Feb 25, 2005

Proportionalism and Consequentalism

Granting Aid to Third World Countries

      First let us discuss terms before we cite examples. Proportionalism is a methodological process that some theologians use to weigh certain vexing moral problems, attempting to choose the path that allows for the least amount of evil and the greater amount of good.  The key here is that proportionalism allows a certain amount of evil to occur in certain circumstances and with certain intentions always in light of the fact that a greater proportion of good will result.  The good outcome must be in greater proportion to the evil, akin to the Proportionalist vein that one finds in the Catholic moral teaching surrounding Just War Theory.  Consequentialism is a more basic methodology of weighing moral problems concerned with arriving at the best end for that person or society, not necessarily a final end, but an end nonetheless, which some critics have called teleologism.  A typical consequentialist argument would be to allow a nation to drop aid packages in Iraq because this has a better outcome then throwing these otherwise unused rations into a city dump.  Again, consequentalism has an immediate end in mind that does not necessarily point to a final end, feeding starving people, for example.  Consequentialism and especially Proportionalism are frowned upon by some theologians because it allows exception for certain evils and presupposes a fundamental option that is rooted in truth and sound moral judgment that, some say, should not be presupposed.  But, I think the main characteristics of proportionalism and consequentalism that make certain theologians cringe (like in Veritatis Splendor; Evangelium Vitae) is that these systems do not give much credence to the object of a moral act.  It rather focuses on circumstances and intentions rather than on the act itself.  These systems take into consideration the circumstances surrounding a moral dilemma and the intentions behind the parties involved as more important than what is the actual object of the act in question.  In these systems, greater freedom is allowed for exceptions, with the mindset that evil can be avoided as much as possible and the good achieved.  For most of us, moral decision making is not vexing, for we are guided by a moral conscience that resides in the depths of our being and we (for the most part) are seeking truth.  It is only in the problematic, two percent category, of possible situations where figuring out the vexing problems of moral theology come to the fore.  I believe the problem of world hunger is one of these.  I will use the Proportionalist argument to speak about this moral issue.
        I found an article in the Atlantic Monthly using Proportionalism to answer the question of the moral responsibility prosperous nations have in granting aid to third world countries.[1]  Should prosperous nations withhold granting aid and allow third world nations to fend for themselves (with minimal aid) or should these first world nations be gratuitous in their support of nations that need help?  Of course this presupposes that doing nothing for third world countries would constitute an immoral act.  Doing nothing for poor countries is immoral because it is the willful withdrawal of charity when in fact, help can be given without detriment to the gift-giving country.  All sides would agree with this, for the most part.  The difficulty is how to grant humanitarian aid and which option effectively produces a greater good in the long run.  This presupposes that no matter what one does there will always be a certain amount of evil that will creep in because of the global, immense implications that go in to helping third world countries.  What must be done and what can’t be done?  What is beyond a prosperous nation’s capabilities and resources to help a less prosperous nation in need and how much moral responsibility do we have as a country that is prosperous to aid poor countries?  Especially in the light of the present situation, where much of the United State’s energy and resources are being spent on the machine of war.  Are we helping Iraq in the long run or are we keeping it tethered and dependent?  The proportionalist argument is that if we are going to allow for a certain amount of evil to slip in when granting humanitarian aid, we must ask ourselves if indeed a greater good will be accomplished.  Doing nothing is allowing evil to occur.  Doing something can still allow a certain amount of evil to slip.  So what do you do?          
        The argument in the article is that instead of “feeding” destitute populations with countless dollars in humanitarian aid, keeping them tethered to a mother country, instead, release the tether and consequently let some of them starve (the evil) so that more attention can be given to educating and empowering women (the good) with basic bread and butter programs, thus reducing the population.  The argument is that if women are empowered and educated about men, literacy, parenting, sexually transmitted disease prevention, etc., then they will become more socially aware and be able to enact greater social good.  The implication is that educated women use birth control while uneducated women do not.  Of course this is against Catholic moral teaching.  But, so is allowing countries to starve.  The proportionalist stance is that capitalist intervention, first world intervention, cripples third world countries because it does not allow them their rightful independence, so they remain forever dependent.  Which is a greater evil?  Empowering women to contracept or every month raining down care packages from the sky?   The intentions are good on both sides.  Intending to help other nations is good.  So what outcome is better, which option allows for the greater good?  Keeping countries dependent on capitalist regimes, and in effect keeping their populace uneducated and hungry, or rather, letting loose the reigns and allowing people to die, in effect, to achieve a greater good of independence, mitigating aid when only absolutely necessary?  Proportionalists call this commonsense, teasing out the most logical answer.  Proportionalism tries to use commonsense in coming up with a solution to a vexing moral problem that allows for the least amount of evil to slip in, weighing the lesser of two evils.   The approach is to intervene as rarely as possible, even allowing atrocities to take place (again, allowing a certain amount of evil to take place).  This is not easy to stomach.  I think a much more concerted effort from both sides should take place.  Of course I believe preventing life is wrong, just as much as I believe keeping nations tethered is just as wrong.  
        Again, the emphasis of Proportionalist ethics is on intention and circumstance not on the object.  Because in a situation like this, the object is quite elusive. What is the object of the immoral act of allowing a third world country to starve?  Is it intrinsically evil to allow a country to starve, withholding resources?  It is not easy to come up with an answer to this, because the history of moral theology really has not helped us in this regard.  Historically, concern with the moral act itself stemmed from dealing with individual cases, people in the confessional, not global evils like world hunger.  It is easier to pinpoint the evil act of  the avaricious individual rather than the stingy nation that does not give.  Anyway you look at it, we see that we are in the midst of a vexing moral problem which I believe does not have easy answers.  I see how Proportionalism could be a better approach in this situation, but at the same time I can see how it is just as detrimental as parachuting MREs.  Anyway.  I conclude this ramble now.  Do what you wish.    

[1] Kaplan, Robert.  The Atlantic Monthly.  “Proportionalism: What should the United States do in the Third World, where there’s too much to do and too much that can’t be done?”. August 1996.  Pages 19-20.

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