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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Appendix: A restricted theory of proportionate reason

In “A Commentary on the Commentaries,” in Doing Evil to Achieve Good, McCormick tried to bypass the problem of noncommensurability of values by limiting his proportionalism. He abandoned the attempt to evaluate long-term effects beyond the act itself, distinguished “proportionate reason” from “net good,” and agreed that proportionalism is incoherent if it means weighing all the values (including goods of diverse categories) against one another in an attempt to produce the greatest net good.45 He suggested that there is a proportionate reason for doing evil to achieve good when the good sought will not be undermined by the proposed action; there is lack of proportionate reason when the good sought “is being pursued in a way calculated in human judgment (not without prediscursive elements) to undermine it.”46 “Thus, where there is a question of taking life, such taking is proportionate only if it is, all things considered, the better service of life itself in the tragic circumstances.”47 McCormick maintained that the only question to be answered by his limited proportionalism is the modest one: “. . . is the good end being sought by means involving nonmoral evil promoted and not undermined in this action or is it undermined?”48

Consideration of this question makes it clear that McCormick has not succeeded in bypassing the problem of noncommensurability. A calculated judgment whether the good is promoted and not undermined still would require comparison of the alternatives of acting and not acting, to see which promises a better proportion of benefit to harm (the lesser evil). But the central argument in question F above shows that where there can be a choice, there is noncommensurability of the goods in the possibilities open to choice. For example, a person who hesitates to take life in the service of life may question whether any other realization of life can make up for the destruction of this life here and now. Again, such a person may think that in judging what is a “better service to life itself” one cannot leave out of account the difference between serving-life-by-choosing-to-kill and serving-life-by-allowing-to-die. If so, this perceived difference blocks commensuration, requires a moral judgment by a method other than proportionalism, and makes a morally significant choice both possible and necessary.

McCormick’s subsequent assimilation of his own view to that of Peter Knauer, S.J., also shows that McCormick’s restricted theory of proportionate reason has not bypassed the problem of noncommensurability. In an article published in 1967, Knauer seemed to circumvent the problem of the noncommensurability of goods by reducing the concept of commensurate reason to that of a genuinely efficient means to a definite goal.49 I criticized this position by pointing out that it omits moral considerations other than efficiency, and so leaves an opening for fanaticism. For example, a mad but efficient scientist could defend any sort of human experimentation really necessary to obtain some piece of knowledge he sought. But I also pointed out that Knauer might reply that “the fanatical investigator would really damage the cause of scientific inquiry by giving it a bad name.”50

The point of this remark was that Knauer could avoid the implication of reducing morality to efficiency by reverting to a consideration of noncommensurable goods—for example, the cause of scientific inquiry as such, which is indeterminate in reference to the definite goals of specific inquiries, which can be more or less efficiently pursued. I pointed out this inconsistency in Knauer’s article by citing the way he handled the question of whether a woman may rescue her children from a concentration camp by committing adultery. Knauer responded to this problem with a question: “Does life or freedom have any value if in the end one is forced to give up all human rights and in principle be exposed to every extortion?”51 The argument implicit in this question clearly involves an appeal to noncommensurable goods.

In 1980 Knauer returned to the topic of his earlier essay, but now emphasized again and again that there is no proportionate reason if the action involving harm will “generally and in the long run” undermine the good being sought here and now. McCormick reported this development of Knauer’s position and identified his own restricted proportionalism with it. Recalling my criticism of Knauer’s earlier effort, McCormick suggested that Knauer’s consideration of the good “generally and in the long run” adequately handles my objection concerning fanaticism.52 But McCormick did not notice that the price Knauer pays is a renewed acceptance of the onus of commensurating the incommensurable, namely, the specific goal sought here and now and the value in general, whose indeterminate set of instantiations is referred to by the phrase “generally and in the long run.”

An example will help to make clear that the benefit and harm present in a particular choice directed toward a definite objective are incommensurable with the benefits and harms which might be brought about in the same category of value in the indeterminate set of its future instantiations. The point of the nuclear deterrent is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, and their likely destruction of life, by potential enemies. Clearly, there is no way to determine whether the present threat to destroy enemy noncombatants is or is not undermining the value of human life generally and in the long run. Opponents of the deterrent probably would say so; they might claim that the commitment to nuclear deterrence has corrupted people’s hearts and paved the way for the worldwide acceptance of easy abortion and other antilife practices. Defenders of the deterrent probably would deny this. The latter also might insist that freedom from Communist domination, seemingly ruled out of consideration by restricted proportionalism, must be taken into account, even though it is a value of a different category.

