Morals in proportion

In my previous columns on how moral decisions might be made (deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics) I have made no mention of proportionalism because it carries an ecclesiastical health warning. In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor John Paul II condemns proportionalism by declaring that certain acts are intrinsically wrong by virtue of their object, irrespective of the circumstances and intentions surrounding their performance (paragraphs 75-83). Nevertheless it merits, as he himself suggests, our critical examination.

Let’s take an example. Mutilation (the removal of an organ such as a kidney or a womb), except for the benefit of its owner, is gravely wrong, since it offends against the integrity of the body. But in fact the use of kidney transplants is accepted as good and virtuous. The argument would be that the donor is not substantially impaired if his remaining kidney is healthy, but the recipient’s life may be saved through the gift. When the act is taken as a whole, we judge that the act of charity outweighs the basic principle. There is proportionate reason. Needless to say, there was hot dispute among theologians when this issue first became live, but now we take the outcome for granted.

The proportionalist would argue that such abstract principles only become morally relevant when they are applied to a human act. And a human act can only be judged as a whole: that is, taking into account circumstances and intentions. Thus we subscribe to the principle that abortion is gravely wrong. But we accept that, in the case of a pregnancy which develops in a fallopian tube, it is legitimate to remove the diseased tube although that leads immediately to the death of the baby as a regrettable, but proportionate, side effect.

This principle of “double effect” is well established. But it would not cover the circumstances where it is medically possible to remove the baby from the tube, leaving the woman with an intact tube – in some cases her only one. Again the baby dies. We correctly class this as abortion, but is it justifiable when the baby is destined to die in either case and the alternative procedure preserves the mother’s fertility? I leave you to think about that.

“You shall not murder,” as the NRSV translates the commandment, provides an example of a moral principle expressed in terms of its context and intentions. That is, it allows that killing may be justified for proportionate reasons – for example self-defence, even when the aggressor – say, a schizophrenic who has omitted his medication – is innocent.

The orthodox (Catechism) view of lying is that it is always wrong, but it permits the use of economic language with the intention of deceiving, when there is commensurate reason. Lying is condemned on the grounds that God gave us speech in order to communicate truth: to use it to communicate a direct untruth is to defy its God-given purpose or “object”, in the sense that John Paul II uses the word. A proportionalist would argue that the real moral issue is whether, in a particular case, deceit is justified. The method of achieving it, through a lie or through economic language, is a secondary issue.

The area where the concept of object has understandably received the most attention is sex. So we find Aquinas telling us that an act against nature (which would include artificial contraception) is intrinsically more wicked than incest, rape, adultery or fornication because it is contrary to the fundamental object of the act. The other sins are misapplications of the act but they are lesser because they do not offend against its intrinsic nature. Proportionalists maintain that he is starting at the wrong point. They would say that it is necessary to take the principle and to put it into the context of circumstances and intentions of an actual human decision before judging morally whether there are commensurate reasons which could justify a different view. At the very least we can understand the horns of the dilemma responsible for the delay in the Vatican in deciding the question on condoms and Aids for infected married couples. The traditional understanding is that the evil lies in the contraceptive nature of the act. The intention, however good, is irrelevant.

Indeed, opponents have argued that proportionalism has only been developed as a counter to the formal rulings on the abuse of marriage. They would claim that it is situation ethics –  in which there are no objective moral wrongs, but only circumstances and intentions. An acceptance of its principles would be to enter on a slippery slope which would gradually lead to the disappearance of moral principles altogether. They would argue that, in certain quarters, abortion, divorce and even paedophilia may have been judged as potentially permissible through this approach.

A proportionalist might defend his position by pointing out that the great majority of moral decisions which we make do not involve unconditional moral principles, and here circumstances and intentions are the only criteria available. Far from leading to laxity it obliges us to undertake the demanding process of personal moral judgment.

Next, he would deny that he has abandoned moral principles. Indeed, these are so important that all the relevant ones should be assessed, and their proportionate value measured, so that an informed decision may be made. He would even accept that many values, for instance the protection of the young from sexual abuse, are so high, that he could not in practice conceive of any other value justifying it. So there are conflicting arguments here. But your comments may elucidate them.

Is proportionalism just situation ethics in disguise – and so highly dangerous in a society where all moral principle seems to be relative and subjective? Or is it a sensible approach to true moral awareness where we give priority to love rather than to the dead hand of law?  Come and tell us your views, and put some flesh on the skeletal overview I have given.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Morals in proportion

  1. Vincent says:

    Glad to see the blog back working. Must have involved some midnight oil!

