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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question F: Why is proportionalism unacceptable as a theory of moral judgment?

1. One who accepts both unrestricted proportionalism and the Christian doctrine of divine providence (God permits what is bad only to draw good from it) should also accept the following as a moral principle: If in doubt about what is right, try anything. For if one accomplishes what one attempts, one can be certain that on the whole it is for the best, since it must fit into the plan of providence (see S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 6; S.c.g., 3, 71). This suggests unrestricted proportionalism’s theological inadequacy: It confuses human responsibility with God’s responsibility. We, however, are not responsible for the overall greater good and lesser evil—the good and evil of “generally and in the long run”—for only God knows what they are.

2. There are many philosophical arguments against unrestricted proportionalism. For instance, in appraising the good and bad consequences of proposed choices, whose interests are to be considered? To what extent must one try to think of other possible courses of action? How far must one go in investigating consequences? Although these questions have been asked for a century and more, no cogent answers have been given up to now.27

3. Partly because of unrestricted proportionalism’s vulnerability to the preceding criticisms, many proportionalists have limited the application of the method in various ways. McCormick, for example, has limited it to justifying the evil done to achieve good in respect to a single category of value, where both the good and the evil are brought about in a conflict situation through one and the same act.28 But even in so restricted a form, proportionalism is rationally unworkable. Its proponents are unable to tell how benefits and harms can be measured so that proportions can be settled. Yet benefits and harms in alternatives must be commensurable if there is to be any reasonable judgment as to what is the lesser evil. Although proportionalists are aware of this problem, none has solved it or even offered the plausible beginning of a solution.29

Nor is it helpful to say that, while precise measurements of benefits and harms are impossible, rough but adequate estimates can be made. In order to estimate—or even guess at—more and less, one needs a method by which in principle measuring might be done, since an estimate is a guess based on experience with measurements. Hence, one cannot estimate proportions unless one can measure, or at least describe how measurements might be made, and this proportionalists are unable to do.

4. This problem is in principle insoluble, because proportionalism requires that two conditions be met, and the two conditions are incompatible. The two conditions are: first, that a moral judgment is to be made, which means both that a choice must be made and a morally wrong option could be chosen; second, that the option which promises the definitely superior proportion of good to bad be knowable. The following consideration makes it clear that these two conditions cannot be met at the same time.

5. If the first condition is met and the morally wrong option could be chosen, then its morally acceptable alternative must be known. Otherwise, one could not choose wrongly, for one chooses wrongly only when one knows which option one ought to choose and chooses a different option.

6. But when the first condition is met, the second cannot be. The option which promises the definitely superior proportion of good to bad cannot be known by a person who chooses an alternative which promises less. If the superior option were known as superior, its inferior alternative simply could not be chosen. Any reason for choosing it would be a better reason for choosing the superior option. Whenever one really knows that one possibility is definitely superior in terms of the proportion of good to bad it promises, any alternative simply falls away, as explained in question E above, and there is no choice to make.

7. Thus, although proportionalism is proposed for cases in which one must choose between morally significant alternatives, all that proportionalists really say is that it would be wrong to choose precisely that which practical judgment (as they understand it) would exclude as a possibility for free choice, namely, an alternative measurably inferior in terms of the relevant good and bad. The truth of the matter is that when such an alternative is recognized in deliberation, no choice about it is possible; it drops out of consideration. Hence, whenever proportionalist judgments are possible, they exclude choices contrary to them by preventing them, not by forbidding them. But a judgment which prevents one from choosing otherwise is not a moral judgment. Therefore, proportionalism is inherently unable to serve as a method of moral judgment.

One condition—that the alternatives really be morally significant—entails that the one choosing be able to choose the morally evil possibility. There is no moral significance in a choice between right and wrong proposals unless one is in danger of making the wrong choice. By itself, this first condition poses no problem. However, the other condition—that the one about to choose has reached a definite conclusion as to which alternative is preferable in proportionalist terms—requires a knowledge which would preclude the choice the proportionalist claims is wrong.