This brings us to another aspect of McCormick’s attempt to salvage proportionalism. As initially stated, the restricted theory applies plausibly to only a few cases, such as abortion to save the mother when otherwise both mother and child are expected to die.53 But McCormick and other theologians had invoked proportionalism to justify the revision of received Catholic moral teaching in other, more complex cases, in which values in diverse categories must be compared. For example, they argued that contraception can be justified because the premoral evil of preventing new life can be outweighed by the good of marital love. McCormick suggests that in such cases the incommensurability is reduced by the causal connections among the various goods. For example, sexual abstinence can harm marital love and thereby the procreative good itself, and so by this route a proportionalist assessment might be made.54

In making this suggestion, McCormick even more clearly undertakes to calculate net good by weighing long-term effects beyond the act itself. For example, in and of itself the choice to contracept does absolutely nothing but determine the one who makes it to try to prevent the coming to be of a new person. The end in view (which is claimed to be the offsetting good) can be realized only beyond the contraceptive act itself. (This point is clearest when a contraceptive like the pill is used, and the contraceptive behavior is altogether separated from sexual intercourse. But the same is true of all contraceptive choices, regardless of the contraceptive method used.) In complex cases of this sort, even more than the simpler ones, it is clear that there is no objective way to assess proportions of benefits and harms, and judge what is the best service to the good sought. McCormick himself sometimes seems to sense this difficulty, for it is this which leads him to speak of commensurating by the adoption of a hierarchy. He sums up his position: “Thus, I see ‘association of basic values,’ ‘proportionate reason,’ and ‘adoption of a hierarchy of values’ as attempting to say the same thing, or at least as very closely related.”55

The constraints of McCormick’s reconstructed proportionalism also led him to offer some implausible accounts of perfectly sound positions. For instance, it often is argued that the bombing of Nagasaki was justified because fewer people were killed by it than would have died on both sides had the war dragged on. McCormick, commendably, wished to show against this view that obliteration bombing is immoral. Applying his theory of associated goods, he argued that this manner of saving life tended to undermine it in the long run by injuring the associated good of human liberty: “Making innocent (noncombatant) persons the object of our targeting is a form of extortion in international affairs that contains an implicit denial of human freedom. Human freedom is undermined when extortionary actions are accepted and elevated and universalized. Because such freedom is an associated good upon which the very good of life heavily depends, undermining it in the manner of my defense of life is undermining life itself—is disproportionate.”56

McCormick could not say that terror bombing is evil simply because those who engage in it choose to destroy human lives, for his proportionalism requires that choices to destroy human lives be justifiable if there is a proportionate reason. Many would accept the saving of a larger number of lives as a proportionate reason, but McCormick rightly rejects their view. Hence he is reduced to this argument. It is quite implausible, because it is not clear that extortion undermines freedom, that the good of life depends on freedom (in the same sense of the word “freedom”), or that the lives that perhaps were at stake later on made the bombing of Nagasaki wrong if it were not wrong in itself.

From McCormick’s further explanations, it becomes clear that the freedom he thinks implicitly denied by extortion is the moral liberty of the enemy: “If a nation is wrongfully aggressing, once again it is the Christian’s faith—and a well-founded one—that that nation can and must cease and desist from wrongful aggression without our harming innocents to make that nation do so. There is no necessary connection between our doing harm to noncombatants (for example, killing innocent civilians to stop that nation) and that nation’s ceasing unjust aggression. To say that there is would be to insult the humanity of the aggressor by denying his liberty. For unjust aggressors are free to cease unjust aggression.”57 The freedom on which he argues that human life itself heavily depends is political liberty, “on the grounds that a real threat to that is tantamount to a threat against an individual’s life.”58

But the moral liberty of the enemy and the political liberty on which life is said to depend differ. The former is freedom of self-determination, while the latter is a specific form of the freedom to do as one pleases. The difference is demonstrated by the fact that slaves can be morally good or bad persons. Thus McCormick’s attempt to argue against obliteration bombing within the constraints of his reconstructed proportionalism falls into equivocation. The argument also is implausible in resting the immorality of destroying the lives of noncombatants upon the alleged insult to the humanity of the aggressor. It is not clear that terror bombing denies liberty, for extortion leaves those against whom it is used a morally free choice, though a different choice than they would have had otherwise.

