MAKING GOOD MORAL CHOICES: TWO APPROACHES
by Rev. Ronald Lawler, Joseph Boyle and William May
The problem facing us in this section concerns the standards and
procedures for arriving at the judgment that a certain choice is morally
good or bad. The problem arises because it is not clear how the
commandments of love are to be applied to actual human choices. We have
already seen that the love commandments require a concern and respect for
human goods, but we have yet to see how that concern is translated into
practical norms and procedures of moral thinking. This difficulty is a
real one in the present situation because Catholic theologians hold
strongly opposed views on this matter. With some oversimplification it is
possible to classify the opposing views into two broad approaches to moral
thinking. They can be called, respectively, "proportionalism" and "the
morality of principles." Both of these approaches are attempts to carry
out the renewal called for by Vatican II; both seek to escape every kind
of legalism and extrinsicism to show that morality is not a set of
arbitrary rules imposed without concern for what the human person is and
longs to be. Both explain the moral teachings of Christianity in terms of
love of persons, and of the great human goods that animate all moral
striving-goods like those discussed in the preceding section. Both seek to
be faithful to the larger vision of Scripture and Christian tradition,
understanding that man was made not simply to keep rules but to serve God
creatively as his image, intelligently striving to do what is really good,
what love requires.
Proportionalism is so called because of its emphasis on the proportion of
good and evil in actions. According to proportionalism, an act which would
otherwise be immoral can be justified morally if the overall good or evil
involved in doing the action compares favorably with the overall good or
evil which the available alternatives would bring about. Thus, its basic
principle can be called the principle of the greater good, or more
commonly, the principle of the lesser evil. The morality of principles is
so called because of its concern for unfailing faithfulness to the first
principles of morality, that is, for faithfulness to every person and
every human good. Thus, there is no necessary opposition between these
approaches concerning the primacy of love or the nature of the human good.
They disagree about how love and the human good should shape our choices.
Each of these approaches to moral thinking is, of course, concerned with
principles, and each shows real concern about the overall good and evil
brought about by actions. But proportionalism emphasizes the overall
outcomes of acts, evaluating them in terms of the principle of the lesser
evil; and the morality of principles emphasizes loyalty to principles in a
way that precludes overriding this fidelity because of the overall good or
evil the action brings about. Thus, the designations of the positions are
descriptive of their central features.
. Proportionalism, as already noted, is a method of moral
thinking according to which a person ought to choose that alternative
course of action which promises the greater proportion of good over
evil. In other words, proportionalists believe that intelligent concern
for the human goods requires an assessment of all the good and evil
involved in alternative possibilities for action. The purpose of this
assessment is to determine, prior to choice, which of the alternatives
promises the greater good or the lesser evil. This determination tells us
which of the alternatives we morally ought to choose.
The proportionalist method is considered applicable to any moral problem,
but the Catholic theologians who make use of it tend to limit its
application in various ways. This method is, however, used in an
unrestricted form by many secular moralists. These thinkers are usually
called "consequentialists," and they tend to treat the principle of the
lesser evil as the single basic moral principle. The most widely known
form of consequentialism is utilitarianism. In its classical versions this
secular form of ethics held that there is really only one good that human
action pursues, pleasure; and it taught that men ought always pursue that
which leads to "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Catholic proportionalists are far from being pure utilitarians. The whole
context of their thinking is Christian, not secular. Generally they
acknowledge the objective goodness and distinctive reality of each of the
kinds of basic goods that we have noted above. Thus, they reject the
oversimplified identification of the human good with pleasurable
experience. They also rightly reject any suggestion that individual
rights can be subordinated to the interests of society. Most importantly,
proportionalists acknowledge that there are some moral absolutes -for
example, that one should never seek to lead another into sin. Thus, they
admit significant limitations on the applicability of the proportionality
But proportionalists distinctively hold that the most common moral
absolutes traditionally taught by the Catholic Church-and, even now,
insistently taught by the magisterium -are not valid. Ordinarily these
moralists hold, against the received teaching of the Church, that not
every act of contraception is immoral, that not every act of homosexuality
or fornication is objectively wrong, that not every intentional taking of
innocent human life is absolutely prohibited.
Proportionalists typically hold that no kinds of acts, when defined in
purely descriptive language, that is, language that includes no morally
evaluative terms, are wrong, or . If one were to mean by murder an unjust slaying of an innocent
person, then they would agree that every murder is indeed wrong, for the
characterization of the killing as unjust is sufficient to settle its
immorality. But the direct slaying of an innocent person is not held to be
absolutely and in every possible circumstance wrong. Such an act does not
include evaluative terms in its description, and it is conceivable that in
some extreme circumstances such an act would be determined to be the
lesser evil. In those circumstances killing would be a morally good act.
Proportionalists recognize, of course, that there are some alternatives
for action that, although not excluded because they are by definition
morally bad, are likely to cause greater harm in almost all circumstances.
