Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 26--Proportionalism

THE "SOURCES" OR "FONTS" OF MORALITY have traditionally been identified as three: (i) the intention of the subject; (ii) the circumstances surrounding the act; and (iii) the object of the act in question. All three sources have to be kept in mind in assessing the moral value of an act and its conformity to man's end, as a defect in any one of these areas renders the whole act morally bad.

In his encyclical Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul decisively rejects theories of moral analysis that are teleological in character.* These theories assess the morality of an act by measuring the consequences of the act (hence they are "teleological"--looking at consequences--rather than deontological--looking at duties, or ontological--looking at being or nature). Consequentialism or utilitarianism is a classic example of a teleological theory:

The criteria for evaluating the moral rightness of an action [in such teleological moral theories] are drawn from the weighing of the non-moral or pre-moral goods to be gained and the corresponding non-moral or pre-moral values to be respected. For some, concrete behavior would be right or wrong according as whether or not it is capable of producing a better state of affairs for all concerned. Right conduct would be the one capable of "maximizing" goods and "minimizing" evils.

VS, 74.

The Pope clearly rejects consequentialism or utilitarianism, a moral theory which in one way or another appears to be the majority view in the West. It is appreciated by its advocates because it essentially frees man from any absolute prescriptions. Unfortunately, this sort of thinking has been accepted, though with some modification, by some Catholic theologians under the moniker "proportionalism."** While the Pope does not begrudge continued analysis of the fonts of morality and the norms of moral life, finding such exploration "legitimate and necessary," convenient for "dialogue and cooperation" with those outside the household of faith, he insists that any theory have an adequate formulation of the moral act and be true to the Christian revelation. Proportionalists, who focus inordinately upon the consequences of an act, fail, in the Pope's view, to consider adequately the role of the will in assessing a moral act, or fail to consider sufficiently the reality of an objective good, and so present a false solution to the moral assessment.

The Pope distinguishes between classical consequentialism or utilitarianism and the related, though distinct, theory of proportionalism:
[Consequentialism] 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. [Proportionalism], 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.
VS, 75.

Regardless of the theory of proportionalism that may be involved, a common feature they all share with consequentialism as a result of their calculative, teleological focus is that "it is never possible to formulate an absolute prohibition of particular kinds of behavior which would be in conflict, in every circumstance and in every culture, with those values." VS, 75. For a proportionalist, there are no exceptionless or absolute moral norms, at least at the level of categorical or concrete or particular acts. One would think that this view alone would give the theologians who advocate such a position pause, since Jewish and Christian tradition and the best of Pagan traditions (e.g., Aristotle) have always believed in some exceptionless or absolute norms.

How do proportionalists unleash the concrete day-to-day world from the internal, fundamental world? Proportionalists distinguish between the moral order and the pre-moral [or "ontic," "physical," or "nonmoral"] order. Any act of man, they say, can be divided into its moral component and its physical, nonmoral, ontic, or pre-moral component. These two orders are subjected to different means of assessment, one a moral assessment, the other a non-moral assessment. The moral assessment looks at goodness. The physical, ontic, or pre-moral assessment looks at rightness. The moral assessment is made "on the basis of the subject's intention in reference to moral goods." The pre-moral or physical assessment is made "on the basis of a consideration of its foreseeable effects or consequences and of their proportion." VS, 75.

