Is Proportionalism Reasonable?

Problem Lies in Idea of Maximizing Good

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 27, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

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).

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E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

[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 will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]