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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question E: Do practical experience and language provide evidence for proportionalism?

1. One often has the experience in deliberating of finding one possibility definitely better overall than the others. The latter then simply drop out of consideration. When only one possibility remains, deliberation ends and one does what is clearly best.

2. This experience seems to verify the proportionalist account of moral judgment. But in fact it does not. If the conclusion that one possibility is best determines action, there is no need for free choice and there is none. If there is no choice, there is no judgment of conscience either; it, too, is unneeded. In such cases, one cannot do otherwise than one does. What is perceived as definitely less good or more bad simply cannot be chosen, because one can only choose what appeals to intelligent interest, and that which is seen as being definitely less good or more bad than something else has no appeal. It is as if, all other contestants having been disqualified in advance, someone were to win a race without running.

3. This choice-less reduction of possibilities to one happens in two sorts of cases: first, in technical reasoning about instrumental goods; second, in moral judgments which follow necessarily from one’s prior and now unquestioned choices.

4. In cases where one has a definite, firmly accepted goal in view, deliberation seeks to determine the easiest or least costly route to this objective. After considering the possibilities, one often finds only one remaining and proceeds to take it. Here “more good” and “less bad” have definite meanings, for one is not thinking morally but technically: Only instrumental good is at stake. The morality of what one is doing and of the various ways of doing it is either taken for granted or ignored for the time being. One reaches a conclusion about the best course from a comparative evaluation of premoral goods, but the conclusion is not a moral judgment. For example, if someone is only concerned to reach a destination as quickly as possible, “I ought to take I–95 North to New York” is not a judgment about moral rightness but about efficiency.

5. In other cases, one makes a moral judgment, eliminating possibilities by using previously recognized moral norms. For instance, a mother who believes she ought to divide her estate evenly among several children may consider and reject several possible ways, until she finally finds the way which seems least inequitable. She then makes the division in this way, saying it is less bad than the alternatives—that is, less uneven than the discarded possibilities. Here the moral good of fairness is at stake, and reflection concludes in a moral judgment. But the judgment is different from those proposed by proportionalists. The proportion here is determined by a moral principle (fairness); by contrast, the proportionalist thinks moral judgments are reached by a comparative evaluation of human goods, without assuming a moral principle to settle the proportions.

6. In sum, practical experience and language do seem to offer support for proportionalism, since people plainly deliberate, find proportions, and talk meaningfully about “greater good” and “lesser evil.” But these facts do not support the procedure advocated by the proportionalist, namely, the determination of moral right and wrong by the comparison of benefits and harms promised by alternative possibilities before choice, where the comparison of possibilities is not made in light of prior moral evaluations.26

Proportionalists point out that upright people often explain their conscientious judgments by saying they chose the lesser evil or made the best choice possible, all things considered. People who normally respect the property rights of others will make an exception if someone’s life is at stake, saying that life outweighs property rights—the one good is greater than the other.

The language people use, although it sounds proportionalist, does not show proportionalism correct. Sometimes people use proportionalist language because they are engaged in rationalizing choices they otherwise would have to admit immoral. More often, people talk about “lesser evils,” “proportionate goods” and the like, using these expressions to refer to higher moral principles of judgment.

For example, when an upright person breaks a promise, the consequences of keeping it and of breaking it are evaluated in the light of the Golden Rule; if one would not want others to keep a similar promise to oneself in similar circumstances, then one is released from keeping the promise. Again, when a person says that life outweighs property rights, an appeal is being made to the merely instrumental status of property, which morally ought to serve the intrinsic goods of persons, and to the moral fairness which establishes property rights and so can make exceptions to them.

26. For a fuller treatment of this question, see Germain Grisez, “Against Consequentialism,” American Journal of Jurisprudence, 23 (1978), 49–62.