Proportionality, Principle of

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It is a common sense axiom that there should be a reasonable balance between human activity and its consequences. In Roman Catholic moral theology, the principle of proportionality states that the moral rectitude of an action is a function of the preponderance of human value over disvalue that results through the action.

Attention to proportionality, as pertinent to the moral evaluation of behavior, has long been part of the Catholic ethical tradition. The principle of the double effect, for instance, holds that an action having both good and bad effects is permissible if four conditions are fulfilled. One of those conditions is that there be a "proportionate reason" for tolerating the evil consequences. Similarly, the principle of totality justified attacks on a part of the human body if the whole body/person stood to benefit and if there was "proportionate reason" to tolerate the attack. The idea of proportionate reason also appeared in discussions of material cooperation in evil, the just war theory, and the permitting of passive scandal.

Within the Catholic theological tradition, this perspective was also evidenced in the emphasis upon the virtue of prudence in the living of the moral life. Thomas Aquinas, for example, viewed prudence as the central moral virtue (III, 61, 2), since deciding rightly among concrete options in a finite world is utterly dependent upon the skill of comparative assessment. Thus, it can be said that prudence is the virtue by which one rightly discerns the proportionate reasons for acting or not acting, and for selecting one action in preference to another.

Implied in these traditional usages is the insight that it is not humanly possible to avoid all injury/harm. Even more, it is not possible to do all possible good. For example, one cannot always safeguard professional secrets without (deliberately) deceiving others; one cannot at times defend oneself against aggressors without a violent response. Similarly, to visit a sick friend in the hospital is to take time away from family, prayer, study, etc. In a finite world all decisions are choices among values. Hence, the Christian's central moral duty is to do "as much good as possible and as little harm as necessary," to give attention to all the various values and disvalues that are simultaneously part of the concrete action.

Points of Controversy. Although discussions about the most accurate way to define the principle of proportionality continue, it has for many Catholic theologians achieved the status of a fundamental moral norm. And that, in turn, has led to controversy. The controversy is not about whether the principle is useful in some settings. Rather, it is about its universality and about its applications.

With regard to its universality, the question is asked if there are some actions which are never morally proper, no matter how little harm may result. The responses fall into two broad categories divided along basic approaches that various authors take to moral issues, Teleologists (Gr. telos, end or result) deny that actions can be adjudged morally proper or improper apart from reference to their actual impact on human life for, in their judgment, it is precisely the fact of overwhelmingly destructive results that is the reason for the action's immorality. Some proponents of this approach would describe it as "consequentialist," because of its emphasis on the results and/or consequences of actions. Deontologists, who judge the fundamental rectitude of an act in categories of duty and obligation (Gr. deontos ) assert that some actions are always wrong, not for reasons of disproportionate harm but because of either intrinsic impropriety for human persons or specific divine prohibition. (These philosophical categories are, perhaps, used with less than complete precision in depicting the alternatives in this theological debate. According to some Catholic authors, moral philosophies defy simple categorization into teleological-deontological polarities.)

This debate is sometimes obfuscated by the accusation that the principle of proportionality amounts to an assertion that "the end justifies the means," and that its proponents are prepared to tolerate the doing of moral evil for an allegedly greater good. But defenders of the principle presume that all human acts involve both helpful and harmful, constructive and destructive aspects, and that an act is moral precisely because it is proportionately more positive than negative. Thus, an "end" never justifies an immoral means, since such a means counts as immoral precisely and only because it is unduly and unnecessarily destructive. Hence, all Catholic ethicists agree that the end does not justify an immoral means. The debate is about whether acts can be characterized as moral or immoral apart from attention to the proportion of good and harm involved.

The controversy also reveals itself in the application of the principle of proportionality. There is no doubt that some authors, spiritual directors, and confessors have used the principle to justify artificial contraception, remarriage after divorce, and certain forms of homosexual behavior. Thus, debates about the principle are often, in fact, disguised debates about the morality of these behaviors. But, at least in theory, the two debates are separable. That is, one could affirm a fundamentally teleological understanding of morality and could accept the principle of proportionality as an adequate norm for prudential judgment, and at the same time reject all of the behaviors mentioned above. Similarly, one could espouse a more deontological moral theory and support these behaviors.

The clarification of the principle of proportionality has occurred in the process of a thorough reassessment of Catholic moral theology, especially as it was articulated in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. That relatively recent moral tradition seemed in the eyes of a number of reputable Catholic writers in Europe and America to have become improperly legalistic, detaching moral norms from the concrete assessment of complex human behaviors. The desire of these authorities is to retrieve a teleological understanding based on the ends and consequences of human actions and the richer approaches and visions of earlier ethical writings. At the same time, their negative assessment of the moral tradition of the past two or three centuries shows itself in a willingness to question the concrete application of moral norms which were, until recently, so much a part of standard textbooks. In particular, they question the confidence with which very detailed, concrete behaviors, especially sexual behaviors, were evaluated, judged immoral, and prohibited. They further question whether the conventional answers of a just war theory and the principle of double effect in medicine are credible in the face of advances in modern science and technology.

Thus the retrieval of the traditional notion of proportionate reason and its elevation to the position of fundamental principle has occurred in the context of that more general renaissance in Catholic moral theology.

See Also: moral theology; teleological ethics

Bibliography: c. a. curran and r. a. mccormick, eds., Readings in Moral Theology No. 1: Moral Norms and Catholic Tradition (New York 1979). r. a. mccormick and p. ramsey, eds., Doing Evil to Achieve Good: Moral Choice in Conflict Situations (Chicago 1978). r. a. mccormick, Notes on Moral Theology: 1965 through 1980 (Washington, D.C. 1981); Notes on Moral Theology: 1981 Through 1984 (Lanham, MD 1984). j. j. walter, "Proportionate Reason and Its Three Levels of Inquiry: Structuring the Ongoing Debate," Louvain Studies 10 (Spring 1984) 3040. l. s. cahill, "Teleology, Utilitarianism, and Christian Ethics," Theological Studies 42:4 (Dec. 1981) 601629.

[t. e. o'connell]