    I have read the parts of Veritatis Splendor which Quentin refers to. (Goodness, what a hefty document!). I notice that the pope seems to couple proportionalism with utlitarianism in a number of places. That makes it sound as if both approaches are simply a judgement about what brings the great happiness to the greatest numbers. If I am right then I would be against proportionalism for all the reasons which Quentin put into his earlier posting on utilititarianism.

  2. Vincent, your point is interesting because Proportionalists argued that (for the reasons you cite) JPII had misunderstood the point. They would claim to put full importance on the relevant values. For example a Utilitarian might well conclude that overdosing granny, who is a misery to herself and to others, achieved the greatest happiness for the greatest number. A (Catholic) Proportionalist would say that preserving the life of an innocent person is such a high value that all other values to be considered would be secondary, and so could not justify such an action. They are comparing values, Utilitarians are comparing outcomes.

  3. Horace says:

    Quentin refers again to the moral dilemma presented by an ectopic pregnancy.
    See – “Life, death and the fallopian tube” (19 Jun 2008)

    In the case of an ectopic pregnancy; if we do nothing then; certainly the baby, and almost certainly the mother, will die.
    If the ectopic implantation is in the fallopian tube then there are two possible treatment strategies;
    a) remove (all or part of) the fallopian tube with the developing embryo inside
    b) ‘shell out’ the developing embryo (hopefully leaving a functional fallopian tube).
    ?As I have said before:- to argue that removal of part, or all, of a fallopian tube containing a developing embryo is morally acceptable but that “shelling out the child from the damaged tube” is equivalent to an abortion and therefore morally unacceptable, seems to me completely unreasonable. It is only sophistry.?
    Anyhow some 2.5% of ectopic pregnancies are not in the fallopian tube at all but attached to other structures around the peritoneal cavity (rendering option (a) irrelevant).

    The decision is further complicated by the possible use of Methotrexate.
    [This is a drug used for the treatment of certain cancers which interferes with the normal production and repair of DNA and results in lethal damage to cells that are replicating rapidly, including embryonic tissues.]

    So we have to consider another possibility:-
    c) use Methotrexate to kill the embryo (which will then be assimilated by the normal repair processes of the body).

    All three treatment strategies depend on a decision as to wether or not it is morally justified to kill the embryo. (The embryo is going to die in any event and intervention simply hastens the inevitable end.)

    How can we resolve this dilemma?
    Presumably the ‘proportionalist’ argument would compare the value of the mother’s life (which could continue for many years) against that of the baby (which cannot live for long).

    An alternative argument could be by analogy with the suggestion – “killing may be justified . . . – for example in self-defence,even when the aggressor . . . is innocent”.
    If we accept this then a mother might be justified in killing (or having a physician do so on her behalf) the totally innocent baby that is threatening her life?

  4. RMBlaber says:

    The word ‘proportion’ comes from the Latin _proportio_, _pro_, in comparison with, _portio_, part or share. Its primary meaning is the relation of one thing to another in magnitude; or appropriate relationship of parts to each other as regards size, quantity, etc. In mathematics, it means the identity or equality of ratios; in prosody and music, it refers to the proper relation of rhythmical or harmonic elements. (The Chambers Dictionary, 10th Ed.).
    Utilitariarianism is a moral philosophy based on the concept of _utility_, which has its origin in the political economy of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the work of such thinkers as Adam Smith and David Ricardo, which was taken up by Jeremy Bentham and the Mills, pere et fils.
    Utility is the pseudo-objectification of a subjective concept, an attempt to quantify the ability of an object to satisfy a human want or need. It is still being used today, by organisations like NICE, the National Institute for (Health and) Clinical Excellence, which assesses new drug treatments on the basis of cost-utility analysis (specifically cost per QALY measurement, where QALYs are Quality Adjusted Life Years, notional years of added life-span, adjusted by a Quality of Life [QoL] Index, which may be negative). It is quite clear, incidentally, that the Labour Government ministers who set this QUANGO up had never read CS Lewis’ novel, _That Hideous Strength_, or they would have given it a different name!
    Kant rejected the concept, both in his Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals, and in his Critique of Practical Reason, on the grounds that judgements based on utility would conflict with the Categorical Imperative. If every rational individual must be treated as an end in him- or herself, then to subordinate the needs of the individual to the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ must at all times and in all cases be wrong.
    Kant’s reasoning is flawed, however, to the extent that it only safeguards rational individuals. His criterion for humanity is too restrictive, and prejudicial. What of embryos, or the severely learning disabled, or people suffering from cognitive psychoses? Are they not human? Do they not have rights that need to be protected?
    The answer, of course, is ‘yes’. All human individuals have rights, and should be treated as ends-in-themselves, and never as means to an end. This position is entirely consistent with Catholic teaching, and with the _philosophia perennis_. What of ‘proportionalism’, however?
    Aristotle, from whose _Nichomachean Ethics_ St Thomas Aquinas drew much inspiration, was a great believer in the _aureas mediocritas_, the golden mean (see, as was the Chinese philosopher Kong Zhongni (551-479 BC), better known to us as Confucius (see If proportionalism means anything sensible it is surely adherence to a belief in moderation, and an avoidance of extremes; keeping things in balance. There need be no link between it and utilitarianism, and any form of proportionalism that _is_ linked to utilitarian reasoning is most certainly to be rejected , as the late Pope John Paul II argued in _Veritatis Splendor_.
    Mathematically, the golden mean, phi (=1.6080339…) and the Fibonacci sequence related to it are found everywhere in nature. It is enough to make anyone a Pythagorean mystic!

