Cooperation with Evil

(This is part of the continuing series on Theology and Philosophy that current Th.M. students are engaged in at Western.  This post is by Renjy Abraham)

As I reflect on the topic of ethics and what we ought to do as human beings interacting in this world, it seems that in general people recognize that the one who willfully and knowingly commits an act is held responsible.  Flowing out of this, it seems reasonable to then believe that no one can be held responsible for the action of others.  On the surface that sounds sensible and right.  But are there circumstances in which we are responsible for the actions of others?  The article, “Cooperation with Evil” by Fr. William P. Saunders addresses situations in which we can join and influence others to do good or evil and therefore we can be held responsible for the actions of others.

Since we have the ability to cooperate with evil acts, to what extent are we held responsible? There are different categories of cooperation, formal and material, which help us come to an answer.

My understanding is that when an individual willingly and knowingly participates in an evil action by another it is called formal cooperation.  In formal cooperation, the cooperator and the actor share intention or purpose to commit the evil act.  In situations where intention or purpose is not shared and one assists in any way, the cooperation is called material.  Material cooperation is then broken up into two categories addressing the closeness of the cooperation.  Simply put, proximate (or immediate) material cooperation occurs when the cooperator’s actions are essential to the action of evil.  Remote (or mediate) material cooperation concerns all actions of the cooperator in which they are not essential to the act, but still aids in the evil act. The example that Saunders uses in his article is of someone getting an abortion. The doctor who performs the act (formal cooperator), the person who drives the individual to the hospital (immediate material cooperator), and even the custodian who cleans the room (mediate material cooperator) all participate to varying degrees in the act of evil.

With all of this, how does one figure out the extent to which they are responsible for the actions of others? It is clear that in formal cooperation, the cooperator should be held at a high level of responsibility. However, when it comes to material cooperation it becomes harder to understand.  Saunders puts forth this guiding question in regards to material cooperation “Is there a proportionate reason for cooperation with this evil action?” His guiding question isn’t satisfactory to me.  It is a good question in that it forces people start thinking about how their actions influence and affect others.  But how does one determine ‘proportionate reasons’?  If someone works as a computer technician at a retail company whose products were made in a sweat shop overseas, as a material cooperator does she have the responsibility to quit her job?  Or is it reasonable to say that her cooperation is so remote and she is providing for her family, that she is justified in her work.  Or for the person who gets a new movie and lets his friend borrow it, knowing that he has the ability to burn the DVD, is he responsible to try and prevent his friend from copying it?    How much should one be willing to set aside the benefits they might gain (the relationship, or the money that is earned to provide for their family) when they cooperate in an act that leads to evil?

I am not looking for a clear cut answer, but principles that better guide us in understanding our responsibility for the actions of others.   Your thoughts?

Posted on November 15, 2010, in Academics, Th.M. Program, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. This has haunted me for years now. When I lived in San Francisco and I saw many poor, impoverished, addicted, and depraved people walking the streets it became evident to me that there is a sense in which each person makes their own bed but there is another sense in which there are “systemic” evils to which we all contribute one way or another.

    If I buy a pair of Nike shoes that was made in Indonesia through semi-slave labor did I fund this evil? It would seem in some sense the answer is yes…especially if I knew about the actions. Then again, can I live, function, buy, and sell without participating to some extent some of the time? I don’t know if this is possible.

    When the Apostle Paul told the early Christian to pay taxes to Rome did it ever cross his mind that he was funding an imperialistic war machine? As an American do I not face the same problem? I want to say it is my responsibility to pay taxes and that I will be judged for obeying or disobeying the State that God has empowered and that God will judge the State on the basis of how they use those taxes. I want to say that it is my job to work for a company to support my family, even if the business practices are corrupt, and that God will judge the business for how it manages greater decisions of practice and policy.

    Jesus had the power to heal by the Spirit but I know he didn’t heal everyone who needed healing. He was lead by the Father, who lets some things go, and this is part of a theodic question that goes from my own responsibility to that of God. If God can pick and choose what evils to address and when to address them, and God is omnipotent, in what sense can he judge me for doing something similar when I am limited!

