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Chapter 6: Critique of the Proportionalist Method of Moral Judgment

Question H: Do proportionalists respond successfully to criticism?

1. One response to the argument that human goods are incommensurable is the claim that there is a hierarchy of goods. This is true; in fact, there are several senses in which goods form a hierarchy. But none provides the common denominator proportionalism needs to make commensurable the human goods and bads one understands in the alternatives available for a free choice.

Is there an objective hierarchy of values or not? There certainly is a hierarchy of values in one sense: Sentient satisfactions as such are not adequate human goods. They are valuable only insofar as they contribute to some aspect of intelligible human fulfillment. Moreover, extrinsic and merely instrumental goods, such as money, are not in themselves fulfillments of the human person. They can be means; they also can be obstacles.

There is a second sense in which one can correctly say there is an objective hierarchy of values: What is morally good is superior to what is morally bad. Very often when people talk about a proper scale of values, they mean that one ought not to act for goods in immoral ways, but ought rather to prefer moral uprightness even when it requires that one give up something, perhaps even forgo something which would be genuinely fulfilling. Analogous to this is the ranking of things which the Christian carries out, even within the field of what is morally acceptable. For example, according to a Catholic sense of values, celibacy or virginity for the Lord is superior to marriage (see DS 1810/980; LG 42).

Moreover, within the perspective of faith—since faith itself is an act which fulfills human persons by forming their relationship with God—the religious level of the existential domain is most important. Nothing is more important for the Christian than to be in unity with the love of God which comes to us in our Lord Jesus (see Rom 8.35–39).

However, there are two senses in which there is not a hierarchy among the basic human goods. In the first place, they are all essential and closely related aspects of human fulfillment. In the second place, when it comes to making choices, there is no objective standard by which one can say that any of the human goods immanent in a particular intelligible possibility is definitely a greater good than another. For example, parents who deliberate the evening before Thanksgiving whether to spend the next morning having a leisurely family breakfast or to use it to join in a special liturgy (which would mean getting up at a certain time, dressing the children, and so on) cannot reach a conclusion by comparing goods or bads to find which alternative is measurably better. The same thing holds in much more important matters, such as determining one’s personal vocation; if a choice must be made, no comparison of the goods and bads one sees in the alternatives will settle what one ought to do.

2. McCormick points out that in making choices people adopt a hierarchy and so in fact commensurate goods. This is true; but the commensuration here is not that required by proportionalism. Proportionalism requires comparison of goods in a moral judgment antecedent to choice; when commensuration occurs in choice itself, the time for moral judgment is past. (A theory which tries to ground moral norms in choices was criticized in 4‑C.)

For a long time opponents of proportionalism have been pointing out the problem of incommensurability to its proponents. Most of the latter make no attempt to answer this objection. McCormick does try. Part of his answer to the problem of the noncommensurability of goods is that one makes the noncommensurable commensurable by choice: “. . . What do we do? Somehow or other, in fear and trembling, we commensurate. In a sense we adopt a hierarchy. We go to war to protect our freedom. That means we are willing to sacrifice life to protect this good. If ’give me liberty or give me death’ does not involve some kind of commensuration, then I do not know what commensurating means” (italics his).33 And McCormick goes on to add several examples like this one. (He also gives examples—such as the assertion of Jesus that there is no point in gaining the world if one loses one’s soul in the process—in which the comparison is not proportionalist, but is based on presupposed moral standards.)

Commensuration does occur once one adopts a hierarchy. About this McCormick is right. People do choose to go to war; having done so, they say it is a lesser evil than loss of liberty (unless they have some other justification for war). The commensuration is in the choice. Choices do determine the limits of options to be considered, consequences to be inquired about, and persons to be taken into account; when choice cuts off deliberation, these boundaries are drawn automatically. Moreover, choice does determine which good henceforth will be considered greater and which evil lesser, because the good with which one identifies in choosing becomes part of one’s personal scale of value.

