Monday, July 28, 2008

Pernicious Proportionalism

A subversive little article appeared in one of last week’s editions of Cathnews, entitled “Benedict XVI and Proportionalism”, by one Brian Lewis (presumably Dr. Lewis). I offer, firstly, some of Dr. Lewis’ key points:
  • Proportionalism’s proponents “attempted to stress personal freedom and creative responsibility and to develop a more realistic approach to the place and meaning of moral rules in Christian ethics”
  • “Proportionalism shifts the focus of moral judgment of right and wrong squarely onto consequences and other attendant circumstances of an action.”
  • “For [proportionalists] there are no intrinsically evil acts if by acts is meant physical actions considered in the abstract … The reason for this is that the context enters in the very object or meaning of the act.”
  • “Acts are not good or bad in themselves, according to proportionalists. The other side of the coin is that, in order to act rightly, it is necessary to weigh up the good that will be achieved and the evil that may result.”
  • “Because of the central importance of proportionate reason in this theory, it is referred to as Proportionalism”

And perhaps most importantly:

  • “For proportionalists a good intention certainly does not justify a morally wrong action. For them it is necessary to look at all the morally relevant circumstances before one can know exactly what the action is and whether it is to be judged as morally wrong.”

Now it is not clear to me exactly what Dr. Lewis thinks of this school of thought. I detect in him a certain sympathy for it, with the proviso that “the dignity of the human person and the place of human rights” must be “the centrepiece of moral decision making.” But this is completely the wrong angle from which to approach the question (not least because it is unclear whether Dr. Lewis means ontological dignity or operative dignity). The right ‘angle’, I contend, is the Will of God. Some of God’s laws are, if you will, descriptive (Divine natural law) and others are prescriptive (Divine positive law). Some actions are morally wrong simply because He has revealed them to be so—He has revealed this to be His Will—regardless of what their respective consequences might be. Proportionalism makes a mockery of the Divine positive law. But then, God hardly enters into Dr. Lewis’ analysis at all.

There is also a tension, to which Dr. Lewis appears oblivious, between stressing “personal freedom and creative responsibility” and developing “a more realistic approach to the place and meaning of moral rules in Christian ethics”. What approach could be more realistic than the traditional Catholic understanding of fallen man, with his weakened will, clouded intellect and base appetites, all of which constrain, in a sense, his freedom? This is in contrast to the pervasive evolutionary humanist understanding of man as a ‘work in progress’, progressing ‘onwards and upwards’ through evolution towards an ever-higher consciousness, perhaps towards some ultimate ‘Omega Point’. I denounce this all as nothing more than an updated utilitarianism and an attempt to sideline God in moral reasoning.

Reginaldvs Cantvar

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