Just a Formality

March 4, 2008 § 24 Comments

Suppose that Bob is married and devoted, and has no personal interest in sodomy. He has never himself committed an act of sodomy and has no intention of ever doing so. Suppose however that Bob does not think that sodomy is immoral. He writes a blog post saying that sodomy is not immoral and that homosexuals should engage in sodomy in order to emotionally cement their relationships.

On one theory of formal cooperation Bob is not formally cooperating with evil, because he doesn’t agree that what he is willing – acts of sodomy – are evil. He knows what they are, and he is in fact willing them, but he disagrees about their moral status as acts. On this view Bob is not formally cooperating with evil unless his fundamental option, understood as an interior disposition disconnected from any particular objective moral reality pertaining to behaviors, involves a direct and explicit rejection of God independent of particular categories of acts.

Needless to say, I don’t find this theory of formal cooperation convincing. I think Bob is formally cooperating with evil.


§ 24 Responses to Just a Formality

  • JohnMcG says:

    Interesting that how when we can’t get other people to grasp the advocating killing and torture are intrinsically evil, we can always brining them around by constructing a parallel involving private consensual sexual conduct. This isn’t meant as a criticism; I’ve done the same thing.I’m not saying sodomy isn’t evil, but it’s a bit odd that people would find its evil more obvious than starving a helpless woman to death.

  • Civis says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Civis says:

    What would your hypothetical imply about open debate of topics? Can you discuss something without cooperating with those who undertake action related to the topic discussed? Is believing in your position in a debate the key, i.e. you can talk about it, but as soon as you are convinced one side is right you become somehow morally tied to those to do more than talk?

  • zippy says:

    It is certainly possible to debate something without intentional advocacy of a particular result, it seems to me. Doubtless such debates still have a <>material<> effect; but it isn’t formal cooperation until the cooperator <>wills<> that <>that thing be done<>. Expressing explicitly “that thing ought to be done” is one of the most direct forms of access that we have to a person’s intentions. Advocacy that a certain thing be done can be and probably often is disguised as or intermingled with debate, of course; but that isn’t <>necessary<>, I don’t think.

  • Civis says:

    So advocacy is the difference. Fair enough. Do I understand correctly, based on johnmcg’s comment that this discussion is related to killing and torture? If so, interesting.

  • zippy says:

    <>Do I understand correctly, based on johnmcg’s comment that this discussion is related to killing and torture?<>Initially it was specifically about the murder of Terri Schiavo, and what constituted formal cooperation with her murder. But the general subject of formal cooperation is wide-ranging; we’ve discussed torture, just war, murder, abortion, vasectomies, contraception, and all kinds of particular subjects here over time.

  • Civis says:

    Heavy stuff!

  • Brandon says:

    I’m a little confused here; cases like this would usually be classified as <>material<> cooperation, not formal, because (1) the acts of sodomy do not require Bob’s advocacy; and (2) Bob is not actively involved in an act of sodomy. Formal cooperation is some sort of willing participation in the actual act itself, either as a direct participant or as deliberately providing a component necessary for it, and ex hypothesi this is not the case with Bob. I don’t know if this would change your point; while it’s considered less, material cooperation can be as bad as formal cooperation, if it is linked closely enough to the evil act. But it’s a different sort of cooperation.Perhaps a better example for your purposes would be voting? If you vote for a candidate who has a policy, and do so because of that policy, you are formal cooperating with it because you are directly and deliberately empowering it to the extent you are able. It doesn’t matter whether Bob agrees that (say) pro-abortion policies are evil; because they are, to vote to further them is formal cooperation with evil.

  • zippy says:

    <>If you vote for a candidate who has a policy, and do so because of that policy, you are formal cooperating with it because you are directly and deliberately empowering it to the extent you are able.<>When Bob writes his blog post he probably does more to directly and deliberately empower those acts of sodomy than a voter. But measuring the material difference between the effects of the two acts doesn’t render the one formal cooperation and the other material. What renders the act formal cooperation is his <>sharing in the intention<> of the sodomite: his <>willing<> that acts of sodomy actually take place combined with some act of his own which cooperates with those acts of sodomy.

