TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question D: Why do these considerations, which render proportionalism plausible, fail to constitute sound arguments in its favor?

1. Proportionalism is not the only alternative to the theories criticized in chapter four, and it has difficulties of its own. As those theories are incompatible with one another yet all inadequate, so there is no reason why proportionalism, though incompatible with all of them, should not also be inadequate. It can meet many requirements for a sound theory yet be unsound, as a person can meet almost every criterion of good health yet be mortally ill.

2. If an expression like “lesser evil” could have a definite meaning in the contexts in which proportionalists want to use it, proportionalism would be self-evident. However, as we shall see in question F below, goods and bads cannot be comparatively measured as proportionalism requires, and proportionalism therefore is not self-evident. Moreover, in a conflict situation, choosing a truly greater evil need not be the alternative to choosing what a proportionalist calls a “lesser evil.” The alternative may instead be to appraise the possibilities differently than a proportionalist does. Suppose, for instance, a pregnant woman has been told she must have an abortion, lest she and her unborn child both die. She can reject the calculus and refuse the abortion; in doing so, she can hold against proportionalism that purposely destroying her baby would be an act of unfaithfulness to it, and as such a greater evil than accepting the risk of a natural disaster in which she and the baby will both die.

Of course, proportionalists will deny that there can be any unfaithfulness in a choice to kill a child in circumstances of this sort. But this denial is not self-evidently correct, and a parent who took the opposite view could hardly be summarily judged irrational or immoral. This can be clarified by considering other cases in which parents, unable to save their children in situations of disaster, choose to remain with them to the death rather than abandon them to improve their own chances for survival.

If McCormick were right in thinking that the only alternative to “Choose the lesser evil” is “Choose the greater evil,” then proportionalism would be self-evident and its alternative absurd, as he claims. Of course, if this really were the case, then one could hardly violate this “rule of Christian reason.” However, if goods could be weighed as the proportionalist thinks, then there would be no choice to make. (This point will be explained in question F.)

In any morally significant choice, there are at least some aspects of good and bad which cannot be measured by any available common standard. So one is not reduced, as he imagines, to a choice between a measurably lesser and greater evil. For example, if one has a choice between (l) caring for a very severely defective child as fully as one would for a normal child and (2) withholding all care so that the child will die quickly, on what scale does one weigh whatever goods and bads one recognizes in these alternatives?

3. Most moral norms do admit of exceptions. But this nonabsoluteness (this openness to exceptions) can be explained without adopting proportionalism, by pointing out the absolute norms in which others are grounded. For instance, the Golden Rule—treat others as you would have them treat you—both grounds the norm that one should keep promises and justifies exceptions. But the Golden Rule itself is absolute (not open to exceptions) and it does not operate by comparing benefits and harms.

The plausibility proportionalism derives from the nonabsolute character of many moral norms only shows that there must be some absolute norms, not that “Always choose the greater good” or “In conflict situations choose the lesser evil” is an absolute norm. There are better candidates for this role, and the Golden Rule is only one of them.

Many standards of social behavior admit of exception when the Golden Rule demands that one make an exception. For example, one who breaks a promise when the Golden Rule requires this judges that fairness is a greater good than dependability. This judgment is by no means proportionalist; it does not involve the proportionalist’s weighing and balancing of goods and bads prior to a moral norm in order to justify a judgment that some goods can be attacked for the sake of promoting others or preventing “greater evils.” Fairness is a greater good than the dependability of keeping promises because the latter has moral value from the former: One ought (usually) to be dependable because it is (usually) unfair not to be. The Golden Rule itself does not admit of exceptions. What could justify one who treated others in a way he or she would not want to be treated in a similar situation?

Similarly, just law can never authorize acts of certain kinds against persons (see GS 27). If a society sets about to improve the condition of some of its members by killing others, or by enslaving them, or in any other way by using them rather than treating them as members of the society with rights like everyone else, then the legal arrangements made to carry out such projects do not deserve the cooperation of upright citizens.

4. It is not true that the theological tradition endorses proportionalism. Although some classical moral theologians no doubt occasionally proposed arguments which look like proportionalism, this is very different from articulating and defending the method. St. Thomas’ defense of capital punishment clearly does not rest on a proportionalist rationale (see S.t., 1–2, q. 46, a. 6; q. 87, a. 1; 2–2, q. 64, a. 2). Rather, he thinks that the moral disorder usually involved in killing a person can be removed entirely in the case of capital punishment, so that the killing is rendered upright. Whether or not this position is correct, it is not the same as the proportionalist claim that the harm of a death might be outweighed by some benefit.

Even if it were shown that traditional Catholic theologians used arguments really proportionalist in form, this could be regarded much as we regard the widespread use of certain invalid forms of syllogism. It is one thing to use an argument of a faulty type. It is quite another thing to articulate and systematically employ a faulty form of reasoning. When a form of reasoning has been articulated and an instance of it is being criticized, it is a very weak defense to point out that in the past it has been used by able and upright people. The whole point of critical reflection is to prevent mistakes which are very likely without such reflection.

