Let them eat cake

September 6, 2013 § 15 Comments

The modern economic order is one in which many businesses, large and small, are required to take on customers that they don’t want.  New Sherwood has a clever idea about how to respond to liberal brownshirts who are using the law to force small business owners to (for example) bake “wedding” cakes for sodomites: pledge to donate all of the proceeds to Courage or similar organizations.

The analysis of material cooperation with evil is correct, as best as I can tell.  As in similar situations, compliance with the law under protest in order to sustain an ability to make a living is, again in my analysis, morally licit.

Nothing says “leave me and my business alone” like funneling all the revenues from your unwanted customers to organizations they find distasteful.

I’d even suggest that a Christian pharmacist ought to donate all of his contraceptive revenues to a big, mainstream anti-contraception organization.  That is, I’d suggest it if one existed.

Evil for the win!

May 29, 2013 § 26 Comments

Suppose Bob has a plan to achieve good end X.

Suppose that in order to succeed at achieving good end X, Bob’s plan requires that Dave must form an evil intention.[*]  Suppose further that Bob plans to act in some concrete way – say by speaking to Dave – in order to convince him to form that specific evil intention.

Bob’s act – perhaps of speaking to Dave – is formal cooperation with evil.  Bob is deliberately trying to produce a specific evil intention in another human being. Bob’s plans will fail if Dave fails to form the specific evil intention.

In the terminology of double-effect, the evil effect (Dave forming a specific evil intention to commit a specific evil act) is a necessary cause of the good effect that Bob seeks.  But an act can never be justified, under the principle of double-effect, when an evil effect is required as the cause of the intended good effect.


[*] This reasoning holds even if it is part of Bob’s plan for Dave’s evil intention to be thwarted by circumstances.

Kicking them while they are down for Jesus

May 29, 2013 § 69 Comments

It has been suggested that it is morally acceptable for pro-life operatives to lie to abortion clinic workers, requesting an abortion that one does not intend to carry out, because clinic workers are already known to be formally cooperating in other abortions.

On top of the naked consequentialism in this approach to lying, it completely inverts the moral theology of scandal.

Under the moral theology of scandal even an otherwise morally acceptable behavior – which lying is not – can be sinful if it leads another person to sin.  Formal cooperation with evil – like a clinic worker agreeing to help someone get an abortion, or a slut agreeing to sleep with her seducer – is sinful.  Formal cooperation with evil is sinful even when the intention to do evil is thwarted by circumstances.  A tempter who is lying is just such a circumstance.

The moral theology of scandal is directed toward the protection of those who are vulnerable to temptation.  Even if an action is not evil in itself, it can become evil if it tempts another person to form an evil intention or perform an evil act.  The fact that a person may be a habitual sinner in general does not remotely begin to excuse specifically and deliberately creating the near occasion for a specific, new sin.

Turning the innocent into material adulterers

March 5, 2013 § 34 Comments

It is never acceptable to confuse a “subjective” error about moral good with the “objective” truth rationally proposed to man in virtue of his end, or to make the moral value of an act performed with a true and correct conscience equivalent to the moral value of an act performed by following the judgment of an erroneous conscience. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good. – Veritatis Splendour

In Catholic moral theology we distinguish between what is formal (that is, intended) and what is material (unintended).

Most of us are probably material heretics: that is, we believe certain things to be true which are in conflict with sound doctrine. We’ve all experienced that “aha!” moment when we understand a doctrine and realize that we had it wrong before. When we had it wrong, we were material heretics: we didn’t intend to dissent from sound doctrine, and as soon as we realized our error we corrected it. But the ideas we had held to be true were in fact in conflict with sound doctrine.

One of the reasons that the annulment process should be very rigorous, and should err very strongly on the side of declining to invalidate a marriage, is that if the tribunal makes a mistake – and as a juridical institution it is certainly liable to do so – the resulting annulment and ‘remarriage’ turns the parties into material adulterers. This is a gross injustice against everyone involved, and most especially against any “new” spouse not previously married.

