- Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics ed. by Lawrence S. Cunningham (review)
- The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 76, Number 1, January 2012
- pp. 133-137
- View Citation
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS 133 Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics. Edited by LAWRENCE S. CUNNINGHAM. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. 374. $30.00 (paper). ISBN 978-0-26802300 -3. This admirable collection of essays finds its origin in an invitation issued in 2004 by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to the faculties of the University of Notre Dame, The Catholic University of America, and the Ave Maria University Law School. The then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote to request that each of these institutions undertake symposia to address a specific preoccupation of the cardinal and indeed of the whole Church. How can a “common denominator” for the moral principles held by all peoples be found? Where is the common ground between conversation partners who are obliged by social position or public office to advance the common good and who nevertheless share neither a cultural heritage nor a philosophical orientation nor a religious faith or practice? Could this “common denominator” be rooted in a shared human nature? The question is academic and yet it requires an applicable answer as the ceaseless competition between incompatible “thick” descriptions of the common good attests. The doctrine of natural law was not originally articulated with this bridgebuilding purpose in mind and yet the precepts of the natural law have, especially in modernity, served this purpose. According to the teaching of the Church they provide the most basic precepts of moral judgment which are at least implicitly known by every human person in every exercise of his or her practical reason. They cut across cultural, philosophical, and confessional divides and provide a common meeting ground for persons perhaps otherwise not at home together. Clearly the cardinal hoped that the various respondents would avail themselves of this resource as they crafted a charter for a common path for a more human future. Ave Maria University and The Catholic University of America responded by sponsoring symposia on the subject of natural law. The University of Notre Dame decided to publish a book of essays devoted to the topic. Alasdair MacIntyre opens Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law with an essay that claims that natural law provides just such a universally shared foundation for shared and substantive moral consensus. At the same time his essay acknowledges intractable moral disagreement not merely at the level of applied ethics but also on the level of practical reason’s most basic principles. His essay attempts to explain how one can acknowledge the de facto impasse in which we find ourselves, concede the competence and good faith of the disputants, and still resist the skeptical and relativistic implications of this interminable discord. MacIntyre’s initial essay, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” has a summary rehearsal of Thomistic teaching on natural law, explaining it as articulated basic inclinations of human nature. The human person as human is naturally inclined to the good of existence, of sexual reproduction, and of rationality, which includes both truth seeking and life together in community. These basic inclinations find normative voice in imperatives of practical reason. The basic BOOK REVIEWS 134 precepts of the natural law are very general and are assented to by anyone who engages in practical reason. The disagreements are not about the precepts but about their application. Nevertheless, MacIntyre offers many examples of intractable disagreements which seem in practice to be resistant to every offered resolution. Hence the Thomist must either give up his claim that the precepts are self-evident to anyone who reasons practically (which amounts to an abandonment of the idea of the natural law itself) or else show that such intractable and fundamental disagreement is not inconsistent with the affirmation of the effective and universal promulgation of the natural law. MacIntyre’s strategy is to “outline and endorse Aquinas’s account of what it is to be practically rational and move from that to asking what rationality requires of us in situations in which we confront others who are in radical moral disagreement with us. The answer proposed will be that we will only be able to enquire together with such others in a way that accords with the standards of...