To use one of their examples, it would be wrong to force a retarded child
to have sexual relations. Such a norm is a "practical absolute" which is
"virtually exceptionless." But, as these phrases suggest, the norm here is
not absolute in principle. This, or any other act characterized in purely
descriptive terms, might under some circumstances we cannot now think of
be thought to be the lesser evil, and thus the correct thing to do.
The proportionalist supposes that there is a radical difference between
actions characterized evaluatively and actions characterized only in
descriptive terms. This difference depends upon one of the most
fundamental distinctions in the proportionalist approach-that is, the
difference between moral evil and premoral, physical, or ontic evil. Moral
evils are essentially morally bad choices and acts. By definition such
acts may not morally be done. Thus, proportionalists would not allow the
use of their method to justify an action already determined to be morally
evil. One important implication is that we should never act deliberately
to cause another to commit sin.
Premoral evil refers to the depravation of some good that is due a person
or a thing; premoral evils are really bad, but they are not as such
immoral. Sickness and death are premoral evils. They are obviously bad,
but not as such immoral. The question is whether choices deliberately to
cause premoral evils are morally bad choices. The proportionalist answer
is that a choice of what is premorally evil can be morally justified if
there is a proportionate reason-if choosing or intending that evil is the
way to realize the lesser evil in the situation. As a leading
proportionalist has put it:
Where a higher good is at stake and the only to protect it is to
choose a non- moral evil, then the will remains properly disposed to the
values constitutive of the human good.... This is to say that the
intentionality is good even when the person, reluctantly and regretfully
to be sure, intends the non-moral evil if a truly proportionate reason for
such a choice is present.
Thus, we have in the basic logic of the proportionalist method a ground
for rejecting much of the Church's received teaching on sexual matters,
for much of this teaching is about acts that can appear to affect only
premoral goods, and it is possible to think of many situations in which
the lesser evil will seem to require that one deliberately harm or fail to
respect these goods.
Since recent popes, synods, and episcopal conferences have very frequently
reaffirmed the validity and importance of moral absolutes in the Church's
traditional sense, it has become characteristic of proportionalists to
hold that one need not assent to these teachings of the magisterium in
specific moral matters. They hold this, even though the Church has taught
these things with such force and in such insistent ways that many
theologians believe they have been taught infallibly by the ordinary
magisterium. Proportionalists argue that these teachings are proposed
only by a fallible magisterium, and that it is licit to dissent from the
most insistent teaching of the ordinary teaching authority of the Church,
if one has sufficient reasons.
. Of the many arguments adduced in favor of
proportionalism, two seem especially important.
The first is a philosophical argument that the fundamental principle of
proportionalism is . Proportionalists argue that if one
were not required to choose the greater good, or the lesser evil, the
alternative would be that one would be obliged to choose the lesser good
or greater evil. This alternative is patently absurd. The self- evidence
of the proportionalist principle is said to be confirmed by the fact that
it is the natural, obvious way to determine the right course of action, as
the actual moral thinking of good people reveals. The good person will
certainly concede that he ought not do what leads to a greater balance of
evil over good; that is to say, he instinctively judges as a
proportionalist. The reason for this conviction is that morally serious
persons care about what is really good, and this concern, if it is to be
thoroughly reasonable, must justify the principle of the lesser evil.
The second major argument for proportionalism is that just as serious
individuals make use of the proportionalist principle in their moral
thinking so also does the Church. Thus, the adoption of proportionalism
by Catholic thinkers, they claim, is a modest and legitimate development
of moral themes already used by the Church, even if only implicitly. This
argument is often supported by examples of the role of proportionality in
the just-war theory and as one of the conditions of the principle of
This development of moral teaching is especially appropriate today, so the
argument goes, for a variety of reasons. As noted already, Vatican Council
II called for a renewal in moral theology. In particular, the Council
seems to have called for a more humanistic and less legalistic approach to
morality. Proportionalism seems to many to be the proper response to this
need in the life of the Church. It seems to be the worst sort of rule
worship, the most uncaring legalism for a person to refuse to do an act
necessary for avoiding great harms simply because it is prohibited by a
moral absolute taught by the Church. Pastoral reasons are also cited in
support of the legitimacy of this development. People today will not and
cannot accept the moral absolutes that so burden people in the new
circumstances of a greatly changed world.
. The claim that the proportionalist
principle of the lesser evil is self-evidently true cannot be sustained.
This principle supposes that it is possible to determine which alternative
has the better or the less bad effects overall. To make this determination
it must be possible to "commensurate" in an unambiguous way goods and
evils at stake in human actions. It must be possible, in other words, to
rank, measure, or compare the goods and evils at stake. One must be able
to tell how much harm to one good is offset by the realization of some
other good. Unless one can do this, the proportionalist method simply
cannot work as a rational procedure of moral decision-making. This
commensurating of goods cannot be rationally carried out.