    I want to say that God will only hold me responsible for those things I knew to do, and had the power to do, but did not do. The question then is what are those things?!

  2. Brian, are you suggesting in your comment that Western is “corrupt” since you work there?
    Seriously though, I do not think that the connection between businesses and government are a one for one. Biblically speaking there seems to be a special place in God’s judgment hall for governments that in some ways exempts its citizens from the same judgment. I don’t think the same can be said for businesses. The example of the custodian working at the abortion clinic is instructive. It is one thing to try to leave a corrupt state to find one that is not so corrupt (not exactly possible in many cases) and quite another to leave your job, like Western, because of a moral stance. (For example, one might feel the presence of too many Arminians on staff will hasten God’s wrath.)
    I do appreciate how the levels of cooperation are delineated in these teachings, even if it can be difficult to know how to apply it in every case.

  3. It is corrupt since I work here but not in and of itself! 😉

  4. Good post Renjy! I don’t see why this can’t be a both/and. I and we are always responsible. We discussed Trinitarian theology in class two weeks ago. I think that is a good starting point for this discussion. Since we share in a co-humanity (relational image of God), to some extent, if you sin, you are responsible for your sin, as much as your community (that includes me) has failed to reach out to you.

    In this way, Dr. John M. Perkins argues that problem with so many young black males currently spending time behind bars reflects the Church’s failure to create healthy structures around them. Thus, both are responsible. If a kid who works 16 hours a day in a sweat shop steals from his employer I can’t see it any other way than that I in some ways am co-responsible, considering I help perpetuate the structures that make it impossible for the kid to survive on just his salary.

  5. The corporate nature of humanity in mysterious and at times scary… as a culture we emphasize the individual so much, that I fear we to quickly shirk away from the idea that we have a connection to others; let alone a responsibility for the sins of others…

    …yet as members of a world in rebellion against it’s creators, it may be that at times we cannot make blameless choices… that we cannot isolate ourselves in a tower of self-righteousness… it may be at times that our choices negatively impact others much more than we ever expected…

    (an example of this may be that whether I intend to or not, I am utilizing much more than my share fare of the earth resources at this moment…and throughout my life I have provided ‘material support’ to many causes (by purchasing goods, etc) that I would not intentionally support… )

    Another question… should we be trying to absolve ourselves from the responsibility for other’s moral failures? Would it not be higher moral ground to embrace the way my life has negatively impacted others and take responsibility for it?

    I wonder if we can press Ephesians 5:25 into service here… husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church… how did Christ love the church? enough to take responsibility for the church’s sin… am I pressing this to far to say that in some sense a husband should take responsibility for the failings of his wife?

    just some thoughts…

  6. I do have a Christological problem with the discussion. Christ dwelt amongst us, lived in our systems, and he didn’t stop or correct every individual and systematic evil within reach. Yet he was sinless. Hmmm…..

  7. I actually was placed in the abortion situation given in the article. I international student I was ministering to closely was in this situation and wanted help. We counseled he and his wife to not go through with it, but they finally decided to and asked for a ride. I knew I did not want to give a ride there but my internal debate more came from whether to give them a ride afterwards. They fully understood why I could not give them a ride there. I finally decided to bring them home because I wanted to show that I still loved them though I disagreed with their choice. Do you think this was okay?
    (a year or so later they became believers and now are strong believers in their community. I have not had the courage to ask their current reflections on this decision)

    • The presence of angst and turmoil remaining when determining whether an action was right or wrong after the fact suggests the possibility of the conscience in conflict. The positive consequence of their salvific decision within the contours of the abortion choice contributes to the apologetic and accusation tension (Romans 2:14). A way of thinking through resolution of angst in the paradigm of life that might aid would be confession of the burdensome aspects of the act to God through the price paid by Christ’s sacrifice and then further request of His merciful release from angst of conscience.

      This is where I cautiously and circumspectly live at peace with the death of my twins and the cooperation of withdrawal of life support from the conscious young 5 year old. pax et bonum et trans

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