(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?