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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question A: What is the proportionalist method of moral judgment?

1. Proportionalism is a theory of moral norms; it rightly considers them truths which direct action toward human goods. What is peculiar about proportionalism is the way it does this. According to a simple version of proportionalism, a moral judgment is a comparative evaluation of the possibilities available for choice. Each is examined to see what benefit and harm are likely to come about if it is chosen and the choice is carried out. Suppose one possibility promises considerably more benefit than harm, while another promises less benefit than harm. One ought to choose the first possibility, according to proportionalists, because it gives a better proportion of good to bad.2

2. Many who accept a more or less restricted version of proportionalism object that they do not advocate a merely quantitative calculus. However, the theory, and indeed the very notion of “proportion,” requires some method for comparing possibilities with respect to benefit and harm to determine which promises the most attractive proportion.3

3. Suppose pregnancy endangers a woman’s life. If she dies, so will the unborn baby. Those who are not proportionalists might approve abortion in some such cases, but the point here is not the moral judgment, but the method for reaching it. Typically, proportionalists would approve abortion in such a case by arguing that it is better—that is, less bad—to have a dead baby and a live mother, than to have both die. Since the proportion favors abortion, on this view one ought to choose to kill the baby. Although this is a choice of something bad, in the sense that the baby’s death is contrary to the good of human life, the choice will be morally good according to the proportionalist precisely because one is choosing what is less bad.4

4. Because it requires attention to consequences, proportionalism is also called “consequentialism.” However, proportionalists can take into account the benefits and harms which are inherent in acts, independent of the results they cause. The acts-consequences distinction is not crucial for them; what matters is the overall proportion of benefit and harm promised by each possible choice.5 To make sure all areas are considered, some proportionalists suggest that one attend to the object of the act, the circumstances, and the end in view, then do a cumulative summing-up of harm and benefit in all areas. Still, provided everything is considered and nothing counted twice, precise distinctions between the parts of a moral act are unimportant to proportionalists.6

5. Proportionalism has many forms and variations.7 Noticing some of these sheds light on various attempts to introduce proportionalism into moral theology.

6. Some—Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Fletcher, for instance—apply proportionalism directly to all morally significant choices. This is called “act utilitarianism” or “act consequentialism.” Others—for example, proponents of what is called “rule utilitarianism”—apply proportionalism to the justification of norms but wish to exclude its use for choices other than those by which norms are accepted.

7. Some admit proportionalism only in more or less restricted areas, while excluding its use in certain other areas—say, in regard to acts directly against religion such as false swearing or particularly unfair acts such as racial discrimination. Or they may use proportionalism only to limit the application of certain received norms, such as those pertaining to sex and innocent human life. Or they may restrict its use to conflict situations—cases where choosing to violate some received norm would seem to bring about less harm than choosing to act in accord with it. Moreover, a proportionalist can hold that acts of certain kinds will always be wrong.8

8. One accepts proportionalism just to the extent that one thinks the moral judgment concerning which possibility a person ought to choose can and should be reached by making a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by available possibilities. As will be shown, the essential problem with proportionalism is this comparative evaluation. None of the variations and limitations noted above avoids it. Even if proportionalism is used only to judge whether to act in a certain way or to refrain from acting in that way, a comparative evaluation must be made of the benefits and harms expected in either case.

9. Herein lies the key issue between the theory of natural law to be articulated in chapters seven through twelve and any version of proportionalism.9 Although the moral theologians who use proportionalism may hold a defensible account of moral judgment on many matters (for example, that one should attend to received Christian moral wisdom with respect to them), all who accept even a limited or restricted version of proportionalism are vulnerable insofar as they think that some moral judgments should be made by a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by available possibilities.

2. Timothy E. O’Connell, Principles for a Catholic Morality (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 152–53, argued that as finite, social, temporal entities, human persons cannot act without bringing about both good and bad, and asserted as if it were a conclusion: “We do evil that good may come of it.” He then enunciateed a simple version of proportionalism (153): “These reflections upon experience, then, lead us to the answer to our questions. What ought we to do? We ought to do that action which maximizes the good and minimizes the evil. How do we discover the right thing to do? We discover it by balancing the various ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ that are part of the situation and by trying to achieve the greatest proportion of goods to bads. What constitutes right action? It is that action which contains the proportionally greatest maximization of good and minimization of evil.”

