Summary of Joseph Boyle’s Article on Moral Problems of Cooperation with Evil
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
March 9, 2014
One of the most challenging issues in moral theology is the one involving cooperation with evil. Here is my summary of an excellent article by Catholic philosopher Joseph Boyle which I have used in various courses of mine:
Joseph Boyle, “Collaboration and integrity: how to think clearly about moral problems of cooperation” in Luke Gormally (ed.), Issues for a Catholic Bioethic (The Linacre Centre, 1999), pp. 187-199.
“Cooperation with evil,” Boyle says, “is the name created in Catholic theology and used in Church teaching to discuss a class of cases in which complex circumstances make it difficult to correctly apply the general norm that one should not contribute or participate in the wrongdoing of others.” (p. 187)
I. The Catholic idea of cooperation with evil: the idea and its use
Boyle comments: “The tradition’s concern…has been focused on cases where one party is the primary agent and the other an accomplice or supporter playing a subordinate role in carrying out or facilitating the primary agent’s evil action, in other words, on cases where the cooperating party is not actually doing the evil act, but something to facilitate it.” (p. 187)
“But even this narrowing of focus,” Boyle continues, “does not isolate exactly what the tradition was concerned with, as a moral issue distinct from scandal” (p. 187), as he shows on pp. 187-188.
There is also, Boyle reminds us, another significant category of cooperation: where one induces “another to participate in sin by causing him…to fear the consequences of not sinning,” i.e. “one can scandalize by coercion or duress.” (p. 188). The “possibility of coercive motivation in inducing help for wrongdoing,” Boyle claims, “usefully narrows the focus to the sorts of cases the category of cooperation with evil was intended to deal with. For coercion always changes the voluntariness of actions done in response to it, and sometimes alters some of the obligations of those who are coerced.” (p. 188)
Boyle mentions the example of the responsible sea captain to illustrate a situation where a person (the captain) is choosing to do something (throw his cargo overboard) he would prefer not to do but only does so (to avoid shipwreck) because of the coercing circumstances (the storm); if they were not present the person would choose otherwise. He calls this, after Aristotle, a “mixed voluntary” action. (p. 188)
The above action, which is voluntary, is unlike other actions where the “coercive circumstances may sometimes transform the voluntariness of actions more radically than this.” Boyle states that these kinds of circumstances can “cause fear so great that no voluntary action is possible.” Hence, no human action is performed and no blame is assigned. More commonly, he notes, “such circumstances provide grounds for mitigating the responsibility of those who weakly do even great evils. But they do not justify evil actions…” (p. 188)
With Aristotle, Boyle notes that the “coercive character of a situation can change the obligations of those coerced. This change occurs because the threatening circumstances put into play within one’s practical thinking considerations not normally in view, such as saving one’s life or keeping one’s job. These considerations indicate that there are options for action which (1) in noncoercive situations do not ordinarily arise except as temptations to choose wrongly, but (2) in these situations are morally good” (p. 189). So, as Boyle points out, the responses to coercion involved in the actions of the sea captain or the person handing money over to a robber at gunpoint, are “not the morally evil acts they would be in less constrained circumstances.” They are in fact “completely good actions” (p. 189)
But, let it be emphasized, for Boyle and the Catholic tradition, “coercion does not justify any action needed to respond to the coercion. Idolatry, murder, adultery, perjury and other absolutely forbidden actions are simply out, morally speaking, and no coercive circumstances can change that” (p. 189). There are, in other words, absolute moral norms. Moreover, and quite significantly, Boyle argues that one’s non-absolute obligations are not often negated under coercion. He writes: “Much of a person’s life is structured by non-absolute duties based on one’s commitments to others, and one often is pressured to set them aside. But sometimes others’ welfare so depends on one’s doing one’s duty that deliberately setting it aside to avoid bad consequences would be gravely wrong. So, the appallingly coercive conditions of a battlefield do not ordinarily justify a soldier’s abandoning his post.” (p. 189)
Consequently, according to Boyle, “there is need to distinguish, in actions in which one person helps another do wrong, cases in which a coercive context can change one’s ordinary obligations, most importantly the obligation not to contribute to wrongdoing, from those cases in which one acts wrongly under duress.” (p. 190)
“The Catholic moral tradition came explicitly to isolate this moral issue, as distinct from issues concerning scandal, in the period of casuistry leading up to St. Alphonsus’ important synthesis of moral theology. The issue came to be called cooperation with evil. One kind, called formal cooperation to indicate a moral union between the cooperative action and the wrongdoing was rejected as always wrong, another, called material cooperation, because it contributed to the wrongdoing without the moral union with wrongdoing characteristic of formal cooperation, was taken to be morally permissible under certain circumstances.” (p. 190, emphases mine)
Boyle at this point notes that his initial focus on coercion can mislead; “it provides a paradigm of the sort of circumstances that generates mixed voluntariness. Other forms of constraint, including moral limits on what one may do, also create the relevant sort of mixed voluntariness” (pp. 190-191). Boyle has in mind such things as moral impossibility and the impossibility of complete avoidance of help to evildoers; the latter is obviously beyond human power.
