“Let him eschew evil, and do good…”
1 Pet. 3:11
“I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.”
1 Cor. 5:9-10
“Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world… Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled… But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.”
1 Cor. 8:1-9
Order of Contents
Travis Fentiman, MDiv
An Extended Introduction
It is nearly impossible to function in society without in some way using services or goods that have some connection or association to the immoral actions of others:
The clothes or shoes that you wear may have been made in a foreign sweatshop under unnecessarily inhumane conditions, and your money is de facto going to support, continue and expand that immorality.
Would you buy the same clothes again if you knew this and there were other options? What if your kids needed clothes for winter and the only ones you could afford were of that kind at a used clothing store, where the money would not go to the propagators of the immorality? What if you had no money and the clothes were given to your children out of charity, would you use them?
These sorts of issues are endless for a God-fearing Christian living in an ungodly society. To separate from every degree of evil, no matter how remote or incidental to one’s otherwise moral purposes and actions would necessitate a person to leave off society altogether, which Christ and the apostle Paul have expressly prohibited us from doing (Jn. 17:15; 1 Cor. 5:9-10, for the reason of the greater good, Mt. 5:13-16). On the other hand, to have no conscience about evil associations, who we are cooperating with or what things we are contributing to, is simply to cause scandal, injure and harden our conscience, to be a means and support to immoral persons in doing further evil and it entails our actions going toward the further breaking of God’s commandments in society.†
† Contrary to what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven…” (Mt. 6:10)
Your answers to the above questions may have (rightly) varied. Besides making decisions by your gut-feeling (which may reflect something of natural law, though it may also err totally or by degrees), how may one know what one ought to do, and why it is right?
Material cooperation with evil is one of the hardest problems in ethics. This extended Introduction will make the issues comprehensible and will give you a sure footing in beginning to resolve the complex issues as you are presented with them in everyday life.
The Beginnings of Answers: Distinctions
Naturally in the clothing-examples above there are things that differ according to the varied circumstances, connections, and the degrees of necessity and morality involved. To understand why some of those actions may be right and others wrong, a person must be able to clearly distinguish the differing parts or factors in the situations. One needs to know and be practiced in the major, legitimate, ethical distinctions on the subject of cooperation with evil. Those main distinctions are:
1. Formal vs. Material Cooperation:
In Formal Cooperation the cooperator shares in the perpetrator’s evil intention. In Material Cooperation the cooperator cooperates with the immoral, material action in some way without sharing in the evil intention.
2. Immediate (Direct) vs. Mediate (Indirect) Cooperation:
Cooperating in the sinful action itself (per se), vs. providing all or part of the conditions or means by which the immoral action is able to be performed.
3. Proximate vs. Remote Cooperation:
The closeness or distance (whether physical distance or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act.
4. Active (Positive) vs. Passive (Negative) Cooperation
The performance of an act of cooperation in a sinful action carried out by another person, vs. the omission of an act of denunciation or hindering of that sinful action.
Passive cooperation is further distinguished into instances where there is a moral duty to denounce or hinder the sinful action, and where there is not. Generally speaking, passive actions where there is not a moral obligation to act further is not actually a cooperation, but counter-examples exist where the category of Passive Cooperation being lawful (as opposed to always immoral) is useful.
To be clear, every form of formal cooperation, where the cooperator shares in the perpetrator’s evil intent (whether the action and/or consent be direct or indirect, proximate or remote, and/or active or passive) is always sinful due to the sinful intention, insofar as any degree of a sinful intention, or mental consent therein, makes an action sinful.
An immediate or direct material cooperation in a sinful act is likewise always sinful.† However, material, indirect cooperation (whether proximate or remote, or active or passive) may not be sinful. To give an example of the difference:
The subordinate soldier (who may have had his own reasons for complying, not necessarily sinful in themselves) hammering nails into the wrists and feet of Jesus (and that for nothing higher than the dictate of men), was an act of immediate, material cooperation with a sinful action. Hence the soldier’s action was sinful.