  5. RBBlaber’s approach to proportion works well for most issues. If I believe that it is wrong for people to buy private education, but I also believe strongly that my child would be damaged by the state education available to me then I have to base my decision on some sort of reasonable comparison, depending on the facts of the case.

    If, on the other hand, one element in the equation is absolute, the situation is different. I take for example Para 2485 of the Catechism, which starts “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” It’s a useful example because Kant, too, took the view that lying was invariably wrong. In terms of traditional moral theology we can never justify a lie whatever the consequences of that may be. Proportion cannot justify it.

    The utilitarian solves the problem by ‘calculating’ the benefits of the outcome. The proportionalist sees two values built into the decision: the wrongness of lying and the wrongness of the injustice that might be done in a particular instance. He weighs up these elements and decides his action. He does not deny the value of either but, since he cannot have both he must decide whether justice does, in this case, justify the lie or not. The utilitarian disregards the value of both since the only relevant moral consideration is the outcome.

  6. chauffer says:

    Thanks again, Quentin, for ‘translating’ the science of moral decision making activity into everyday language!

    I’m unable to refer to the specific scripture but believe that where Veritatis Splendor warns against evil actions in pursuit of worthy outcomes, Pope John Paul ll was echoing a particular reflection of St. Paul.

    The specific scenario of surgical mutilation for organ transplants appears to lack moral controversy where consent is present between both parties and there are no obvious losers in the process.

    However, would the ‘Paramountcy Principle’ of the Nolan Report reside within the category of proportionalism more than any other?

    It seems as though the guiding standard of the policy is, inevitably and regrettably, the only ultimate safeguard for child protection within a web of deception which can only be discerned by fallible human beings.

    If so, the risk is that proportionalism may create innocent victims of moral rectitude but even in the case of (alleged) false allegations there remains a form of consent, or rather self-sacrifice, for the ‘greater good’ (though easy to speculate upon) which genuine victims of defamation may be prepared to accept in the light of the Gospel.

    Similarly, the ethos of bearing the Cross of others would relegate the option of ‘overdosing granny’ to the sphere of secular confusion unless perhaps prior consent and self-scarifice was a factor.

  7. I haven’t looked out the phrase in Veritatis Splendor, but it is unquestionably taught that one must not do wrong in order that good may come from it. So I must not deliberately commit suicide in order to save either myself or my family pain. But how would you judge Captain Oates (crippled by frostbite), who walked out into a lethal environment, so that his companions would have a better chance of survival? We would not call his action suicidal because, taken in terms of the circumstances and intention, we would judge it, I think, to be heroically self-sacrificial.

    Proportionalists normally apply their principles when there is a clash involving an action which the Church has taught as intrinsically wrong. But of course, as Chauffer implies, its application is general. So we might declare that it is paramount that children be protected from abuse. But that has to be achieved proportionately – to ensure that the rules and their application are realistic and just. So a balance has to be struck between all the factors. And perhaps modified with experience. No balance will be perfect.

    Here’s an interesting question. Suppose I have only one kidney, which happens to be the only match which can save my grandchild’s life. I am 75 and my grandchild is 15. Disregarding the legal position, would I be morally entitled to donate on the grounds that I have lived a full life but my grandchild has not had the chance?

  8. Iona says:

    Quentin, if you only had one kidney they wouldn’t even have tested you to see if it matched your grandchild’s.
    (I am aware that this hardly comes into the category of a reply to an ethical point).