But by locating commensuration in choice, McCormick implicitly admits that proportionalism has failed. It was to have been a rational method of moral judgment, and a rational method should determine what is right and wrong before one chooses. In other words, one should reach a judgment of conscience first and then choose afterwards. By locating the commensuration in choice, McCormick admits that the process of proportionalism is just the opposite: First one makes a choice and then one finds a reason for it. When this process is followed to justify an action one otherwise would have to admit immoral, it has a proper title: rationalization.

But there are cases in which antecedent choice does determine true moral duties. McCormick refers to them, saying: “I mean to suggest that we do all possible to reduce the incommensurability. In ordinary daily living this reduction occurs via personal aims, vocations, life commitments, possibilities.”34 Again, McCormick is correct in thinking that prior commitments can determine what is better. But this fact is of no help to a proportionalist, for they do it by introducing a moral principle of judgment, not by rendering premoral benefits and harms commensurable. For example, a man who is deliberating whether to divorce the wife of his youth and marry his young secretary can reduce the incommensurability by choosing according to his marital commitment. Of course, he also can abandon this commitment and rationalize that by doing so he is on the whole and in the long run giving the best possible service toward the single good of creative growth toward integration of all concerned.35

3. Proportionalists claim that commensurating the incommensurable is a problem for every moralist who is at all reasonable. But this is question-begging; it assumes that all reasonable moralists make at least some use of proportionalism. However, sound moralists who seem to make use of proportionalism can often be understood as proceeding in a very different way. Rather than making moral judgments by what is proportionate in premoral terms, they determine what is proportionate by moral standards.

In response to the argument that proportionalism requires comparison of incommensurable goods, McCormick says that a proportionalist “might urge that if proportionate reason involves measuring the unmeasurable, then what is the meaning and function of proportionate reason in the standard understandings of the double effect?”36 My answer to this challenge is that when traditional moralists talked about “proportionate good” in their discussions of the principle of double effect, they perhaps slipped into proportionalism (which they had never articulated as a general theory). But I think that in many cases they referred to moral norms which govern the acceptance of side effects. Thus a physician prepared to accept the harsh side effects of some form of therapy for his patients when he would not approve the same sort of treatment for his or her loved ones shows immoral partiality. In such a case, although the other conditions of a standard understanding of double effect would be fulfilled, there would be lack of proportionate reason for accepting the harmful side effects, and so the choice of that type of therapy would be immoral.

McCormick admits that there are serious and unresolved theoretical problems in the use of expressions such as “lesser evil” and “proportionate reason.” But he claims that anyone who accepts as morally licit any killing, in the face of the prescription “Thou shalt not kill,” has the same problem.37 This claim is false. In various works I have articulated a consistent account of the ethics of killing, which excludes absolutely any choice to bring about death, but does not exclude absolutely other choices whose execution causes death as a foreseen and accepted side effect. Such other choices will be justified, not by a proportionalist weighing of values, but by moral norms such as impartiality.38

In his discussion of self-defense, St. Thomas Aquinas says: “An act done with a good intention can still be rendered illegitimate if it is not proportioned to the end. And so if someone uses greater violence than necessary in defending his own life, it will be illicit” (S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 7, c.). This text has been used to claim Thomas for the cause of proportionalism.

But this claim misinterprets the text. Thomas is not comparing benefits and harms as proportionalism requires; he is not trying to balance the harm to the attacker against the benefit of preserving one’s life. The proportion is between the force used and the purpose of self-defense, which Thomas considers justifiable on other grounds. His point is that if the damage to the attacker is truly to be an acceptable side effect, then it must be no more than necessary to defend oneself. Thus, a store owner who fired a shotgun toward the heads of a pair of robbers instead of toward their legs, when he considered either adequate for self-defense, would violate the requirement of proportion Thomas states.

4. Some proportionalists suggest that commensuration can be achieved by using communally accepted standards of comparison. To use communally accepted standards after criticizing them in the light of moral truth is sound procedure, but it is not proportionalism. For in this case, moral principles, not a comparison of premoral benefit and harm, determine the moral judgment. But to make uncriticized community standards the basis of moral judgment is to adopt another theory criticized above (4‑E). Christians who accept commonly held estimations of values as the basis for their moral judgments are conforming to the “world” rather than renewing their minds by conforming to Christ.

