BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (070) – What is cooperation with evil?

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Rev José Mario O Mandía

We have seen how complex life can be and now we will look at one more of those complexities. It could happen that we may have done an act that is good in itself, with good intentions and under good circumstances. But what if that act facilitates the evil act of another?

For example, let us say one day you are in a friend’s house, and the weather being warm, you decide to open the window. That, in itself, is a good act. Eventually you leave the house, forget the open window, and a robber comes in and runs away with many valuables. This example reminds us of the act with multiple consequences (Bite-Size Philosophy 68). When an action helps another person commit an evil act, it is called “cooperation with evil” (or “cooperation in evil”) Can a person cooperate in another’s evil act?

First we must distinguish two types of cooperation with evil: (1) formal cooperation and (2) material cooperation. What’s the difference between the two?

(1) Formal cooperation with evil is to knowingly and freely provide assistance to a person who is committing or intends to commit an evil act. Formal cooperation may be (1a) explicit, or (1b) implicit. Either way, the person who cooperates formally is also guilty of the immoral act. For instance, a person tells you that he is very desperate and wants to hang himself … and you give him a rope. That’s formal cooperation in evil, and you are as guilty for his suicide as he is.

In (2) material cooperation, a person provides assistance without explicitly or implicitly consenting to the evil act of another.

Material cooperation may be (2a) immediate or (2b) mediate. Material cooperation is (2a) immediate when the contribution of the cooperator is direct or is essential to the evil act. This is only morally permissible if done under duress.

Material cooperation is (2b) mediate when the contribution of the cooperator is indirect or not essential to the evil act. One can materially cooperate in a mediate way as long as two conditions are met: that he has a proportionate reason to do so, and there is no danger of scandal (“scandal” means “leading or causing others to sin”). This is the case of a salesperson in a pharmacy which sells contraceptives. She knows that providing the means to artificially prevent life is immoral. Yet, given the difficulty of finding a job in her city, she cannot resign without putting her family in a difficult financial situation. She thus opts to stay in the job, though she knows that she cannot actively promote the contraceptives on sale in the pharmacy. Her act and intention is to earn a living (which is good), though it has a secondary effect (see Bite-Size Philosophy 68).

Moreover, mediate material cooperation may be (2b-i) proximate or (2b-ii) remote, depending on how closely a person is associated with the evil action. One example of remote cooperation: you are a computer expert and your friend asks you to fix his laptop, but once fixed, your friend also uses it to watch pornography.

Furthermore, one must remember that one can cooperate not only by doing something (active cooperation). One can also cooperate in evil by not doing anything (passive cooperation), for example, not to stop another person from committing a crime even when one has the capability to do so.

Cases of cooperation in evil abound. For a more thorough discussion of principles that concern Catholic institutions engaged in health care, one can consult John A Di Camillo’s “Understanding Cooperation with Evil”  (

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