    We’ve discussed Captain Oates’s self-sacrifice before, though I can’t remember what conclusion we reached if any. But it occurs to me that he’s rather in the situation of the embryo in the fallopian tube: if he stays there, the whole expedition, himself along with it, perishes (as does the woman if her ectopic pregnancy continues). If he expels himself, the others might survive.

    As regards Chauffer’s point about the Paramountcy Principle leading to injustices where false accuasations are made, I read recently (but can’t remember where – though it may well have been in the Catholic Herald) that in cases of accusations against teachers by children, only 2% of them have been found to be true. As Quentin says, a balance has to be struck.

  9. Robert Hartness says:

    The first issue that came to my mind after reading your article “ A sense of proportion” was the subject of human/animal experimentation at cellular level.
    It’s one thing to accept the church’s clear teaching on abortion with or without caveats. The principle being that human life is sacred and must be protected from the moment of conception. However, it seems that principle has now been extended beyond the process of procreation, even IVF procreation.

    I refer now to the work on certain scientific teams that are combining human genetic tissue with animal tissue in the search for cures to hitherto incurable diseases.
    This development produced an immediate condemnation from the pro-life organisation SPUC. At the time, I thought along the same lines. After all, I’m pro-life and a Catholic. Yet I’m also scientifically trained, so I re-read the account of the work
    as explained by the Professor in charge of the research. I saw an immediate problem in that the entity being created and experimented upon was not human, nor was the purpose of the research related to procreation in any way. I contacted SPUC as a distributor of their newspaper and voiced my disagreement with their opposition to this work. It seemed to me that their response was a knee jerk reaction, rather than a careful response based on an understanding of the dilemma. A little later I was disappointed to hear that opposition to this work was also expressed by the Hierarchy of England and Wales.

    The issue here is not just an underlining of the traditional teaching of the church about the sanctity of human life, rather than an unwarranted extension of that principle to include human DNA. It seemed to me that we should be supporting scientific work involving hybrid human/animal cells as a legitimate and moral line of research
    There was no intention to grow such cells to implant into a woman’s womb, which of course would be totally abhorrent. Imagine my surprise when I read that the Church had declared that if such cells were created they SHOULD be inserted in the womb.

    I fear that the church has got itself into a ridiculous position over this issue, entirely because no one took the trouble to understand the science behind the research

    I did coincidentally have the opportunity to raise this issue with a very important Catholic prelate and I was told that the matter had to be approached from the point of principle that was unchanging, rather than by reference to practical considerations
    that might vary as time progressed.

    I have a feeling of déjà vu here. I was one of the first people in the North East of the UK to organise opposition to the initial work on human embryo experimentation.
    After some years of opposition, I felt the good work being done through IVF for infertile couples was laudable and in line with God’s will, notwithstanding the continued, traditional opposition of the Catholic Church and the whole pro-life movement. This led me to withdraw from this voluntary work

    I now believe that while there are some unchangeable parts of the Catholic faith there are some situations in the field of bio-ethics that should be addressed anew in the face of changing circumstances. I would like to know now where this leaves me regarding
    the issues raised in your article “A sense of Proportion”

  10. Robert Hartness – You may like to look at a column, and subsequent discussion, which we had on 8 May 2008. You will see there that my conclusion differs from yours. But the Blog thrives on debate, so do come back and comment here. The column is called Hybrids and Cybrids, so put hybrids into ‘Search’ or trace back through the Catholic Herald Columns category. You are right to emphasise that our evaluation must be founded on good science.