Joseph Fuchs, S.J., says that the value of acts is settled by weighing the priority and urgency of different values “for the individual, for interpersonal relations and for human society, in connection, of course, with the total reality of man and his society and in view of his whole culture.”39 While this phrasing is ambiguous and the remainder of the essay is far from clear, Fuchs seems to think that the given culture enables one to weigh.40 If he does mean this, he is adopting the nonrational principle of the choices people have made in the past in a particular society—choices morally good and morally bad alike—as the basis for morality.

In a somewhat similar move, McCormick suggests that in some cases we know by experience what is right and in others “we must proceed to normative statements gradually by trial and error.”41 He does not notice that experience and experiment cannot settle any moral issue unless a moral principle is presupposed. To ignore this requirement amounts to inviting people to accept the personal or communal satisfactoriness of the results of various ways of acting as a standard for judging their rightness—in other words, what we do is right if it gets us what we want.

5. In an implicit admission that there is no rational way of determining proportions, McCormick fell back upon spontaneous and instinctive moral judgments as a test. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., similarly suggested that we somehow commensurate without being conscious of it and so are unable to explain how we do it.42 In making moves such as these, proportionalists retreat into another faulty theoretical position (see 4‑B).

McCormick holds that the relationship underlying a proportionalist judgment “is often grasped spontaneously, nondiscursively, and therefore obscurely to a large extent.” He goes on: “I believe and do not apologize for the fact that our emotions and religious commitments do function in our value judgments in a way that is sometimes beyond reduction to reasoning processes or analytic arguments.”43 He sums up: “I would say that, even though our spontaneous and instinctive moral judgments can be affected by cultural distortions and can be confused with rather obvious but deeply ingrained conventional fears and biases, still they remain a more reliable test of the humanizing and dehumanizing, of the morally right and wrong, of proportion, than our discursive arguments.”44

Now matters become clear. Over the years one had supposed that McCormick wished Catholics to follow the judgment of dissenting theologians rather than the Church’s teaching because in his view their judgments were based on good reasons while the Church’s teaching is not rationally defensible. According to this account by McCormick, however, it turns out that at bottom moral norms depend on spontaneous and instinctive moral judgments. This sort of view was criticized (4‑B). But even if it were right, it would at least make more sense to entrust oneself to the accumulated wisdom of the Church, proposed with bad reasons by the magisterium, than to the consensus of dissenting theologians, proposed with bad reasons by Richard McCormick.

6. Thus an irony emerges. Proportionalism begins by claiming to be a reasonable method of moral judgment, opposed to irrational moral norms for which no cogent argument can be provided; it ends in intuitionism, unable to provide any rational grounds at all for the exceptions to traditional norms which it proposes. People who set aside the teaching authority of the Church as insufficiently reasonable on the basis of theological dissent grounded in proportionalism are making an act of faith in the untestable and rationally unsupportable intuitions of dissenting theologians.

33. McCormick, Doing Evil, 227; also 251–53.

34. Ibid., 228.

35. See Anthony Kosnik et al., Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979), 106. This work does not deal with the specific question of divorce and remarriage, and takes a somewhat reserved attitude toward adultery: “In general, it seems difficult to imagine a situation where such activity would be considered to be good for all involved” (170).

36. For the challenge: McCormick, Notes, 718. Classical authors do not offer a thorough analysis of the determination of proportionate reason. But they do not simply reduce everything to commensuration of premoral goods and bads. E.g., Arthurus Vermeersch, S.J., Theologiae Moralis: Principia, Responsa, Consilia, tomus 1, Theologia Fundamentalis (Rome: Apud Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1947), section 117, invokes principles of justice, charity, and piety; I. Aertnys and C. Damen, C.Ss.R., Theologia Moralis secundum Doctrinam S. Alphonsi de Ligorio, ed. 17, vol. 1 (Rome: Marietti, 1956), section 58, suggest that one consider what virtue would be violated if the bad effect were not merely accepted but willed. Thus, for these authors, moral norms must be assumed to judge what is proportionate. For the proportionalist, who often is arguing for exceptions to received norms, the judgment of proportionate reason would involve weighing nonmoral goods and evils, as McCormick, op. cit., 710, clearly indicates: A kind of act is always wrong “when taken as a whole, the nonmoral evil outweighs the nonmoral good, and therefore the action is disproportionate.”

