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Is Proportionalism Reasonable? Problem Lies in Idea of Maximizing Good


WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 27, 2011 (Zenit.org (http://www.zenit.org [1] /)).- Here
is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the
fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation
(http://www.culture-of-life.org [2] /).

Q: Prior to “Humanae Vitae,” was the idea of “proportional morality” ever
discussed (e.g., in the work of the papal birth control commission)? By
proportional morality, I mean the ranking of moral issues such that one
issue trumps another. For example, if overpopulation threatens to destroy
everything, wouldn’t this trump the prohibition against birth control and
abortion? — Rob. Sedona, Arizona.

E. Christian Brugger offers the following response:


A: The question concerns a moral theory known as Proportionalism, widely
held by Catholic academic theologians in the U.S. and Europe. It is a form
of ethical reasoning known as Consequentialism.

A moral theory is Proportionalist (or Consequentialist) to the extent that
it appeals to a comparative evaluation of benefits and harms to determine
the morality of acts. An act’s morality is assessed by weighing the
relative benefits (“goods” or “values”) to be gained by a contemplated
course of action against the corresponding harms (“evils”) being
threatened. If good outweighs evil, the act is judged morally right despite
the fact that evil may have been done.

In Catholic thinking, the turn toward Proportionalist reasoning post-dates
the work of the Papal Birth Control Commission, but not by much. The
commission finished its work in the summer of 1966. European theologians
were flirting with Proportionalist reasoning at the time, but the idea had
not yet come to prominence.

As late as 1971, U.S. theologians were still wary of Consequentialist
morality. The late Rev. Richard A. McCormick S.J., father of U.S.
Proportionalism and celebrated theologian at Notre Dame, seems to have
assented to the Proportionalist premise around 1972. Before that time, he
expressed concern that if the moral theory was applied right down the line,
it would destroy the concept of intrinsece malum, that is, that some acts
are “intrinsically evil” ex objecto (i.e., by virtue of the kind of acts
they are, notwithstanding the benefits to be gained from performing them).
(See his “Notes on Moral Theology” in Theological Studies from 1971.)

McCormick was prescient. The method did dispense with intrinsically evil
acts and so with the Catholic tradition that defended their existence. He
believed that the so-called preference principle was central to moral
reasoning; it was self-evident, for it holds that one ought always to
prefer the alternative of choice that promises the greater good or the
lesser evil, and it would be absurd to choose an alternative promising
lesser good or greater evil. This method leads to the denial that there are
any actions, described in non-morally evaluative terms, that are
intrinsically evil and can never be rightly chosen. He admitted that some
norms are “practical absolutes” insofar as it is unlikely that violating
them would yield the “greater good” or “lesser evil” (e.g. rape). But the
principle still holds and there might be very unusual situations when doing
a deed of this kind might be the lesser evil.

Why isn’t McCormick’s “preference principle” sound? Why can’t a calculus of
“greater good” and “lesser evil” be an adequate way to proceed? The problem
lies in the idea that we can maximize good, that human good can be
quantified in any rationally meaningful way. This is both erroneous and
presupposes a superficial view of human good and the moral life.

The human goods at stake in moral choosing are simply not commensurable.
How can one measure the value of human life compared to friendship or
knowledge of the truth, or how can one measure the value of my life
compared to yours? Human good is not simply “out there” waiting to be
maximized. It resides in the heart of a person who has committed himself to
authentic human goods prior to their external manifestation, and it endures
even if one’s commitment to them fails to produce good results. For
example, the commitment of a mother to the well-being of her child has a
reality in her heart quite apart from the success of her endeavors to
promote her child’s welfare. Her commitment to the good of her daughter
does not merely hinge on the possibility of “well-being” which may be
realized if all goes according to plan. Or the commitment of a husband to
his irreversibly comatose wife. Leaving her for another might very well
promise greater benefit. What then justifies remaining faithful to her,
perhaps for many years? Certainly no quantitative measure of greater good
and lesser evil. Rather, the reverence he has for their marital covenant —
his love for his wife and for the reality of their enduring one-flesh
relationship; and for the goodness of her life right now, disabled,
unresponsive, supine, and yet really and objectively good.

A Proportionalist ethic is also superficial. Morality is not simply
concerned with “doing good,” in the sense of maximizing beneficial states
of affairs in the world, but about being good. And being good requires
committing oneself to reverencing human good as it exists in the integral
and full being of individuals and communities (instantiated in bodily life,
friendship, marriage, harmony with God, knowledge of truth, etc.).

Thus the basic requirement of morality is that all elements of human good
be respected in all our choices, even if acting contrary promises some
measurable benefit. If we act in this way, we shape our wills and ourselves
in a way that reverences the good. John Paul II writes: “human acts are
moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the
individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the
state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate
choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them,
determining his profound spiritual traits” (“Veritatis Splendor,” no. 71).

A final fatal flaw of Proportionalism is its claim that we can make in
advance a comparative evaluation of net good and bad promised by a
particular course of action. But to do this one would need to be able to
see into the future, to have access to the providential realm. Such an
aspiration is no less illusory than the search for the fountain of youth.
The apparently objective moral analysis of Proportionalism will necessarily
favor certain projected consequences over others, especially those pressing
most acutely on the emotions of the chooser, effectively reducing the
outcome to subjective preference. Ironically, Father McCormick made this
argument very early on, better than I can make it: “But who can confidently
make such a judgment? An individual? Hardly. It seems to demand a
clairvoyance not granted to many mortals and would paralyze decision in
most cases. For example, what individual can say whether this present
abortion will, in the long haul, undermine or promote the value of maternal
and fetal life? This is especially true if the individual in question has a
great stake in the abortion and presumably, therefore is more focused on
the immediate impasse than on the long-term stakes” (Notes On Moral
Theology 1965 Through 1980, Washington, D.C.: University Press of America,
1981, p. 319; see also John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor, no. 77).

If a type of action always destroys, damages or impedes some basic element
of human good, then no ranking of proportional outcomes can make that
action consistent with integral human flourishing. To deliberately choose
that action makes us bad. This is why John Paul II taught in “Veritatis
Splendor” that Proportionalism is both unsound and unfit for use in
Catholic moral reasoning (nos. 76, 79).

* * *

E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the
Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation
(http://www.culture-of-life.org/); and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford
Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver,

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to bioethics@zenit.org . The
text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or
country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation
(http://www.culture-of-life.org/) will answer a select number of the
questions that arrive.]