  11. Superview says:

    A rewarding aspect of the Second Sight blog, with the stimulating comments to Quentin’s always thoughtful articles, is the incentive it has given me to chase down sources and to clarify loose notions and ideas I might have (and with RMBlaber on the case who would want to be accused of not doing their homework!). With the extraordinary power of the internet, however, it is truly impossible in the time available to exhaust the research possibilities and, inevitably, one has to resort to speed reading, simplification and distillation.
    Take the current ‘Morals in Proportion’ discussion. One of the first connections I made was to the situation facing Pope Pius XII and the horrors of the Nazi extermination of Jewish people. I recalled that a main defence of the Pope was that he had to balance the good he might achieve against the harm he might do, and didn’t this have elements of utilitarianism (even to a point of calculating net outcomes) as well as proportionalism, which is a key principle in diplomacy?
    But, not knowing more than the average person might have read in a quality newspaper on this topic, to make such an observation in Second Sight I needed to find out more. The first port of call was
    where it seems to me that the reasonable argument is put that Pius XII was at the very least inconsistent, and probably, being human, got some decisions wrong faced with the scale and ambition of the unparalleled evils of the Nazis. This raised in my mind the question: Was it fair for the world to have expected utterly pellucid principled moral decisions from the Pope in these circumstances?
    A click on a link at the end of this article lead me to
    where a long, sympathetic defence of Pius XII is woven, referencing the true dilemmas, the compromises and agonies of judgement and action in the real world. It seems to me it makes the case for concluding that this is where, even for Popes, absolutist positions of the kind ‘He should have spoken out no matter what the consequences’ are, what shall we say ….untenable? …or simply wrong?
    A last point. Quentin in his article reports that “we find Aquinas telling us that an act against nature (which would include artificial contraception) is intrinsically more wicked than incest, rape, adultery or fornication because it is contrary to the fundamental object of the act”. I confess that to my (relatively conservative) 21st century mind and values this is simply preposterous. However, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion, from even a generalised acquaintance with Christian theology, other than Aquinas was pretty important. I believe I may owe him for the ‘See, Judge, Act’ formulation.
    In fact, let me try with See. What is the ‘natural order’? How is the ‘natural order’ offended if A does not lead to B? Would we notice? Would God notice? What is the existentialist meaning of the ‘wickedness’ that Aquinas is describing? If I followed my own rule I would do more research. Yet so removed from my imagination is the possibility of being persuaded that contraception is more evil than ‘incest, rape, adultery or fornication’ that I cannot find the motivation.

  12. Superview demonstrates, with his vivid example of Pius XII and the Jewish question, the actual process one might need to go through in order to make a decision through Proportionalist principles.The value to be preserved of proclaiming the plain truth, and the value which requires us not to put people in harm’s way must have been agony for him. Whether we agree with his decision or not, we cannot doubt his sincerity.

    At the risk of asking Superview to take his research further, Aquinas’s position appears at

    Given his starting point his argument follows. But since Superview (and I) think his conclusion to be balderdash, perhaps we should argue that his starting point is wrong. Aquinas was not of course infallible, but his approach to this sort of question is deeply embedded in traditional moral theology. Perhaps we need the Blaber touch here to consider the issue?

  13. Superview says:

    Thank you Quentin for the link above. I read all, and followed several links within the document, with a mixture of fascination and curiosity. I think I need more understanding of the times and the context in order to fully appreciate how it is that Aquinas (and Augustine) needed or wanted to apply their minds to exploring ‘The Parts of Lust’. I can follow the route he took to reach his conclusion (although my struggle with the notion of ‘species’ wasn’t helpful) and the key factor it seems to me is the paramount place given to the ‘natural order’, and hence his list of ‘unnatural vices’ are not surprisingly a sin against nature. However, I hesitate to unpack his list for argument both on grounds of taste and because I’d end up in the same esoteric enterprise.
    What I do find as surprising is the idea (unless I’ve got it wrong) that there are degrees of mortal sin (“a sin that kills the soul”). As to ‘Morals in Proportion’, what else is Aquinas doing other than assessing proportion?

  14. Superview, I’m glad you didn’t dissect Aquinas. You would probably have given my spam filter a nervous breakdown. But, in fairness, he was working his way through the virtues, and thus the sins against virtue. If you navigate back to the page via Google (Summa Aquinas), you’ll see his approach.

    “Species” here refers to the kind of act it is: its intrinsic nature or meaning. Thus sexual intercourse regarded in this way is seen physically to be ordered to procreation. Blocking this element is therefore to go against our created human nature. Intention has nothing to do with it. This is why HV and Casti Connubii (1930) emphasise with italics that there are no exceptions. We then understand why the use of the safe period is acceptable. The act is not de-natured, although the (irrelevant to this issue) intention is contraceptive. Similarly, my wife and I – being in our 70s – cannot have a contraceptive intention because the situation does not arise. But we are equally bound. The papal commission which preceded HV, including the theologians who championed absolute prohibition, found that the above approach could not be demonstrated rationally.

    The difficulty of the moment, which we have discussed before, is that of the lawfully married couple – one of whom is infected with HIVAIDS. It is obvious to me (and apparently to several senior prelates) that this is not satisfactory. The argument is that using the condom as a prophylactic, and not as a contraceptive, changes the nature of the act, and so makes it permissible. But this contradicts the line of thinking above and, once accepted, leaves it in tatters. The strategy of the Vatican appears to be simply to avoid giving an answer. If I am right, this is inexcusable. We are playing ducks and drakes with people’s lives and consciences.

    Mortal sin is not a matter of accountancy. By definition it separates us from God but, subject to that, it can vary in degree. Stealing £100 and abusing a child may both be mortal sins. But the gravity is not the same.