Why is this so? Because nothing is chosen except insofar as it seems good. If one alternative is seen to promise definitely greater good or lesser evil, then no other can be chosen. This sort of case was described in question E above (also see 2‑D). Alternatives under consideration which one sees to promise less, simply drop out of consideration. What reason could there be to choose the less good or the more bad? None.

A proportionalist might object that “reason” is ambiguous. In one sense it means a rational ground for choice; in another sense it means an intelligently grasped but nonrational moving cause—for example, the fear of pain which tempts weak-willed people to choose contrary to their better judgment. The objector might argue that there cannot be a reason in the first sense for choosing anything other than the possibility which promises the definitely greater good or lesser bad, but there can be a reason—a contrary motive—in the second sense. In this way, a proportionalist could claim, immoral choices are made inconsistently with a true moral judgment reached by the proportionalist method.

This objection fails for two reasons. First, it assumes a thesis which is debatable, namely, that one can deliberately choose to follow a nonrational motive without finding some rational ground for adopting it. Second, even granting this thesis for the sake of argument, this sort of choice would be irrelevant to the proportionalist method. This method claims to solve moral problems which arise due to conflicting rational grounds for choices—alternatives which promise diverse proportions of benefit and harm. One does not need proportionalism to support reasons in general against nonrational motives which, by hypothesis, are interesting not for the sake of their promise of benefit and/or mitigation of harm, but somehow without such rational ground. Rather, according to proportionalists, one needs proportionalism to decide for possibilities supported by weightier reasons against those supported by less weighty reasons.

8. In requiring that two incompatible conditions be met, proportionalism is not false but absurd, literally incoherent. It is like telling someone to prove a point, but only the most obvious point (logically, one can only prove a conclusion from premises more obvious than itself). Similarly, one can only be morally required to choose one possibility, when another possibility can remain tempting because it promises to yield some benefit or avoid some harm not commensurable with the human goods, including the moral goodness, promised by the morally right choice.

Genuine moral judgments govern free choices. Whenever a free choice must be made, the options between which it is made are incommensurable with each other in respect to relevant intelligible goods. No morally significant option promises a definitely superior proportion of good to bad in any sense interesting to the morally concerned person unless the superiority is measured by a norm which contains a moral “ought.” As has been explained, such a norm cannot be derived from a set of premises all of which consider premoral goods and bads and the proportion in which they will be realized by adopting various proposals. When one can proceed from such premises to a practical conclusion, no choice is made and so no moral choice is possible.

People who really think, because of previous choices they have made, that it is better to kill a baby than to risk both its own and its mother’s life do not hesitate. If the problem arises, no choice need be made. They say: “It is sad to have to kill babies, but at times it is necessary.” Someone who wonders whether it is right to do an abortion to save the mother’s life and who must choose whether to do (or to have or “give permission for”) an abortion does not see clearly what is the greater good or the lesser evil. On the one hand, such a person sees the-death-of-the-baby-and-my-killing-it. On the other hand: the-likely-death-of-both-mother-and-baby-and-my-allowing-it. Which of these is right is the question moral reflection must help to settle.

9. Proportionalism, though incoherent, is plausible because what it advocates is easily confused with the sound, nonmoral reasoning described in E above. More important, it is plausible because it provides a form for arguments on behalf of morally wrong choices. One who follows emotion against conscience is tempted to say afterward: “I had to make that choice—it was obviously the lesser evil.”

One must be careful not to claim that a proportionalist necessarily will approve some violation of a received norm in a difficult case. One never knows what proportionalists will hold to be right and wrong. That is so because, although proportionalism is presented as a rational method for making moral judgments, it really is no such thing. Rather, it is no more than a framework in which each proportionalist expresses his or her own personal judgments, reflecting the preferences settled by the proportionalist’s own emotions and prior choices.

