Academic journal article Theological Studies

"Direct" and "Indirect" in Grisez's Moral Theory

Academic journal article Theological Studies

"Direct" and "Indirect" in Grisez's Moral Theory

Article excerpt

THE THEORY OF MORALITY developed by Germain Grisez, in collaboration with John Finnis and Joseph Boyle, appears on a first reading to be thoroughly traditional. To some extent, this impression is justified. This theory attempts to provide a systematic philosophical justification for the tenets of traditional Catholic morality, and it is presented in terms of the classical problematics and the language of that tradition.

Nonetheless, Grisez sometimes uses traditional language to express nontraditional views. One of the most significant ways in which his moral theory departs from traditional Catholic moral theology concerns the distinction between direct and indirect action. Traditionally, this distinction was associated with the doctrine of double effect. Grisez has reservations about this doctrine as it was understood by the moral manualists, and in the course of his writings he proposes a "clarification" which will accomplish the same theoretical purposes more directly.(1) In his most recent writings, he even expresses reservations about the terminology of direct and indirect action.(2) However, as we will see, his revision of the traditional position goes well beyond a clarification or a change in terminology.

Grisez's moral theory has been extremely influential, and its partial adaption in the recent encyclical Veritatis splendor will extend its influence still further.(3) Nonetheless, his interpretation of the distinction between direct and indirect action has not received extensive examination. Yet Grisez's overall theory, and in particular, his vigorous defense of the claim that there are some kinds of actions which are always morally prohibited, depends on the cogency of his interpretation of this distinction.

Accordingly, my purpose in this article is to examine Grisez's interpretation of the distinction between direct and indirect action, in order first of all to place his views on this point within the context of his overall theory, and secondly, to evaluate the soundness of his position. As will become apparent, I do not believe that Grisez succeeds in developing a cogent account of this distinction. His applications of the distinction apparently reflect prior moral judgments which the distinction serves to justify after the fact.

In this article, I limit myself to a consideration of Grisez's writings, without attempting to deal in any systematic way with the work of John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and his other collaborators. I have done so in order to keep this article within manageable bounds, and because I believe Grisez's writings offer the most thoroughgoing exposition and defense of the theory which they have jointly developed.(4) However, as we will see, Finnis does disagree with Grisez over the application of the direct/indirect distinction in one important case.


The main lines of Grisez's theory of morality are quite familiar. It takes its starting point from a general account of practical reason, which is then developed into a theory of moral action, interpreted as action that is reasonable in the fullest possible sense.(5) Central to this theory is the claim that all human action starts from the first principle of practical reason, "The good is to be done and pursued; the bad is to be avoided."(6) This principle in turn is given content in human reflection through the apprehension of certain basic goods, including life, knowledge, and friendship. These goods are basic in the sense that they are desirable in themselves (unlike, for example, wealth, which is always a means to some more fundamental good), and they are self-evident in the sense that once they are experienced, their value is intelligible and compelling to any rational person.(7)

The first principle of practical reason, being the fundamental norm for all practical thinking, is not itself a moral principle. Thus immoral as well as moral choices can be expressions of this principle. …

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