    Aquinas is in a sense using proportionalism, but, if one value involved is imperative and without exceptions, it is an empty exercise.

  15. RMBlaber says:

    Those of us who remember the Penny Catechism will know that the second of the ‘four sins crying to heaven for vengeance’ (Article 327) is the sin of Sodom (see This is the paradigmatic sin against nature – homosexual intercourse. It can be unitive and hedonic – expressive of love and mutually pleasurable – but never reproductive. For that reason, and for that reason alone, it is condemned.
    As ‘Superview’ notes (and I thank him for his kind assessment of my abilities), we owe this naturalist morality to SS Augustine and Aquinas. He wonders why they were so interested (to the point of obsession!) with ‘the parts of lust’. For a partial answer to that question, he has only to turn to the details of St Augustine’s biography, as outlined in ‘The Confessions’ (see As a young man, prior to his conversion to Christianity, he was (as I think is well-known) quite a character, who fathered an illegitimate child, his son Adeodatus, by a concubine he lived with for over 13 years (see Hence the famous quotation, ‘Grant me chastity and continence, only not yet’ (Confessions, 8.7,xvii)!
    It is at least arguable that the naturalist _morality_ embodies the naturalistic _fallacy_ (see, according to which what is ‘natural’ is, _ipso facto_, good. At any rate, there appears to be no reason why the purpose of sex should be defined, narrowly, in terms of reproduction, and any sex that is non-reproductive should _eo ipso_ be condemned (including heterosexual intercourse within sacramental marriage, but using artificial birth control).
    Quentin describes Thomist reasoning on this matter as ‘balderdash’, which is quite strong language for him, and he does not shrink from the implication, which is to reject St Thomas’ underlying teleological premise: namely, that the ‘good’ of a thing (in this case, sex) is to be found in the realisation of its final cause – its end, or purpose, which is intrinsic and ‘natural’ to itself. (Sc. That’s certainly one in the eye for The Vatican, but having dispensed with a quite long-standing tradition of moral theology, there is a need to put something else in its place, and to have a firm foundation for it. What does he suggest?

  16. RMBlaber says:

    There is much more to say about proportionalism, so, at the risk of becoming a bore on the subject, I’ll press on.
    I will, however, leave the vexed area of sex well alone this time: rather, let me venture into the realm of international statecraft.
    The Church is insistent that you may not do evil that good may come of it. Suppose, however, that I am the Foreign Secretary (a highly unlikely prospect, but still…). It is a few years from now, and I receive intelligence reports that Iran has acquired ten nuclear warheads, and intermediate range missiles (IRMs) capable of striking targets in Israel. I also hear that the US and Israel are planning immediate aerial bombardment and cruise missile strikes to destroy these weapons.
    Come back in time. I am still Foreign Secretary, and I already know that Iran has IRMs (, and I hear that Iran has 1 ton of uranium enriched to reactor standard (4%) held at Natanz (see What I don’t know is how long it would take to process that uranium to weapons grade fissile material, or whether the Iranian leadership has actually taken the decision to do that. I know that Israel already has The Bomb, and that Iran will run out of yellowcake (uranium ore) in about 2010, unless it can obtain illegal, UN-sanction busting, sources from abroad (by no means impossible) (sc.
    Little Boy, the atomic weapon that destroyed Hiroshima on 6th August, 1945, used 64 kg (110 lb) of uranium, containing 80% uranium-235 (see That 1 ton of low-grade uranium therefore represents 50.8 kg of 80% enriched weapons grade U-235, not enough for one Bomb.
    The question I, as Foreign Secretary, have to answer, is this. Do I go along with Washington, and the rest of the international community, at present, in, on the one hand, calling for dialogue with the Iranian regime, but also arguing for a stern and increasingly strong imposition of UN sanctions against the country if it persists with its policy of enriching uranium, or do I give Israel the green light for a pre-emptive attack now, to prevent Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon?
    The risk I take is that such an attack will precipitate a war in the Middle East. However, if we wait until Iran has nuclear weapons, there could still be a Middle East war, with even more devastating consequences. I am forced to choose, not between good and evil, but between the lesser of two evils. The only question is, which is the lesser?

  17. To reply to RMBlaber, my “balderdash” remark was not really an analysis of Aquinas’s reasoning, but a consideration of its outcome. For example, it would follow that in the case of fornication in which a condom was used the more fundamental sin would be the condom use and not the fornication. But it would be clear, I hope, to any reasonable person that deliberately to have unprotected sex would, in normal cases, increase the risk of harm and so add to the sin of fornication rather than limit it. Thus it would be a serious offence against charity.

