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Cooperation with Evil

Updated: Feb 16

Catholic moral theology is aimed toward the flourishing of the human person for happiness through proper relationships between the subject and other persons. These actions involve real, concrete things which need to be evaluated to see if they contribute to the perfection of the human person. In order to decide the best ways to accomplish this, we have the three moral fonts which guide us in knowing what actions are in line with the love due to self and others. These three fonts are the object of an action, the intention of the actor, and the circumstances in which the action occurs.

The key component of this reasoning is the object. When discussing the object, we mean the specific action that is undertaken without regard to the motive or purpose. An agent’s actions should be ordered to what is true and good. If the object is not good, then the action can never be good, regardless of the circumstances or intentions. There is a real moral significance to actions undertaken, some of which lead toward human perfection and others which lead to frustrating that end. Moral objects are the foundation for human freedom and provide the foundation for the grace of the new law.

Secondarily, a moral object should be accompanied by a good end. There is a relationship between the purpose of the action and the purpose of the person performing the action. A good intention cannot make an evil act permissible, however, a bad intention can taint a seemingly good action. To use a simple example, if I prepare a meal for my spouse I am doing something praiseworthy. However, if I prepare that same meal so I can humiliate my spouse by showing how superior I am to them the entire moral fiber of the action is altered. I have replaced love with pride. At the same time, an intention cannot make evil good. I cannot murder someone to steal their organs to help five people who desperately need a transplant. While wanting to save five lives is commendable, the action of murder is innately evil and the good ends cannot justify the evil means.

Finally, the circumstances surrounding an action can augment or diminish the composition of the moral object. While the circumstances of an action can affect the culpability, they can never change an evil act to a good one. For example, someone may argue that abortion is necessary because the mother is too poor to care for a child. While helping the poor is a noble intention, and the mother’s circumstances may be exceptionally difficult and spur a call to provide her aid, the direct slaying of an innocent person cannot be permitted because its object is evil.

Now, we also have actions that cooperate with the evil done by another person. It is prudent to understand how far a person should go to resist evil. Especially in our society, where the ends tend to justify the means, it is important to have a clear understanding of whether or not any kind of cooperation with evil is licit. Thus, the three moral fonts can also be applied to cooperating with evil.

There is a lot to unpack here. Depending on the moral object and the intention of an action we can cooperate formally or materially with evil. Our material cooperation can be mediate or immediate. Finally, our mediate cooperation can be remote or proximate. Additionally, our intention can make our cooperation implicit or explicit. So, what does all of that mean?

Formal cooperation with evil means that we are directly contributing to the evil act of another. When cooperating with someone for the express purpose of an evil (an evil moral object AND an evil intention) then that action can be said to be explicit formal cooperation. On the other hand, if the evil action is not intended, but is evil because of the circumstances surrounding it, the cooperation is said to be implicit. For example, a nurse assisting in an abortion is formally and explicitly cooperating with evil. If I were to support building a healthcare clinic that I know would perform abortions, even though I intend to provide other medical care, I am implicitly cooperating by directly providing the means that allow an evil act to exist. In both cases, the actions performed are immoral. The agent has directly and intentionally provided the means for an evil to exist. The explicit is worse because the bad intention makes the sin more disordered, but the intention is not enough to make an intrinsically evil action good.

However, our cooperation with evil is not always this direct. This kind of indirect cooperation is called material cooperation. Material cooperation is also problematic but can be licit in exceptional circumstances. This kind of evil occurs by sharing indirect contributions and can be either immediate or mediate.

Immediate material cooperation provides material that is necessary for an evil act to occur. Immediate material cooperation is always wrong and is similar to implicit formal cooperation. Mediate material cooperation occurs when the involvement is contingent or accidental. Evil would still occur whether the agent was involved or not. This kind of cooperation can be either proximate or remote.

Proximate mediate material cooperation is always sinful because it is necessary for a sinful act to occur. For example, if a woman asks her friend to drive her to an abortion clinic to have an abortion. The driver’s cooperation is necessary for the act to occur. Remote material cooperation is also sinful unless all other options are exhausted and there is a proportionate reason, that is the act itself is not sinful and it will have a positive effect that outweighs the tolerance of the cooperation with evil. This is similar to the principle of double effect in which an action has an evil and good effect and is chosen for the good, while the other effect is a regrettable side effect. Even so, efforts should be made to avoid the scandal of cooperation through protest or explanation.

The principles of cooperation are complex and thus can be easily misunderstood. It is preferable to avoid any cooperation with evil, and necessary to avoid any direct or proximate cooperation. We should always do good and avoid evil. Likewise, we should not contribute to evil actions performed by others.


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