What not to do about tyranny

February 8, 2013 § 25 Comments

Liberalism has succeeded largely by bringing down tyrants, real or perceived, unleashing the free and equal new man to do whatever he chooses to do — as long as what he chooses to do is consistent with liberalism. It has done so by attacking the very idea of particular men or particular ideas having legitimate authority. Thus it devolves into an assault on truth.

There is no question that we live under a perverse regime, where those in authority hold to twisted ideas radically at odds with the good, the true, and the beautiful. Therefore the impulse to resist the tyrant is natural and good.

However, the means we choose to achieve our ends are important in both the moral and the practical domain.

In the moral domain it is wrong for us to lie or to advocate lying. (Advocacy of lying is formal cooperation with evil and is just as wrong as lying ourselves). When we advocate that the government adopt an agnostic or nominalist approach to marriage or some other fundamental institution we are advocating that the government lie: that government officials tell falsehoods about marriage and base policies on those falsehoods. It is wrong for us to advocate in favor of this on principle, independent of consequences.

So even though Caesar is a tyrant, and even if we think we might be better off if he did lie as a matter of consequences, it is wrong for us to advocate that Caesar lie.

Lez affair economics and formal cooperation

January 1, 2013 § 12 Comments

I’ve noted before that the language used by libertines about the government “allowing” various contracts (like so-called “gay marriage”) is inherently dishonest language, because the enforcement of contracts is not a passivity of government but an activity of government.   Specific terms in a contract cannot be enforced without the enforcer of the contract intending those specific terms.  If the enforcer of the contract intends the terms of the contract he is formally cooperating with that contract.[1]

It follows, then, that if a contract has intrinsically immoral terms – say it charges usury for money lent or asserts that two homosexuals are married – that the government officials who enforce it, and indeed anyone and everyone who intends that its intrinsically immoral terms be enforced and acts in any way toward assisting in that end, including even merely advocation by speech, commits formal cooperation with evil.

So the notion that people should be “allowed” to enter into contracts as long as they do so by mutual consent, independent of whether the contract terms are morally acceptable, is a bit problematic.

[1] It is possible in many cases for the enforcer to treat various terms of a contract as severable.  In such a case the morally right course of action could be to enforce the morally just terms and treat the unjust terms as null and void.  In a contract for usury this might mean (depending on the particulars) enforcing return of principal but not enforcing payment of interest.

The RAT: Relativism Aptitude Test

November 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Conscience : Left Liberals :: Prudential Judgment : Right Liberals

Virtue’s silver medalist

October 31, 2012 § 6 Comments

If you’ve come this far with me, there is good news when it comes to discerning what to do about voting in national elections, and I’d be remiss in not sharing it with you.

The good news is that when people say in an unqualified way that it is a mortal sin to vote for X or Y, they don’t know what they are talking about.

Mortal sin requires knowledge, full consent, and grave matter. As far as I can tell, the only action in voting in a national election which could possibly involve all three of those things is formal cooperation with grave evil.

All of what we’ve been discussing for the past few weeks has involved the question of whether or not there is, objectively, proportionate reason to vote for a particular candidate or to vote at all, given that doing so involves remote material cooperation with evil. If you’ve been following along, you almost certainly know by now how to avoid the trap of engaging in formal cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation with evil is almost certainly, by far, the most pervasive moral problem when it comes to democratic elections; and the Bishops’ preaching on how to avoid formal cooperation has probably helped more souls by far to avoid mortal sin than any collection of blogs about making the actual prudential judgement that follows after.

Furthermore, whether you agree with me or not in the specifics, you have doubtless done your best – as have I – to exercise right reason in coming to the conclusions you have reached. If you and me, we still disagree, that means that one of us must be wrong. It could be you, and it could be me, or it could even be both of us; and I don’t think it is me (else I wouldn’t argue as I do: that is just the nature of disagreement). It is important – it is in fact doctrinal – that we must not equate the true good even with evil that is the result of a non-culpable error in judgement. Therefore we absolutely must not adopt the morally relativist position that it is OK in some unqualified sense for me to not vote and for you to vote as you choose: it isn’t.