Thinkers within the broad tradition of consequentialism have tried for
centuries to show how human goods are commensurable but have never
provided an account which is both analytically satisfactory and consonant
with the common experiences of deliberation and choice. On the contrary,
common experience shows that the goods at stake when a person must make a
choice-the very situation in which moral guidance is needed-are not
commensurable. It is because the goods between which we must choose are
incommensurable that we must in the end settle what we shall do by
choosing. Powerful philosophical and theological arguments have been
developed which show that the common experience of the incommensurability
of goods must of necessity reflect the reality of human motivation and
Moreover, there are other problems with this method, problems about how to
determine the consequences, how many consequences to consider, and so on,
which have led many non-Catholic moralists to abandon consequentialism
altogether. It is somewhat ironic that Catholic thinkers have adopted a
method of moral thinking that has been for over a century the centerpiece
of secular humanist thinking at the very time when many secular moralists
were despairing of its ability to withstand the objections raised against
Those who deny the self-evidence of the basic proportionalist principle
are in no way proposing that we are ever expected to choose the greater
rather than the lesser evil. The claim is that proportionalists have
selected an incoherent way to distinguish the greater and the lesser evil.
Thus, what a proportionalist might claim to be the lesser evil really is
not shown by proportionalist procedures to be the lesser evil.
An example can clarify this. If a woman is considering having a direct
abortion, she would, if following the proportionalist approach, list the
central good and bad effects of deciding to have the abortion and of
deciding to forgo it. Among the bad effects is that she would be choosing
to kill directly and deliberately her own unborn child. Among expected
good effects might be that she preserves her own mental and physical
health, or that she saves the peace, unity, or financial integrity of her
family. But how could she objectively add and subtract among goods and
evils so diverse? Is the acknowledged evil of having the abortion such
that it can be outweighed by the goods one anticipates by having it? How
could she determine this? Her feelings might lean one way rather than the
other, but the need is for a norm that will give rational, objective
guidance in such situations.
A leading proportionalist tries to deal with this difficulty as follows:
"In fear and trembling we commensurate"; "we a hierarchy." This
approach seems to concede that there is no rational way to determine the
lesser evil. It proposes that one adopt, that one choose for oneself, a
hierarchy of goods, as a way of rating the worth of the various goods. One
cannot do it objectively; but one how one will weigh
alternatives; then one chooses in the light of the subjective evaluation
that one has given. What this means is that one does not discover what is
morally good; one decides what one shall call good by an arbitrary
One can indeed arbitrarily select ways of assigning values to the various
incommensurable goods: of holding, for example, that the direct slaying of
one's unborn child is an evil, nonetheless is less an evil than the sum of
the evils which would follow if one did not have the abortion. However,
this is evidently not a serious moral argument; it is a patent act of
rationalization. One does not learn or discover that one's moral
evaluation is the right one; rather one arbitrarily decides to adopt a
standard of evaluation that will make one's preference turn out to be the
This objection to proportionalism does not imply that the phrase "lesser
evil" has no use in the moral thinking of decent people, for it surely
does play such a role. But "lesser evil" does not have only the one
meaning given to it by proportionalists. Some people, for example, think
that the morally right course of action is always good, even when it has
very sad and tragic consequences. Such persons might express this
conviction by saying that the right course of action is the lesser evil,
while never for a moment supposing that doing what violated a moral
absolute could be the greater good or the lesser evil. What the
preceding argument precludes is only the specific use of the notion of
lesser evil within the proportionalist method. It is by no means clear
that morally decent people make use of this conception of lesser evil in
their moral decision- making.
The second argument for proportionalism is also unsatisfactory.
Proportionalism is a far more radical position than its defenders
acknowledge it to be. It encourages rejections of moral norms that seem to
be infallibly taught in the Church, and of positions that certainly cannot
be legitimately rejected by Catholics, even if they are not infallibly
proposed. Thus, proportionalism cannot be a legitimate development of
Catholic moral teaching. The basic problem is that proportionalism leads
to the denial that many of the moral absolutes taught by the Church are in
fact true moral absolutes. Its history suggests that this is essential to
its whole program, for it developed within the Church during the early
1960s as a rationale for justifying some use of contraceptives. This
denial of moral absolutes taught insistently by the Church involves a
denial of a basic moral principle-namely, that one must not do evil that
good might come of it. This principle, as enunciated by St. Paul (Romans
3.8) and taught by the Church over the centuries, excludes the possibility
of overturning moral absolutes by appeal to consequences, and this is
exactly what proportionalism enjoins us to do.
Thus, it is implausible to maintain that a principle so opposed to what is
fundamental in Church teaching can really be a development of that
teaching. The precedents cited in favor of this claim are unimpressive.
The fact that Christian tradition made use of some considerations about
proportionality in some sense does not provide evidence for the claim that
Christian tradition implicitly used or endorsed proportionalism, for it is
not clear that proportionality was understood as a weighing of values, and
even more importantly, such considerations were never used to overturn
moral absolutes but only to settle issues in which it was clear that no
moral absolute was at stake.
Proportionalism therefore is not authentic development of received
Catholic morality but a radical rejection of its central positions. Its
claims to be the reasonable way to avoid legalism and to deal with
pastoral problems are therefore suspect. Unless one supposes that any
approach to morality that holds for moral absolutes must be legalistic,
then it is by no means clear that proportionalism is the only way to avoid
it. Caring deeply for persons and their goods does not mean attempting
impossible ways or calculating and weighing the consequences of acts.