37. Notes, 647.

38. See Grisez, “Toward a Consistent Natural-Law Ethics of Killing,” 64–96. McCormick might find other difficulties with my earlier work, but he finds the difficulty of commensurating the incommensurable only by reading it into a theory in which commensuration has no place; see McCormick, Doing Evil, 23–29. Compare McCormick’s hypotheses about my position (28), with what I actually say (94–95), which clearly excludes McCormick’s interpretation. In “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1982,” Theological Studies, 44 (1983), 102, McCormick once again attempted this sort of counterattack: “Grisez does not seem to realize that his arguments bite back.” McCormick ignored the distinctions, similar to those made in question E, above, by which I answered this objection in “Against Consequentialism,” 49–62, an article mentioned in the notes of the one to which he was trying to respond: “The Moral Implications of a Nuclear Deterrent,” Center Journal, 2 (Winter 1982), 24, n. 6. Indeed, McCormick was loathe to deal with “Against Consequentialism,” which he knew well, for it had been prepared and accepted for publication in Doing Evil and included in the first draft of McCormick’s response to his critics in that book. The specific answer to McCormick’s counterattack in its latest reformulation is that “unduly burdensome” means unfairly burdensome, and fairness is determined not by proportionalism but by the fifth mode of responsibility; people do determine what they do not want done to themselves by emotion and spontaneous willing, which are among the sources of proportionalist pseudojudgments, but that determination is only the subject matter to which fairness applies. The “ought” of a moral judgment based on fairness derives from the mode of responsibility, not from the factual situation to which it applies.

39. Joseph Fuchs, S.J., “The Absoluteness of Moral Terms,” in Curran and McCormick, eds., op. cit., 113.

40. Ibid., 114, where he suggests that missionaries perhaps should not expect members of an African tribe to accept Christian marriage. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 74 AAS (1982) 85–86; Eng. ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Polyglot Press, 1981), 10–11 (sec. 5), carefully distinguishes between the sense of faith and the results of sociological research, and asserts: “The ‘supernatural sense of faith’ however does not consist solely or necessarily in the consensus of the faithful. Following Christ, the Church seeks the truth, which is not always the same as the majority opinion.” He also reaffirms without compromise Catholic teaching on marital morality, including the teaching on contraception, “in continuity with the living tradition of the ecclesial community throughout history” (AAS 144–45; Eng. ed., 54; sec. 29). Someone might say that St. Thomas’ theory of natural law shows how the conventional moral standards of each society are grounded in human nature and thus somehow justified. But grounded does not entail justified. A recent study overlooked this point: Anthony Battaglia, Toward a Reformulation of Natural Law (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 87–102. Referring to the given system of morals in each society, Battaglia says: “It is by acting rightly or wrongly within the system that we merit eternal life” (134). To Battaglia, Thomas’ treatment of natural law “appears to be a discussion of the permanent elements of any system of ethics that works” (131). Battaglia accepts a thoroughgoing reduction of the moral “ought” to the sociocultural “is” of the practices of any functioning society (132–35). To attribute this to Thomas, Battaglia makes several remarkable moves. He identifies “per se nota” in Thomas’ sense with Wilfred Sellars’ language–bound “ex vi terminorum nota” (96–100); he also gratuitously claims that analogy in Thomas means “theoretical reformulability” (101) and bases this on the claim that human knowledge, being analogous, is for Thomas “neither wholly true nor wholly false” (33). Paradoxically, unlike Fuchs, Battaglia does not seem ready to approve polygamy, for while he holds (consistently with his cultural relativism) that one possible explanation of it “is that if it does not appear to the people who live within it to be a bad paradigm, then it is not one,” he goes on to say: “A more persuasive explanation might be the fact of human sinfulness. A situation where a given practice does not arise out of consensus but is forced on a group as a result of power, for example, would be such a situation” (135). The underlying principle of this concession to moral truth is that Battaglia identifies social consensus with universalizability, which he suggests is the specific contribution of reason to moral decision making (108), the remainder of the process being left to an estheticlike balancing of the imputs of senses, emotions, intelligence, and intuition (102–7). With this notion of moral judgment, Battaglia suggests that the way to determine the moral acceptability of producing babies in test tubes would be to try it out and see whether it is satisfactory to the parents, society, and the children themselves (130). He does not explain how he would apply this approach to problems such as abortion.