  • Anonymous says:

    Let’s say Bob believes and writes on his blog that abortion is the deliberate murder of an innocent human being. He knows that political candidate X is pro-life while political candidate Y is pro-abortion. Knowing this, Bob writes that he intends to vote for candidate Y because, as far as he’s concerned, candidate X is a broken clock that happens to be right on the issue of abortion. Bob disagrees with Y’s pro-abortion stance, but thinks Y is the bees knees on everything else.Is it formal cooperation with evil to vote for Y?Sincerely,A catechumen who wants to think more closely with the Church

  • zippy says:

    <>Is it formal cooperation with evil to vote for Y?<>No, not as I understand it. In order to be formal cooperation with evil one must <>share in the evil intention<> or <>will the evil act to be done<> (even though one is not doing the evil act onesself directly). That is what the “formal” qualifier means.That doesn’t mean he necessarily gets a free pass to vote for Y, mind you, but <>formal<> cooperation with Act A requires an <>intention that A be done<>.The thing that messes with peoples’ heads – and therefore the very point I am attempting to clarify – is that in order to be formal cooperation with evil (as I understand it) the cooperator just has to <>will that objectively evil act A be done<> and <>do something<> – anything at all, no matter how materially insignificant – <>in support of act A<>; it doesn’t matter whether he <>agrees that act A is evil<>. So someone who wills that Terri’s feeding tube be pulled and (say) blogs to that effect is formally cooperating with her murder — whether or not he agrees that it is murder. That is the thing that brings out the pitchforks and torches.Also formal cooperation, unlike material cooperation, cannot become licit by becoming “remote”. Remote material cooperation with evil can sometimes be licit under double effect, but <>formal<> cooperation with evil is never permissable.All assuming, as usual, that I have the faintest idea what I am talking about.

  • First, let me assume that Bob writes his blog post <>in order to<> encourage homosexuals to engage in homosexual acts. (If he is engaging in reverse psychology, then he’s not intending that they engage in such acts.)Isn’t this then a question of two resolutions of a <>de re<> / <>de dicto<> ambiguity? On the <>de re<> reading of “cooperation with evil”, Bob is formally cooperating with evil in the sense that he is formally cooperating with an action <>A<>, and in fact <>A<> is evil. On the <>de dicto<> reading, Bob is not formally cooperating with evil in the sense of having it be his intention to do something he takes to be evil. (Actually, there are two <>de dicto<> readings: on one, he cooperates with the evil believing that it is evil, and on the other, he cooperates with the evil because it is evil. The second is even worse than the first.)What Bob is doing is, then, a material but not formal sin, assuming he is not at fault for his false belief that homosexual acts are not immoral.

  • zippy says:

    <>What Bob is doing is, then, a material but not formal sin, assuming he is not at fault for his false belief that homosexual acts are not immoral.<>The same distinction would apply though even if Bob were committing the act of sodomy himself. Assuming that Bob has a non-culpable false belief that X is morally licit ‘subjectively’ exonerates anything at all, for any X, and doesn’t shed any light on the matter of formal cooperation with evil as distinct from any other kind of moral evaluation. If Hitler through no fault of his own had a false moral belief that exterminating the Jews was good, then he isn’t culpable for exterminating the Jews.Invoking non-culpable-by-assumption false moral beliefs seems to me to be argumentatively indistinguishable from “shut up”.