On the otherhand Jesus cooperated with his oppressors in dragging the cross towards the place of his sinful execution (which He could have refused to do). But He did not execute Himself, and dragging a cross is not inherently sinful, but is otherwise indifferent. Hence Christ’s action was not a direct and immediate cooperation with evil, but an indirect one (though it was active and had some degree of proximity to the evil action). In complying, Christ did not formally share in the sinful intent of his executors, but rather, in materially cooperating with this evil, He was formally obeying the higher, righteous commandment of his Father, allowing and using this evil of others for the greater good of bringing eternal salvation to sinners (1 Tim. 1:15; Jn. 6:38; 19:30; Mt. 26:39; Jn. 12:27; Mk. 10:45; Heb. 2:14; Isa. 53:10).
Thus, the soldier’s action, an immediate material cooperation in a sinful act, was wrong. Yet, Jesus’s indirect, material cooperation unto that same evil act, was not, and was in fact righteous and morally necessary: It would have been wrong for Jesus not to so comply; and his material cooperation unto that material evil, in fact, showed that He was actively and positively keeping his righteous Father’s commandment willingly (Ps. 40:7-8; Jn. 10:15-17; 15:13; 1 Jn. 3:16). Oh praise the Son!
† Sometimes counter-examples are given seeking to disprove that immediate and direct cooperation in the immoral acts of others is always wrong, but on a closer analysis the counter-proofs always fail. For example:
A person destroying another’s property, told to do so at gunpoint, is an immediate material cooperation in what appears to be a sinful act (against the 8th Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”). However, the property is repairable, and in complying with the directive, the cooperator knows, gives time for the police to come and arrest the main perpetrator. Further, specific societal property laws are positive laws and are not ultimate. The cooperating action is ultimately materially indifferent, and actually good, in light of the larger context of it being an effective means for saving human life (one’s own) and arresting the main perpetrator. In addition, the owner of the property is morally obliged to sacrifice his property for the life of another (which is much more valuable than his property). Hence this is not a cooperation in an inherently sinful action.
In a similar case, landing an airplane is not inherently sinful; therefore in a highjacking, it is right to directly and immediately help an incompetent highjacker land the airplane.
If the command under gunpoint was to kill another human being, that would be humanly unrepairable and hence inherently sinful. Hence it would be an immediate material cooperation in a sinful act, despite whatever other formal purpose the cooperator may have had in the action. The cooperator ought to desire to die before taking the life of another, and before sinning against God.
On the other-hand, when God told Abraham to sacrifice and kill his only, beloved son, Isaac (Gen. 22:1-2), who was the promised seed, Abraham rightly understood by faith that God could resurrect Isaac, and would if needed (Heb. 11:17-19); hence Abraham’s cooperation with this command issuing from God Himself was not wrong, but in fact was the height of righteousness.
The above distinctions, which are essential to ethics, will be further explained and illustrated in the sections immediately below this Introduction. Through them one can analyze and morally discern nearly any ethical situation on the topic, not only negatively with respect to material cooperation and associations of evil, but also positively, in discerning what good works one ought to be doing in order to glorify our Father in Heaven (Mt. 5:16).
It ought to be well understood in approaching this topic that the delineated distinctions, and further ones that will be made, are not magic solutions to ethical predicaments. Rather they are (very useful) tools that will go a long way towards working to what is righteous and pleasing before God. As with all tools, they may be used well, or irresponsibly.
If through the multiplying of distinctions and terms (or the opposite, the lack of using such), a conclusion is reached that seems off or suspect, sophistry is likely being committed. Ethical conclusions reached should go with, and support an informed common sense in line with Scripture, not go against it. The purpose is to clearly understand and ground the reasons for right action, and to clear away all the mist, leaps and gymnastics of those who advocate error and manipulate truth as a wax-nose.
Two Illustrating Examples
To illustrate further the main distinctions, two examples will be worked through, one political and one from Scripture:
1. It has been pleaded before by persons on the far political-Left (and posed in ethics classes in universities) that Americans, being more wealthy than most persons in the world, ought to sell their possessions and donate all of their salary every year, except for what they need for bare necessities, to persons starving in Asia (for instance). This is of the greatest necessity, and in fact should be coerced by the government, it is said, due to our great moral culpability in allowing humans to starve in an age of worldwide interconnectivity, this being the moral equivelent of murder.
To the contrary, however (besides many other significant factors):
(1) Americans’ involvement in the allowance of persons starving in Asia, to the extent they are even aware of it, is at best a material cooperation and not a formal cooperation: it is indirect (not direct); it is remote and is a passive or negative (not active) cooperation with such physical suffering.
