Moral Absolutes vs. Utilitarianism/Consequentialism/Proportionalism    

The expression “moral absolutes” refers to moral norms that exclude without exception (or, in other words, characterize as always wrong) specific kinds of action whose definitions do not include a negative moral evaluation—for example, “Adultery is always wrong,” where “Adultery” refers to any instance of sexual intercourse in which at least one of the two parties is married to someone else. One does not affirm a moral absolute if one says that adultery is always wrong but that in some extraordinary situation a couple, one of whom is married to a third party, rightly engage in sexual intercourse, and that their intercourse should not then be regarded as adultery.

Grisez’s central explanation and defense of moral absolutes in general is in The Way of the Lord Jesus, volume one, Christian Moral Principles, chapter six. And in volume two, Living a Christian Life, he explains and defends, among other things, each of the moral absolutes constantly and firmly taught by the Catholic Church.

In their book, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Grisez explained why consequentialist arguments rationalizing the deterrent were unsound and defended the norm that intentionally killing noncombatants is always wrong. Two of Grisez’s colleagues also published lectures they gave on moral absolutes: John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision and Truth (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University, 1991); and William E. May, Moral Absolutes: Catholic Tradition, Current Trends, and the Truth, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology, 1989 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1989).

Consequentialism/proportionalism is examined and found wanting by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical, Veritatis splendor, 75–83. That encyclical was issued on 6 August 1993, after all the items mentioned in the preceding paragraph and all those listed below were published.


“Methods of Ethical Inquiry”    

In 1966, Grisez began research for his book on abortion, and at once noticed that almost everyone arguing for its legalization presupposed a questionable ethical methodology. For presentation at the 1967 meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, he therefore prepared this brief paper, which was his earliest systematic attempt to describe the various methods of moral judgment and to criticize the most plausible unsound method, which he called “utilitarianism.”

The presentation was published in the Association’s Proceedings: copyright © The American Catholic Philosophical Association 1967, all rights reserved.

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“Christian Morality: Old Morality or New Morality?”    

Regarding Josef Fuchs, S.J., as the most able of the dissenting moral theologians, Grisez carefully read Fuchs’ essay, “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” when it appeared in 1971 in Gregorianum, and, as he read, made many pages of notes. Two years later, in 1973, Grisez had time to rework his notes into a lengthy critique of Fuchs’ views, treated as the most plausible articulation of the moral theory used by most dissenting moralists.

After sending the critique to a few friends for their comments, however, Grisez realized that his theological reflections needed further and more careful development. So, he put the draft aside and during the next several years concentrated on philosophical projects. It was more than a decade later, after having published Christian Moral Principles, that he worked out and published a critique of Fuchs.

While Grisez did not in 1973 regard this manuscript as suitable for publication, he here makes it available copyright © 1973, as a sample of his early theological development, and reserves the right to make and distribute copies for sale. But he hereby grants everyone the right to print out and distribute without charge copies of the work provided the source is identified and both the preceding account of nature of this work and this copyright information are included.

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Unpublished Manuscript of “Against Consequentialism”    

In his book on abortion, Grisez criticized the method of making moral judgments that he then called “consequentialism,” and later called “proportionalism.” After Richard A. McCormick, S.J., gave a lecture, “Ambiguity in Moral Choice,” at Marquette University in 1973, Grisez obtained the text and wrote McCormick criticizing some of his views. Paul Ramsey, a Methodist professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton University, also disagreed with McCormick’s emerging view. Ramsey and McCormick decided in 1974 to publish a book dealing in depth with the issues McCormick had raised by enlisting Grisez and others to write substantial essays, pro and con, and combining those essays with a reprint of McCormick’s lecture, a critical essay by Ramsey, and McCormick’s reply to all the essays.

Grisez welcomed the invitation, agreed with the editors on a plan for his essay, and sent it to them on 9 June 1975. Although it was quite long and severely critical of “Ambiguity in Moral Choice,” Ramsey and McCormick accepted it for publication. When they finally assembled everything for their planned volume, however, they were unable to find a publisher for it. Eventually, they published only their own pieces and a few short ones in Doing Evil to Achieve Good: Moral Choice in Conflict Situations (Chicago, Ill.: Loyola University, 1978).

The manuscript Grisez had prepared was never published in the form in which Ramsey and McCormick had accepted it. Grisez now makes it available, copyright © 1975, and reserves the right to make and distribute copies for sale. But he hereby grants everyone the right to print out and distribute without charge copies of the work provided the source is identified and this copyright information included.

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“Choice and Consequentialism”    

While awaiting publication of the preceding item in the Ramsey-McCormick volume, Grisez restated its central argument in a brief and easily readable philosophical paper.

He presented the paper at the fifty-first annual meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, on 16 April 1977 in Detroit, Michigan. It was published in the Association’s Proceedings: copyright © The American Catholic Philosophical Association 1978, all rights reserved.

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“Against Consequentialism”    

Grisez carefully revised the manuscript he had prepared for Ramsey and McCormick’s volume. In doing so, he deleted much of his dialectic with McCormick, but also amended some formulations of his arguments. If a reader notes inconsistencies between the previous two items and this article, the statements in this article should, of course, be regarded as expressing Grisez’s more considered views.

The article was published in The American Journal of Jurisprudence. It is copyright © The University of Notre Dame 1978, all rights reserved.

