Richard A. McCormick's proportionalism: A consequentialist ethical theory

Patrick Andrew Tully, Marquette University


This study offers a case that Richard McCormick's ethical theory, referred to here and elsewhere as proportionalism , is consequentialist. Such a case is needed for a few reasons. First, the moral tradition in which McCormick claims a place for himself is not consequentialist, and so this study may have a role to play in deciding whether McCormick actually stands outside of this tradition. Second, while some have made the charge that McCormick's version of proportionalism is consequentialist, a thorough, philosophical argument that such is the case has not yet been offered. Third, McCormick has denied that his theory is consequentialist and has offered arguments in support of this position, arguments which have not been systematically and thoroughly rebutted. Finally, this study also gains relevance from the considerable stature McCormick enjoys in his field, a rather high-profile former standard bearer of the proportionalist movement, his significance in the area of moral theology is not in dispute. Chapter 1 lays out the ratio of consequentialist ethical theories by identifying what they maintain determines the moral quality of acts and what they assert every agent's basic moral duty to be. Chapter 2 traces a brief history of proportionalism and makes note of McCormick's indebtedness to his predecessors, thereby putting his version of this theory in its proper historical and theoretical context. Chapters 3 through 5 contain the case that McCormick's proportionalism is, despite his denials, consequentialist. The case is made by examining both his theoretical statements about the nature of morally right and morally wrong acts, and the case studies where he applies his theory. Our analysis reveals that McCormick's foundational position is that the amount or kind of good or evil that any moral act entails is the sole decisive element in making that act to be morally right or morally wrong. We see that all of the theoretical refinements McCormick incorporates into his proportionalism, refinements such as his necessity and undermining principles, his association of basic goods, and his sensitivity to the distinction between directly and indirectly causing evil, serve a single purpose: identifying that choice among an agent's options which promises the greatest realization of good or the greatest diminution of evil. And to identify that act among an agent's choices which promises the greatest good or least evil is, for McCormick, to identify the morally obligatory act for that agent. In this way, then, McCormick's proportionalism must be considered a consequentialist ethical theory.

Recommended Citation

Tully, Patrick Andrew, "Richard A. McCormick's proportionalism: A consequentialist ethical theory" (2001). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3076308.