(2) Murder on the other hand, is a formal and material, immediate, proximate and active evil action.
(3) The moral obligation upon Americans in light of such knowledge is indirect and very remote, whereas Americans’ formal, direct, proximate and active obligations to significant needs upon their time, energy, resources and charity locally, or at large in America, or upon America’s neighbors, may likely outweigh such considerations in Asia most of the time (though perhaps not all of the time), especially as whatever relief the charity may give, may only likely be temporary and not permanent.
Hence, such a socialistic political claim, so far from being moral, is little more than ethical manipulation under the veneer of a good intent. It takes a tertiary or quaternary ethical obligation and exalts it, or imposes it, to the highest, most primary, binding degree. If such a program were to be coerced by the sword of the civil government, so far from it being an exemplary action, it would be a great form of oppression. Arguably, every ethical deviation involves either promoting lesser obligations to an inappropriately higher importance, or demoting higher ones to having a lesser bearing or value.
2. In light of the above, you now know why (amongst other reasons) Jesus was right when He rebuked his woke disciples who thought that the precious ointment the woman was spending on the Messiah ought to have been sold and given to the poor (Mt. 26:7-13):
The disciples had an indirect, remote and passive connection to the poor in comparison to Jesus being immediately with them. The poor would always be with them, unlike the Messiah (this is a difference of temporal necessity and import, Mt. 26:11). The moral relations of the disciples to the Messiah in these circumstances was stronger formally and materially, and was direct, proximate and active.
The most important reasons, though, for the unnamed woman using the precious ointment on the Messiah and not indiscriminately on persons she did not know, were (1) spiritual and of the greatest strength in the circumstances, namely her overwhelming love and spiritual desperateness for her Savior, and (2) his known (Mt. 26:1-2), impending death and burial (Mt. 26:7,12). Rather than the poor being helped temporarily, this enduring “good work” (Mt. 26:10) of the loving woman would be memorilized for all ages as an example to us, wherever the gospel is preached (Mt. 26:13).
On the same grounds as these principles rests the natural basis of Gal. 6:10 (contra woke Christianity): “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
The relevance and applications of these principles in real life is everywhere. To give an example: the two sections immediately below this Introduction further instructfully delineate and expound the main distinctions through the question of whether it is ever morally lawful to use a vaccine that has been in part produced through the use of the fetal cells of murdered children (the answer is Yes). It has become known that many companies have perused research from such fetal cells to assess the continuing development of the common medications they produce and we consume, such as Tylenol, Aspirin, Tums, Motrin, Ibuprofen, Pepto Bismol, etc. In fact, fetal cells have also been incorporated into the production of some coffee creamers, mouthwash, spices and bandages, etc.
These ethical principles are relevant in the Church in many ways. When a church you attend worships God apart from what is warranted by his Word (Dt. 4:2; Mt. 15:9; Col. 2:23), how far may you cooperate with such?ª When Baptism or the Lord’s Supper is only offered to you with impurities in its administration, may you partake of it? When your church, session, presbytery or general assembly makes decisions or takes actions and implements programs that you consider to be immoral in varied degrees, what level of responsibility and ethical obligation do you have in the matter?
ª See On Impurities of Worship.
At work, how far is it safe to be part of a team making group decisions that come to an immoral outcome? How far may you cooperate, or not, with things coming down the pipeline at work which are not wholly pure before God? Examining the issues through the lenses provided on this webpage will be helpful to you in weighing out what your right course of action before the Lord is.
Further Distinctions & Factors
The articles below on this webpage are valuable. They often make ethically legitimate and helpful points on the subject not made elsewhere and include some further helpful distinctions. For your help we have compiled a (non-exhaustive) list of many of these further distinctions and factors. Not all of them justify an action in-and-of themselves, but they are relevant to the situation and may change the way that one might act in it, or not:
5. Explicit vs. Implicit. Explicit formal cooperation occurs where the cooperator clearly approves of the principal agent’s evil action. Implicit formal cooperation, on the other hand, is inherent in the situation when, though the cooperator denies intending the principal agent’s object, no other explanation suffices to distinguish the cooperator’s object from that of the principal agent’s. The cooperator’s action by its very nature, or by the form it takes in the concrete situation, can have no other meaning.