Utter fidelity to persons and their goods seems to imply an absolute
refusal to do kinds of acts that will harm them by attacking directly
basic goods in them. And this refusal implies a rejection of the basic
principle of proportionalism. Similarly, pastoral love for the faithful is
not shown by encouraging them to reject authentic (and perhaps infallible)
Church teaching, and to live in ways that the Fathers and saints have
always said would separate one from the love of Christ. Even today it is
an "eminent form of charity" to present Catholic teaching fully and
persuasively, and to give every assistance to live in accord with its
A final difficulty with proportionalism should also be noted. It is the
development of a criticism of consequentialism highlighted by secular
moralists-namely, that consequentialist forms of thinking tend to be
demoralizing in a number of ways. Pastoral experience confirms the
reality of this criticism. When the faithful are told that acts like those
of adultery or fornication are not absolutely and always wrong but could
be upright acts when proportionate reasons are really present, the
faithful are deprived of bracing supports ordinarily necessary to
strengthen them in the emotional and intellectual turmoil they experience
at the time of temptation. If people are convinced that their own selves,
their own moral identities, depend upon unswerving fidelity to moral
principles, they have a defense lacking to those who are convinced that
there is some way to rationally justify taking a course of action toward
which they are inclined, although they know them to be unworthy.
The experience of our time shows how much human rights are threatened when
small exceptions to necessary defenses of rights are allowed. For
instance, few people wished the massive abortions now overwhelming the
world. At first it was urged that some abortions be permitted "for very
good reasons." But if abortions are permissible when the calculation of
goods and harms permits it (a calculation that cannot be objectively
valid; a calculation that will be mightily affected by hopes and fears),
then the nonobjective nature of the calculation called for almost
certainly leads to the terrible consequences brought about by abortion.
Clearly, there can be no inalienable rights when there are no
Proportionalism therefore is inadequate as an approach to moral thinking
for Catholics. Instead of providing guidance for the care and love of
persons and their goods, proportionalism demands that human beings achieve
a kind of knowledge only God could have, and undertake a responsibility
for the consequences of actions that only God's providence can have.
Instead of fidelity to the limited but real commitments we all have and to
the moral absolutes which mark the boundaries for proper human
participation in God's providence, proportionalism tells us to look
farther-to consider all the effects, to put on a scale things that reflect
in irreducible ways God's infinite goodness. This may seem noble to some,
but it overreaches, taking as our own what we must trust to God's loving
concern. Our moral thinking must not suppose that we can extricate
ourselves from the tragedies and evils of human life; only God's healing
recreation can do that. But we can be faithful, can have hearts and wills
completely faithful to the goodness which God so loves and, in the end,
will restore. Proportionalism, sadly, corrupts that fidelity.
. As noted earlier, we give the name "Morality
of Principles" to the broad approach within Catholic moral theology which,
on the one hand, seeks to meet the challenge of Vatican II for renewal in
moral theology and, on the other hand, seeks to maintain continuity with
the received teaching of the Church on moral matters and with the best of
the moral thinking in the theological tradition.
The primary way in which the morality of principles maintains continuity
with the tradition of Catholic moral teaching is by insisting on the truth
and centrality of moral absolutes. This approach holds that the specific
moral norms taught by Christian tradition as holding in every instance do
indeed have such universal applicability. Such norms as "never directly
kill the innocent" and "never commit adultery" are held to be true, always
binding, and nontrivial. There can never be any objectively good reasons
for violating specific principles such as these.
This, of course, is not taken to imply that no moral norms have
exceptions. Most norms do have exceptions. "Keep your promises" and "obey
all just civil laws" are true general norms, but there are certainly
circumstances in which the good person recognizes that they do not apply.
What is new in the morality of principles is its effort to show that the
renewal of moral theology called for by Vatican II does not lead to an
abandonment of the norms always taught in the Church but rather to a
fuller understanding of why these norms are essential to the fabric of
authentic Christian living. To reject moral absolutes and the rich
tradition of moral thinking developed for applying and refining them would
not be to renew Catholic morality but to discard it.
The renewal of moral theology is therefore understood within the morality
of principles as an effort of deeper understanding and fuller appreciation
of the significance of moral life within the economy of salvation. It is
an effort to see how moral activity relates to the saving work of Christ,
to the eternal destiny of Christians, and to the true humanism which faith
has always held and Vatican II explicitly proclaimed. Thus understood,
renewal in moral theology looks deeper into the sources of faith and into
Catholic tradition to overcome a presentation of morality either as merely
legalistic rules and regulations imposed by God or the Church, or as a set
of directives which rationalistic arguments might establish.
The morality of principles therefore does not defend Christian moral
teaching, including the teaching on moral absolutes, in a legalistic way.
One must not avoid blasphemy or homosexual acts regardless of the
consequences of one's faithfulness to the rule simply because one
superstitiously venerates rules. Nor is the universality of the rule
grounded merely in some command of God, who perhaps inexplicably demands
faithfulness, even when more harm than good would appear to follow from
faithfulness to the precept in a given situation.
