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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question C: Why is proportionalism plausible?

1. Like most basic questions, problems about the primary principles of morality can be settled neither by deduction from prior principles nor by induction from facts. Hence, there are no direct arguments in favor of proportionalism. Instead, its philosophical and theological proponents commonly propose indirect considerations.

2. Thus, proportionalists often criticize the theories evaluated in chapter four, state that proportionalism meets the criteria for a moral theory which emerge from such criticism, and conclude without further argument that their theory is the correct solution.

Proportionalism has some plausibility. It does relate morality to some aspects of human fulfillment—namely, to the goods of persons which are affected by human actions. Proportionalists are certainly right in thinking that the fulfillment of persons has to settle what is morally good. After all, moral goodness is one dimension of human goodness—in other words, moral fulfillment is part of total human fulfillment.16 Thus, compared with any of the theories discussed in chapter four, it sounds plausible to say that what is right is what really minimizes harm and maximizes benefit to persons.

3. Many think the basic idea of proportionalism is undeniable and irrefutable; it seems to be a self-evident truth. Bentham and Mill take this position, correctly pointing out that what is most basic cannot be demonstrated. Richard McCormick similarly holds that in conflict situations, the alternative to the judgment that the lesser evil should be chosen is the absurdity that the greater evil should be chosen. (In the discussion which follows, McCormick will be taken as representative of contemporary Catholic proportionalists because of his commendable willingness to clarify and argue for his views, a willingness not universally present among other proportionalists.)

In arguing for proportionalism (in application to certain moral problems) McCormick says: “. . . the rule of Christian reason, if we are governed by the ordo bonorum [the basic human goods], is to choose the lesser evil. This general statement is, it would seem, beyond debate; for the only alternative is that in conflict situations we should choose the greater evil, which is patently absurd.”17 Although McCormick limits proportionalism to conflict situations, his position shares the general characteristics of this approach. He is not saying that one might morally choose to do what one thinks is morally evil. But he is saying that in conflict situations one may will human nonmoral evil in choosing to destroy, damage, or impede some basic human good, such as life, provided one has a proportionate reason. Like other proportionalists, McCormick understands “proportionate reason” in terms of a comparison of benefits and harms, which he assumes one can make, to identify the lesser evil. (An appendix deals with the restricted theory of proportionate reason McCormick adopted in 1978.)

4. Moreover, proportionalists think their view uniquely accounts for the fact that many moral norms admit of exceptions. Here is a classic case: “One ought to return to the owner on demand anything left in one’s safekeeping subject to this condition.” But suppose the owner of a gun arrives in the middle of the night, drunk and bent on revenge against somebody—should one return his gun to him? Obviously not.18 When they break promises and do other things which they consider justifiable exceptions to accepted norms, people often explain themselves in a way which sounds like proportionalism. “I broke my promise to my friend and wouldn’t let him have his gun because, regardless of any harm to our friendship, it would have been much worse to let him go out and kill somebody.”

5. Catholic proportionalists claim also to find instances of the use of proportionalism in the theological tradition.19 McCormick argues, for example, that contraception can be justified by “concurring” personal values; he says this is an instance of a sort of reasoning adopted by many contemporary theologians. Then he adds a quotation in which St. Thomas says that, although killing a person as such involves a disorder, it can be made right by a particular circumstance—for example, the circumstance that it is capital punishment for the sake of justice. “By reason of particular circumstances” McCormick takes to mean “by reason of the good of the person or persons”; on this basis, he claims that Thomas supports proportionalism.20

6. Many people find proportionalism’s flexibility attractive. They dislike absolute norms—for example, “Adultery is always wrong”—and say these require one to disregard the benefit and harm to persons in actual situations. Some proportionalists argue further that, while moral absolutes could be maintained in an ideal universe, compromises are in order in this real universe broken by sin.21

Part of proportionalists’ impatience with moral absolutes is rooted in their reaction to an inadequate conception of moral obligation. If God is not being simply arbitrary in stamping “forbidden” on acts, there must be some plausible reason for his doing so—such as that they cause more harm than good. Similarly, when proportionalists insist, as they often do, on the dynamism of human nature—its historical character and openness to real change—they are rejecting the static human nature envisaged by scholastic natural-law theory. Imagining that the best reasons which can be offered in support of received Catholic moral teaching are the question-begging arguments of scholastic natural-law theory, many Catholics brought up on such arguments are tempted to dismiss the moral norms the Church teaches along with the bad arguments for them.

16. Aware of the strength of their position insofar as it takes account of this important truth—as, for instance, scholastic natural-law theory fails to do—many proportionalists call their approach “teleological” (an ethics of fulfillment) and label all alternatives to proportionalism “deontological” (ethics of arbitrary commandments and of duty). The division is inadequate; the theory laid out in chapters seven through ten falls into neither category.

17. McCormick, Doing Evil, 38. There is a legitimate sense, recognized by classical moral theology, in which it is right to “choose the lesser evil.” If someone erroneously supposes that he or she has no morally right option (including delaying choosing), his or her conscience is perplexed. In reality, there must be a morally right possibility, but if a person sincerely trying to see what is right and do it cannot discern any way to avoid choosing what seems morally evil, then what seems to be the lesser moral evil should be chosen. See Bernard Häring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, trans. Edwin G. Kaiser, C.Pp.S. (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1961), 1:156. “Choose the lesser evil” in this sense plainly is another matter altogether from McCormick’s “rule of Christian reason,” which purports to guide one in forming a correct conscience by comparing nonmoral evils, not counsel an erroneous conscience to minimize moral evil when it is mistakenly regarded as inevitable.

18. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 94, aa. 4–5; 2–2, q. 51, a. 4; q. 120; De malo, q. 2, a. 4, ad 13; In decem libros Ethicorum, v, 16.

19. See McCormick, Notes, 701, for the claim that the proportionalists are merely extending a method traditionally accepted in Catholic moral theology.

20. See Richard A. McCormick, S.J., “Moral Theology Since Vatican II: Clarity or Chaos,” Cross Currents, 29 (Spring 1979), 21.

21. See Charles E. Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1972), 209–19, where compromise is applied to homosexual relations and Curran distances himself from more radical, Protestant theories; New Perspectives in Moral Theology, 191–92, where compromise is applied to some instances of abortion; Ongoing Revision in Moral Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides/Claretian, 1975), 104–5, where compromise is presented as a resolution only for those conflicts arising from prepersonal sinfulness; Themes in Fundamental Moral Theology (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 19–20, 31–32 and 140–41; Transition and Tradition in Moral Theology (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 71–78.