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“Christian Moral Theology and Consequentialism”    

In 1978, Grisez suggested to William Cardinal Baum, Archbishop of Washington, that he challenge theological dissent, which had continued for a decade, by sponsoring a workshop on the principles of Catholic moral life and arranging for it to be held early the following summer at the Catholic University of America. Cardinal Baum accepted the suggestion and asked the Rev. Ronald Lawler, O.F.M.Cap., and William E. May to organize it. The workshop was held 17–22 June 1979, and was well attended; among others, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, was present as Cardinal Baum's guest at some sessions, including the one at which Grisez read his paper.

On this occasion, Grisez summarized the argument against consequentialism, but he pointed out the wider and less obvious implications of adopting consequentialism as a method for supporting dissent from Christian moral teachings. Indeed, this paper can be read as an advance summary of the volume, Christian Moral Principles, which, by this time, Grisez had fully outlined and was about to begin drafting.

The paper is copyright © Franciscan Herald Press 1981, all rights reserved.

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“Moral Absolutes: A Critique of the View of Josef Fuchs, S.J.”    

In 1984, about a year after Grisez published Christian Moral Principles, Msgr. Carlo Caffarra, President of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, invited him to contribute a substantial article on a topic of his choice to the Institute’s new journal. Though thirteen years had passed since Fuchs’ essay, “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” was first published, it had remained relevant. Curran and McCormick included it in an anthology they published in 1979, Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition, and Fuchs himself republished it in a 1983 volume along with other essays. So, when invited to write something substantial for the new journal, Grisez proposed to do a critique of the view of Josef Fuchs, and Caffarra accepted that proposal.

Initially, Grisez thought he would simply revise his 1973 manuscript. After reading it and reflecting, he worked out a fresh outline and made little use of his earlier manuscript. The article is copyright © Istituto Giovanni Paolo II 1985, all rights reserved.

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Soon after the article appeared, Grisez received a letter from Fuchs stating that he believed that Grisez had been put up to writing the critique and complaining that he had misrepresented Fuchs’ views. Grisez responded firmly but gently. Fuchs again wrote, not only reaffirming his claim to have been misinterpreted but insisting that Grisez had not been asked simply to write something for the new journal—in other words, insisting that Grisez was not telling the truth. So, further communication with Fuchs seemed to Grisez pointless. Here he makes available this correspondence, so that those interested may judge whether Fuchs’ claim that Grisez misinterpreted him was justified.

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“ ‘Curran, Dissent, and Rome’—A Contribution to a Symposium”    

In 1986, Charles E. Curran had been for two decades both teaching moral theology at the Catholic University of America and dissenting from received Catholic moral teachings—to his credit, dissenting straightforwardly and honestly, not with the feigned faithfulness and diaphonous duplicity that some others employed and that may well have sufficed to save him. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was, at last, preparing to compel Curran to give up either his dissent or his status as a Catholic theologian. The dominant media welcomed comments by his supporters; the magazine, Catholicism in Crisis, invited more than a dozen non-dissenting Catholic intellectuals to make brief contributions to a symposium.

Having published Christian Moral Principles a few years before, Grisez understood the dissenting views of Curran and others, and had worked out a detailed theological response to them. He therefore contributed a clear and tightly written two-page summary of his alternative to the theology of dissent.

That contribution to the symposium is copyright © 1986 Catholicism in Crisis; rights reserved for Grisez, who reserves the right to make and distribute copies for sale. But he hereby grants everyone the right to print out and distribute without charge copies of his contribution provided the source is identified and this copyright information included.

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“Incoherence and Consequentialism (or Proportionalism)—    
A Rejoinder”

Most of the attempts to refute the central argument Grisez and his colleagues use against consequentialism either obviously misconstrue the argument or are clearly unsound, and so hardly seem worth answering. Robert McKim and Peter Simpson offered a more plausible, analytic response that Joseph Boyle, John Finnis, and Grisez thought called for a clarification of their argument and a careful rejoinder.

This article is copyright © by the American Catholic Philosophical Association; all rights reserved.

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“Are There Exceptionless Moral Norms?”    

For many years, the Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center held an annual workshop to which it invited the Catholic bishops of the United States and certain other nations and in which many of those invited participated. The 1990 workshop dealt with exceptionless moral norms, and Grisez was invited to present the case in defense of them. In this paper, he briefly summarized much of his previous work on the subject and provided a brief but well-balanced bibliography of scholarly arguments on both sides.

This presentation and the discussion that followed it are published here; they are copyright © The Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center 1990, all rights reserved.

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“History as Argument for Revision in Moral Theology:    
A Review Discussion”

John Mahoney, S.J., showed himself to be a clever polemicist in his 1987 book, The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition, in which he handled Catholic Tradition with manifest disdain. Fearing that many readers would be misled by Mahoney’s selective use of historical data in the construction of dialectical and rhetorical arguments in support of dissenting theological opinions, which Mahoney more often insinuated than clearly stated, Grisez wrote this critique. In doing so, he especially meant to warn against use of the book as a historical introduction to seminary or college courses in moral theology or Christian ethics.

Since Mahoney was never publicly forbidden to call himself a Catholic moral theologian, his sly evasiveness apparently saved him from what Curran’s straightforwardness brought upon him.

The article is copyright © 1991 Dominican Fathers Province of St. Joseph; all rights reserved.

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