Faith confirms that there are moral absolutes but also insists that moral
absolutes are the requirements of love. The morality of principles
recognizes that the implications of love are not simply rules but
guidelines for authentic Christian life. Hence, proponents of the morality
of principles point out that it is always wrong to do such deeds as faith
has proscribed absolutely because acts such as these are incompatible with
the goods of persons which God calls us to love and absolutely respect. To
do such acts is always to act in ways contrary to the full perfection of
human persons and communities, and so it is to act in ways unworthy of
persons created in God's image and called to act as he does-never willing
evil, never harming love, and always respecting the dignity of persons.
Human goods are not ideals that dwell apart; they are the fulfillment of
human persons, and flourish only in persons. Hence, to act so as
deliberately to harm a basic human good is to act against the fulfillment
of a human person. And that is incompatible with loving the person.
The preceding argument in defense of moral absolutes is characteristic of
the approach taken by those who hold for the morality of principles. But
since this is a broad approach and not a single theory, not all who take
this approach would develop the argument in exactly this way. Some would
emphasize the dignity of persons, and how this dignity cannot be respected
unless certain absolute rights and obligations are honored. Others would
perhaps focus more on the precious human relationships and meanings that
will be distorted unless these absolutes are accepted. But all versions of
the morality of principles hold that moral absolutes protect what is most
precious, lasting, and valuable in human life. In this sense they are all
profoundly humanistic; all are variations on the theme that genuine love
requires a care and respect for persons which absolutely excludes certain
kinds of actions, namely those that harm persons, manipulate them, or
disregard their true dignity.
The contrast between proportionalism and the morality of principles is
perhaps sharpest at this point, for while both are concerned for human
persons and their goods, this concern is understood very differently by
each. Unlike proportionalism, the morality of principles does not suppose
that the demands of love can be captured by a single simple moral
principle, like the principle of the lesser evil. More important, the
morality of principles does not require the mistaken assumption that the
goods of human persons can be calculated and measured on a single scale.
The tradition's concern with a hierarchy of values was never construed as
a scale on which one could calculate the lesser evil as a ground for moral
The recognition that human goods are not calculable in the way
proportionalism supposes does not mean that there can be no rational way
to honor and respect them. Quite the contrary. We do not truly honor the
precious goods of human persons when we are willing to harm them because
doing so would, as we think, bring about the lesser evil. The morality of
principles is serious about not harming human goods, and demands that in
our acts we respect and honor each of them. Of course, we cannot in a
given act immediately promote and pursue all that is humanly good; but we
can always do acts in such a way that all the goods of human nature are
respected and honored. Our fidelity to the whole good of human persons is
often revealed not so much by the goods we seek but how we respect the
goods that are not our immediate concern. The basic principle of the
morality of principles can be formulated therefore as a principle of
respect for the entire human good. We must always act in such a way as to
be open to integral human fulfillment.
Concern for the goods of persons is not therefore realized by trying, as
it were, to create a world in which the maximum possible amount of good is
realized but in making ourselves persons who humbly cherish and respect
all that is good. This is not an attitude of contempt for the harms and
tragedies which befall human beings, nor is it an attitude of
self-righteousness that cares only for moral rectitude and not at all for
human problems. It is, rather, realism about the multifarious character of
the human good and our limited ability to make the world good. It is
humility which recognizes that the solution to the problem of evil is not
human action but God's healing re- creation. It is confidence that God
will restore all that is really good and that we shall be part of the
re-creation if only we cooperate by maintaining the steadfast loyalty
revealed by Jesus and his saints, even in the face of failure and tragedy.
The morality of principles therefore is a form of humanism; but it is one
in which the true good of man is seen in its full and proper
perspective-the perspective of the kingdom of God made possible by Jesus'
human acts and God's loving response to them. Thus, it is an approach to
moral thinking which is fully open to the larger and deeper meaning of
human existence made possible by the revelation of Jesus. In this respect,
it compares favorably with the rather narrow, secular, and this-worldly
emphasis of proportionalism.
Moral absolutes are only one ingredient in a morality of principles; but
they have always had a distinctive place in Catholic moral thought. Even
the most corrupt societies have known that adultery is generally harmful,
and that divorce is destructive of the basic human community. But
Christian thought has been distinctive in teaching that one should not
commit adultery, slay the innocent, or seek divorce and remarry even for
the most splendid reasons, even to avoid the most bitter consequences.
Christian faith has seen that there are in fact evil kinds of deeds, deeds
that always involve assaults upon the love of persons. Such deeds must
never be done; there can be no "proportionate reason" for doing them. We
must not do evil that good may come of it. We must not do even a small
evil because a great good seems destined to come of it, or because a great
harm can be avoided by doing it. (St. Thomas More was right in judging
that he should not affirm by oath false statements already so affirmed by
virtually all the religious leaders of England, even though it seemed that
little harm and slight additional scandal would come of it, and even
though his own life, his family's hopes, and the possibility of
influencing the king for the better might be salvaged by doing the evil.)