41. McCormick, “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1980,” Theological Studies, 42 (1981), 89.

42. Josef Fuchs, S.J., “ ‘Sin of the World’ and Normative Morality,” Gregorianum, 61 (1980), 67: “Causing an ‘evil for man’ is not necessarily wrong in every case. All that seems necessary is that it be justified by a comparative evaluation of all the elements of the total concrete situation, without such evaluation necessarily having to take place on the plane of conscious reflection.” Garth L. Hallett, Christian Moral Reasoning: An Analytic Guide (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 167–68, similarly is reduced to intuitionism when he tries to answer the objection from noncommensurability by suggesting that one assign numbers to all relevant values and disvalues and reach moral judgments by simple arithmetic. Hallett virtually avoids stating the objection to which he is trying to reply, coming nearest to acknowledging the problem in one footnote reference (247, n. 40). Hallett’s method in this work is dialectical; he first surveys (45–72) a variety of Christian judgments of various sorts (but ignores their distinctions), then claims (73–105) that only proportionalism consistently covers the data. But though aware (113–14) of my moral theory, Hallett exempts himself from even considering it, on the ground that it supports traditional conclusions but not a traditional principle. In arguing thus, Hallett begs the important question concerning what counts as a principle; in my view, the eighth mode of responsibility is the traditional principle underlying, say, the rejection of contraception, and the trouble with a perverted-faculty argument is that it fails to articulate this principle accurately, not that it assumes (in Hallett’s sense) something else as a principle.

43. McCormick, Doing Evil, 250.

44. Ibid., 251. McCormick also invokes Karl Rahner for “what he calls a ‘moral instinct of faith.’ This instinct can be called by any number of different names; but the point is that there is a component to moral judgment that cannot be adequately subject to analytic reflection. But it is this component that is chiefly responsible for one’s ultimate judgments on concrete moral questions” (250–51). The reference is to Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Problem of Genetic Manipulation,” Theological Investigations, vol. 9, Writings of 1965–67, I, trans. Graham Harrison (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 243. Rahner posits, not proves, that there are aspects of the essential morality of human acts which are nonconceptual, but belong to experienced reality and to practice which is in a “darkness” beyond theory. Apart from this metaphysics, Rahner supports his positing of this “instinct” only by pointing out that people (including moral theologians) have a hard time articulating good arguments for their moral convictions. One must admit that there can be moral truths contained in revelation which remain opaque, but such truths, unfolded by the magisterium of the Church in the light of the gospel, do not seem to be what Rahner has in mind, and they would be of no help to McCormick. Rahner’s thinking on this “instinct” is somewhat confused, for he says it deals with the particular situation and yet is a judgment in principle (239). But, on the whole, it seems he intends to propose a version of prescriptivism or individual voluntarism, for in the summary he says that “this ‘instinct’ justifiably has the courage to say Stat pro ratione voluntas because such a confession need not necessarily be overcautious about making a decision” and that the whole theoretical argument is based on “we do not want to manipulate” (251). Rahner does not seem to notice that if one approves will’s replacing reason, the will of some to manipulate also is approved. Nor does McCormick seem to notice that in adopting Rahner’s “instinct” to solve his problem of the noncommensurability of goods, he is reducing his whole, elaborate effort to deal with moral problems, such as contraception, to an antecedent decision, for example: “Contraception is morally acceptable because we want to contracept.”