Still, McCormick’s introduction of the requirement of necessary connection was laudable to the extent that it limited proportionalism. One would not have a proportionate reason for doing a nonmoral evil which would not be necessary except for another’s wrongdoing. Unfortunately for consistency, the requirement of necessary connection invalidates other arguments, such as the one on contraception. Christian couples have the morally free choice to express and cultivate their love (and thus indirectly serve the good of procreation) in many nongenital ways, and also by sexual abstinence. There is no necessary connection between preventing the coming to be of a new person and these goods, which are allegedly served by the use of contraceptives.

Moreover, many of McCormick’s proportionalist colleagues will deny that there must be a necessary connection—that is, a causal relationship apart from another’s free choice—between the doing of a nonmoral evil and the overriding value for which it is done. Thus, although McCormick made this requirement central in his 1978 reconstruction, by 1980 he had received criticism of it from persons whose views he respected. Although he thought he could deal with this criticism to some extent, he no longer felt certain that there must be a necessary connection to justify the use of force as such: “The necessary-connection requirement—if it is valid, and I am far from sure that it is—pertains . . ..”59

45. McCormick, Doing Evil, 201, 233–34, and 265. In Notes, 715, McCormick admits modifying his position: “In other words, there is another understanding of proportionate reason than the one I gave.”

46. Doing Evil, 265; cf. 201 and 261.

47. Ibid., 201.

48. Ibid., 223.

49. Peter Knauer, S.J., “The Hermeneutic Function of the Principle of Double Effect,” Natural Law Forum, 12 (1967), 140–50. An inspection of McCormick’s Notes, 8–13 and 355–59, shows that elements of McCormick’s own earlier criticism of Knauer might be used against the position to which McCormick’s reconstructed theory marks his conversion.

50. Germain Grisez, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), 331.

51. Knauer, op. cit., 162.

52. McCormick, “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1980,” 85–89.

53. Doing Evil, 208–9.

54. Ibid., 223–31.

55. Ibid., 253.

56. Ibid., 236.

57. Ibid., 237.

58. Ibid., 252. Note that McCormick goes on (253) to argue: “And because they are associated values, the community may make this association, namely, adopt a hierarchy (or better, a policy with regard to interrelatedness) of values.” Thus the association is not discovered by conscience but created by an act which, one had supposed, was to be shaped by the moral truth of “proportionate reason.”

59. McCormick, Notes, 812. McCormick’s continuing amendments to his theory remind one of a medieval astronomer’s efforts to save the Ptolemaic system by endowing the planets with queer dynamical properties. On the arbitrariness of McCormick’s use of language: John Hill, “The Debate between McCormick and Frankena,” Irish Theological Quarterly, 49 (1982), 121–33. McCormick was not alone in withdrawing from a straightforward position, clearly requiring impossible commensuration of incommensurable goods and bads, to a more qualified view. Philip S. Keane, S.S., Sexual Morality, 49, explained proportionate reason simply: “In the total story of the action, are there factors that make the level of ontic evil present in the action reasonably acceptable?” In a subsequent article, “The Objective Moral Order: Reflections on Recent Research,” Theological Studies, 43 (1982), Keane eschewed reducing proportionate reason to weighing or calculating of harms and benefits, and said “proportionate reason asks what defines an action, what gives the action its meaning or ratio” (267). If this were true, the account of moral determination proposed below (10‑B) would qualify as proportionalism. But there still would be an opposition between such proportionalism and that of the proportionalist authors Keane cites (265, n. 17), whose supposed method would require the commensuration of the incommensurable. Significantly, in his summary of objections against proportionalism (269–71), which includes several straw men, Keane omits the decisive objection based on incommensurability; he mentions it only in a note (272, n. 36) as perhaps showing overtones of concern that people might not be wise or mature enough to use the approach properly.