Concluding this part, Boyle says that “the constraining circumstances raise the moral question, they do not answer it. In other words, if one were motivated without such circumstances to assist wrongdoing, the casuistical question of how to distinguish those helping actions whose moral character is changed by coercion from those that are not does not arise, and we would face only the unperplexing, common case of people working together to do wrong.” (p. 190)
II. The tradition’s approach to the complexities of applying “do not help others sin”
The tradition provided the clarification needed to apply the norm prohibiting contributing to wrongdoing by providing both (a) the morally significant basis for distinguishing between formal and material cooperation and (b) some general normative considerations relevant to the determination of whether material cooperation is justified in given cases. Boyle treats these in order (p. 191).
A. The difference between formal and material cooperation and why it matters ethically
St. Alphonsus, as Boyle notes, defined formal and material cooperation as follows: “That [cooperation] is formal which concurs in the bad will of the other and cannot be without sin; that [cooperation] indeed is material which concurs in the bad action of another, outside the intention of the cooperator.” (p. 191)
So, as Boyle understands these definitions, “a formal cooperator in abortion is guilty of abortion, not primarily of cooperation with it.” (p. 192)
But what does it mean to concur in another’s bad will and concurring only in another’s action? (p. 192). Boyle will say, after several paragraphs of discussion that, “Actions involving no intention to contribute to wrongdoing can have the effect of contributing to it [e.g. the conscientious taxpayer contributing to immoral governmental actions]. Such actions are what St. Alphonsus and the later tradition regarded as material cooperation; they do contribute to wrongdoing, and that is why they are morally problematic. But they do not involve the kind of willing – intending and choosing – which could identify one’s moral act with that of the wrongdoer. That one’s action contributes to wrongdoing is a side effect. As St. Alphonsus explains, one’s anticipation of the misuse of one’s action by the principal wrongdoer does not make that misuse morally one’s own.” (p. 193)
On the other hand, as Boyle puts it, “one’s choice or intention concurs with that of a wrongdoer just in case something one chooses or intends is included within what is wrongful in the will of the wrongdoer” (p. 193). He gives examples on pp. 193-194 to illustrate the concept of concurring in another’s bad will.
Boyle goes on to argue that, despite what his examples might seem to imply, difficult cases will arise not simply in the areas of material cooperation; cases of formal cooperation can also be difficult to detect (p. 195). He tells us that “the cases requiring careful moral analysis are not so much those involving close behavioral connections with wrongdoing but are those in which one participates in organizing institutional and contractual relationships to keep wrongdoing at a distance by providing it, as it were, some social space” (p. 195). [Note: One case involving this close behavioral connection Boyle had already mentioned: the case of nurses choosing “behaviors very closely and immediately related to abortion for the sake of keeping their jobs” – these persons, he argues, can be “cooperating with abortion only materially (though not necessarily justifiably)…” (p. 195)]
“If one must do something to guarantee the [above] provision, even if by someone else, of these services, then there seems to be formal cooperation: the means to getting the contract is providing for immoral services” (p. 196). So, Boyle concludes, “keeping wrongdoing at a distance is compatible with formally cooperating in it”; and this for Boyle is “the main reason why cases of institutional cooperation with evil are so difficult.” (p. 196)
Finally, Boyle attends to the difficulties of Catholic hospitals in the U.S., often pressured as they are by financial and governmental exigencies. They are not asked to sponsor immoral services, but to “integrate into a system that provides for such things” (p. 196). To suppose, however, that formal cooperation is never a concern is not justified. Boyle remarks: “The details of the arrangements must be carefully considered to determine how exactly the Catholic institution’s participation is related to the immoral activities; if it must guarantee them, then the cooperation is immoral, and if the cooperative venture cannot succeed unless the wrongdoing is carried on, even with no help from the Catholic partner, then the temptation and corporate sin of thought raise questions that are distinct from those of material cooperation.” (p. 196)
