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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question B: What account of human goods does proportionalism presuppose?

1. The utilitarians were both proportionalists and hedonists. Reasons of history and methodology underlie this connection. Like Marxists, they were mainly interested in alleviating social misery caused by the industrial revolution. By reducing human good to pleasure, they hoped also to find a way of calculating proportions—something which seems impossible if there are many goods of different kinds. Unlike the utilitarians, however, most proportionalists today hold nonhedonistic theories of the human good, and some theological proportionalists accept a list of basic human goods similar to that proposed above (5‑D).

In explaining how a moral code is developed, Richard A. McCormick, S.J., says he follows the school of J. de Finance, G. de Broglie, G. Grisez, John Finnis, and others, by using basic human inclinations to identify the goods to which action is directed: “With no pretense at being exhaustive, we could list some of the following as basic inclinations present prior to acculturation: the tendency to preserve life; the tendency to mate and raise children; the tendency to explore and question; the tendency to seek out other men and obtain their approval—friendship; the tendency to use intelligence in guiding action; the tendency to develop skills and exercise them in play and in the fine arts. In these inclinations our intelligence spontaneously and without reflection grasps the possibilities to which they point, and prescribes them.”10

The British utilitarians treated preferred states of human consciousness as the only self-validating value. On this theory, moral norms must yield whenever necessary to promote the enjoyment or lessen the misery of most people (see 5‑C). No Catholic theologian adopts the utilitarian, hedonistic conception of what is good. But some theologians tend to demote some of the goods of persons to a merely instrumental status. For example, some do not always regard bodily life as a personal good; they consider the misery a seriously defective child can suffer and cause others a significant personal disvalue, and so tend to regard such a life as if it were merely instrumental. Thus proportionalism can be used to justify infanticide as a lesser evil in some cases.11

2. Interested as they are in measurable benefits and harms, proportionalists focus on one aspect of the realization of human goods, namely, their instantiation—their being concretely present—in the definite and limited states of affairs which arise from making and carrying out choices. The human goods (and bads) whose proportions are to be compared exist for proportionalists only in the sum total of their concrete instances.12

3. However, this is not an adequate account of the realization of any of the human goods, although it is partly correct for substantive goods such as life and health. While the latter have a certain reality in the dedication of persons who strive to promote and protect them, their more proper realization is in living and healthy bodily persons. Nevertheless, when people choose, they really determine themselves in respect to goods and form community with one another (see 2‑E and 2‑H). Thus all of the basic human goods have a certain reality—they determine persons existentially—simply in being chosen.

Consider, for example, a dedicated nurse. She is committed to the care of those who cannot care for themselves. At least two basic human goods give meaning to her work: the bodily well-being of her patients and the personal bond (somewhat like the bond between mother and child) she has with each patient.

Bodily well-being, which pertains to the category of human life, is realized in two ways. It has a certain reality in the nurse’s commitment to it. In the heart of a person dedicated to serving this good of persons, health is more than a mere idea or possibility. The dedication itself gives that to which one is dedicated a more than ideal status. But the more proper realization of a substantive good, such as bodily well-being, is in its instantiations—that is, in its realizations/expressions in concrete states of affairs distinct from the mind and will—in healthy bodies.

The personal bond between the nurse and her patients, which is an existential good in the category of interpersonal harmony, primarily exists in their human acts, most centrally in the choices by which nurse and patient are mutually committed to the common cause of the patient’s bodily well-being. The existential good also is realized outwardly in its psychological and symbolic expressions, but these are secondary to the spiritual, interpersonal bond (see 5‑H).

Thus both categories of goods have part of their reality prior to their instantiations. This prior, existential reality of the goods is important, although secondary, for the substantive goods, but is primary for the existential goods, including religion and friendship. Here what matters most is not any measurable benefit or harm, but what is in the heart and comes forth from it.

