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Chapter 12: Moral Judgment in Problematic Situations

Question G: How can one resolve a doubt of conscience concerning the permissibility of cooperating with someone who is doing something wrong?

1. The question of cooperation has considerable practical importance. People often seek the help of confessors and other moral advisors in resolving problems of this sort. In her teaching, furthermore, the Church speaks of “formal cooperation” and “material cooperation,” and these expressions must be clarified. For all that, cooperation does not raise any theoretical problems distinct from those already treated in question F.

2. A person who commands, directs, advises, encourages, prescribes, approves, or actively defends doing something immoral is sometimes said to cooperate in the immoral act. The morality of cooperation is clear enough in such cases—one who instigates immorality gives scandal and cannot be free of guilt. For example, physicians who refer for abortion are directing that it be done. Abortion is included in the choice they make, and so, morally, it is what they do.

3. The cases which present problems are different. Here the one who cooperates is in a secondary or subordinate role, and cooperating does not mean instigating anything but helping another to do something. The doubt of conscience arises typically because one is asked or expected to help family members, friends, employers, government officials, or others toward whom one has duties do things which one would regard as immoral to choose to do oneself.

The cases of cooperation and communal action which pose the fewest complexities are those in which two or more persons freely associate and cooperate in a common life and common actions. Partners in marriage or in business are examples. To the extent that they are partners, nothing different from the responsibility of the individual will be revealed by analytic reflection. Their deliberations and decisions will go on in discourse expressed in language; even their acceptance of consequences, their putting off of problems, and so on will belong to their common life.

Things begin to become complicated when one considers cases in which persons are involved in something other than an ideally communal and cooperative relationship. Traditional moral treatises often dealt, under the present heading, with the problems of Christian slaves whose masters involved them in a variety of unseemly activities. The problem was: To what extent could the slave contribute to the activities which executed immoral proposals without himself or herself committing sin? In other words: At what point must a person who is subservient take a stand and accept some level of martyrdom?

Since no human relationship is perfect and no authority altogether upright, we still have essentially the same problem. May the nurse who considers abortion evil prepare a patient scheduled for abortion? Must an employee of a business which is hiding dangerous defects in its products resign and/or publicize the practice?

4. The Church has tried to clarify such problems by using the distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation in a gravely sinful act is always excluded as gravely sinful; material cooperation is sometimes, but not always, permissible. The idea of the distinction is that one who formally cooperates participates in the immoral act in such a way that it becomes his or her own, whereas one who materially cooperates does something which facilitates the immoral act but does not make it his or her own.

5. For example, associates of a criminal mob who wish its enterprises to flourish so that they, too, will prosper formally cooperate in all the immoral acts which the mob does, even though some of them (accountants and lawyers, say) never personally carry out any of the mob’s dirty work. By contrast, people forced against their wills to do something which substantially facilitates a crime (to open a safe, carry out the loot, or the like) only materially cooperate.

6. While material cooperation can sometimes be morally acceptable, one can also have a moral responsibility to avoid it. For instance, instead of cooperating materially in criminal acts, citizens might have a duty to help law enforcement agents, even at some personal risk, by informing on mobsters and seeking the protection of the law.

If a nurse who favors abortion adopts a proposal to kill unborn babies and participates in abortion procedures in execution of the proposal, she is killing unborn babies, and it matters not whether outwardly she does no more than fill out forms. On the other hand, if a nurse is threatened with loss of employment unless she assists a surgeon who is doing abortions, she could be assisting in surgery to keep her job without ever adopting a proposal to kill any unborn baby. The acts of the nurse herself need be no different than what she does in any morally good operation. The acts of the surgeon and the death of the babies not only are no ends of hers, they are not even means she chooses. They are only foreseen consequences.

The fact that one does not adopt any proposal which is morally excluded, however, does not free one from moral responsibility—perhaps grave responsibility—for what one helps to bring about. For example, a nurse who prepares patients for abortion not because this behavior carries out any proposal of hers but merely as part of her job perhaps ought to look for a different job or refuse to do these preparations by way of testimony to the truth. The abortions she assists really are a foreseen and accepted consequence of her own chosen actions; perhaps she is obliged not to accept this consequence.8

7. Classical moral theologians did not explain the distinction between formal and material cooperation as clearly as they might. Their explanations often reveal confusion between outward behavior and morally specified human acts, as when they take into account such factors as how physically close the help is to the wrongful performance.

8. The preceding analysis makes it clear that no special moral principle is needed to resolve doubts of conscience regarding cooperation. Apparent difficulties arise mainly because it is supposed that being involved in unseemly behavior or bringing about unacceptable consequences has a moral significance of its own, apart from the morality of one’s choices and other volitional principles of personal responsibility. But that is not the case. One’s responsibility for what one is involved in is determined by what one personally chooses, freely accepts, and so on.

9. According to the present analysis of the foundations of moral responsibility and the varieties of voluntariness, the distinction between formal and material cooperation and its normative implications can be explained as follows. People who help others do something wrong are responsible for what they themselves choose, accept, omit, and so forth. Cooperation is formal and is altogether excluded in the following two cases: (1) one’s purpose is or includes that another commit sin; (2) one’s proposal—what one chooses—is identical with or includes the immoral proposal of the person with whom one is cooperating.

10. Whenever cooperation is not formal, it is material. However, the fact that cooperation is material does not excuse one from responsibility—perhaps grave responsibility—for what one helps bring about. Material cooperation is often ruled out by other moral considerations, especially fairness. The conditions under which Christians may cooperate even materially in evil are especially stringent, because refusing to cooperate in evildoing is often an important way of bearing witness to the truth.

Individuals who act as agents for others (called “principals”) usually have responsibility as formal cooperators. One who merely contributes behavior to wrongful schemes—for example, by delivering messages—without adopting any wrong proposal is not doing the evil act, but might well be accepting consequences which he or she ought not to accept. Agents are not passive instruments; they have their own responsibilities. An agent given wide discretion is unlikely to be able to serve without adopting as his or her own the proposals which the principal wishes to execute, for the agent with discretion will be unable to do anything except by proceeding with the principal’s own end in view.

There is a good side to this situation if the principal’s purposes are noble ones. Agents told precisely what to do might carry out instructions for their own, less noble purposes. Agents given a broad mandate and a wide field of discretion, but provided with a good idea of the intentions of the one for whom they act, become in a full sense cooperators. The apostles and all Christians who share in the redemptive work of Jesus are not mere instruments; they are friends and fellow workers with God.

It is worth noting that Christian standards leave less room to act in ways which in fact facilitate evil, especially when that evil involves serious harm to others. The demands of mercy and self-oblation require Christians to avoid cooperation when the immoral act which is facilitated harms another and the only consideration which might justify cooperation is the good of the Christian himself or herself. Christians not only must avoid partiality in their own favor; they also are called to act with partiality toward others.

8. For a typical discussion of this problem of cooperation, see Gerald Kelly, S.J., Medico-Moral Problems (St. Louis: The Catholic Hospital Association, 1958), 332–35.