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Greater Good: The Case for Proportionalism.

In this book, Garth L. Hallett offers the best book of its kind available today. Unlike many other apologiae for proportionalism, Hallet fully engages numerous contemporary moral philosophers, among them Robert Merrihew Adams, Alan Donagan, Judith Thomson, and Alan Gewirth, in addition to engaging Catholic theorists including Aquinas, Germain Grisez, and John Finnis. Hallet also merits commendation for breaking ranks with other proportionalists, particularly Peter Knauer, about not a few matters, most significantly the extent to which proportionalism governs the moral life and the importance of the distinction between the "moral" and the "premoral."

Greater Good seeks to establish the principle of "Value-Maximization" (VM) as the fundamental criteria of morally right action. Hallet formulates VM as follows: "Within a prospective, objective focus, ... an action is right if and only if it promises to maximize value as fully, or nearly as fully, as any alternative action, with no restriction on the kind of value concerned, whether human or nonhuman, moral or nonmoral, consequential or nonconsequantial" (p. 2). Hallet defends this principle against what he takes to be very major challenge, with particular emphasis given to criticizing the Grisez-Finnis account of incommensurable basic goods. Hallet attempts to show the philosophical defensibility of VM as well as its compatibility with the Christian patrimony of both scripture and tradition.

Though much of Greater Good attempts to undermine the Grisez-Finnis account incommensurable basic goods, other relevant targets from the Catholic patrimony have been given less than full attention. The sections treating Scripture and the theological tradition do not do justice to the diversity and complexity of the persons and issues involved. Strangely, the encyclical Veritatis splendor receives less than prominent mention. The distinction between intended and foreseen consequences likewise merits little attention, though in early proportionalist literature, for example, McCormick's Ambiguity in Moral Choice, the moral importance of this distinction is indeed the central question. When the distinction does come to the fore in piecemeal form, sometimes rhetoric replaces argument. Hallet gives the example of a surgeon contemplating the moral implications of removing a gravid, cancerous uterus. "Poor man!" writes Hallet, "How confusingly complex such reasoning appears, even when neatly laid out" (p. 10).

VM may not fare much better on this standard. VM amounts to a version of rational decision theory, the combination of value and probability leading to the rational or right choice. Hence, for VM to be practical, we must be able have knowledge of both relevant values and probabilities, a process of complex reasoning to be sure. Hallet himself poses a question that emphasizes the difficulty of the reasoning involved: "How, then, can an alternative be judged unless spelled out in ultimate detail -- that is, more fully than any alternative actually is? ... It may be a good idea to live in the U.S. -- but not if that means living in the Badlands. It may be a good idea to live in St. Louis -- but not if that means living underneath an overpass. It may be a good idea to live on Lindell Boulevard -- but not if that means living in this shack or that expensive mansion.... Can an action ever be stated fully enough to permit a verdict? Can't we always imagine some specific version that negates an apparently favorable verdict?" (p. 16). Hallet responds that VM answers whatever question people can and do ask, but if, as is so often the case, one poses the question. "What question ought I to ask?" the problem remains.

While the complexity of VM stretches the intellectual capabilities of human agents, its obligatory standard taxes their moral capacities. VM has little room for the distinction between supererogatory and obligatory, between counsel and precept. Again, "An action is right, if and only if it promises to maximize value as fully, or nearly as fully, as any alternative." Thus, what would be an heroic action for most theorists, for VM becomes merely obligatory action. If a hand grenade is thrown into a bunker full of tropps, since falling on it notably maximizes value, the soldier who dives to shelter himself does a wrong action, and the soldier who jumps on the grenade does merely the obligatory action. There is little room, as Aquinas suggests in ST I-II, 19, 10, for the wife of the thief to want his stay of execution in light of the private good and for the rule to want the thief's execution in light of the common good, but both to be right. On Hallet's account, counsel hardens into precept. If Mary chose the greater part, Martha chose the morally wrong part. If adopted at the practical and pastoral level, VM would be prone to engendering scrupulosity in many agents and in others a sense of futility.

Finally, Hallett's defense of VM presupposes many assumptions no longer taken for granted in contemporary moral philosophy, for example: the goodness/rightness distinction, the division of subjective and objective morality, the gap between is and ought, and the sharp divide between evaluative and descriptive moral language. Although Hallett's Greater Good should be commended for its engagement with modern moral philosophy, perhaps it can be criticized for not being modern enough.
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Author:Kaczor, Christopher
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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