Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to explore the possibility of a procedural deliberative alternative to an atomistic conception of individuals and an economic logic of markets or a priori universal lists, as ethical foundation for evaluating socio-economic change. Design/methodology/approach - To develop this argument, the paper combines a modified Kantian categorical imperative with deliberative ethics drawing on the writings of Habermas and Dewey. The journey through the European Enlightenment thought of Kant to the contemporary thought of Habermas and Bourdieu aims at mapping continuity and change in key themes in development ethics. These ideas are then given practical application in a case-study of the people-forestry interface in Nepal. Findings - The paper shows how Kantian non-deception links to Habermas' notion of communicative action and Dewey's notion of cooperative inquiry, and how Kantian non-coercion links to the inclusion of subaltern voices. While the paper proposes that more open deliberative processes can potentially produce ethical gains, it also identifies an idealistic risk in this position. Bourdieu's thinking is utilised to reveal limitations on improving deliberative processes where there are powerful mechanisms reproducing inequalities. Practical implications - The paper makes the case for greater attention being given to exploring deliberative processes as a prerequisite for ethical developmental actions. Originality/value - The paper brings together authors who rarely feature in the development studies discourse and applies their ideas to a practical case study.