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        Intractable Moral Disagreements Alasdair MacIntyre Reading through what I have written about moral disagreement—and more generally practical disagreement— during the past thirty years, I find that an overall view of what such disagreement is, and of how far it can or cannot be resolved, does emerge, but it is one that I have never stated systematically in a single piece of writing. This lacuna I now seek to fill. I do so in order to address a question that is of particular importance to Roman Catholics, although not only to them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of “the natural moral law”and says of that law that it is“established by reason,”that“it is universal in its precepts,” and that its authority extends to all human beings, determining the basis for the fundamental rights and duties of the human person (par. ).Yet, if the precepts of the natural law are indeed precepts established by reason, we should expect to find  01 Cunningham Ch1 1/27/09 11:12 AM Page 1  | Alasdair MacIntyre agreement in assenting to them among rational agents. But this is not what we find, at least if we judge the rationality of agents as it is usually judged. Many intelligent, perceptive, and insightful agents either reject what Catholics take to be particular precepts of the natural law or accept them only in some very different version, or, more radically still, reject the very conception of a natural law. And these disagreements seem to be intractable. How can this be? It seems that either the Catechism ’s account of the natural law must be mistaken or else it is possible for some theses to be rationally vindicated without thereby being able to secure the assent of all rational agents. For the Catholic Church the problem thus presented is not only a philosophical problem. It is a problem of everyday practice, one arising in all those situations—debates about poverty, about social justice, about war and peace, about abortion and contraception, about capital punishment, and more generally about the common good—in which Catholics appeal to precepts of the natural law in arguing against positions incompatible with the Catholic understanding of human nature and the human condition. This appeal purports to be to standards prescribed by reason, and yet exceedingly often it is impotent in the face of radical moral and political disagreement. It is this practical dimension that gives to the philosophical problem a good deal of its urgency and importance. The philosophical problem is one arising for any philosopher who insists that, if the principles and rules that govern the moral life are to have authority, then they must be justifiable by rational argument . So it is not only with Thomists and other Catholic thinkers, but also with, for example, Kantians and utilitarians. And all these parties are at odds with each other. If what Kantians assert is true, then what utilitarians assert is false, and vice versa. And, if what either asserts is true, then what Thomists assert is false. Yet each contending party claims the authority of reason and each remains unconvinced by the arguments mounted by their opponents and critics. So utilitarians and Kantians need, just as much as Thomists do, to explain how it is possible both that they can claim the authority of reason in support of 01 Cunningham Ch1 1/27/09 11:12 AM Page 2 their views and yet be unable to convince certain others who are, it seems, not only quite as intelligent, perceptive, and insightful as they are, but also quite as philosophically skillful and informed, yet who remain in radical disagreement. I shall proceed as follows. First, I will set out Aquinas’s claims for the precepts of the natural law as precepts of reason that are universally binding. I will argue, as I already suggested, that, if these claims are true, we should expect to find near-universal agreement among human beings on moral matters. Secondly, we need to examine the impressive evidence that nothing like this extent of agreement is to be found, and I will catalogue a variety of types of disagreement. Thirdly, I will 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...


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