Boyle concludes the section as follows: “In effect, the tradition says to the person thus perplexed [about contributing to wrongdoing]: the fact that your action is behaviorally distinct from the wrongdoing to which you contribute does not guarantee that the wrongdoing is not your own.” (p. 196)
B. The conditions under which material cooperation is justified
“In material cooperation,” Boyle says, “the contribution to wrongdoing is real but a side effect of an action done for other reasons. The obligation not to contribute to wrongdoing is not a moral absolute and sometimes must be set aside in favor of the obligations grounded in those other reasons.” Thus, “one reasonable reconstruction of the tradition’s second recommendation to a person perplexed because his action provides support for wrongdoing is: when you know that the wrongdoing is not your own, you may do what supports it as a side effect only if it is justified to perform an act having this bad side effect along with other side effects the action has because of its contributing to wrongdoing.” (pp. 196-197)
Additionally, as Boyle notes, in quoting St. Alphonsus: “But the latter [material cooperation] is licit when the action is good or indifferent in itself, and when one has a reason for doing it that is both just and proportioned to the gravity of the other’s sin and to the closeness of the assistance given for carrying out the sin” (p. 197). Alphonsus adds a third condition – in addition for (1) the action to be good or indifferent in itself and (2) the need for a justifying reason – to the necessary conditions for doing what has bad side effects: “the reason must be proportioned to the gravity of the wrongdoing and the proximity of the help” (p. 197). It is with respect to this third condition that the tradition seems in most need of development according to Boyle.
Consequentialist calculations cannot carry out the relevant comparison, argues Boyle. The tradition left the determination of proportionate reason to the prudent person (p. 197).
The first and best known way of reflecting on whether we are overly permissive in accepting bad side effects is the Golden Rule, according to Boyle. This is a procedure, he informs us, for “testing our feelings about the impact of our actions on those for whom we do not have natural feelings of solidarity. By putting ourselves in their place, this procedure often shows that we would not stand for harm to the same goods our actions harm as side effects when they are the goods of those we love.” Continuing, he notes that “moral assessment of actions that assist wrongdoing must take into account not only the fact that wrongdoing is facilitated but also the further consequences for others of this fact.” (p. 198)
Boyle also rightly takes into consideration what he calls the “bias of feeling against spiritual reality,” i.e. the negative impact our cooperation has on spiritual goods. (p. 198)
Second, we can ask, “does doing an act with bad side effects or its alternative fit better with the common end of the whole of human life? The option that better fits is proportionate” (p. 198). This account suggests for Boyle, that Alphonsus’ idea of proportion may be too narrow. For surely, Boyle maintains, “the overall moral importance of the action that supports wrongdoing in comparison with the choice not to do it is the whole of which St. Alphonsus’ first proportion between the reason for acting and the seriousness of the sin is only a part.” (p. 198)
Moreover, Boyle argues, “the issue of proximity of the help, which the manualists treated as an important consideration for or against material cooperation,” seems to Boyle to be “more a sign, and a fallible one at that, of the more fundamental moral considerations.” It is thus “considerations about the often neglected side effects of material cooperation and not proximity as such that are morally decisive.” (p. 198)
Briefly summing up, Boyle writes: “it is possible to think about material cooperation; and if we attend to the moral category of the thinking we can do so well and clearly: this thinking is an application of the complex ethics of accepting bad side effects. When we consider an action that facilitates wrongdoing, if that action is not morally flawed by features other than its doing just this, then our task is to pay careful attention to the further effects that the action may have just as cooperative with wrongdoing. If we pay attention to these effects of cooperation, then it becomes clear that significant, avoidable material cooperation is not presumptively permissible, but in fact difficult to justify. It is a mistake to think that because the ethics of accepting side effects is not settled by moral absolutes it is an area where permissiveness reigns. Bad side effects are really bad – they harm people, and the harm of wrongdoing includes damage to the moral selves of sinners and their victims. We need not and should not be casual in approaching this matter.” (pp. 198-199)