It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

So if we disagree, one of us may be right and at least one of us is wrong. But odds are strong that if we’ve gotten this far together, whatever error in judgement that remains – and one must remain, as long as we disagree – is a non-culpable error. In the end we can only do our best. In the end you need to make up your own mind, and as I try to regularly remind people, it would be the height of silliness to place too great a moral weight on the pontifications of an Internet clown named Zippy. If my arguments stand the test of your own reason, great. If they do not, well, I think you are wrong, but it isn’t me that you have to answer to. And as long as we can all stand on virtue’s podium I’ll be as happy with the silver medal as with the gold.

Thespians and the HHS mandate

September 24, 2012 § 23 Comments

An intrinsically immoral act is a deliberately chosen behaviour which is objectively – the behaviour – evil. In order to know what behaviour is chosen (the “object”) we need to see things from the perspective of the acting subject; because it is possible for the acting subject to be mistaken about the objective facts. If he is mistaken about the objective facts then his third-party observable behaviour isn’t what he actually chose. The object of an act is the objective behaviour actually chosen by the acting subject, so once we know what objective behaviour the acting subject actually chose – which can be different from what we observe as a third party either because there are non-material objective facts that we don’t observe or because the acting subject is himself mistaken about objective facts that we know – we can evaluate the moral species of his act.

An intrinsically immoral act is always an action performed by the person himself: it is his own deliberately chosen actions which we evaluate morally. His intentions are the subjective meaning he assigns to his act: the things he desires from his behaviour versus the things he wishes were not intrinsic to his behaviour or extrinsic effects of it. Intentions do not enter into moral evaluation of the object. (It is possible of course for non-intrinsically immoral acts to be evil because of evil intentions, or also because of circumstances).

Formal cooperation, on the other hand, is a matter of how our own intentions stand in relation to someone else’s act. A woman who procures an abortion does not (generally) actually perform the abortion herself. The actual concrete action is performed by the abortionist. However, since the woman who procures an abortion – makes the phone call, shows up at the appointment, etc. – intends the evil action performed by another person, she is guilty of formal cooperation with evil. Strictly speaking she has not performed an intrinsically immoral action herself. An actress on a “reality” show who pretends to make the call and show up to the appointment is not (necessarily) guilty of moral evil, and certainly is not guilty of moral evil as pertains to procuring an abortion. She doesn’t actually intend to procure an abortion: she is therefore not formally cooperating with an abortion. (We will set aside the complex relations between acting, joking, and lying, which is another matter entirely). However, if the person “acting” as the abortionist on the “reality” show actually performs an abortion, he obviously would be guilty of moral evil.

So the distinction between an intrinsically immoral action and formal cooperation is pretty clear, in my view. We should expect morality at bottom to be pretty clear and easy to understand, especially since St. Paul and Christ Himself have admonished us to be as little children as far as evil is concerned. It is true that at times we encounter genuinely puzzling cases “on the margins”. But the great majority of supposed moral conundrums arise, in my view, from the fact that there are just lots of clearly wrong actions that we are uncomfortable condemning as morally wrong.

This brings us to the question of compliance with the HHS mandate, and whether such compliance is formal cooperation or material cooperation with evil. Material cooperation is where we cooperate with another person’s evil act through some morally acceptable (taken in itself) action of our own, but we do not intend that other person’s evil act. A canonical example is of the commanding officer ordering his troops into the breach: this cooperates with the enemy’s action of killing his men, but the commanding officer obviously (unless it is a David-Uriah-Bathsheba situation) does not intend the killing of his own men. In fact his own act will be more successful if the enemy fails to kill any of his own men: clearly a case of material cooperation with evil with unintended bad effects.

