Human persons almost never act alone. We are the result of community (the union of our parents, the first community), we live and act together with others in community, and we are made for Blessed community, sharing the inner life of the Triune God. What we do matters and what we do with others matters.
There seems to be a strange notion popular today that somehow our culpability, that is, our moral responsibility for an action, diminishes when we do what we do with others, as if culpability is somehow divided between acting agents. But it is not the case that we become less re sponsible for what we choose when we act together with others. Culpability is not spread out and shared like pie. This means that when we act together with another person, we remain responsible for what we choose an contribute. We’re not “off the hook” if we work as a group to commit some evil. And if we would not do something by ourselves, then it follows that we should not do it in concert with another person or persons. In other words, we should never do together what we would not do by ourselves. This is essentially what Hobby Lobby argued in the case the Supreme Court decided on Monday. The owners of Hobby Lobby see paying for drugs that are labeled as contraceptives but that can also act as abortifacients as a kind of cooperation in the act of someone else. And they’re right. To understand this, let’s review the principles of cooperation.
There are different and varying levels of acting with other persons and not all of these assume the same degree of culpability. The principles that help us to understand our degree of participation in something someone else does are known as principles of cooperation. There are two main ways in which one can contribute to something someone else does and one of these two categories has subdivisions. First, someone can contribute to the act of another and intend to do what the other does. When someone approves of or wills along with the other what they will and do, this is Formal cooperation. When we give our will over to the act of another, by consent or assent, we have committed a moral act. Formal cooperation is cooperation that shares in the “form” or essential moral nature of the act of another (hence the name). It is also possible to contribute to something someone else does but in a way that does not involve consent to the action.
When we do not approve of, consent to, or give our will over to the act of another, but still contribute something to the act, this is called Material cooperation. Material cooperation provides something, some “matter” to the act (hence the name), but without submitting the will to it. The difference between Formal and Material cooperation is primarily a matter of whether one wills or intends the act they contribute to. Material cooperation can be further divided into two types, Immediate or Mediate. Immediate Material cooperation consists of contributing materially to an act in such a way that the act could not happen if the cooperation did not occur. Sometimes Immediate Material cooperation is referred to as Implicit Formal cooperation, since it’s difficult to say that one does not intend for an act to occur when they themselves contribute something essential to it.
Mediate Material cooperation occurs when one contributes materially to the act of another, adding to the act, but in a way that is non-essential to the act. The act could still occur without their cooperation, but something is indeed contributed. The distinguishing factor between Immediate and Mediate Material cooperation is whether what is contributed is essential to the completion of the act. Formal cooperation in the immoral act of another is always immoral and even shares the same moral quality or form of the act. Formally cooperating in immoral acts is never justified. Immediate Material cooperation in immoral acts is also never justified, since the cooperator contributes something essential to the causal completion of the act. In other words, the cooperator acted in such a way that he made the act to happen. Mediate Material cooperation, on the other hand, can be justified if there is a proportionate good to be preserved AND if what the cooperator contributes is itself not immoral.
Mediate Material cooperation can also be broken down further according to the causal proximity of one’s cooperation. Cooperation that is causally close to the act is known as Proximate Mediate Material cooperation, while cooperation that is causally further from the act is called Remote Mediate Material cooperation. It can be difficult to judge with certainty whether one’s Mediate Material cooperation is Proximate or Remote, but clearly the more remote, the better. In paying toward an employee’s health care plan, Hobby Lobby (for example) pays for some portion of the procedures, medications, etc. that their employee uses and purchases. When those drugs or procedures are mandated by law (the Affordable care Act) to be covered without a co-pay, the employer ends up paying, at least in part, for those things. Consider the principles of cooperation we have just defined. If Hobby Lobby consents to, approves of, or intends to pay for their employees to use abortifacient drugs, then this is Formal cooperation. Now, we know that they do not approve of or intend the evil of medically induced abortion, so their cooperation in paying for an employee to take abortifacient drugs would be Material. According to the ACA, these must be provided with no co-pay. Who is paying for the abortifacient then? Because both the employee and the employer pay into the general plan, they both pay, causally speaking, for what is contained in the plan. So certainly Hobby Lobby would be contributing materially to the taking of an abortifacient. What kind of Material cooperation does paying for someone to do something immoral amount to?
Recall that the distinguishing factor between Immediate and Mediate Material cooperation is whether what is contributed is essential to the completion of the act. If it’s true, as critics of the SCOTUS insist, that access to abortifacients will be seriously impeded as a result of the decision, then it seems like the cooperation of the employer is essential to the employee obtaining and taking the abortifacient. This would amount to Immediate Material cooperation and is thus unjustifiable. If, however, the employee could still obtain and take the abortifacient, even without what the cooperator contributes (in this case money), then the cooperation is not essential to the act and would be Mediate Material cooperation, which may be justified to preserve a proportionate good. It seems reasonable to say though, that Hobby Lobby’s cooperation would be Immediate Material cooperation, and possibly Implicit Formal cooperation, since it is difficult to say that they don’t intend or approve of an employee taking an abortifacient when they’re in fact paying for it. ”Wherever your treasure is, there also your heart will be.” (Matt 6:21)
Whether cooperation in immoral acts can be justified or not should really not be a primary concern. The thing about moral evil is that we want to be as far away from it as possible, not find creative ways to excuse our participation in it, just as we should want to avoid our house burning to the ground in the first place before creatively trying to parcel out blame for why the house burned down. Some of this might seem like splitting hairs, especially to secular-minded folks. But there are three very good reasons to go to the effort of said hair-splitting. Understanding the principles of cooperation can help us to 1) identify potential pitfalls into cooperating in evil, 2) evaluate our degree of cooperation in the acts of another person or persons (especially for the purpose of examining our conscience), and 3) help us to avoid as much evil as is in our power to avoid.
Everyone, regardless of what they claim to think about this SCOTUS decision, wants to do these three things. When it comes down to it, everyone really agrees with the principles of cooperation and wants to avoid contributing to whatever they believe to be evil. The law even sees cooperation in illegal activities as culpable. Murder is illegal, for example, and so is paying for it by hiring a hitman. Even the most hardened critic of the SCOTUS decision would shudder at the thought of having a portion of their paycheck garnished to pay for the Westboro Baptist church to have their infamous “God Hates F—s” signs printed. They’d be right to shudder, because no one should be compelled to participate in something they believe to be intrinsically immoral. And this is precisely the point.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.