The morality of principles respects the rich complexity of serious moral
thinking. It realizes that a good moral act involves more than doing a
good kind of deed, or avoiding a perverse kind. It involves more than
having good intentions in what we do, and more than seeking to avoid
harmful consequences. St. Thomas Aquinas articulated what might be called
a "principle of completeness" for evaluating human actions which required
that good actions (like good persons and good realities of every kind)
must be complete in their goodness. According to this principle, every
aspect of the act must be morally good: a single moral flaw, whether in
the kind of action one does, or in the intentions with which it is done,
or in the consequences of other circumstances with which it is done, is
sufficient to render the act morally bad.
This principle does not prohibit actions because they have a tragic or
unfortunate aspect to them; that would make most actions in this fallen
world impossible. The integrity required is the integrity of a wholly
upright will, of one who is unwilling to do whatever is contrary to a
complete and intelligent respect for what is really good. Acts and other
realities are morally bad to the extent that they lack any essential trait
needed for their integrity and fulfillment. Thus, for example, if an act
promises so much harm, and to do little good, in its outcomes, one who
respects the Golden Rule will not do the act even if it be of a good kind
and done with a good intention. One cannot merge these factors together
and judge that one may do a bad kind of act, or approve an act done for a
perverse intention, if one perceives that the act, considered in all its
features, will have a greater balance of good consequences or aspects over
bad ones. Each of the moral determinants must be good, or the act will not
be a good one; it will not otherwise be faithful enough to what love
. Christian faith has always been more
concerned that the faithful do excellent actions and so live morally
excellent lives than that they produce many good effects in the world, or
have wonderful things occur in their lives. Our lives are constituted far
more by what we do than by what happens to us.
Many people in today's world find this aspect of Christian faith to be
very puzzling. Modern secular humanists and, in particular, secular
consequentialists reject it altogether, for consequentialists believe that
it is not actions but the overall effects of actions that are morally most
important. Christian ethics, of course, does not deny that we have some
responsibility for the predictable effects of our actions but maintains
that our actions themselves are the center of moral life.
Classical Catholic thought stresses the centrality of action because our
free actions are the existential center of our lives. In our freely chosen
acts we not only affect the world and other persons but also shape our own
personalities and character. By choosing to do certain actions we
determine ourselves to be one kind of person rather than another; we make
ourselves to be friends of God by responding to his grace and freely
loving all that is good, or we choose actions incompatible with love of
God and fellowman.
Of course, we do not choose only actions in the narrow sense. We also make
large-scale choices that tend to establish the broader outlines of our
lives: our vocations, our professional identities, and our basic
relationships with other persons. And the measure of the responsibility we
have for the wide range of consequences of our actions varies with the
ways we relate ourselves to those consequences. What we deliberately
choose to do and the ends we deliberately make our own have an especially
great importance. Clearly we do not, in every free choice and action,
deliberately choose all that flows from such choices and acts: all the
side effects, all the other things left undone, and so on. What is
foreseen to come about as a result of our choices-but is not itself
chosen-is voluntary in a way; but it is not itself freely chosen. It is
accepted or permitted but not positively willed. The voluntary acceptance
of side effects is not self-determining in the way free choices of the
objects and ends of our acts are.
This difference is the basis for the crucial distinction in Catholic
morality between what is directly willed or intended and what is
indirectly willed or outside the person's intention. To deny the moral
significance of this distinction, as proportionalists often do, is to deny
something fundamental to Catholic morality. For if one rejects this
distinction, and holds that there is no major difference between directly
willing or doing evil and indirectly causing it, one would have to concede
that it is permissible at times to do evil, and that there really are no
moral absolutes. For it is scarcely deniable that even good people do, and
cannot escape doing, acts from which bad effects flow. A parent who saves
his or her child from the violent assault of an attacker may be able to do
this only by a protective act that causes great harm or death to the
assailant, however unintended that harm may be. But if every act that
causes harm is morally indistinguishable from an act in which the harm is
directly done or intended by the agent, then the absolute moral
prohibition of directly doing evil would be meaningless.
To deny the moral significance of the distinction between directly doing
and indirectly causing (or permitting) evil is unreasonable. Anyone can
see how different is the personal attitude toward evil in two cases: one
in which the agent chooses only good, and allows evil to happen as the
unintended effect of his or her actions when there are weighty reasons for
doing so; and the very different case in which one fixes the heart upon
doing or achieving the evil as a means toward some end. Even God, in
creating this good world, which is filled with adventures of freedom and
responsibility, permitted the free evil deeds of his creatures (which he
in no way directly willed to bring about). If there is no difference
between permitting evil and setting one's heart on it, God must set his
heart on evil. But such a conclusion is not only absurd, it is
blasphemous. It is possible for persons to set their hearts only on good.