    Aquinas’s error (and the problem of traditional moral theology approaches) is to confine the judgment of an act to its biological nature. It omits the fact that we are not solely biological, and therefore the whole human being must be taken into account when deciding what the Natural Law requires. This was in fact the crucial point for the famous commission on contraception. The majority argued that sexual intercourse played an important (and much more frequent) role in expressing the love of marriage, and so was a fundamental part of its meaning. They did not reject the biological analysis as demonstrating its procreative meaning, but they supplemented it by this second meaning – concluding that contraceptive intercourse, while not as full as non contraceptive intercourse, remained at the service of marriage. The conservative opponents admitted that they could not demonstrate through reason that this conclusion was wrong.

    RMB asks me how I would replace the “certainty” which relies on biological interpretation alone. I would argue that the great majority of our moral decisions are based on principles which admit of exceptions. For example, he is obliged to keep his promises. But if he promised to supply me with a large quantity of fertiliser, but subsequently discovered that I proposed to use it to make a bomb, he would be wrong to keep his promise. I am obliged to care for the future of my children, but what would be the limits on the actions I would be entitled to take in order to get them into a good state school?

  18. Superview says:

    Keeping up with the moral dilemmas posed by RMBlaber and Quentin takes some doing. I’d like to explore the ‘which of two evils’ question with the Iranian nuclear weapons issue, and Quentin’s argument “that the great majority of our moral decisions are based on principles which admit of exceptions.” But I’m still back there with the origins of traditional moral theology, having chased down more on SS Aquinas and Augustine (not my first acquaintance, but that was a very long time ago, in the form of the Confessions and a library of CTS publications). In fact, I’ve not long parked reading up on John Duns Scotus and Henri Bergson – what an extraordinary facility is Wikipedia – and fully intended to respectfully ask of RMBlaber, given his rejection of the idea of the ’emergence’ of the soul (Chattering Chimpanzees) at what point might the soul have appeared in Man complete and fully formed?
    However, not to digress, among other things I’m intrigued with the power that the concept of the ‘natural law’ has exerted over Christian theology, and the influence of the Greek philosophers (again, I read something of Aristotle and Plato in my youth but I’ve forgotten far more than I remember, so I’m catching up on that as well). I can quite see how something intuitively ‘unnatural’ in human behaviour (and most of Aquinas’s list fits that category) conflicts with human dignity (yes I know that opens up another set of questions) but why has what is simplistically ‘natural’ become for the Church what is moral above all things? How has it come to be that impairing or frustrating the teleological integrity of an action – in the present instance a biological action, although it would be helpful to consider others – mortally morally wrong?
    RMBlaber rightly challenges Quentin to offer a replacement for “a quite long-standing tradition of moral theology”, and this is, it seems to me, exactly where we are. In our world the manipulation of ‘nature’ is proceeding exponentially, through genetics, for example, and medical science seeks with increasing success to arrest natural processes, and what is good is not necessarily what is natural, and justice often requires that the ‘whole person’ is considered. So, is it no more than the semantics that needs changing to help us comprehend absolute moral truths, with acceptance of a set of principles which allow of exceptions, or do we need another attempt to describe what is objectively and rationally moral and good?

  19. Superview’s last comment causes to me to think that I should have answered RMB’s challenge to find a basis of morals by referring him – and now Superview – to my column “Natural Law – written in our hearts” of 03 July 2008. The Search Box will find it. Although our grasp of what is necessary to allow human beings to flourish is largely common to all, it is extended once we accept that we are made in God’s image and likeness, and with an eternal destiny.
    My problem arises with the relatively few instances when a natural law imperative is based solely on an analysis of biology. This, I suggest, is a betrayal of Natural Law which is, by definition, derived from human nature. Since the biological only addresses one part of human nature this approach is inadequate. Although there are moral theologians who would disagree with me here, I have a strong impression from my reading that the majority nowadays would broadly share my view. Of course there are instances in the past when the Magisterium has declared an action as forbidden or permitted by the natural law but has changed its mind as new knowledge or deeper consideration of old knowledge has brought about change. We should expect this to continue to happen. It is consistent with Aquinas’s own view that, while the major principles of natural law are certain, their application in more complex and particular circumstances may be uncertain.

