«I D | N L Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics ...»
N L Alasdair MacIntyre
Lawrence S. Cunningham
© 2009 University of Notre Dame Press
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Intractable disputes about the natural law : Alasdair MacIntyre and critics / edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham.
ISBN-13: 978-0-268-02299-0 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN-10: 0-268-02299-2 (cloth : alk. paper) ISBN-13: 978-0-268-02300-3 (pbk. : alk. paper) ISBN-10: 0-268-02300-X (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Natural law. 2. Law and ethics. I. Cunningham, Lawrence K428.I58 2009 340'.112—dc22 ∞ The paper in this book meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.
© 2009 University of Notre Dame Press 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 © 2009 University of Notre Dame Press | 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 © 2009 University of Notre Dame Press Intractable Moral Disagreements | 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 together with such others in a way that accords with the canons of rationality, if both we and they treat as binding upon us a set of rules that turn out to be just those enjoined by the natural law. How then do failures to arrive at agreement on those precepts occur? They occur, even the most radical of such failures occur, so I shall claim, because of a variety of failures in practical rationality which the earlier arguments now enable us to diagnose. So radical moral disagreements can after all, it may seem so far, be accommodated within the Thomistic account of natural law.
Is this the end of the matter? Not at all. For this account of the genesis of moral disagreement turns out to be itself contentious and not only theoretically. The view of reason and of what reason requires of us that informs it is at odds not only with rival accounts of practical reason advanced by philosophers, but also with views of reason presupposed in a good deal of contemporary everyday discourse. The next step therefore is to spell out one of those rival accounts. The example that I shall use is that of utilitarianism, and the next section of the essay will sketch the history of utilitarianism, as it has developed from Bentham to the present through its encounters with a series of
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objections to which it has constructed replies that satisfy the requirements of reason, as utilitarians understand them.
How then are we to characterize the practical and especially the moral disagreements between Thomists and utilitarians? Given the diﬀerent and incompatible standards of practical rationality that each acknowledges, do we here encounter a genuine example of incommensurability? Is this a kind of disagreement that may be irremediably intractable? In the succeeding section of the essay I will argue that the answer to the second of these questions is “No” but that the answer to the third is “Yes,” and I will outline a view according to which, even when the protagonists of two or more rival moral traditions do not share enough by way of premises or standards of argument to settle their agreements, one may nonetheless be shown to be rationally superior to its rivals. Finally, I will suggest how an argument might proceed that would at one and the same time show in what ways Thomistic ethics and politics might be rationally superior to utilitarian ethics and politics and yet would remain unacceptable and unconvincing to anyone committed to utilitarianism. That is, I will be trying to show that it is possible to establish that one moral standpoint may be rationally superior to others without securing the assent of highly intelligent, perceptive, and thoughtful adherents of those other points of view.
When we have reached this point, how should we proceed further? The urgent practical question will have become that of how we may most eﬀectively ﬁnd common ground with at least some of those with whom we are in continuing and irremediable disagreement. It is with a short discussion of possible strategies directed to this end that this essay will conclude.
I What then are Aquinas’s claims concerning the natural law? He argues that the ﬁrst principles, the fundamental precepts, of that law give ex
pression to the ﬁrst principle of practical reason: that good is to be done and pursued and evil to be avoided. The goods that we as human beings have it in us to pursue are threefold: the goods of our physical nature, that is, the goods of preserving our lives and health from dangers that threaten our continuing existence; the goods of our animal nature, including the good of sexuality and the goods to be achieved by educating and caring for our children; and the goods that belong to our nature as rational animals, the goods of knowledge, both of nature and of God, and the goods of a social life informed by the precepts of reason (Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae , ).
There are therefore several distinct precepts of the natural law, each a precept of reason directed to our common good that enjoins the achievement of one or more of these shared human goods or forbids what endangers that achievement. Notable examples are: never take an innocent life or inﬂict gratuitous harm; respect the property of others; shun ignorance and cultivate understanding; do not lie. To say that these are precepts of reason is to say that to violate them knowingly would be to assert “It is good and best for me here and now to act in such and such a way; but I shall act otherwise.” What my actions express, if I knowingly violate the precepts of the natural law, is an incoherence that parallels the incoherence of someone who asserts “It is the case that this is how things are; but I shall believe otherwise.” To say of these precepts that they are directed to the common good is to say that the goods that they enjoin are goods for each of us, not qua individual, but qua member of this family or that household, qua participant in the life of this workplace or that political community. And they are therefore goods that we can achieve only in the company of others, including not only those others with whom we share the life of family, household, or workplace, or political community, but also strangers with whom we interact in less structured ways.
Precepts that in this way give expression to the ﬁrst principle of practical reason Aquinas calls primary precepts of the natural law.
They are not derived from any more ultimate precept and therefore
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are known noninferentially. About them Aquinas makes four assertions: that they are one and the same for everyone, that they are unchanging and unchangeable, that they are known to be what they are by all human beings insofar as they are rational, and that knowledge of them cannot be abolished from the human heart. Each of these needs further explanation and in some cases qualiﬁcation. The primary precepts of the natural law are indeed one and the same for everyone, but there are also secondary precepts that vary with circumstances. What does Aquinas mean by a secondary precept? Secondary precepts of the natural law (IIa-IIae , , ) are those through which primary precepts ﬁnd application in and to particular circumstances. A primary precept, for example, requires those in political authority to provide whatever may be necessary for the security of their community from external foes. But what is so necessary varies from one set of circumstances to another, depending on the nature of current threats and the level of weapons technology and the resources possessed by this particular community. So the application of a primary precept will often be in and through some set of legally, socially, and culturally ordered institutions which implement that primary precept through secondary injunctions. The primary precepts remain the same in every society and culture, but the socially and culturally embodied forms through which they receive expression do not.
Primary precepts are known and their authority is recognized by human beings in virtue of their rationality. But Aquinas invites us to understand this with two qualiﬁcations. One concerns the amens, the mentally defective or disordered human being. Such lack the use of their reason per accidens; some bodily impediment has prevented the actualization of their rational potentialities. So they are to be accounted rational and respected as rational, even if not aware of precepts of which the normally rational are aware, and they are not culpable for this failure (IIIa, , ; IIa-IIae , ). Another qualiﬁcation is this: there will in the case of each primary precept be some types of case, relatively rare in occurrence, in which the application of primary precepts to particular situations raises diﬃcult questions. A pri© 2009 University of Notre Dame Press Intractable Moral Disagreements | mary precept of the natural law requires us, for example, not to deprive a legitimate owner of her or his property. But what of the problematic case where “it would be harmful and therefore unreasonable to restore goods held in trust, for example, if they are claimed for the purpose of aggression against one’s country” (IIa-IIae , )? Such diﬃcult cases require a sometimes complex spelling-out of the relevant primary precept through a series of secondary precepts. And how good we are at this task of elucidation and supplementation will vary from individual to individual, depending upon how practically wise each is.