3. Charles E. Curran, New Perspectives in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1974), 19, summed up the requirement: “The newer approaches call for a weighing and comparison of all the values involved so that I perform the action which brings about the greatest possible good. Note the obvious consequentialist calculus in such a determination but also the fact that the relative importance attached to the different values involved transcends the present limited situation and can be verified only in the context of the fullness of Christian experience.” Curran did not explain how this fullness is brought to bear in setting aside norms accepted in the entire Christian tradition.

4. McCormick, Notes, 718, began by suggesting that Paul Ramsey and I would agree with the practical judgment of the proportionalists in all such cases (which is not entirely true) and that the only issue is the reason for the conclusion. He then proceeded more accurately: “The defenders of the traditional distinction would argue that the conclusion is correct in so far as, and only in so far as, the death of the fetus can be said to be indirect. The revisionists, so to speak, would argue that the real reason for the conclusion is that in such circumstances the abortion is proportionately grounded, is the lesser evil. When one is faced with two options both of which involve unavoidable (nonmoral) evil, one ought to choose the lesser evil.” Many theologians who have adopted proportionalism have gone beyond justifying abortion to save the mother when otherwise both would die. See McCormick, Notes, 515–16; John F. Dedek, Human Life: Some Moral Issues (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1972), 86–90; Charles E. Curran, Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1970), 144–45; New Perspectives in Moral Theology, 1974), 190–93; note the concise formulation, 191: “Thus abortion could be justified to save the life of the mother or to avert very grave psychological or physical harm to the mother with the realization that this must truly be grave harm that will perdure over some time and not just a temporary depression.”

5. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., in Doing Evil to Achieve Good (cited hereinafter as “Doing Evil”), ed. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., and Paul Ramsey (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1978), 234–35, says that his approach does not involve considering all the relevant values and comparing them quantitatively. Rather, when the object of an act includes harm to a basic human good, one needs a proportionate reason for doing the act. One should do it only if it gives the “best service” possible in the circumstances to that good. Nevertheless, McCormick continues (232–33) to use expressions such as “overrides” and “lesser evil,” which imply quantitative comparisons if they mean anything at all. Also consider the language McCormick uses (Notes, 710) to explain how some acts are always wrong: They are so “because when taken as a whole, the nonmoral evil outweighs the nonmoral good, and therefore the act is disproportionate” (emphasis McCormick’s). Moreover, once one allows the willingness to damage some human good to be overridden by some other relevant good, one stops reflection arbitrarily if one could and does not carry out similar comparisons with respect to other relevant benefits and harms.

6. See McCormick, Notes, 530–35 and 717; “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1981,” Theological Studies, 43 (1982), 83–86.

7. For an introduction to some of the more important philosophical variations and an interesting critical discussion of consequentialism: Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 189–209.

8. McCormick, Notes, 710, says that if a kind of act is specified sufficiently—“For instance: abortion of a fetus in order to avoid a medical (delivery) bill. That is always wrong”—one can be sure it never will be right, “because when taken as a whole, the nonmoral evil outweighs the nonmoral good, and therefore the action is disproportionate” and will be so in “any conceivable circumstances.” But he provides no criterion by which one can be sure that in some case there will not be a “proportionate reason” (assuming for the sake of argument that this expression makes sense). What if the person saving the money were a very poor widow living in a slum in a backward country, who faced these alternatives: (1) accept a free abortion from U.S. AID; (2) carry the baby to term and die for lack of medical care (if, for instance, she were unable to deliver without surgery); or (3) spend all she has, which she needs for her children’s very survival, on the surgery?

9. Some proportionalist theologians claim that proportionalism simply is natural law, but they provide no justification for this assertion. See O’Connell, op. cit., 144–54. Virtually nothing O’Connell says (125–43) about the history supports this identification. See also Gerard J. Hughes, S.J., Authority in Morals: An Essay in Christian Ethics (London: Heythrop Monographs, 1978), 26–63, whose version of proportionalism is notably different from O’Connell’s, but who also wishes to identify proportionalism with natural law.