  • M.Z. Forrest says:

    I think where the disagreement is that we aren’t talking necessarily about sodomy. Say groups X believes the the act of **-** is sodomy, an act that is intrinsically evil. Group Y believes group X is making a categorical error in classifying **-** as sodomy. For these purposes we’ll say Y is arguing that **-** is an act of affection that sometimes appears like sodomy but is in the end just an act of affection. Since acts of affection are not sodomy according to group Y, they advise it is probably licit to do **-**. Don’t get me wrong. There is a real slippery slope here. This is where having a magisterium comes in real handy. The categorical difference between a salpingectomy and a salpingotomy comes to mind as an area where disagreements are made.Of course, you can find many people who aren’t making a categorical distinction and do indeed support euthanasia. I think we all agree that that group is definately formally cooperating in evil.

  • Brandon says:

    <>What renders the act formal cooperation is his sharing in the intention of the sodomite: his willing that acts of sodomy actually take place combined with some act of his own which cooperates with those acts of sodomy.<>Yes, but you don’t share in the intention of the sodomite by velleity, but by actual participation in the act. Since the intention constitutes the act as the kind of act it is, to share in the intention means to be directly participating in the act (in some way). A formal cooperator is a secondary participant in the actual act itself; he is condemned by exactly the same principles as the primary agents because he deliberately plays an essential role in the act itself. Thus someone who pays for an abortion is formally cooperating with the abortion, despite not being a primary agent in it, because he is contributing an important subsidiary part of the act. This isn’t the case with Bob. Bob isn’t sharing in the intention of the sodomite; he is intending the general encouragement of those who do, which is a different intention, and a different act; one that is also intrinsically evil, but that is wrong for subtly different reasons. The only way it would become formal is if Bob were somehow doing something like voting for the particular act to be done, because that’s an indirect participation in the same act. So if Bob were not merely voicing a general opinion but were particularly advising someone he knew to engage in sodomy, that would be formal cooperation with that particular act. Merely saying in a public forum that something intrinsically evil can be good, on the other hand, is material cooperation. You can’t be a formal cooperator with wrong acts <>in general<>, because different wrong acts have different particular intentions (otherwise they’d be one and the same act); you can, however, be a material cooperator with wrong acts in general, by encouraging or assisting a particular <>kind<> of intention, whenever it might occur, without actually participating in any particular intention to do it. This seems to me to follow from the very distinction itself: formal cooperation helps to give the particular wrong act itself its actual form, making it what it is, while material cooperation helps the particular wrong act circumstantially, circumstances being the material that an agent’s intentions give form to in acting.The vague sense of empowering that Bob can be accused of is a good argument for his material cooperation being immediate and grave, and thus not any less serious than formal cooperation; but Bob is not empowering it in the sense of actively assisting in the actual doing of the act (as someone who votes for a pro-abortion politician because of their pro-abortion policies is actively assisting in imposing those policies) — he’s just saying that they should be done in a public forum. Thus he is deliberately contributing a circumstance useful to those who will be performing the act, which is material cooperation.

  • zippy says:

    <>…he deliberately plays an essential role …<>I think our disagreement hinges on the term <>essential<>. ‘Essential’ implies that the act would be impossible and would not occur absent the formal cooperation: thus driving her to the abortion clinic is never formal cooperation if she were capable of getting there in some other way, for example. In my understanding of formal cooperation, it is simply material cooperation (that is, anything done which is contributory in some way, however small) with the additional feature that the evil act itself is willed by the one who cooperates.

  • Brandon:Suppose that I hate Irishmen, and I put, in a public place not frequented by Irishmen, a barrel of baseball bats and a sign: “Take one and smash an Irishman’s window.” My intention (assuming there isn’t some weird reverse psychology going on) is that Irishmen’s windows be smashed. I have performed an act here, the act of putting out the baseball bats and hanging up the sign, with the intention that that act should help with the smashing of Irishmen’s windows. That I do not know who, if anyone, will complete the task is irrelevant. It’s not a mere velleity–an act has been done, and the act’s intention is clear.Likewise, if I don’t put out any bats, but just hang up a sign encouraging people to smash Irishmen’s windows, I have done an act whose end is the smashing of Irishmen’s windows, and the intended means to the end is that this should be done by people incited through my sign. But here is something interesting, which may be related to what you’re getting at. These two cases are somewhat different from the “standard case” of formal cooperation where one is a secondary agent. For in cases of incitement to an evil, the inciter is actually the primary agent, and the incitee is the secondary agent. In fact, I think we do recognize this–we treat the person who incited a riot as the guiltiest of the bunch (even if he broke no windows or heads). (There will, however, be cases where the distinction between primary and secondary agent disappears, because the deliberative structure is too complex to separate out one of the decisions as primary.)Zippy:Yes, the same distinction applies when Bob engages in sodomy himself. My point is that the phrase “cooperation with evil” is ambiguous. The phrase “doing evil” has the same ambiguity.

