In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

        Does the Natural Law Provide a Universally Valid Morality? Jean Porter For some time now, it has been apparent that Western societies are divided by deep, seemingly intractable disagreements over moral questions, especially but not only those pertaining to sexual expression, marriage, and family relations. More recently, we in the West have begun to see that we are divided from much of the rest of the world over still more fundamental questions having to do with some of our most cherished values, including human rights and the value of democracy. Of course, the reality and the extent of the relevant disagreements are themselves very much in dispute, and the universality of so-called Western values finds many defenders both in the West itself and elsewhere—all appearances to the contrary. But appearances certainly are contrary, at least sufficiently so to lead others to speak of the failure of the Enlightenment project to enact a universal morality through a kind of worldwide consensus of all rational  02 Cunningham Ch2 1/27/09 11:13 AM Page 53  | Jean Porter persons.1 At any rate, it is apparent that the existence of a universally valid moral system, compelling as such to any rational and welldisposed individual, can no longer be taken for granted. It must be defended, presumably through appeals to foundations for normative judgment that are themselves accessible to all men and women, regardless of their particular religious or cultural presuppositions. The venerable tradition of reflection on a natural law would seem to offer one such basis for defending a universal morality. After all, the claims of a natural law morality, if successfully vindicated, would rest on human nature itself, and would be developed through the exercise of rational capacities that are themselves grounded in that nature. What could be more fundamental, or more likely to provide a touchstone for agreement, than our shared nature as human beings and our rational capacities to function as such? It is hardly surprising, therefore, that beginning in the last decades of the previous century, the natural law has enjoyed something of a renaissance, among philosophers and jurists as well as theologians. More recently still, Pope Benedict XVI has called for a return to the natural law as a basis for a universal morality that can bridge the dangerous divides in world society . Of course, in doing so he speaks as the representative of a religious tradition that has long based its moral claims on a natural law, but he insists that this natural law ethic is itself defensible in purely rational terms, without the need for supernatural grace or special revelation . In his challenging essay, “Intractable Moral Disagreements,” Alasdair MacIntyre argues that the natural law, as interpreted and defended by Thomas Aquinas, does indeed provide a universally valid set of moral norms which can be apprehended as such by all rational persons . Nonetheless, he goes on to say, the natural law presupposes a particular view of practical rationality which may or may not be shared by all, and for this reason its claims will not be compelling to those philosophers who begin with a significantly different view of rationality , especially (but not only) utilitarians and other sorts of conse02 Cunningham Ch2 1/27/09 11:13 AM Page 54 quentialists. This concession to the appearances of deep moral disagreement is perhaps not as far-reaching as it may initially seem. MacIntyre does think that the validity of the natural law can be vindicated through rational arguments, which might not be compelling to all rational persons (as a mathematical proof, for example, would arguably be), but which would be nonetheless rationally defensible, even to those who do not initially share the presuppositions informing these arguments. (Presumably such a defense, if successful, would lead one’s interlocutors to revise their presuppositions, in accordance with processes of rational reflection across the boundaries of tradition set out by MacIntyre in his earlier works.)2 What is more, he suggests that to some extent, at least, the account of practical rationality defended by utilitarians may stem in part from nonrational factors, including especially an unwillingness to abandon a view that is central to their continued allegiance to utilitarianism. Most important, MacIntyre focuses throughout on the possibilities and limitations of rational consensus among Western philosophers, who after all do share a broader context of philosophical and cultural assumptions. He barely acknowledges the possibilities of deep moral disagreements among different cultures and communities, and indeed seems to presuppose that most men...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.