Edward LANGERAK, Civil Disagreement: Personal Integrity in a Pluralistic Society. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014, pp ix + 170, $29.95 pb.  ISBN-978-1-62616-033-0. Reviewed by Robert P. MARKO, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI 49506.


All of us acquainted with the current polarization in the United States on political, social, cultural, ethical or economic policies through Facebook posts, attending academic committee meeting  or engaging in family dinner conversation, know only too well how increasingly difficult it has become to tolerate the positions of one’s interlocutors while remaining true to our convictions and personal integrity.  Edward Langerak offers valuable insight on how to negotiate these times of difficult conversation in his Civil Disagreement: Personal Integrity in a Pluralistic Society. His relatively short work offers valuable insight beginning with distinguishing terms to disagree civilly while affirming our deeply held convictions and commitments and preserving moral integrity.

In his preface, Langerak notes that conflict may be inevitable as we live our lives together.  He asks, “How should I respond to the sort of intelligent diversity I encounter on issues that matter to me?” (VII)  In several places he honestly recognizes that we cannot attribute all (but certainly some I believe) to comparative ignorance or stupidity, corruption, and ill will; however, we  find ourselves disagreeing with many who are good willed, informed, and intelligent.

Chapter one, Conversation and Arguments, clarifies how arguments are made, distinguishes types of claims (empirical, metaphysical, etc.) and reflects on the nature of civility.  One leaves here recognizing how incredibly complex are the words we use and misuse. Chapter two, Conflicts and Pluralism, ends with his favored approach of “perspective pluralism” which allows one to maintain one’s “personal integrity in a pluralistic society”.  For those of us in religious studies disciplines, one finds more than ample discussion of religiously motivated perspectives that can be embraced critically while informing one’s convictions. Pluralism, at least for L, is not relativism, as he notes early in the preface, in that even those who claim tolerance and understanding from a non Western perspective of 9/11 are still outraged and find it an evil. Throughout Langerak notes that certain cultural practices which seem reprehensible (such as, for example, the practice of clitoridectomy) may be understood in light of a certain cultural context and thus claimed "reasonable". However, for Langerak and for me the practice is reprehensible and not justifiable. What one may think is reasonable or justifiable may not be at all. Chapter three, Toleration and Respect, concerns how even in pluralistic societies not all forms of behavior can be endured. There are behaviors that even if the actors or group feel are reasonably justified, intolerance and coercion may be necessary. Toleration simply for Langerak means that one may endure or put up with beliefs one regards as wrong but there are limits. I found chapter four, Laws and Dissenters, most interesting and helpful while acknowledging no definitive answer.  As a theologian, I found his attention to religion as a source to inform convictions and arguments in the public square needed. To be sure, I would agree that the most prudent and practical approach utilizes “publicly available” arguments.  (In our age, even these are sparse).  Citing King who used the language of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus of Nazareth to inform the civil rights movements, he recognizes the necessity of public rather than religious symbols to advocate for legislation. Relying on John Rawls, Langerak writes on the “restraint principle”: “conscientious citizens ought to restrain themselves from using nonpublic reasons to advocate or vote for coercive legislation unless they are also willing and able to provide public reasons for it, (113). Abortion, physician assisted suicide, war, compulsory secondary education are examples he uses.  Langerak offers 10 unranked circumstances for discerning when coercion is necessary and even the prima facie obligation of using public reasons can be overridden.  For example, he asks in his third consideration -- “What is the type and degree of harm the legislation is proposed to prevent?” (119)  Stealing and murder are in a different category than Sabbath observance advocated by Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. It is obvious that in the abortion case, disagreement over the moral status of the fetus, thus murder will occur. However, one must concede why it is higher on the agenda of religious believers than Sabbath desecration. In the previous chapter, Langerak warns, however, using de Tocqueville and Mills on “tyranny of the majority,” that even expressions of disdain can be considered intolerance by some.  (Both John Paul II and Benedict cautioned against this, and majority today is not those holding religious convictions.) The issue is muddy. Brief Chapter Five, Civil Disagreement, provides a fine summary of the work. No solution is proposed but rather he claims “in a society with interesting diversities, questions and disagreements are more likely than agreement on answers. (143). Therefore, the plurality of perspectives and, in my opinion, lack of a meta-narrative or even the possibility of such, makes conversation difficult. (The author suggests in chapter two that the critics of Alasdair MacIntyre claim “moral fragmentation is simply a feature of the human condition” and not a result of Enlightenment upheavals).  Consequently, we do not just disagree on any meta-narrative but also on whether morality there is even right and wrong and how to come to that or meta-ethics.

To return to the preface, Langerak acknowledges conflict, the difference of perspectives, and the necessity of maintaining our convictions and personal identifies.  Nonetheless, we are called to maintain “the social and political ties necessary to a peaceful society” (vii). Hence disagreement will occur and dependent on the perspective of the interlocutor, tolerance must yield to some form of coercion we are to “disagree in a civil way.” When does pluralism eventually yield to a form of relativism?  L affirms pluralism but not relativism and provides good conversation starters and maybe even hints at some issues, but the work appears to me to circumvent the tension.  Throughout the work, I was reminded of John Courtney Murray’s We Hold These Truths and his dealing hope for an “American consensus,” and the First Amendment on religion. Murray hoped for civil conversation of intelligent citizens informed by reason and faith.   In the present climate, his hopes appear more and more unrealistic and frankly naive.

Civil Disagreement has much to offer as a text in introductory courses in political science, social ethics and philosophy.  It presents the problem of civil disagreement in a pluralistic society without any easy answers.  The chapter endnotes and bibliography are substantial; the index is thorough.   Moreover, for those not familiar with philosophical theories on the question, Langerak gives a brief, fair, and clear sampling of thinkers on the topic alphabetically from Aristotle to Wittgenstein.  His quotes of Woody Allen and references to the film Sophie’s Choice and Oskar Schindler’s dilemma will have a stronger appeal to people of the “Baby Boomer” generation than traditional age undergraduates. However, that may indicate how suitable, accessible, and engaging the text may be for anyone.  Highly recommended for introductory courses, university and public libraries and maybe, as those in higher education know only too well, mandatory reading for faculty before academic meetings.