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IN PRAISE OF PLURALISM * RONALD F. THIEMANN Harvard Diviinity School Cambridge, Massachusetts K CENTLY A GROUP of scholars at Harvard University met to discuss the question of whether the United States ha;d entered a. period of moral decline. Our conversations ranged over a wide spectrum of topics: the distinction between priva.te and public life, the relation of notions like mol'lality and justice, the issue of how a decline in morality might be dooumented. The discuS'sion was carried on with a sense of intellectual seriousness and passion but was also characterized by a degree of frustration, given the brea;dth of the topic and the diversity of the participants, who were drawn from the faculties of arts and sciences, 1aw, medicine, government , business, and divinity. Our approaches to the topic were diverse and consequentily our disputes were spirited. Whatever the disagreements among the group, however, we were united by a conviction tha.t such conversations a;re essential if we are to under:s.tand the moral complexity of our pluralistic society. Tihis gathering of soho1ars at Harvard exhibits four important ohamcteristics of the current deba.te about moraility and public life. 1) The recognition that the moral issues we are facing cut a;cross traditional disciplinary lines and require a joint effort by scholar:s working in diverse fields and pl'ofessions ; 2) an awaireness that the plurality of moral positions within pwblic and aicademic life threatens the possibility of consensus on issues of public importance; 3) the conviction, nonetheless, that joint scholarly refieob:ion can have an impact *Ethics After Babel. By JEFFREY STOUT. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988. Pp. 338. $27.50. 489 490 RONALD F. THIEMANN on the moral issues currently vexing American public life: 4) the a;eknowledgement that religion has a role to play in the conversation about the future of momlity and public affairs.1 Jeffrey Stout'·s new book Ethics After Babel is an important and lively contiribution to the current discussion about mora;lity and public life. While the book focuses primarily on issues central to moral philosophy, its arguments have broad implications for debate on topics of importance to public life more generally. Stout'.s work can be seen as an exemplification, expansion , and justification of the four points identified in the previous pM"agraph. But the book is much more than that: it is an extended, sustained, and persuasive argument that pluralism iin public discourse about moral issues need not lead to 1skepticism, nihilism, or relativism. Stout steers a steady oourse between the cultural pessimists who decry our current state as one of hopeless mor:al fragmentation and the intellectual foundationafists who seek to dispel our cultural malaise through some philosophical sleight-of-hand. Ethics After Babel is divided into three major sections. The first," Spectres of MoI"al Diversity," tackles the issue of truthclaiming in moral discouvse and defends non-foundational ethics against the charge of relativism. The -second, " The Eclipse of Religious Ethics," deals with the relation between reJigion and moraJity, reruson and tradition, and with the question of the future of a public theology. In the final section, "Moral Discourse in P·lur:aiistic Society," Stout defends aversion of pragmatic liiberalism and distinguishes his own po.s:i.tion from that of Alasdair Maicintyre and Richaro Rorty. In the·last chapter Stout shows how many of the concepts Macintyre has introduced into the philosopmcal discussion can be used in service of Li:beral social criticism. The reader gilimpses in 1 It is unlikely that the Divinity School would have been represented in any such gathering as recently as five years ago. The fact that no one from the School of Education was invited to join this group is evidence of the continuing marginality of certain crucial professions within American higher education. IN PRAISE OF PLURALISM 491 these final chapters the :beginnings of Stout's own constructive oontriibution to the issues of morality and pwblic life. Stout seeks in this v:olume to move the discussion in poJitical philosophy and ethics beyond the "liberal vs. oommuntarian " issues that have dominruted the recent litemture. In opposition to the individualism and foundationalism that characterize the classic modern...


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