Standard Article

Critical Theory

  1. Kenneth Baynes

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee579

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

How to Cite

Baynes, K. 2013. Critical Theory. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013


The tradition of critical theory (or the “Frankfurt School”) includes a variety of different positions on morality. In the initial years of the Institute for Social Research, Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) defended a form of eudaimonism (see Eudaimonism) against the rationalist morality of Kant and the neo-Kantians; Theodor Adorno (1903–69), by contrast, especially in the postwar years, developed a distinctive critique of morality that stressed the impossibility of any correct or right living in a corrupt world; finally, beginning in the 1970s, Jürgen Habermas (1929–), together with Karl-Otto Apel (1922–), proposed a discourse (or communicative) morality that belongs to a broadly neo-Kantian approach (see Discourse Ethics). Despite these differences, critical theory shares a generally Marxist (or materialist) suspicion about the social function of morality. This heritage is significant, however, since Marxism itself has always had an extremely ambivalent relation to morality (Lukes 1985; see Marx, Karl). On the one hand, it views morality as largely ideological and in the service of prevailing socioeconomic interests. On the other hand, it also makes use of moral values in its condemnation of capitalism as oppressive and/or unjust. Critical theorists have self-consciously struggled with this ambivalence as much as anyone. At times, they follow the strategy of “immanent criticism” – that is, attempting to show how liberal society fails to live up to its own ideals without necessarily embracing those ideals itself; at other times, they regard immanent criticism as insufficient. This essay offers a brief sketch of the views of Horkheimer and Adorno and then turns to a fuller discussion of Habermas's discourse morality.


  • continental philosophy;
  • ethics;
  • Habermas, Jurgen;
  • Marxism;
  • sociology;
  • capitalism;
  • egalitarianism;
  • evil;
  • human rights;
  • materialism