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        Moral Disagreement and the Limits of Reason Reflections on MacIntyre and Ratzinger Gerald McKenny Persistent moral disagreement seems to be a characteristic feature of modern liberal democratic societies. In the United States the polarization between people with diverse moral views on issues such as abortion, research using embryos, homosexuality , and the structure of the family and its role in society may finally be subsiding after more than two decades of rancorous debates, but the disagreement itself shows no sign of abating. In Europe similar disagreements regarding abortion, genetic testing, embryo research, reproductive technology, the implications of justice and equality for family relationships, and public religious expression appear to be the latest episodes in a long struggle between Europe’s Christian and Enlightenment legacies that is still not put to rest. Disagreements such as these are extraordinarily complex. Sometimes they turn on factual or conceptual issues. Are the unborn and  06 Cunningham Ch6 1/27/09 11:18 AM Page 195  | Gerald McKenny the severely impaired human beings in the full moral sense or not? Does withholding or withdrawing a feeding tube from someone in a persistent vegetative state count as killing or not? At other times there is disagreement over whether a moral obligation binds absolutely, that is, in all conceivable circumstances, or whether there are circumstances in which it might be overruled or outweighed by other factors. Is the intentional killing of an innocent human being morally wrong in all conceivable cases, or can it be justified when the rights or wellbeing of others is at stake, or when someone who is suffering greatly from a terminal illness gives consent for lethal intervention? In still other cases what is at stake is the meaning or application of a moral principle. Nearly everyone agrees that economic activity is subject to principles of justice, but what do these principles require? Are they limited to respect for individual liberty and enforcement of contracts, or do they require substantive standards of fairness or equality? Finally , there is disagreement over which principles are relevant to the moral evaluation of a kind of activity or relationship. Are relationships involving sexual intimacy subject only to principles of just treatment , the consent of each party, and mutual affection, or are they also subject to norms of lifelong fidelity, the complementarity of man and woman, and openness to procreation? For citizens of liberal democracies moral disagreement of these kinds poses a serious question: How can people who disagree so deeply on so many moral issues form a political society on grounds other than coercion? It is difficult to imagine how a stable and just social order is possible without some agreement on matters as fundamental as the dignity of human life, the ordering of marital and family relationships, and the basic rules of economic activity. In the absence of moral agreement these matters seem destined to be decided on purely political grounds: either by the decree of the state or by the power of majorities or the influence of interest groups. The first option is antithetical to the very idea of liberal democracy, which excludes any such role for the state. As for the second option, when this 06 Cunningham Ch6 1/27/09 11:18 AM Page 196 kind of power or influence is exercised by majorities or interest groups apart from a social consensus, it usually indicates a corruption of liberal democracy. For these reasons liberal thinkers from John Locke to John Rawls have held that a liberal political order depends on a broad consensus supporting the moral principles underlying basic social and political institutions. Disagreement on these fundamental moral matters poses a special problem for many Christians. Both the Catholic Church and the major Protestant traditions rooted in the Reformation era have historically held a high view of the capacity of human reason to know the basic requirements of a just social and political order. Catholics and Protestants of this variety have agreed on this point in spite of their profound disagreements over whether this capacity and this knowledge can achieve anything that is of ultimate worth in the eyes of God. This high view of moral reason has seemed to these Christians to follow quite clearly from Romans :–, where the apostle Paul attributes moral knowledge to Gentiles who have not received the revealed law of Scripture: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do by nature what the law requires, they, despite not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show...


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