6. Necessary vs. Contingent: whether the cooperating action is indispensable or incidental (and to what degree) to the accomplishment of the immoral action.
7. The Degree of Material Effectiveness in Furthering Evil or Good: a cooperative action necessary to accomplish an immoral effect may further that action along either in a significant way or minimally. Likewise, a contingent or incidental action not necessary to the accomplishment of the evil effect may either promote, multiply and enlarge that effect minimally or dramatically.
Similarly, the intended good purpose of a cooperator, and his actual material action(s), may or may not actually be effective in accomplishing his intended good in the situation. Risks are involved. The more knowledge and skill the cooperator has entails a greater likelihood that the intended good effects of his actions will prevail; the less knowledge and skill, the more risky it is (perhaps to a prohibitive degree).
Don’t forget the (legitimate) category of persons that simply stand by (perhaps in astonishment), not knowing what to do, nor being responsibly capable in the moment of acting one way or the other. It is true that some persons have (sometimes unexpectedly) instantaneous, strong, capable, natural instincts to act well and decisively in a situation, but not all are obliged unto this, not being so capable or so urged of nature. The internal, extraordinary call of God through nature and in providence alone here obliges; it is remarkable, because the gifts and calling are from God.º
º See On an Extraordinary Calling.
8. One Time Involvment vs. Continual Involvement: a one time, few-time or occassional involvement may be warranted when continual involvement is not warranted. On the other hand, continual involvement (such as in seeking to closely help a hijacker land the plane full of people safely, every single time this situation may occur) may be necessitated when a one time or only occassional involvement may be morally prohibited.
9. Constrained vs. Not-Constrained, and to what degree: how much physical, psychological, or other pressures or constraints in the circumstances (possibly tending to uphold certain, weighty goods in the situation) bear upon the cooperator (or the persons he may be acting for) from the circumstances or the persons involved (or represented).
10. Possible Injury of 3rd Parties vs. Not: This is relevant, though one’s first consideration must be that all things are done before the presence of God.
11. Opportunity Cost: What effect one may be able to accomplish through alternative action ought always to be considered. Greater purposes necessitate abstaining from lesser things. Scripture applies the proverb, “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life,” (2 Tim. 2:4) to ministers of the Word not entangling themselves with worldly concerns. Likewise, to forego an eternal reward for doing righteously, for the sake of doing what is wrong, though it be easier, is foolish: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17)
12. The Intensity of the Severity & Extensive Magnitude of the Evil Effected (or the Association Involved) & the Intensity of Degree & Extent of the Good Omitted: The weight of degree of something often overrides other factors in the situation of a lesser degree. Cooperation may be prohibted when the severity of the evil is great, and yet its extensive magnitude is not; likewise cooperation may be prohibited when the severity is little, and yet the extensive magnitude is great. Similarly, to forfeit a small good that will be multiplied to many may be wrong in preference for a greater good that will affect few. Also, it may be right to fulfill a great, necessary good to only (possibly) oneself, when a lighter good to many is foregone.
13. Whether the Harm Done or Good Ommitted is Repairable: destroying other people’s propery at the behest of another is generally wrong. Destroying other people’s property at the behest of another in order to save your life or those of others when the property can be repaired, may be morally necessary.
14. The Purpose(s) of the Perpetrator vs. the Purpose(s) of the Cooperator: the two may be the same or different. (1) Both may be wrong (and that unto different ends), or (2) that of one or the other may be good, or (3) both may be good. If the purpose of the perpetrator is good, the objective action he is doing may yet still be wrong, and the actual material harm effected through it may entail that his action is wrong. The cooperator may have good intentions, and yet his material action may also be objectively wrong.
15. A Single Effect vs. Multiple Effects: while some actions will only produce one obvious effect, whether right, wrong or indifferent, many or most actions will have multiple effects (or unintended consequences), one of which (or more) may make the action to be fundamentally wrong.
On the other-hand, some relative ill effects to other people are warranted (and they are obliged to suffer it) for the greater good (whether they know it at the time or not). An example of this is pushing and constraining a resisting person out of the street against his will when he does not see the cement-truck about to hit him. His ex post facto consent and thankfulness will justify the action; though if his consent is never afterward forthcoming, the action is still warranted by the intrinsic, natural, necessary good accomplished in the situation.
