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.