Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law

Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics

Edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Both as cardinal and as Pope Benedict XVI, one of Josef Ratzinger’s consistent concerns has been the foundational moral imperatives of the natural law. In 2004, then Cardinal Ratzinger requested that the University of Notre Dame study the complex issues embedded in discussions about ‘natural rights’ and ‘natural law’ in the context of Catholic thinking. To that end, Alasdair MacIntyre provided a substantive essay on the foundational problem of moral disagreements concerning natural law, and eight scholars were invited to respond to MacIntyre’s essay, either by addressing his work directly or by amplifying his argument along other yet similar paths. The contributors to this volume are theologians, philosophers, civil and canon lawyers, and political scientists, who reflect on these issues from different disciplinary perspectives. Once the contributors’ essays were completed, MacIntyre responded with a closing essay.

Throughout the book, the contributors ask: Can a persuasive case for a foundational morality be made etsi Deus daretur (as if God did not exist)? And, of course, persuasive to whom? The exchanges that take place between MacIntyre and his interlocutors result, not in answers, but in rigorous attempts at clarification. Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law will interest ethicists, moral theologians, and students and scholars of moral philosophy.

Contributors: Alasdair MacIntyre, Jean Porter, David A. Clairmont, M. Cathleen Kaveny, Daniel Philpott, Gerald McKenny, Kevin L. Flannery, S.J., John J. Coughlin, O.F.M., and Thomas Hibbs.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is A Brief History of Saints.

ADVANCE PRAISE: “Lawrence Cunningham has assembled an esteemed group of scholars to provide incisive analyses of the contemporary state of natural law theory, particularly in light of Alasdair MacIntyre’s groundbreaking work. The essays are lucid, engaging, and intellectually sophisticated. Intractable Disputes about the Natural Law is a must-read not only for moral theologians, but for anyone concerned about the conceptual foundations of human rights, human dignity, and moral dialogue in pluralistic societies.” — Stephen J. Pope, Boston College

“MacIntyre’s first essay, which presents a Thomistic vision of natural law with attention to explaining seemingly intractable moral disagreement—and all this in dialogue with utilitarian ethics—on its own would make this book an important scholarly contribution. But the ensuing contributions enable the book to flourish further, with contributions on subjects both readily associated with natural law and moral disagreement (e.g., common morality, human rights, and rival visions of virtue) as well as those more creatively connected to the genesis of the text (sacramental life, interreligious dialogue, and modes of moral discourse). Cunningham’s volume both broadens and depends contemporary thinking on a perennial topic, and will richly reward its readers.” — William C. Mattison III, The Catholic University of America


“This book will appeal to a wide array of moral theologians and philosophers interested not only in the possibility of a foundational morality grounded in natural law, but also in questions of human rights, interreligious dialogue, moral rhetoric, and sacramental life in broadly pluralistic societies.” — Theological Studies

“This book is more important than its title suggests. For it is not so much a book about intractable disputes about natural law, but how contemporary natural law theory might help us explain, respond to and even help solve the intractable moral disputes that are wrenching the social and political fabric of the United States, growing in post-Christian Europe, and constraining the opportunities for global collaboration based on ethical norms rather than self-interest or power.” — Studies in Christian Ethics

“We are cautioned to be humble and alert to our own vulnerabilities as practical reasoners, the more so as we engage in public disputation in defense of the natural law. This volume performs an invaluable service in guiding our reflection on this vital, perennial, and timely topic.” — The Thomist