A Sure Foundation
As there is no end to the complexities of this topic (for instance, try combining the many factors above, and others, in whatsoever combination you will), yet for a sure footing to stand upon and a help to those being first initiated into these waters:
(1) Start with the principle: Never sin. Especially do not sin that some good may come of it. Scripture is clear: to do what is wrong that good may come of it is sinful (Rom. 3:8; 6:1-2). It’s amazing how much this single principle simplifies ethics.
If there is liberty of different actions (which there always is), it is better not to act and to not sin, than to act and positively sin. Westminster Larger Catechism, #99.5:
“That what God forbids, is at no time to be done (Job 13:7,8. Rom. 3:8. Job 36:21. Heb. 11:25); what He commands, is always our duty (Deut. 4:8,9); and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times. (Matt. 12:7)”
Individuals have only been given their natural power and authority of God for good, and none for harm. If one is morally necessitated to act by the call of nature, Scripture and God in the situation, whether to avoid sin or to fulfill all righteousness, then have one’s grounds and reasons before one’s eyes, and be open to further information and light if it comes along.
(2) As the puritans often taught, inline with God’s Word: Duty is ours; events are God’s.
“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Dt. 29:29)
(3) It is better to do positive good, though with suffering, with a clear conscience, than to tolerate evil with a timid and unsure conscience: “…whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23) “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13)
(4) Never directly or immediately, materially cooperate in the immoral act of another person. This principle has been defended in a footnote above, and it will be defended by the prosecuting attorney in your court case.
(5) Most of the time where it may be right to materially and indirectly cooperate with evil for a sufficient, greater good, that will involve (1) the evil being remote (as opposed to it being proximate or near) and (2) your cooperation therein being passive (as opposed it being an active, positive action).
(6) When it is right to materially and indirectly cooperate with evil, it is almost always better to explicitly testify to the truth and condemn the evil in the midst of the situation (Eze. 3:18-22), in season or out of season (2 Tim. 4:2), so that, amongst other things, onlookers are not scandalized by your actions in plausibly thinking that you are implicitly, formally, cooperating in evil, to any degree whatsoever (which would be sinful).
(7) If you are able and willing to imbibe and do (1) through (6), then when you do have some degree of material cooperation with an immorality, it will be limited, done with knowledge, sufficient warrant, for a greater good, and it will be done with a clear conscience in faith unto the Lord, you being able to communicate your reasons to those who look on in order to edify them in the truth and in their faith and walk before the Lord in keeping his commandments.
This was the path of Jesus in materially, indirectly, passively and technically remotely (though in immediate and direct physical proximity), cooperating† with his judicial oppressors in their heinous sin of putting Him (the Messiah) to death, He doing this with sufficient warrant, for a greater good, while respectfully testifying to the truth, condemning their sin, and edifying and confirming all those who hear about it in the commandments of God. Christ’s willing (Ps. 40:6-8), material and effective cooperation was necessary to their evil act (Mt. 25:52-54), and to saving his people forever (Heb. 2:17; 9:22-23).
† For instance in not seeking flight or otherwise resisting.
A Presumption to Abstain from Evil
or to Cooperate unto the Good?
The question, which has been much debated, poses itself: When in doubt, is it better to assume the presumption of abstaining from evil, or to assume the presumption of the lawfulness of doing good by cooperating with evil?
The answer is not easy, as a higher good ought not to be unnecessarily foregone, and to so forego such is wrong. That is, an excessive abstaining from lawfully cooperating with material evil is itself wrong, it not working towards or accomplishing the greater good.
