I've been reading a fascinating book about moral theory from Alasdair MacIntyre called After Virtue. His insights on traditional Western conceptions of ethics and contemporary ethical debate are so tantalizing and thought-provoking that I decided to post a brief series of reflections on what I'm reading. Here's the first:
One of the most common criticisms about Christian morality in the public square is that it is fundamentally sectrian. The accusation of tribalism is probably the most frequently cited evidence of religion's failure to provide ethical norms which can lead humanity out of the intractable moral debates and political tensions in which we find ourselves. Public reason, it is said, must necessarily exclude private religious conviction if there is to be any hope for positive political solutions to issues such as abortion, sexual and racial exclusion, millitary agression, economic imperialism, and the like.
In the first few chapters of MacIntyre's After Virtue it becomes clear that what he calls the "shrill" tone of contemporary moral debate is due to just this kind of tribalism, even after religion has been excluded from the public square. Observing the nature of moral debate easily demonstrates this, as opposing proponents each defend their positions with equally valid arguments based on differing values. Once the arguments are forced back to the expression of these values, such as in the case of abortion which pits "individual freedom" against "protection of the innocent" or "the principle of unviersalizability" (you do not wish that your mother should have had an abortion, therefore you cannnot allow this in the case of others), one has no rational criteria to choose one over the other. This, in turn, results in the fundamentally non-rational, arbitrary choice of personal conviction which is ultimately commended as public policy. Thus the secular landscape is no more plagued with tribalism than religious spheres of moral debate, and the facade of moral reasoning covers what amounts to personal preference.
MacIntyre gives historical reasons for this situation in recounting Kant's refutation of Hume's grounding of morality in desires rather than in reason. Kierkegaard then went beyond both Hume and Kant in rejecting both reason and passion as the ground for morality, opting instead for radical, criterionless choice. The respective failures of each view resulted in the marginalization of philosophical ethics and rational justification in the public square, hence the environment of moral relativism which dominates our culture.
This discussion is leading up to MacIntyre's account of the failure of the Enlightenment and the modern project to provide rational grounds for moral justification - but even at this point the implications of his argument are startling. It extends a problem which is typically characterized as a religious one - namely, how should believers participate in making public policy for those who don't share their beliefs - to the secular kingdoms of this world. On what grounds can anyone justify their public policy recommendations? If it can't be "reason" or "rationality", what's left of secular resources to answer the question?