Lesson 2d: The False Theory of Proportionalism

For the two decades prior to Veritatis Splendor (8/6/93), there were in Catholic moral circles heated debates and controversies concerning morals and especially moral theories. One of these revisionist theories was, at first, called "Consequentialism" and later called "Proportionalism." Since the Encyclical (VS) takes up these theories in some detail (VS, 74-75), and since the terminology may not be familiar to the average reader, it is, I think useful to examine the theory of Proportionalism to see what it is and what is done with it. One would hope that with the publication of VS -- and its repudiation of Proportionalism -- that this deviant theory would be quietly buried; but that, I fear, is not yet the case.


Noted advocates of Proportionalism include such authors as: P. Knauer; J. Fuchs; B. Schuller; L. Janssens; F. Bockle; R.A. McCormick, along with B. Hoose and J.F. Keenan. An early and accurate critique of Proportionalism, in readable English, can be found in W.E. May, "The Moral Meaning of Human Acts" Homiletic and Pastoral Review v.79 (Oct. 1979) pp. 10-21.


What is it Proportionalists claim? First, they distinguish between what they call formal norms and material norms. A formal moral norm would be that "Adultery is wrong!" This, they say, is a truly exceptionless norm; it is, after all, Divine Positive Revelation (i.e. found in Sacred Scripture: Ex.20:14; Dt.5:18; Matt.19:18; Rms.13:9). This they say no one questions because no one can. If one concedes that 'adultery' is sexual relations with the wrong person, this is tantamount to saying "wrong is wrong" which is a tautology no one can refute.

The challenge, they claim, is not then with formal norms that are truly exceptionless and universal, but rather with what they describe as material norms, often described as concrete material norms. If in the formal equation above, a morally evaluative word ('wrong') is on both sides of the equation, the challenge, they claim, is how to construct a concrete material norm without smuggling in a morally evaluative word on both sides of the logical equation.

This, they say, can only be done in general so that you have a good rule, a useful rule, a virtually exceptionless rule but not an absolute, not an exceptionless norm.


Thought project. Consider the following concrete material norm:

"Sexual intercourse with the spouse of another IS wrong!"

Clearly, there is one evaluative word ('wrong') stated explicitly in that proposition. However, no value words (no value-judgments) are smuggled into the descriptive front part of that proposition. 'Sexual intercourse' describes a kind of human activity; the 'spouse of another' states an empirical fact (legal and sacramental).

Now, Proportionalists will say that this concrete material norm (sexual intercourse with the spouse of another is wrong) is a very good norm, a practical absolute, a virtually exceptionless norm; but this concrete material norm is not universally true, nor truly exceptionless. They will concede that it is always true in a non-moral sense -- it is always some kind of evil: a physical evil; an ontic evil; a pre-moral disvalue; but it is not always and in every case a moral evil!

Proportionalists argue this could be a morally good choice (and therefore a good act) if:

    a) some greater good is achievable by this act (i.e. brings about greater good consequences); or,

    b) some truly proportionate reason is present to justify this choice (after weighing various positive and negative values).

Thus, in the concrete, one must always leave open the possibility that in some given set of circumstances, what would normally be a moral evil is not truly so, rather (sexual intercourse with the spouse of another) this is only a 'physical' or 'ontic' evil when it brings about greater goods or is justified by a proportionate reason for doing so.

This, of course, repudiates the notion that there are any kinds of acts, described in non-moral terms, that are intrinsically evil (thus, it repudiates the teaching of CCC #1756; VS, 47, 80 and 78; Vat.II, GS, n.27). It repudiates as well that there are or can be in the practical order 'negative moral absolutes'! In the Proportionalist view, an act is only morally evil when one directly intends moral evil. This, they maintain, avoids the condemnation of Rms. 3:8 (the end does not justify the means) because they do not make moral evil the direct object of their will act but only a 'physical' or 'ontic', and that, only with alleged reluctance, when a 'great good' can be attained ("Consequentialism") or a 'proportionate reason' is present ("Proportionalism").


Some of the terminology is similar to expressions found in traditional Catholic Moral Theology; but this tiny change in principle engineers a gigantic change in moral practice. Indeed, it is a different morality for these reasons:

    1) It is a Subjective morality. After all, who does the counting, weighing, measuring of good and bad consequences; who calculates the proportionalities of grave reasons and their seriousness but the deciding subject. There is no link here with objective morality, it is all a matter of the subject's calculations.

    2) It is a Relativistic morality. It is, by definition, a calculation of consequences; a calculus of values and disvalues, a comparison of moral pluses and minuses relative to other values and disvalues.

    3) Its advocates are simply wrong in their claims about St. Thomas Aquinas. Their claim is that Aquinas nowhere states a moral absolute in exceptionless terms. This is simply wrong; confer ST, II-II, q.64, a.6: "Et ideo nullo modo licet occidere innocentem;" "It is never licit to kill an innocent"! Aquinas's theory is a teleology of virtue not a calculation of consequences.

    4) It is an extrinsic theory. One notes in the above that there is nothing intrinsic to the act that determines its morality; rather, the moral fulcrum on which the theory turns is something extrinsic: external consequences (results) or proportionate reasons determine the morality of acts.


Again, what seems to be a small change -- even tinkering with terminology -- turns out to be a revolution: one puts aside a strong and cogent link with objective morality and replaces it with a truly subjective morality. No small change that!


Now, read carefully VS, 74-75:

". . . This teleologism, as a method for discovering the moral norm, can thus be called -- according to terminology and approaches imported from different currents of thought -- 'consequentialism' or 'proportionalism'. The former claims to draw the criteria of the rightness of a given way of acting solely from a calculation of foreseeable consequences deriving from a given choice. The latter, by weighing the various values and goods being sought, focuses rather on the proportion acknowledged between the good and bad effects of that choice, with a view to the 'greater good' or 'lesser evil' actually possible in a particular situation. . . . Even when grave matter is concerned, these precepts should be considered as operative norms which are always relative and open to exceptions." (VS, 75)

". . . Such theories however are not faithful to the Church's teaching, when they believe they can justify, as morally good, deliberate choices of kinds of behavior contrary to the commandments of the divine and natural law. These theories cannot claim to be grounded in the Catholic moral tradition." (VS, 76)

Since Consequentialism and Proportionalism are not faithful to Church teaching, now read VS, 77-83 for a correct explanation of Church teaching. (A review by R. McInerny of B. Mullady's The Meaning of the Term Moral in St. Thomas Aquinas in the Newsletter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars v.13:2 (March 1990) pp.6;19 is very helpful in this regard. For an analysis and critique of the philosophical confusion that underlies Catholic proportionalism, cf. B. Mullady, "Both a Servant and Free" in Newsletter FCS v.17, #1 (Dec. 1993) pp. 20-24.)

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