However the dilemma may be decisively answered, partly by some principles already ennumerated:
(1) As Westminster Larger Catechism 99.5 says, “…what God forbids, is at no time to be done (Job 13:7,8; Rom. 3:8; Job 36:21; Heb. 11:25)… yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times. (Matt. 12:7)”
(4) By the very nature of cooperating with evil, evil is involved. Cooperation with it can only be justified on the positive grounds of having a greater good. Therefore to cooperate at all, one must have sure, positive warrant to do so. Apart from such, one is not justified in so cooperating. With respect to evil simply of itself, we are to have the attitude of the holy prophet David:
“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.” (Ps. 101:3)
(5) All actions are to be done with faith unto the Lord as “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:23) Having doubt as to the moral lawfulness of an action before the Lord and being unsure that it is in accord with his will necessarily means that one cannot do it with a sure faith and pure heart unto the Lord; hence it is not to be done. An ignorant or doubting conscience can be corrected with right reason, but an unscrupulous conscience with knowedge in an erroneous path will not be corrected by that right knowledge.
(6) In things that are in-themselves indifferent, we are to “be fully persuaded” in our own mind (Rom. 14:5) of the righteousness of using them “to the Lord” (Rom. 14:6) and “to the glory of God”. (1 Cor. 10:31) We are to have “a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience… without wavering…” (Heb. 10:22-23) We are not to be “double minded” and “unstable” (James 1:8), but our conduct is to be characterized by “simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom…” (2 Cor. 1:12) and our eye is to be single and not evil (Lk. 11:34).†
† These considerations rightly prevent being able to justify oneself in working for an authority that you suspect is doing significant evil by the very services that you are an essential and efficient link in, if you only knew it. Such immoral authorities (think of the Nazis, for example) often compartmentalize the tasks and knowledge of their workers so that the workers (possibly repressed through fear) may not know the immorality they are being used as a tool for. Through the divying up of the tasks and services, each part in itself theoretically could be indifferent, with limited knowledge, or at least bear a very small part of the responsibiliity, and yet the whole is efficiently used by those in charge to bring about a great evil.
If there are some reasonable reasons to believe such is going on, one is obliged by some moral weight to investiage it further, and it is wrong to simply and always ignore the warning signs and to be implicitly complicit in them. If such work cannot be done in faith, where one reasonably knows that it is a righteous using of indifferent things unto the glory of God, then one ought not to do the work (until perhaps further knowledge may safely justify it, if it does).
(7) The Lord says to us, “Walk before me, and be thou perfect.” (Gen. 17:1) We are to “be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life…” (Phil. 2:15-16)
Therefore, if there is doubt, one ought to first have (1) the attitude, tendency and presumption to abstain from evil, before (2) cooperating with it unto a higher good. The latter concept presupposes the former; the former, which is more foundational and logically basic, does not presuppose the latter in all cases. While it is wrong to forego a greater good when it is lawful and capable of being attained, yet not all persons, or groups of persons, are given by God the knowledge, discernment, ability and character traits capable of attaining that higher good, especially in the moment, or even necessarily in the long-term.
Two Work Scenarios:
What would You do?
Now that you have a bit under your belt, let us role play. As a signficant share of the conflict between righteousness and ungodliness takes place in the workplace, walking through what to do in two work scenarios will be helpful:
1. You work in a marketing department, and your job includes enhancing the photographs used in the company’s ads. An ad with a picture of an immodest lady gets put on your desk. Your boss desires you to alter the picture so as to highlight the seductiveness of the lady. On the one hand, you are not the lady who is immodest, nor the one who took the picture capturing such. You know your boss is stubborn, immoral and may likely fire you for not simply doing as you’re told, as your job is very replaceable. You don’t agree with using the picture, but also desire to keep your job in order to provide for your family; thus any cooperation with such would not be formal cooperation. Apart from the possibility of appealing to Caesar (Acts 25:11), that is, the American 1964 Civil Rights Act, which should normally secure you a religious exemption to the task, if this were not an option, what do you do?
The first principle is to never sin. Directly and immediately participating in making a photograph more sexually seducing is sinful, and it will be a temptation and snare for yourself and many others to sin; the net result is that God’s commandment (Mt. 5:28) will be being broken more as a result of your actions. Thus, you should not perform this task; the authority of your boss never overrides the authority of God.
But, you say, you will lose your job for keeping God’s commandments. Jesus has already promised to take care of that (Mt. 6:32-34; 19:29); and because He has so promised, you may without hesitation confidently obey his will. “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” (Mt. 5:29)
2. Now, take another example in the marketing department: Your boss, it turns out, while irritated with your moral limitations, gives the photo-editing task to another guy and tells you, as a last resort, to simply fill in the space next to the picture with relevant, indifferent text relating to your company’s beneficial services. You just fill in the text and leave the ad where it is; you don’t even have to pass it on to anyone else. Is this morally lawful, in that there is a certain material cooperation with the evil, yet your contribution to the project (and similar future ones coming down the pipeline) is not inherently sinful of itself?
