Begging the Proportion

October 12, 2008 § 4 Comments

The following words, taken from an endnote in a leaked private letter from Cardinal Ratziner to Cardinal McCarrick in 2004, have become a very popular citation in the Catholic blogosphere:

“When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.”

What usually follows is the conclusion “therefore it is morally licit for me to vote for the candidate I favor”. But this is obviously begging the question. To conclude that it is morally licit to vote for X requires more than merely demonstrating that one’s vote for X is remote material cooperation with evil, and not formal cooperation with evil. It also requires that there actually be a proportionate reason to vote for X.

Clearly this requires one to understand what a vote is as an act and what it actually does and does not accomplish in fact, since what it is and what it accomplishes are crucial to whether or not there is a proportionate reason to do it. And this is something the Church does not tell us, and indeed does not have any special competence in telling us, since it is not a matter of faith and morals. The Church can tell us that murdering someone by poisoning him to death is evil; she does not tell us that Compound B is a poison, nor does she claim any special charism with respect to scientific truths about chemistry and biology.

So no matter how you slice it, the Church has not said and will not say that voting for a specific candidate is morally acceptable.

Nevertheless, the Catholic blogosphere is filled with confident pronouncements (the combox of that post contains quite a few) of late that the Church tells us it is morally licit to vote for McCain/Palin. The confidence is unwarranted. Indeed, not only is the confidence unwarranted: the assertion is an outright falsehood. The Church does not teach us that voting for McCain/Palin is definitely morally licit. It could be morally licit – as is the case with any act of remote material cooperation with evil – if done for a proportionate reason. But the Church has provided no guarantee that there actually is a proportionate reason.

No, not even the constant repetition of this falsehood, as comforting as some may find that repetition – and it is an outright falsehood – can make it true.


§ 4 Responses to Begging the Proportion

  • Patrick T says:

    When can reasonable people believe that there is a proportionate reason? In your view, what would be a proportionate reason?Thanks!

  • zippy says:

    Suppose we are contemplating doing act X in order to block a big evil E, where X is not intrinsically evil but doing it involves remote material cooperation with evil. A proportionate reason to do X obtains when (1) X is reasonably effective in stopping E without being excessive, and (2) stopping E does not produce evils and disorders graver than E.Folks tend to make a reasonable case for (2): that is, they make a reasonable case (lets stipulate, in case you disagree) that <>McCain winning<> does not produce evils and disorders graver than those which would follow from <>Obama winning<>. But there is a very strong tendency to ignore (1) completely, treating an act of voting as if it were precisely the same thing as making McCain win by fiat. That isn’t the <>kind of thing<> that voting is though: it has very little actual efficacy in making one’s favored candidate win, and yet it has quite a bit of efficacy in exercising influence over the person who votes himself and those within his immediate sphere of influence. So whether or not there is a proportionate reason to vote for a candidate depends on understanding not only the <>outcome dependent<> results of the act, but also the act’s <>outcome independent<> results, as well as their relative importance.Their relative importance will in turn depend on how much influence the act <>actually has<> over the outcome: if the act has very little influence over the outcome, then its outcome-independent effects will dominate moral evaluation of the act. This is the part that people find very counterintuitive, because we think of voting as <>just being<> about the outcome. Nevertheless, because the efficacy of a vote in determining the outcome of a national election is so infinitesimal, a proper moral evaluation of it is going to be completely dominated by its <>outcome independent<> effects.

  • Patrick T says:

    Thanks for your response and good points.It may be relevant to consider that the act of one person voting may seem to have little impact, but is the maximum that one can do. And if many people act similarly, perhaps some good can be accomplished.I agree with your point that the Church does not tell us the reason is in this election IS proportionate (although perhaps some bishops come close), but the Church refrains from telling us this in all sorts of areas. So, it’s really nothing new.

  • zippy says:

    <>And if many people act similarly, perhaps some good can be accomplished.<>It is quite true that outcome-influence aggregates; but it is also true that non-outcome-dependent influence aggregates. The former is, in my view, always negligible compared to the latter, whether individual or in aggregate.<>So, it’s really nothing new.<>I agree. There is a tendency in the Catholic blogosphere and comboxosphere though to treat things the Church hasn’t told us as outside the realm of what is knowable, and therefore immune to criticism. I’ve long referred to this tendency (coupled with a few other tendencies) as ‘ultramontane moral relativism’; my writing is filled with gratuitous swipes at it.

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