By separating the moral and physical realms, the moral theologians who have adopted proportionalism are able to talk about the good or evil of an act (with respect to its moral quality) and the rightness or wrongness of the same act (with respect to its physical or non-moral effects). So a concrete moral act (say the euthanizing of a terminally-ill parent) can be viewed from the perspective of moral goodness or evil and from the perspective of pre-moral or physical rightness or wrongness. Such concrete behavior can be "described as 'right' or 'wrong,' without it being thereby possible to judge as morally 'good' or 'bad' the will of the person choosing them." VS, 75. Because of this distinction, euthanizing one's terminally-ill parent (which, under traditional moral theology would involve violation of an exceptionless norm--the taking of an innocent human life) can be viewed as morally acceptable if the actor's intention in the moral realm is "good," because, viewed from a pre-moral or purely physical perspective, the euthanizing of one's terminally-ill parent may, from a cost/benefit analysis be "right." Similarly, a scientist experimenting on fetal stem cells--if he intends to benefit mankind through his research and so his "moral" intent is "good"--may legitimately engage in his research since the perceived benefits associated with such research are "right" inasmuch as they are believed to hold hope for future reduction in human suffering. Any absolute negative prohibition which might curb the decision of the euthanizer or the researcher in the area of concrete or particular activity is deftly sidestepped.

The proportionalist theory seems fitted for the prevailing "scientific mentality," and it allows practical men and women of science, of technology, and the other sciences, including politics and economics, to implement their inventions and programs without regard to moral norms that might absolutely proscribe certain activities. The end is everything; the means is simply irrelevant in moral inquiry. By dividing the moral question into moral and pre-moral realms and assessing the pre-moral realm using a sort of cost/benefit empirical analysis, it is able to accord a certain autonomy to the material, physical pre-moral realm and the scientist, technicians, and policy-makers who act in that realm. While the Pope does not begrudge science and technology their proper relative autonomy, he certainly condemns the notion that activities in science and technology (which deal with the physical world) are entirely unleased from the moral realm.

Such theories [of consequentialism and proportionalism] 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. . . . The faithful are obliged to acknowledge and respect the specific moral precepts declared and taught by the Church in the name of God, the Creator and Lord.

VS, 76.***

There is, to be sure, a calculative aspect in areas where prudence reigns and where a violation of a negative precept is not involved. This has always been recognized and is the basis behind moral casuistry, a "casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations." But moral casuistry can be distinguished from proportionalism in that it involved situations in which the law was uncertain and there was not negative moral precept that was being infringed. Casuistry was never used to justify the violation of an exceptionless, absolute negative moral precept. Proportionalism, on the other hand, insists that there are no exceptionless, absolute moral precepts in the particular or concrete day-to-day decision-making. If they exist, they exist in generality; once one leaves the transcendence of generality and goes into the rough-and-tumble flesh-and-blood day-to-day human being, and such exceptionless norm is watered down to an ideal riddled with exceptions.

*There is a difference between a moral theory that views human nature as teleological (having and end or purpose), and a moral theory that measures the morality of act teleologically (viewing only its effects or consequences). The latter is what the Pope views with disfavor, not the former.
**Some of the better-known advocates of proportionalism include: Peter Knauer, Joseph Fuchs, Bruno Schuller, Louis Janssens, Franz Bockle, Gerard J. Hughes, Richard A. McCormick, Bernard Hoose, Charles E. Curran, Timothy E. O'Connell, and James F. Keenan. While proportionalist theories are myriad, the essential feature they share is a sort of moral calculus of benefits and harms in assessing the moral act. Proportionalism goes beyond mere consequentialism or utilitarianism in that it recognizes that more than the consequences of an act ought to be apprised in assessing the moral goodness of an act, including both intent, the object, the circumstances and so forth. These ought to be aggregated and summed up and weighed, and so long as the the proportion of benefit outweighs the harm, the act can be considered moral. Some proportionalists limit the application of the theory to only some acts. The Pope describes the difference between pure utilitarianism or consequentialism and proportionalism as follows. Utilitarianism or consequentialism "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." On the other hand, proportionalism "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." VS, 75. Proportionalists also distinguish between moral goods (which involve the moral order) and non-moral goods (which involve pre-moral or non-moral goods), with the former having to do with "goodness" of an act and the latter having to do with the "rightness" of an act.
***The Pope cites to the Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session VI, Decree on Justification Cum Hoc Tempore, Canon 19: DS, 1569, and Clement XI, Constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius (September 8, 1713) against the Errors of Paschasius Quesnel, Nos. 53-56: DS, 2453-2456.

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