Your material cooperation with the evil is not formal; it is not direct or immediate, but is indirect; yet it is not wholly passive, but is in some way active with respect to the whole of the ad being published, which ad as a total composite, because of the picture, is sinful. The biggest factor though, is your proximity in contributing to the material evil and the net result of what you are contributing to, namely the further breaking of God’s commandments by other people made in the image of God. The only positive warrant for significant good in the situation, having a degree of necessity, is providing for your family. What do you do?
The action itself of putting text next to the picture is not inherently sinful, nor is it directly cooperating in the sinful act itself. Hence the action, it appears, is not in every possible circumstance sinful. However, because of the close proximity one has in contributing an indifferent item to the total material evil, and the net result of that material evil, there is a great moral weight to avoid that evil and positively contributing to its production. Our judgment is that providing for your family is of sufficient weight to continue this job task until, and only until, you can get another job.
Alter the circumstances just a hair: The ad with the picture is sent to you on email. After you receive it and insert the text, you are expected to send the whole ad onto the next guy. Thus you are an essential link and means (no matter how small)¹ in the transmission of the whole sinful ad. What do you do?
¹ It is granted that there are counter-examples where it may not always be sinful to be an essential link in the transmission of a material good that is designed for evil, may be used for evil, and its only normal purpose is for such an evil. See, for instance, the issues surrounding the example presented in the article of Steven Long below. However, in such possibly justified cases: (1) it would be possible and appropriate to transmit along with the material thing a condemnation of the evil, and a persuasion not to use the thing for evil, every single time; and (2) the material good does not of itself tend to incite a sinful response from the human flesh. These two factors are not present in the current marketing case.
See also the very relevant language and teaching of Westminster Larger Catechism #99.6 in the Westminster section below.
One thing you can do is: First pray, and then write an email to all whom it concerns, to the effect that, “This ad is sinful before God (Mt. 5:28), and I will have nothing to do with it; neither should you. ‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.’ (Eccl. 12:13)”
In starting your career in the working world, it will likely be best to respectfully set your terms of serving as an employee upfront, clearly, early and often (as appropriate). Such should be done at least as soon as any morally prohibitive issue arises. If your career-field is not conducive to doing all things to the glory of God: get a different career.
On the Resources Below
In looking over the resources below on this page, do be aware that most of the solid contemporary pieces on the issue of material cooperation with evil come from Romanists, who are often (though not always) nearly spot-on on the subject. The issue of material cooperation with evil used to be a common-place in handbooks of ethics, which Romanism continued using through the centuries longer than most other Churches.
Do read with discernment: in the 1600’s, for example, Romanist ethicists tended to be latitudinarian for what they allowed on the topic. Their ethicists sometimes make distinctions that, so far from being legitimate or rightly applied, simply allow for what is sinful. Thats an easy, though erroneous way to solve a difficult and intricate issue. As latitudinarianism always breeds legalism (the converse is true as well: legalism always breeds latitudinarianism), so Romanists sometimes prosecute the best and most accurate and legitimate ethical analysis of a subject on a fundamentally false premise: they considering something to be always inherently sinful which is not so (thereby unduly and perversely restricting the right, natural liberty of the Christian, 1 Tim. 4:1-5).
Where the topic of material cooperation with evil has been delved into by modern evangelicals, the authors often have a strong-leaning to the political-left (which vantage point tends to sweep away right, natural distinctions and essential ethical principles). Such articles have generally not been included below. Most reformed handbooks of ethics that treat the common-place are in Latin, which we will add as the Lord gives time. Pray that the Lord would send laborers into his field.
