Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Just War and Proportionalism

A friend emailed me a question posed to her by a non-Catholic friend:
Her general point was that the Just War theory is an example of proportionalism and, if proportionalism was allowed in this case, why not, to quote her, "allow people to use condoms in Africa"?

She stated that "the Catholic Church was just avoiding calling the Just War theory proportionalist because then they would have to (as I quoted before) allow people to use condoms in Africa", another example of proportionalism. It came from the fact that I had stated that it was an absolute that one may not do evil that good may come. Was I incorrect on that?
The first question, I think, would be to be clear on what we mean by "proportionalism". Following upon that, we should see how both just war theory and "allowing people to use condoms in Africa" are or are not examples of "proportionalism".

I think we might say that proportionalism lies somewhere between an approach to morality based on notions of "objective good" and "objective evil" and a pure utilitarianism. In the former (which I shall take the liberty of calling traditional Catholic morality) the morality of an act is determined by the nature of the act itself, and whether that nature is good or evil. (To be clear, conscience comes into the issue of guilt/culpability, not whether the act itself is good or evil. If I do something evil under the illusion that it is good, I may not be culpable for the evil I have committed, but the act itself was still evil.) In the latter (utilitarianism), the good or evil of an act is measured strictly by it's results.

Proportionalism tries to bring a bit of utilitarianism into a traditional Christian understanding of morality, by saying that certain acts are evil by nature unless their effects are sufficiently good to outweigh the evil of the act. Proportionalism has a long history of being rejected by Christianity -- ever since the gospel writer blamed the pharisees for deciding that "it would be better for one to die for the good of the people".

Alright, so the Church says that it's against proportionalism (John Paul II condemned it in Evangelium Vitae), but how is the just war doctrine not proportionalism? Isn't the case for war basically one of "war is bad, but if it achieves something good enough, it's worth while"?


According to just war doctrine, it is not wrong to use war in order to defend against certain grave injustices. Now, there is an element of proportion that comes into just war doctrine: the injustice being defended against must be sufficiently grave to justify warlike means to resist it -- and the means of war employed must be no greater than is necessary to end the injustice. (Thus, if Country A is invaded by Country B, the citizens of A may well resist by waging war, and even invade B in order to bring the war to a conclusion. But massacring all the military age inhabitants of B is unacceptable, because it is more violence than is required to end the war.)

However, these considerations of proportion are used in order to determine what acts are just within a war context and what acts would involve the defender in turn becoming an unjust aggressor. Just war doctrine is not based on the idea that acts of war are inherently evil, but justified if they result in a good greater than the evil involved.

Perhaps one of the things that would lead people to think that acts of war are necessarily evil is that war is certainly a massive occasion of sin, even for combatants who are involved in a just cause. Another issue is when people take it that killing is always wrong. According to Catholic teaching, it is not. Killing in self defense, just war or just capital punishment is not an evil act. Murder (the unjust killing of another) is an inherently evil act, but murder is a subset of killing, not the whole of it.

Now what of the use of condoms in Africa? The Church holds that using contraception when having intercourse is always wrong -- that it is an inherently wrong act. Because of this, even the apparent good of preventing the spread of AIDS is not seen as making the use of condoms right. (It's also a bit of an odd discussion, since there wouldn't be an issue with the spread of AIDS if people were obeying the Church's teaching that sex is only acceptable inside of marriage anyway.)


Anonymous said...

Exactly! Great post, BTW. Thank you. :)

Daddio said...

Right on. It's extra-marital sex that spreads AIDS. It is a totally avoidable "epidemic". Why do they insist that the Church "bless" condoms when it already condemns the extra-marital sex that they would be used within. Why do they spend more relief money on condoms than on malaria vaccines?

Please take it a little bit further, though? Some people say the church should allow condoms *within a marriage* between an infected spouse and a clean spouse?

The answer, I think, is as you said - War is not inherently evil, but contraception is. And I think that contraception is the real root of these people's complaints, not AIDS. Which is ironic, because no matter how terrible the situation becomes, people simply refuse to keep it in their pants. Their MUST be another solution that still allows us to shack up with strangers!

Anonymous said...

It's so interesting that you wrote about this today. I just wrote about the morality of using deadly force in self-defense. I think the key point is that when an objective evil occurs along with an objective good, it must be according to the principle of double effect rather than to consequentialism (which is like proportionalism: "the end justifies the means").

In a just war, a nation never pursues the objectively evil acts of war as a goal in itself; rather, it pursues the legitimate defense of its own people and sovereignty. Any objectively evils, such as the deaths of soldiers or civilians, are wholly unintended but unavoidable consequences of the pursuit of the legitimate good.

Anonymous said...

Thank you - this was actually the question from my friend which I was having trouble answering myself.
I realise it's a bit of a odd discussion (relating AIDS and the Catholic Church has always seemed strange to me anyway, given her teaching on sex, and I'm in agreement with the teaching on the use of contraception), but it was the question I was asked, and I'm very glad that there are cleverer people than me out there to answer it!

Thanks again!

Darwin said...


Well, I think the AIDS question is a totally natural one if one assumes that Church teaching is that "killing is always wrong" but that it's "wrong but justified" in cases such as self defense and just war. If the Church's stance on just war was a flavor of proportionalism, it would be very hard to claim that using condoms to fight AIDS in Africa was not acceptable.


Different people try different arguments, but personally I'd be a little hesitant to talk about self defense or just war strictly in terms of double effect. While it's an important tool of moral analysis, it seems to me like it's hard to make the case that killing is truly unintended in cases of self defense and just war. I'd tend to argue instead that killing is not necessarily wrong -- unjust killing is wrong.

I'll have to go read your post.