  20. The following comment was made by A. Rist on 27 July. Because it appeared on “Express an Opinion” it may not have been seen. I copy it verbatim here:

    Dear Quentin,
    Your article strays between “Proportionalism” (condemned by Popes as leading e.g. to the direct killing of innocents) and “proportionate reason” – (discussed by Aquinas & to be viewed as a part of the virtue of Prudence) The (Augustinian) point about p.r. is that you often don’t know what is proportionate. How do you weigh up conflicting values? Importantly, what about the effect on the agent? (A central point of traditional morality from Plato’s Socrates to Solzhenitsin). The news that the R.C.N. has taken up a “neutral” stance on assisted suicide is a case in point.
    Your “hard case” example of the fallopian-tube embryo (ectopic pregnancy) raises the question: “Is this an abortion?” Not if you define abortion as the destruction of a viable embryo/foetus/child. Proportionate reasoning would suggest in this case that one is not choosing between mother and child, since the child’s life cannot (in the present state of medicine) be saved.

  21. RMBlaber would, I know, like a reaction to his dilemma on nuclear action (25 July). For me this is an interesting challenge to proportionalism. After many years of thinking otherwise, I eventually concluded that using large scale nuclear weapons on mainly civilian populations could never be justified. I would rather be nuked than to nuke. Equally the use of high explosive carpet bombing on cities during WWII was wrong, even though it might have cost us the war – though I doubt it. I realise that many Catholics of good standing would disagree. I simply think that they are wrong. Unmanned planes which are intended to kill terrorists but which inevitably kill civilians is a “double effect” problem. As RMB states it, I would think that wrong, too – because double effect specifically requires a measurement of proportion which I would judge not to be so in such a case..

  22. A. Rist, you raise an interesting question here about how one compares values of a different order. How do I for instance compare a belief that no educational advantage should be bought, and my duty towards the needs of my child? The two values are not on the same scale, and so cannot be directly measured against each other. This incommensurability has often been proposed as an argument against Proportionalism. But making such a choice is often unavoidable, however difficult. Much would depend on the strength of my different value systems. Possibly my column on Virtue Ethics (Virtue is the root of all good, 16 April 2009) would help here.
    Personally, I don’t think that your re-definition in the matter of the embryo holds water. But let’s see if others have anything to say.

  23. Vincent says:

    I would join Quentin’s doubts about the last paragraph from A Rist.
    If the embryo is actually a human being then its viability does not seem relevant – whether viability here means legally viable or potentially viable in the sense that it would be born if no untoward act occurred. I don’t think that re-defining helps, because it is only a matter of words.
    If I remember correctly similar controversy took place when a mother had nephritis which would be fatal if the pregnancy continued. The baby would have died here, too. But it was forbidden.
    I don’t doubt A Rist’s conclusion. And I have no better moral solution, other than proportionalism, to offer. Exceptions prove (in the sense of “test”) the law. In this case the exception suggests that the principle that abortion is always wrong is not absolute.

  24. Superview says:

    There are a number of threads in the comments above that I would like to pick up, some briefly. In fact the Iranian nuclear weapons dilemma is not so testing as on first viewing. There is no way a UK Foreign Sec would not go with Washington and the international community and try every possible means to resolve the issue, including leaving open other options, rather than unilaterally go with Israel and risk an immediate Middle East war and the consequences that would follow. The latter option would be criminally reckless and imprudent, and thus morally wrong.
    Quentin has reached a courageous position where he would not gamble the certain deaths of thousands of innocent civilians for a possible improvement of the chances that we would prevail against the Nazi domination of Europe with all that that entailed. On this scale I think he is right. But, on the other hand, am I ready to read back into the actions of those who, at great and heroic cost, sought to destroy an evil, mortal enemy and judge them morally wrong? I’m not sure.
    Following the informative comment from Horace (13 July) this is how I approach the ectopic pregnancy dilemma:
    (1) Can both mother and child live? No.
    (2) Can one of them live? Yes.
    (3) Everyone wants the child to live.
    (4) Everyone wants the mother to live.
    (5) The worst outcome is that both die. We have a moral obligation to prevent this. It would be ‘inhuman’ to allow this to happen.
    (6) The best possible outcome is that one lives.
    (7) Which of the two can be saved? If the mother, save the mother. If the child, save the child. This is both logical and moral.
    To discuss it in terms of is it an abortion or is it not seems to me to introduce controversy where there should be none.

  25. Superview you have committed the mortal sin of moral theology: using common sense.

    On another issue, you raise, I am certainly not in a hurry to condemn those who used carpet bombing during WWII. But, while we have to consider guilt in terms of the atmosphere and the feelings of the time, that does not mean – nor do you suggest this – that it was justified. It raises the important question of the extent to which our moral judgment is influenced by the commonly accepted values of the group in which we live. This is a subject I would like to return to in a column sometime.

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