After MacIntyre: Rawls, Engelhardt and the limits of reason in a morally pluralistic society
Torcello, Lawrence G
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Moral Pluralism is a challenge to those who would apply the rigors of ethical analysis to pressing issues in the public sphere. Among the most consistent heralds of moral pluralism in the twentieth century is Alasdair MacIntyre. In his major works, MacIntyre provides a powerful argument that moral pluralism is a permanent feature of modern society since the Enlightenment. I argue that MacIntyre's critique, while largely successful, necessarily rests upon a slippery slope leading toward total moral relativism. MacIntyre fails to overcome the challenges of this difficult position. Consequently, the only way to consistently endorse moral pluralism, while avoiding moral relativism, is to endorse a distinction between the domain of rationality and reason. This distinction is explored in the recent work of Stephen Toulmin and John Rawls. After closely reading Rawls, Toulmin and their critics, I conclude that Rawls' later work successfully overcomes the critiques against modernism issued by MacIntyre. Nevertheless, I argue that Rawls' later work, precisely in its dependence upon Rawls' own distinction between reason and rationality, entails a libertarian conclusion. Rawls himself remains unaware of this entailment of his liberal project. I then turn to the work of H. Tristram Engelhardt Jr., who knowingly offers a libertarian approach to moral pluralism that he calls an "ethics of permission." Though this minimalist approach is sparse, I argue that it is nevertheless able to cope with moral pluralism while avoiding moral relativism. Indeed, I show that the position is a transcendental prerequisite to ethical and philosophical debate and I defend it on just these grounds. Building upon Engelhardt's approach, I develop and endorse a position I call "procedural liberalism." Throughout the text, I consider the ramifications of moral pluralism in the realm of applied ethics, giving particular attention to the issue of same-sex marriage as well as to the implications of procedural liberalism for pressing issues in bioethics.