  • zippy says:

    <>My point is that the phrase “cooperation with evil” is ambiguous. The phrase “doing evil” has the same ambiguity.<>Fair enough.

  • JohnMcG says:

    Alex,I think what we have in the current discourse is not so much as ringleading as providing safety in numbers.The notions that torture is acceptable, sodomy is great, pulling a feeding tube is OK, etc. are in the air now. Most of us aren’t in a position to “incite” these activities.In essence, the sign has been posted and the baseball bats are set out. What now?If I grab a bat, there’s no question about what I’m doing.If I say it’s a great idea, but darn if my back isn’t acting up on me again, then there’s also little doubt on what I’m doing.If I make disparaging comments about Irishmen in the presence of the sign and baseball bats, then I may be able to kid myself for a time that I’m not advocating window-smashing, but I don’t think God would be fooled.If I remain silent, it could have effects beyond my control.If I say, “Just don’t smash old Mrs. Murphy’s window; she’s a nice old lady,” I’m giving tacit approval to the window-smashing enterprise as a whole.

  • Brandon says:

    <>In my understanding of formal cooperation, it is simply material cooperation (that is, anything done which is contributory in some way, however small) with the additional feature that the evil act itself is willed by the one who cooperates.<>I don’t have any problem with this; I don’t think it is the traditional use of the phrase ‘formal cooperation’, but the sort of material cooperation you are talking about is serious in its own right, and your argument, I take it, is chiefly a point about the cooperation. Plus, it’s possible that ‘formal cooperation’ is occasionally used more loosely than it used to be. I mostly just wanted to clarify your point about that.Alex, I’ll be putting something about material and formal cooperation and your examples on my blog.

  • zippy says:

    Brandon: it seems to me that you are describing <>implicit<> formal cooperation. Implicit formal cooperation is doing something that is <>necessary<> in the carrying out of the act: the person may even deny that he is formally cooperating, but if he is doing something on purpose which is necessary to carrying out some intrinsically immoral act then he is formally cooperating with that intrinsically immoral act. But formal cooperation <>in general<> obtains any time one <>intends<> an act performed by another.And material cooperation (not distinguishing between proximate and remote) simply means doing something which contributes to the act of another.

  • zippy says:

    And < HREF="http://www.immunize.org/concerns/vaticandocument.htm" REL="nofollow">here<> by the way is Cardinal Ratzinger in the context of vaccinations derived from aborted fetuses:<>Formal cooperation is carried out when the moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention. On the other hand, when a moral agent cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing his/her evil intention, it is a case of material cooperation. […] Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person. […] In a case where there is no such formal sharing of the immoral intention of the person who has performed the abortion, any form of cooperation would be material, […]<>The formal/material distinction has to do with sharing the intention of the person performing the act. Any form of cooperation whatsoever in which one <>shares the intention of the acting subject<> is formal cooperation.So for example someone who wrote a blog post to the effect that Terri Schaivo’s feeding tube ought to be pulled – and meant it, that is, was not lying in expressing that intention – formally cooperated with her murder.

  • zippy says:

    Correction: The document came from the Pontifical Academy for Life, not the CDF.

  • […] the disposition of my naughty bits to be slightly daft. You will not find me saying that someone is formally cooperating with evil for not opposing gay marriage, or suggesting jail time for […]

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