast his virility. Liberalism believes erroneously that the center can evolve towards universality without having to negate itself as center, as ego. However, evolutionary democracy is an ideological fabrication. Only revolutionary democracy can attain to universality.

Politically speaking, therefore, only a radicalism (that which goes to the root, radix, of the problem) beginning with the oppressed Other can supplement the rational universal core implicit within Enlightenment thinking. The root of the issue involves an abandoning of the center and taking up a position from the exterior, in conceptual and practical solidarity with the Other, the oppressed of the system. Genuine solidarity with the other can never be ego-centered.  It can only be agape: other-related, non-attached love. One cannot be neutral in the face of oppression and dehumanism wrought by the systems emerging from Europe, whether these be the systems of domination and exploitation, or the philosophical systems of universal equality, freedom, and dignity.  The philosophy of democratic equality is sound, but it cannot be articulated without adopting a stance of solidarity with the oppressed.  This means adopting a revolutionary stance.  Habermas’ evolutionary democratic socialism fails to become fully radical and hence fails to realize the universality within its own premises.

A revolutionary perspective begins with exteriority, the oppressed and negated of the system, and demands, therefore, the abolition of the system itself to be reconstituted on a universal basis as true democracy, justice, and a fulfilled human reality. True democracy as moral ideal abolishes not only capitalism, but the nation-state, and recognizes the sovereignty (and the right to liberty, equality, and community) of all humankind. Whereas the conservative relation to temporality is preservation of the same, and the liberal relation is evolution of the system towards fuller democracy, the revolutionary relation, Dussel points out, should be characterized as “utopian” (in a fully positive sense of this word, 1985, pp. 89 & 139). The revolutionary looks towards a transformed future which is now literally “nowhere” and in which human existence is truly fulfilled through a universal liberty, equality, and community.  In the words of Masao Abe: “It overcomes the very standpoint whereby one distinguishes between self and other” while at the same time respecting the autonomy, individuality, and infinity in the face of the Other.

The utopian theme in socialist thinkers such as Nicolas Berdyaev (1969) and Ernest Bloch (1993) bears recalling in this connection. For Bloch, the art, culture, and social thought of every historical era exhibits what he calls a “utopian surplus,” expectations, ideas, and symbols which cannot be accounted for in any reductionist, materialist conception of the base-superstructure relationship. This utopian residue provides a critique of the era, pointing not only to its dialectical negation but to the intuited potential for utopian fulfillment and fullness of human existence on Earth (Bloch 1993, pp. 103-120). Revolutionary democratic murmurings can even be heard from the center, given an attentive listener. For exteriority lives not beyond some imaginary margins of the system, but within the transcendental heart of every system.

Dussel articulates Bloch’s intuition with the concept of exteriority, the idea that only thought genuinely originating from exteriority (and then it must be thought that is not merely the cultural reflection of the imperialist center within the periphery) is consistently utopian. Perhaps the “utopian surplus” that Bloch describes itself functions as such an Other. An “exterior” indeed exists within the heart of any particular society or historical era. As Marx pointed out, only the oppressed qua oppressed have nothing to protect through force or ideological obfuscation. Marx’s thought begins with the exteriority of the proletariat, the concept of dehumanized, commodified persons who have even had their humanity robbed from them along with the fruits of their labor. From the heart of the system itself emerges the otherness of the Other.

The concept of Marx’s industrial proletariat as Other has evolved in contemporary revolutionary thought to an understanding of the Other which includes the crushed, dehumanized, and disenfranchised people of the third world (see Apel in Dussel 1996, pp. 186-196). Yet in either case the thought that begins truly outside the system manifests itself as clearly utopian. It alone can envision and work for a true democratic universality in which the system is reconstituted on the basis of liberty, equality, and community. The utopian surplus of our contemporary world order begins with the hundreds of millions in the third world who are non-persons for the system.

I have called the dialectical conception of democracy being developed here a “revolutionary democracy.” It is dialectical because articulating the truly universal and inclusive core of democracy requires negation. The negation of exteriority can arise from the marginalized and negated periphery of the system or it can arise from the marginalized, suppressed, and ignored core of our own inner lives. Within each of us as free, rational beings there is the intuition of exteriority that all must be included. Revolutionary democracy is about all – all persons, all human beings, all of God’s children.

In this spirituality, simultaneously I am you and you are me without negating your personal integrity and sacred otherness of selfhood. An authentic compassion arises here, we have seen, that also constitutes the very core of revolutionary democracy. Being freed from the egoic perspective that begins from “me” as world-center, one spontaneously focuses where suffering is greatest – with the oppressed, marginalized, and brutalized of the center oriented system. The problem of exteriority does not arise here because one is freed from the center-periphery constitution of experience. Every human being lives an Other, for, as Dussel puts it, every human being is a personal freedom (1990, p. 41). But those outside our ideological world system are radically Other. For most of those within the globalized world system, peripheral persons are nothing, negligible, do not really exist for the system, nor for consciousness, except as more of the same, asthe refuse of humanity(ibid. p. 24).

Revolutionary democracy applying universally to all human beings can only begin with a deep transformation of the existing systems of domination and exploitation that is inherent in the global democracy founded by the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  This Constitution, established on the universal equality, freedom, and right to prosperity of all persons on Earth, can be democratically ratified by the peoples and nations of Earth under its own Article 17.  Nevertheless, it is inherently revolutionary and not evolutionary precisely because it founds a democratic world order on universal principles and does not make the false and misleading claim that the world can evolve toward universal justice and democracy in the face of the ego-centrism of a center forever resisting and subverting progressive change. It cannot assume a capitalist periphery, a nation-state periphery, or an ego-centered periphery because it philosophically and institutionally establishes the solidarity of all from the outset, abolishing the center-periphery constitution of the world order hopefully forever.

Not only does the impulse behind the drive to ratify the Constitution as rapidly as possible arise from solidarity with the suffering of the others in the third world.  The radically universalistic and democratic framework guaranteed by the Constitution will also make possible the spiritual transformation of human beings from ego-centered to solidarity-centered existence.  The institutions that form us cannot be entirely separated from our spiritual condition.  Global capitalism and nation-statism foster global ego-centrism, fragmentation, and lack of solidarity.  Under the Earth Constitution, with the mandate to place economics in the service of universal human prosperity, and with its universalistic assumptions institutionalized from the first, universal solidarity will have a much greater chance of flourishing and human beings will be in a position to “overcome the very standpoint wherein one distinguishes between self and other” without compromising the infinite personal dignity reflected in the face of the Other.  This is the foundation of revolutionary democracy and why the ethics of liberation reflects a deeper insight into the human condition than the ethics of discourse.

Works Cited

Apel, Karl-Otto (1996). ‘Discourse ethics’ before the challenge of ‘liberation philosophy.’ Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 22, no. 2.

Berdyaev, Nicholas (1969).  The Fate of Man in the Modern World.  Donald A. Lowrie, trans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bloch, Ernst (1988). The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dussel, Enrique (1985). Philosophy of Liberation. Aquilina Martinez and Christine Morkovsky, trans. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Dussel, Enrique (1988).  Ethics and Community.  Robert R. Barr, trans.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Dussel, Enrique (1996). The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty, Taylor, and the Philosophy of Liberation. Eduardo Mendieta, trans. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Global statistics:

Habermas, Jürgen (1998).  On the Pragmatics of Communication.  Edited by Maeve Cooke.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1969). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Marcel, Gabriel (1962). Man Against Mass Society. G.S. Fraser, trans. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Ricceur, Paul and Macintyre, Alisdair (1969). The Religious Significance of Atheism. New York: Columbia University Press.