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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment


Some Catholic moral theologians have adopted a theory called “consequentialism” or “proportionalism.” This is the view that a moral judgment is based on a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms promised by the possibilities for choice; one ought to choose the possibility which offers the best proportion of good to bad. There are many varieties of proportionalism, but this comparative evaluation of benefits and harms is central to all.

Because they are interested in measurable benefits and harms, proportionalists focus on the instantiation of human goods—their concrete realization in states of affairs—which comes about in making choices and carrying them out. This, however, is not an adequate account of the realization of human goods. It overlooks the fact that because choice is self-determining, goods rightly chosen fulfill persons existentially simply in being chosen. Furthermore, to avoid approving the choice of moral evil, proportionalism requires that the basic human goods which can be sacrificed for a “proportionate reason” not include moral specification. Thus it regards them as “premoral,” “nonmoral,” “ontic,” or “physical.”

The plausibility of proportionalism arises in part from the inadequacy of the moral theories criticized in chapter four; its proponents claim that it meets the criteria of an adequate moral theory. A basic proportionalist recommendation, “Choose the lesser evil,” seems self-evident; it would be absurd to say, “Choose the greater evil.” Proportionalism also seems necessary to account for the fact that many moral norms admit of exceptions. Finally, some Catholic proportionalists claim to find instances of the use of proportionalism in the theological tradition.

However, proportionalism is not the only alternative to the theories criticized in chapter four; another is set forth here in chapters seven through twelve. Proportionalism also involves difficulties of its own. “Choose the lesser evil” would be a workable principle only if goods and evils could be comparatively measured as proportionalism requires; but this cannot be done. As for the fact that most moral norms admit of exceptions, this does not show that proportionalism is at work; rather, it simply shows that at times one appeals from norms which admit of exceptions to absolute, exceptionless principles (such as the Golden Rule) in which nonabsolute norms are grounded. Finally, although some classical moral theologians occasionally proposed arguments which look like proportionalism, they did not articulate and defend the method.

Proportionalism seems to be verified by the experience one sometimes has in deliberating of finding one possibility definitely better overall than the others; the others simply drop out of consideration. In fact, however, this experience does not support the proportionalist account of moral judgment. For when all options but one drop out of consideration, there is no need to make a free choice, and none is made. This happens in two sorts of cases: technical reasoning about instrumental goods and moral judgments which follow from one’s prior and now unquestioned moral judgments and choices.

This suggests why proportionalism is unacceptable as a theory of moral judgment. Its proponents cannot say how to measure benefits and harms in the options so that their proportion can be settled. Moreover, it involves two incompatible conditions: first, that a morally wrong choice be possible; second, that the alternative which is superior in terms of the proportion of good to bad be known. But this cannot be, for if the alternative which is superior in these terms is known, other possibilities fall away, and there can be no morally wrong choice. In other words, proportionalism simply says it would be wrong to choose what its account of moral judgment would render it impossible to choose. Since proportionalism is inherently unworkable, it is not false but incoherent.

Morality is primarily concerned with the fulfillment of persons in their existential dimension—a fulfillment which resides mainly in individual and communal choices, not in the definite states of affairs which result from carrying them out. But proportionalism thinks of choice merely as a means to an end beyond itself. Proportionalists mistakenly view as legalistic impositions norms which admit of no exceptions (such as “Adultery is always wrong”) rather than recognizing them as essential conditions for the commitments necessary for creative human living.

Their attempts to respond to criticism have led some proportionalists to say that, ultimately, a moral judgment is based on a prior choice or on an instinctive, intuitive perception of right and wrong. Hence, an irony: Proportionalism begins by claiming to be a more reasonable method of moral judgment than supposedly unreasonable traditional norms; but it ends by admitting itself unable to provide rational grounds for the exceptions it proposes to traditional norms.