Declaration on Truth and Life: Appendix 2

Declaration on Truth and Life: Appendix 2

Explanation of complicity with the action

(1) FAGOTHEY (pp. 282-285): Cooperation in another’s evil deed may occur by joining him in the actual performance of the act, or by supplying him with the means for performing it. If two men plan a robbery, one may hold the gun while the other relieves the victim of his valuables, or one may lend the other a gun to enable him to carry out the robbery alone.

There is formal cooperation when one not only helps another to do evil but also joins in his evil intention, as in the cases just mentioned. Formal cooperation is always morally wrong and cannot be justified under any circumstances.

There is material cooperation when, without approving another’s wrongdoing, one helps him perform his evil act by an action of one’s own that is not of its nature evil. Thus an employee is forced by robbers to open up the safe, the driver of a car is compelled by gangsters to drive them to the scene of intended murder, an orderly is commanded by his already tipsy officer to bring him more drink.

By definition material cooperation is not something wrong in its nature or in its intention, and becomes wrong only by reason of a circumstance, the circumstance that my otherwise innocent act aids others in their wrongdoing. They use my act as a means to their evil end, but I do not use their evil act as a means to anything. Consequently, if there is a proportionately grave reason for permitting this evil circumstance, material cooperation can be justified by the principle of double effect. Since the act I do is not wrong in itself, and I do not use the other’s evil deed as a means to any end, and I have no wrong intention, the only remaining difficulty is that of the proportion. This proportion must be estimated by:

  1. The amount of evil my cooperation helps others to do;
  2. The amount of evil that will happen to me if I refuse to cooperate;
  3. The closeness of my cooperative act to the other’s evil act.
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The first two points need no further explanation here, since they are determined by the principles on a conflict of rights. Love of the neighbor does not oblige me to suffer an injury greater than or equal to that which I am trying to ward off from him, but it does oblige me to suffer a small loss to prevent a great loss from happening to another, and it may even oblige me to sacrifice my life to prevent a huge public calamity. Here we are supposing that the cooperation is proximate, and this brings us to the third point which needs some further explanation.

Cooperation may be proximate or remote, depending on how close it comes to the actual evil deed of the principal agent. For example, a man who writes an immoral book does an act evil in itself. Publishers who accept and edit such a book are formal cooperators. Typesetters, proofreaders, and others who prepare the actual text are proximate material cooperators. Those who merely run the presses, bind the books, and prepare them for delivery are remote material cooperators. The heads of book selling firms that stock such books are formal cooperators, hired clerks who sell them are proximate material cooperators, secretaries who handle the business correspondence concerning them are remote material cooperators. the more proximate the cooperation, the greater the proportionate reason required to make material cooperation allowable.

Two other factors should be noted here. If my cooperation is indispensable, so that no one else could be substituted to help in the evil act, I have a greater responsibility because I can actually prevent the act from happening. If my cooperation is not indispensable, the evil will be done anyway and I may suffer serious harm by my refusal. Greater reason is required for indispensable cooperation. Also, greater reason is required to justify cooperation in persons who, because of contract or similar reasons, have an explicit duty to prevent that particular kind of evil from happening. This would occur in a soldier forced to cooperate with the enemy, a policeman with criminals, a watchman with burglars, a customs officer with smugglers.

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The forms which cooperation can take are too numerous to mention, for it is possible to cooperate with almost any external act, at least by encouragement and support. Hired workers, because they engage their services to a company whose policy they do not determine, are particularly open to the danger of material cooperation. One may not keep a job with a company that continually and habitually does a morally objectionable business. If it does so only occasionally, employees need not be disturbed so long as their material cooperation is kept remote; but if they find that proximate material cooperation is demanded of them fairly frequently, they must have a grave reason for continuing in their job and must meanwhile make an earnest effort to get other work.

Summary: Cooperation is helping another to do wrong by joining him in the act or supplying him with the means. It is formal if we intend the evil we help to accomplish; it is only material if without intending the evil we help another perform his evil act by an act of our own not of its nature evil. Formal cooperation is always wrong. Material cooperation is allowable when the principle of double effect is satisfied. The proportion is worked out by balancing the evil we cooperate with against the evil we are threatened with if we refuse, and by estimating how close our cooperation comes to the evil. A very strong reason is needed to justify proximate material cooperation; lesser reasons suffice for remote material cooperation.


(1) Austin Fagothey, Right and Reason (3rd edition only) St. Louis, Mo., C.V. Mosby Company, 1963-a good solid text for philosophical natural law theory;

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