There have been some recent articles bringing up the possibility that compliance with the HHS mandate is formal cooperation with evil, and therefore simply impermissible. See here and here, for example (hat tip Scott). I commend the authors of those articles for bringing up the point. All too often the questions of intrinsic evil and formal cooperation are simply glossed over, assumed without even a hint of an argument, so we can jump ahead to what the author wants to do: apply the principle of double-effect. Because once we’ve determined that an action is neither intrinsically evil nor formal cooperation with evil – that is, once we’ve determined that an action is material cooperation with evil – then its moral status becomes much more debatable.

Even once we arrive here I think there is a tendency to gloss over the requirements for licit material cooperation with evil: that is, the requirement that the material cooperation with evil must not be proximate and it must pass all of the criteria of the principle of double effect. The just war doctrine is one of those areas, where the fact that prudential judgement is involved in applying double effect is often treated as if it were the same as concluding that a particular decision to wage war cannot be determined to be categorically wrong based on objective, well known facts.

But here I will stop short of further discussion of justifying material cooperation with evil. The question on the table is, is compliance with the HHS mandate necessarily formal cooperation with evil? And while I strongly commend those who raise the question for raising it I think the answer is most likely that no, compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil. I do have an important caveat in the closing paragraphs of this post, however.

I use the term “necessarily” because it is always possible to formally cooperate with evil, even without doing anything at all. Someone who in his own head says “good on her for getting that abortion” or “good for those people providing contraception” or “good for that judge clearing the way for Terri Shaivo to be starved to death” or “good on Bush for bombing that restaurant full of towel heads” has formally cooperated with mortally grave moral evil: he intends the evil act of another person or has shared in the evil intention of another person, and is morally condemned by that intention.

The plight of an employer faced with complying with the HHS mandate is similar to the plight of a legislator faced with a bill that restricts more abortions than are restricted now, yet still includes some exceptions – say the usual dark triad of rape, incest, and life of the mother. Evangelium Vitae tells us that not only is abortion itself intrinsically immoral; it is also morally wrong in itself to pass laws explicitly authorizing any abortion. It follows (my inference) that a legislator who specifically proposes the three exceptions in law, even if only as a means to the very laudable end of increasing legal restriction of abortion, does evil. You can’t specifically propose the three exceptions without intending the three exceptions as a means to some end: formal cooperation with evil. On the other hand, Evangelium Vitae also tells us that a legislator can licitly support such a bill, so long as his absolute rejection of all abortion – including by inference the three exceptions – is explicit and well known.

The situation with the good pro-life legislator is that he faces an omnibus choice: he does not support the three exceptions themselves and did not propose them himself, but if voting for the bill results in an overall better state of the law it is acceptable for him to vote for the bill. Similarly, the good employer does not support the provision of contraception and did not propose it himself. But he also faces an omnibus choice, where every option he chooses has bad – though unintended by him – consequences. It would be formal cooperation for him to propose and support evil provisions in the health insurance plan himself, as a means to any end; but it is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil for him to support the provision of health insurance that has many good benefits, even though it also provides, literally against his will, the material means for other people to do evil things.

There is a certain danger in this kind of thinking though. It is one thing to support a bill which increases restrictions on abortion across the board, even while retaining exceptions proposed by others (who are necessarily employing gravely evil means in so proposing, despite in some cases laudable ends). It would be another thing to support a bill which trades off restrictions: one which (say) introduced a previously closed exception for rape but closed an existing exception for incest. And it would be another thing still to trade off incommensurable evils: say, to further restrict some abortions while mandating sterilizations of certain individuals. It is far from clear that these “lesser of two incommensurable evils” calculations can avoid formal cooperation with the evil actions deemed “lesser”. I cannot therefore definitely conclude that compliance with the HHS mandate is not necessarily formal cooperation with evil (though I expected to conclude that when I started writing the post; so there you go).

If we conclude that compliance with the HHS mandate is not formal cooperation with evil, does that end the discussion? Not at all. As the cited articles point out, this is a discussion which must be had before it makes any sense to even begin analyzing compliance with the mandate as material cooperation with evil. If compliance with the mandate were necessarily formal cooperation with evil that would end the discussion right there: noncompliance would be morally obligatory.

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