4. Like any coherent moral theory, proportionalism regards the moral goodness of the person as an absolute; thus, there is no place for justifying the choice of what is admitted to involve moral evil. To avoid approving the choice of moral evil, proportionalism requires that the goods which can be sacrificed for proportionate reasons not include moral specifications. Instead, the good is defined independently of moral considerations, and what is right and wrong is determined by benefits and harms in respect to the good thus defined. This way of defining the goods other than moral goodness itself is expressed in the language proportionalists use; the basic goods are often called “premoral,” “nonmoral,” “ontic,” or “physical.”13

5. Thus, proportionalists have two reasons for omitting from consideration the aspect of the reality of human goods which resides in people’s choices and commitments: first, their assumption that goods exist only in concrete instances of their realization; second, their need to define the goods which can be sacrificed for proportionate reasons entirely independently of moral specifications. However, it is precisely in choices and commitments that existential human goods, such as marital friendship, have their primary and proper reality. The basis for the realization of marital love is a faithful commitment, which is a spiritual reality, not a definite, limited state of affairs. Particular acts done by couples in accord with their marital commitment simply express and flesh out the existential reality of the bond of marriage. The same is true for all the existential goods.

6. Because of this, proportionalists tend to limit proportionalism to cases in which existential goods are not at stake—for example, by excluding absolutely acts which are scandalous or irreligious.14 Proportionalists sometimes also redefine existential goods in such a way that their whole realization is in nonexistential expressions and embodiments. So, for example, instead of locating the central reality of marriage in a commitment, a proportionalist may reduce marriage to psychological experience and satisfactory performance, and declare the relationship dead if these are absent.15

7. In sum, proportionalism presupposes a sharp distinction between moral goodness and other goods which fulfill human persons. These other goods usually are called “premoral,” “nonmoral,” “ontic,” or “physical.” Because proportionalism focuses on measurable benefits and harms, it overlooks the reality even substantive goods take on in a person’s self-determining free acts bearing upon them. Moreover, if proportionalist justifications are proposed for choices to destroy, damage, or impede existential goods, these must be reduced to their nonexistential expressions and embodiments. Hence, although theological proportionalists might accept a list of goods similar to that proposed here (5‑D), they would not agree with the account of the structure of the human good proposed in the remainder of chapter five.

10. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., How Brave a New World: Dilemmas in Bioethics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 5. Comparison of this statement by McCormick with Germain G. Grisez, Contraception and the Natural Law (Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1964), 62, shows the extent to which there is agreement in identifying the goods. All in the “school” McCormick mentions are influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas.

11. See Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “To Save or Let Die: The Dilemma of Modern Medicine,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 229 (1974), 175; A. R. Jonsen, R. H. Phibbs, W. H. Tooley, and M. J. Garland, “Critical Issues in Newborn Intensive Care: A Conference Report and Policy Proposal,” Pediatrics, 55 (1975), 760–67; Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “A Proposal of ‘Quality of Life’ Criteria for Sustaining Life,” Hospital Progress, 56 (September 1975), 79. In the first of these articles, McCormick opened the door, by suggesting potentiality for human relationships as a criterion for saving the lives of severely defective newborns; Jonsen and his coauthors went further, quoting McCormick; and McCormick responded by quoting their conclusions and endorsing them as similar to his own proposal, which he was willing to formulate in terms of potentiality for “meaningful life.” Admitting the phrase to be packed with implications and claiming the individual still has a value, McCormick nevertheless concluded that life might not be worthwhile if the individual does not stand to gain from it.

12. An inadequate account of human goods along these lines is the object of criticism by those value theorists who hold values to be a priori, nonformal principles. See, for instance, Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A New Attempt toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 9–23; Dietrich von Hildebrand, Ethics (New York: David McKay, 1952), 95–105. Unfortunately, such theories of value go too far in the direction of making values entities independent of persons fulfilled by them. The truth is in a middle position, which recognizes both the transcendence of values to the concrete instances in which they are realized and their metaphysical status as aspects of the fulfillment of persons.

13. See McCormick, Notes, 529–43, esp. 534; 643–49; 693–97.

14. See McCormick, Doing Evil, 219–20 and 257–59, with respect to intending the sin of another. With respect to blasphemy, see Notes, 581, where McCormick treats blasphemy, theft, adultery, and murder as similar in presupposing that if they are always wrong, it is because they are defined to include the value judgments that the nonmoral evil is not justified by an adequate good end.

15. For an explicit use of proportionalism and its distinction between ontic and moral evil to justify divorce and remarriage, see Philip S. Keane, S.S., Sexual Morality: A Catholic Perspective (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 144–46 and 218–19, nn. 108–9.