Permitting evil is not choosing it. Choosing evil can never be justified;
permitting evil, while obviously not always justified, can sometimes be
Thus, it is not necessarily a violation of the Thomistic principle of
completeness to accept bad consequences of actions. This should not be
done lightly, and must be avoided whenever possible. But if the
alternative to accepting bad consequences is to choose to do an immoral
act, one must endure the bad consequences, for to choose to do evil is to
set one's heart against what is good, and to determine oneself as a person
who rejects what the love of God and neighbor requires.
Catholic teaching has always held that it is a terrible flaw in an
action-and a horrible tragedy for the one who does it-to do evil directly
for any reason. Even if the most precious and necessary goods could not be
achieved except by doing a deed that directly does even a small evil, the
good man should not do that deed. He must care to make the world good; but
the most important good he is to do, the most pressing service he has, in
making the world good, is to make his own heart good, by doing only good
actions. If he cannot achieve goods he loves by good actions, he has no
morally good way to achieve them. Yet he can rightly hope in God, if,
living rightly, he does what good he can do well, and trusts God to
realize the goods that he himself cannot achieve in acting well.
. Some protest against the traditional
emphasis on freely chosen actions. They argue that actions alone are not
the center of moral life. Character, or the basic and enduring moral
orientation of the person, has a more profound significance. This has led
some moral theologians to locate the basic self- determination of persons
not in free choices but in a fundamental or transcendental freedom which
cannot be found in any discrete choice but rather in the fundamental
orientation of a person's entire life. This fundamental option, and not
our free choices, is said to be what determines our basic response to God,
our very moral identities, and thus our eternal destiny.
This theory is correct in emphasizing that our lives can and should be
organized by a fundamental commitment which shapes and orders all our life
in response to God's call. It is mistaken, however, in holding that this
basic commitment does not flow from the free, deliberate choices of our
ordinary moral life but is rather the fruit of an allegedly profound,
somewhat mysterious act at a deeper and ineffable level of freedom.
Choices are spiritual realities and not physical events like the
performances that carry them out. As Pope John Paul II has made clear, our
free actions have not only a transitive aspect in which an event in the
world is caused but also a nontransitive aspect which remains in the human
self and determines the kind of person the agent is.
Free choices therefore have enduring effects and in this enduring aspect
are the basis for the virtues which form the fabric of a good life. The
virtuous person is fundamentally one who has made the right free choices,
and has made them in such a way that his or her entire personality,
desires, reactions, and beliefs are integrated around these good
choices. So Christian morality is not too "act-oriented" but recognizes
the importance of a life of integrated and stable commitment to the Lord's
Still, the Church also emphasizes that the discrete choices of a person's
life are the root of personal self-determination and responsibility. Human
action is trivialized if we fancy that a single choice moved by grace
cannot be important enough to merit salvation or tragic enough to lose
it. Thus, a single free choice can change the fundamental orientation of
a person's life, as the Good Thief changed his fundamental option on Good
The freedom of our choices is that whereby we determine ourselves; it is
the locus of the "soul making" which is the center of the moral life. It
is the part of our natures which perhaps most fully images the supremely
free Creator of all; it is the part of us which allows us to be friends of
God, not because we were in any way constrained or forced to be such but
because we ourselves choose to be his friends. This freedom, however, has
its burdens that make us want to hide from its full reality. We must, as
the Church has always taught, use that freedom well; we must make hard
choices but only good ones-choices to do actions that intelligently show
that we love and cherish all that is good.
24. See Garth Hallett,
(Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 46; Timothy
E. O'Connell, (New York: Seabury,
1978), p. 153; Richard A. McCormick, (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), pp.
354-355; Louis Janssens, "Norms and Priorities in a Love Ethic," , 6 (1977), 214; for a handy collection of proportionalist
thought, see , ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A. McCormick (New York:
Paulist Press, 1978).
25. See Richard A. McCormick, (New York: Doubleday, 1981), p. 5; here, McCormick makes clear
that he accepts a nuanced account of the human good like the one set out
in Part II of this chapter.
26. See Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Contemporary Challenges to Exceptionless Moral
Norms," in (St. Louis: The
Pope John Center, 1984), pp. 121-135, for a clear, recent statement of the
restrictions on the use of the proportionalist method by one who is
sympathetic to it.
27. On practical absolutes, see Daniel Maguire, (New
York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 99; on virtually exceptionless norms, see
Richard A. McCormick, (Milwaukee: Marquette
University Press, 1973), p. 73.
28. McCormick, , pp. 78-79.
29. For a recent magisterial statement on moral absolutes, see Sacred
Congregation for the Clergy, (April 11,
1971), no. 63. The importance of moral absolutes for Christian morality is
apparent to its opponents; see, for example, the influential article of
Jonathan Bennett, "Whatever the Consequences," , 26 (1966), 83-
30. Arguments for dissent from authoritative Church teaching are
characteristic of the proportionalist movement. These arguments-involving
more than appeals to the method of proportionalism-also involve views on
conscience, authority, and ecclesiology. These matters will be discussed
in detail in Chapter 5 of this book.