St. Thomas never sets out a proportionalist theory (see S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 4, ad 3; q. 20, a. 2; 3, q. 68, a. 11, ad 3). He does not say that capital punishment and killing in just wars are justified by a “proportionate reason.” His handling of these matters may not be sound, but it certainly is not proportionalist. One reason why it is not, is clear in the very article from which McCormick quotes. Thus McCormick:

In the Questiones quodlibetales, St. Thomas laid the foundation for this type of assessment. He wrote: “There are some actions which, absolutely considered, involve a definite deformity or disorder, but which are made right by reason of particular circumstances, as the killing of a man . . . involves a disorder in itself, but, if it be added that the man is an evildoer killed for the sake of justice . . . it is not sinful, rather it is virtuous.” Here something which is a “deformity” is “made right by reason of particular circumstances.” Contemporary moral theology would say amen to that and would add that the Thomistic phrase “by reason of particular circumstances” can be translated “by reason of the good of the person or persons.”22
But St. Thomas goes on to explain that supervening circumstances can totally empty out the disorder and make the act upright.23 On a proportionalist account, by contrast, the nonmoral evil is not eliminated; it remains, but is outweighed. The deformity or disorder Thomas speaks of is not nonmoral evil; rather it is the moral evil usually involved in killing a human person, but not in those cases which Thomas accepts (on nonproportionalist principles) as exceptions.

McCormick also neglects to inform his readers that, unlike proportionalist theologians, St. Thomas (in the very article McCormick uses) describes another class of human acts: “For there are some which have deformity inseparably annexed to them, such as fornication, adultery, and others of the sort, which in no way can be done morally.” (True, even in the case of such acts, Thomas considers that the behavior could be justified if it were done in the carrying out of a divine command, for then he thinks the behavior would not require a choice of fornication or adultery.24)

5. Logically, the proportionalist’s polemic against moral absolutes and appeal to flexibility are question-begging—that is, they actually take for granted what they claim to prove. They are persuasive mainly because they agree with prevalent secular humanism and appeal to everyone’s desire to do as he or she pleases. Although there are indeed difficulties with the account of moral absolutes given by scholastic natural-law theory, these need not attend every account of absolute moral norms.

6. In setting aside absolute prohibitions of such acts as adultery, proportionalism is at odds with Christian moral teaching. However, the revision of received teaching is precisely the aim of the theologians who use proportionalism, and so, to avoid begging the question against them, the case presented in this chapter is not based on the assumption that such revision is unacceptable. Chapters thirty-five and thirty-six criticize theological dissent from received Catholic moral teaching. The use of proportionalism, here shown indefensible on other grounds, will tell against the dissent it is invoked to support.

The theory that moral compromises are necessary because the world is broken by sin implicitly contradicts both God’s strategy in redeeming humankind and denies the success of this strategy. The theory of compromise derives from a conception of redemption, according to which grace does not inwardly transform Christians, so that they actually can fulfill the law of God, but only covers over their sinfulness.25 This position was explicitly and definitively condemned by the Council of Trent (see DS 1536–39/804, 1568/828).

Classical moral theologians did agree that if someone is determined to act immorally, he or she may rightly be advised to choose the lesser evil. For example, an upright person might advise someone determined to take revenge on an enemy to beat up rather than kill him or her. One can accept this position without making any concessions to proportionalism or the theory that compromises are necessary. “Lesser evil” is determined in this case by antecedent moral norms, not by proportionalist balancing of premoral goods and bads. And the advice to choose a lesser evil was considered legitimate not because sin was thought to be unavoidable but because people sometimes freely limit themselves to morally unacceptable alternatives for choice. One who counsels the “lesser evil” in a case of this sort hopes that the more serious sin will be avoided and so accepts the doing of the less serious one, but in no way approves or tries to justify it.

22. McCormick, “Moral Theology Since Vatican II,” 21. For my treatment of St. Thomas’ handling of these matters, see Germain G. Grisez, “Toward a Consistent Natural-Law Ethics of Killing,” American Journal of Jurisprudence, 15 (1970), 66–73. For an excellent and profound critique of proportionalism from a more strictly Thomistic viewpoint, see Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “La question des actes intrinsèquement mauvais et le ‘proportionnalisme,’ ” Revue Thomiste, 82 (1982), 181–212; in the course of this article, Pinckaers makes unmistakably clear how far St. Thomas is from the entire outlook of the proportionalists.

23. St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Quodlibetales, 9, 7, 2 (15). On the proportionalist account, by contrast, the nonmoral evil remains but is outweighed.

24. See Summa theologiae, 1–2, q. 100, a. 8; De malo, q. 15, a. 1, ad 8. There is some confusion in St. Thomas’ ethical theory on this question. This is not surprising, since he did pioneering work in the area of moral theory. The matters on which he is confused do not touch Catholic moral teaching itself, but only the theological account of it. Here, as Thomas himself says, authority is no argument.

25. Charles Curran, Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue, 209–19, distances himself from Protestant positions by saying (211) that they make the effect of sin too total and unnuanced, and imply that sin totally destroys or disfigures the order of creation. But not all Protestant theologians hold such extreme views. See, for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 110–19 and 240–41. Bonhoeffer writes dialectically; one must read his whole work to understand any of it accurately. His position as a whole is deeply Christian, although defective in respects determined by the errors of Lutheranism.