Coopted by Evil? Abortion & Amnesty International

By Kaveny, Cathleen | Commonweal, November 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

Coopted by Evil? Abortion & Amnesty International


Kaveny, Cathleen, Commonweal


How involved can you become in someone else's wrongdoing without becoming morally tainted by it? This is a question we all face, whether we worry about giving a coworker ten dollars to buy cigarettes that will eventually kill him, or regret paying taxes that help support an unjust war and/or unjust population-control policies. It is a question that the Catholic moral tradition has long analyzed under the concept of "cooperation with evil." Basic features of this moral teaching have remained the same over the centuries. But there have also been significant points of development, and new points of controversy that demonstrate the challenges the church faces in a society that is far more interdependent and pluralistic than the one in which the concept was first established.

Here are the basics. Intentionally furthering the wrongdoing of another, traditionally known as "formal cooperation," is never permitted. So you can't give your coworker cigarette money with the intention that he smoke himself to death so that your best friend can take his job. The real arguments are over "material cooperation," which involves performing a morally good or neutral action foreseeing that it may contribute to someone else's wrongdoing but not intending for it to. It is sometimes permissible, sometimes not, depending on a number of factors, including the distance between the cooperator's act and the act of the wrongdoing party. Other factors point to a cost-benefit analysis that considers the good to be gained by cooperation, the gravity of the wrongful act, and whether refusal to cooperate can prevent the wrongdoer from acting. Finally, we ask whether the potential cooperator is under duress or some sort of obligation, and whether the cooperation will cause "scandal," which means leading people into sin by making them think that morally wrong behavior might just be okay after all. So, paying taxes is generally permissible cooperation; the duress is significant, and the connection between a taxpayers contribution and unjust governmental policies is remote. Nobody thinks taxpayers morally endorse every policy and program supported by public money, so there is little danger of scandal.

How has our understanding of the context in which cooperation creates a moral problem changed? The first and most important question is how to weigh the pervasiveness and degree of moral disagreement. Two hundred years ago, the moralists writing about cooperation with evil took for granted that respectable society would agree with their judgments about which actions were morally permitted and which were prohibited. Today's controversies involve Catholics cooperating in actions that many respectable people do not acknowledge as wrong: abortion, euthanasia, surgical sterilization, homosexual marriage. …

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