In his provocative critique of moral diversity, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre declared that contemporary society had lost its moral center and was no longer able to offer rational justifications for moral actions. Moreover, he observed, moral disagreements could never be resolved, because the widely differing moral languages held by various individuals were simply incompatible. Such diversity in speaking ethically lay at the core of morality’s interminable debates about issues such as war and peace, social justice, and abortion.

MacIntyre’s book sparked tremendous debate among ethicists, philosophers, and theologians. Seven years after it appeared, Jeffrey Stout, a philosopher of religion at Princeton University, responded to MacIntyre and to society’s rampant moral relativism in Ethics After Babel. Although Stout disagreed with MacIntyre about the possibilities of returning to some ideal moral objectivity and moral unity, he took MacIntyre’s description of the contemporary moral scene as a starting point for his own work. Stout’s task was a fairly simple one: to acknowledge the discontent with moral relativism while at the same time drawing on the positive qualities of such relativism to foster dialogue about ethical issues.

His book is animated by several questions. Given the plurality of moral languages, does such diversity result in moral nihilism, moral skepticism, or moral relativism? Can such moral diversity foster a conception of the common good that enlivens, rather than quells, public discourse? In what ways can religious traditions and their ethics contribute to secular ethical traditions?


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Sources for Further Study

Bosley, Richard. “Being Human and the Problem of Agency: Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents and Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation.” Religious Studies and Theology 23, no. 1 (2004): 143. Examines and criticizes Stout’s conflation of obedience to God’s will with ethical deliberation.

Dykstra, Craig, ed. “Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents: A Review Symposium.” Theology Today 46, no. 1 (April, 1989): 55-73. The best available response to Stout’s book by philosophers and theologians including Cornel West, George Lindbeck, and Sheila Briggs, accompanied by Stout’s response.

Hauerwas, Stanley. “Democratic Time: Lessons Learned from Yoder and Wolin.” CrossCurrents 55, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 534-554. Theologian Hauerwas offers a critique of Stout’s view of democracy using the lenses of John Howard Yoder and Sheldon Wolin.

Placher, William C. “After Babel: The Virtues of Liberalism.” Christian Century 126, no. 24 (August 16-23, 1989): 753-755. Theologian Placher’s review praises Stout’s book for challenging Christian ethics to be more vital to society.