31. See McCormick, , pp. 78-79.
32. The most serious attempts by proportionalists to find this mode of
moral reasoning in St. Thomas are those of John Milhaven, John Dedek, and
Louis Janssens. See Milhaven's "Moral Absolutes in Thomas Aquinas," in
, ed. Charles E. Curran (Washington: Corpus,
1968), 154-185, reprinted in Milhaven's
(New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 135-167, 228- 236; Dedek's "Intrinsically
Evil Acts: An Historical Study of the Mind of St. Thomas," ,
43 (1979), 385-413; Janssens' "Ontic Evil and Moral Evil," , 4 (1972), 115-156, reprinted in , ed. Charles E. Curran and Richard A.
McCormick (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 40-93, as well as Janssens'
"Norms and Priorities in a Love Ethic," , 6 (1977),
207-238, and "St. Thomas Aquinas and the Question of Proportionality,"
, 9 (1982), 26-46. For a critique of the interpretation
of Aquinas given by Dedek and Milhaven, see Patrick Lee, "Permanence of
the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Commentators," , 42 (1981), 422-433. For a critique of Janssens' interpretation
of Aquinas, see William E. May, "Aquinas and Janssens on the Moral Meaning
of Human Acts," , 48 (1984), 566-606. For attempts to find
proportionalism in past Catholic thought, particularly in the just-war
theory, see O'Connell, , p. 153.
33. This argument has been developed extensively by Germain Grisez in a
number of his works; for a recent summary of the argument along with
relevant references to earlier analyses, see his , ch. 6, q. F; see also Finnis, , p. 115.
34. See Alan Donagan, (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 199-209.
35. See Dan W. Brock, "Recent Work on Utilitarianism," , 10 (1973), 241-276; Bernard Williams, (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 89-107; and
Bernard Williams and J.J.C. Smart, in "A Critique of Utilitarianism,"
(Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press, 1973), pp. 172-209.
36. Richard A. McCormick, "A Commentary on the Commentaries," in , ed. Richard McCormick and Paul Ramsey (Chicago:
Loyola University Press, 1978), p. 277. This volume contains McCormick's
, already referred to above, along with
responses by several moralists, including an important, critical essay by
Paul Ramsey and McCormick's responses to the essays.
37. See Grisez, , ch. 6, q. E, for an account
of various meanings of "greater good" compatible with common sense and the
Catholic moral tradition.
38. See ibid., ch. 6, q. D, for a development of this rejoinder.
39. See Williams, , pp. 104- 105: ".... A utilitarian is always
justified in doing the least bad thing which is necessary to prevent the
worst thing that would otherwise happen in the circumstances (including of
course, the worst thing that someone else may do)-and what he is thus
justified in doing may often be something which, taken in itself, is
fairly nasty. The preemptive act is built into utilitarian conceptions,
and certain notions of negative responsibility (that you are as
responsible for what you fail to prevent, as much as for what you do) are
by the same token characteristic of it. This being so, it is empirically
probable that an escalation of preemptive activity may be expected: and
the total consequences of this, by utilitarian standards themselves, will
be worse than if it had never started."
40. This statement of the first moral principle is adapted from Grisez,
, ch. 7, q. F; for a different formulation,
compatible with the one stated here, see Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II),
, tr. H.T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus,
and Giroux, 1981), p. 41; Wojtyla calls the basic principle "the
personalistic norm" and explicates its meaning by contrasting it with
utilitarianism and relating it to the love commandments. "The norm, in its
negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good that does not
admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the
means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms
this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate
attitude is love. The positive content of the personalistic norm is
precisely what the commandment to love teaches."
41. See , I-II, q. 18, a. 4, ad 2; this principle was
adopted by later moral theologians and stated in the following pithy
formula, which is almost impossible to render meaningfully in a literal
translation: "Bonum ex integra causa; malum ex quocumque defectu."
42. See Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., "Toward Understanding the Principle of
Double Effect," , 90 (1980), 527-538; and "The Principle of Double
Effect: Good Actions Entangled in Evil," in , pp.
43. For a discussion of this denial, see McCormick, , pp. 72-83.
44. See, for example, Josef Fuchs, S.J., "Basic Freedom and Morality," in
his (Dublin: Gill, 1970), pp.
92-111. For references to other statements of fundamental-option theory
along with a critical analysis, see Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., "Freedom, the
Human Person, and Human Action," in ,
ed. William E. May (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981), pp. 237-266.
The articles by Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., and John R. Connery, S.J., in
this volume provide further discussion and references on this matter. See
also the remarks on this matter by John Paul II in (December 2, 1984), no. 17.
45. The self-determining character of a person's choices has been
emphasized in the philosophical writings of John Paul II; see Karol
Wojtyla (John Paul II), (Dordrecht, Boston, and
London: D. Reidel, 1979), pp. 105-186, especially pp. 149-151.
46. See Grisez, ch. 2, q. l.
47. See Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Catholic Conference, 1976), pp. 10-12.
Pages 78-97 of "Catholic Sexual Ethics" by Rev. Ronald Lawler,
O.F.M. Cap., Joseph Boyle, Jr. & William E. May. Available from
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