Suppose a priest, in hearing confessions, is moved by the very natural, human pity he feels for his penitents to try to make life easier for them by giving them permission (a strange idea, but one intelligible in a legalistic context) to do something forbidden by the moral truth which the Church teaches. In doing this, the priest is making a choice—usually with much struggle and soul-searching at first—which determines his own self with respect to the human goods involved in the matter at issue. When confirmed, unrepented, and integrated into his character, this choice will lead the priest to regard the relevant good or goods differently than does one who is faithful to the moral truth. This different regard will affect his personal judgments on matters where the same goods are at issue, not only on the particular question he directly chose about.

27. Secular philosophers generally realize the failure of every sort of proportionalism; much effort has been expended and no progress made in making some such approach practicable. See Dan W. Brock, “Recent Work in Utilitarianism,” American Philosophical Quarterly, 10 (1973), 241–69. Donagan, op. cit., 172–209, sets out several objections to proportionalism, especially showing (199–209) how ignorance blocks the required calculation. See Grisez, “Against Consequentialism,” 30 and 35–36, for admissions by proponents of the method that the calculation it requires is impossible; these admissions make it clear that proportionalist “judgments” are determined by feeling or by choice.

28. See McCormick, Doing Evil, 201–3, 233–35, and 261–65, where under criticism he considerably restricted the proportionalism articulated in “Ambiguity in Moral Choice,” especially in treating noncombatant immunity (42–44), and proportionate reason (45–46): “To see whether an action involving evil is proportionate in the circumstances we must judge whether this choice is the best possible service of all the values in the tragic and difficult conflict” (46). Richard M. Gula, S.S., What Are They Saying about Moral Norms? (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), favors a restricted consequentialism, which he limits in two ways: (1) that the chosen means do more good than harm (thus excluding an option which is a lesser but preponderant evil), and (2) the universalizability principle (80). Gula honestly states (97–98) the argument against proportionalism based on the noncommensurability of goods and bads, and offers no answer to it. Gula oversimplifies my own position, mistakenly suggesting (84) that the principle by which I would reject masturbation and several other kinds of acts is the same as that by which I reject contraception and abortion, and falsely claiming (85) that this same principle absolutizes affirmative norms. Underlying these errors is a fundamentally legalistic orientation; Gula’s ultimate position is that revisionist theology should be regarded as probable and admitted in practice on the basis of probabilism (101–4).

29. See “Against Consequentialism,” 29–41, for the failure of philosophical efforts; also Robert Spaemann, “Wer hat wofür Verantwortung? Zum Streit um deontologische oder teleologische Ethik,” Herder-Korrespondenz, 36 (1982), 345–50, 403–8; “Nochmals: deontologische oder teleologische Moralbegründung?” Herder-Korrespondenz, 37 (1983), 79–84. McCormick’s attempts, criticized throughout the present chapter, are as serious as those of any theologian. Most do not even mention the argument based on noncommensurability of goods against their position. Franz Böckle, Fundamental Moral Theology (New York: Pueblo, 1980), 239, mentions only aspects of opposing positions that would be question-begging if offered as arguments: (1) the obvious point that proportionalism undercuts absolute norms; (2) my articulation of the mode of responsibility excluding choices to destroy, damage, or impede basic human goods. I reject proportionalism in defense of this moral principle, but not by invoking it, and it is hard to understand how Böckle could have overlooked this fact. In any case, he never explicitly mentions the problem of the noncommensurability of goods; he only implicitly suggests a solution to it (207–22), namely, that experience and social communication should lead to a consensus to be articulated into binding norms by social scientists. This solution is implausible, for it either amounts to accepting conventional morality as moral truth (the cultural relativism criticized in 4‑E) or projects an ideal of community falsified by the reality of human moral disagreement. In practice, to require universal consensus for the recognition of moral truth is to espouse nihilism, since there is no such consensus.