A very helpful and recommended, popular, introductory article, focusing on medical ethics, is by the Romanist, Anthony Fisher, ‘Cooperation in Evil’ (1994). Towards the end of the article Fisher lists 42 ethical situations for you to try your moral discernment on. Some are easily adjudged, but many will stop you in your tracks. For instance:
Those who own stocks in companies are part-owners of the company. In owning mutual funds, one owns stocks in hundreds of companies. Look into the mutual funds that you own in your retirement account, and see all of the cigarette and soft-porn companies that you are a co-owner of and reap money off of from their sales, for your support in your old age. What should you do?†
† To give some help: Do you have formal cooperation in the sins? Is your cooperation immediate to the sins, or mediate; direct or indirect? Is it proximate or remote? and to what degree? Is your action wholly passive, or is the voluntary action of partly owning the company partly active? Are the main business endeavors of the company towards something good, or towards these things themselves? Are there other companies in the folio that do equally immoral things? Are there alternative mutual funds that don’t invest in such companies (such as possibly Christian ones, or otherwise)? Are there other available routes of investing or saving for retirement?
Are you currently living off the income and have no other conceivable alternative, or are there decades till you (Lord willing) retire? Is prolonging your own sustenance simply selfish, or is there a right, natural and God-glorifying respect to you and yours being provided for, especially when you dedicate your whole life, family and resources to the work of the Lord?
While blood-money of your own actions, or those you have directly cooperated with to an evil end¹ can hardly with a good conscience be used for the Lord‡ or yourself, yet that is not so clear with money in one’s possession through much more remote and indirect causes. Nonetheless, there is a difference between what has been done and cannot be undone, and continuing to receive such a stream of money.
¹ Such as the silver of the priests and Judas, Mt. 27:3-6; Acts 1:18-20, as well as that stolen money of Achan, Josh. 7:21-26. Yet on the other side of what to do with the money, consider also Mt. 27:7 & Lk. 19:8.
‡ Yet, what other than a God-glorifying use is one supposed to do with the money? In Lk. 19:8, Zacchaeus beneficently gives it away. Consider Ps. 16:2-3. In Josh. 7:24-26 they burned it and turned the place into an everlasting public monument of shame, which action turned away the “fierceness” of God’s “anger”. The Achan example was largely positive, or of redemptive-historical significance, and not necessarily binding for all cases in all similar circumstances, but consider also the relevance of Acts 19:19.
The mutual fund managers bear the most direct responsibility for such sinful investments, and for inducing others to share with them (often unknowingly) to some degree in their sin. Regarding the proportionably small amount of money very indirectly and remotely made from the sin, there is the possibility of protesting the moral evil to the mutual-fund company and the immoral company itself (you being a very fractional co-owner thereof). This might be an acceptable option as long as one cannot find a suitable alternative to sustain the good of providing for your family’s welfare into old age (this having a degree of necessity to it in promoting life), etc.
Growing in Knowledge & Understanding,
& Synthesizing Ethical Principles
In order to grow in your understanding of ethics unto a much deeper and more comprehensive and profound level, in order to mature in the Christian faith and life, and further adore the wisdom of God:
When you discern in a given situation that a certain action would be wrong, and yet with another factor in place, it would be right, ask yourself “Why?” in each instance. Those instances are the two opposite ends of the seesaw. Then seek to find the underlying and unifying principle(s) that undergird both. That is the one plank of the seesaw.
Next, take instances closer to the middle, to see where and when the seesaw tips in one direction or the other, due to the degree of weight in each factor. Once you discern how the parts relate to each and see the ratio of the inverse relation (or other relation) of the seeming disparate principles, you will be able to clearly articulate the exact middle point of the seesaw: the hinge upon which the whole continuum turns. That will allow you to quickly, comprehensibly view, evaluate and precisely adjudge the situation and all similar situations along that continuum.
To give an example of such a mid-point in the topic of material cooperation with evil, that is, the hinge upon which the factors turn, one way or the other:
Any degree of material cooperation with an immorality requires proportionately sufficient and necessary reasons.
Likewise, the relation between proximity, or distance, in material cooperation with an immorality, and the amount of necessary moral weight needed to justify it, is an inverse relation:
The closer one approaches an immorality in material cooperation with it (that is, as the distance shortens), the greater moral warrant and necessity is needed to justify that action.
Likewise, the futher the distance there is in materially cooperating in some degree with an immorality, the less degree of moral weight and necessity is needed.
As the ancients said, to understand the different parts of a thing, and how they relate, and how the thing relates to other things in its various regards, is to fully understand that thing. For many more resources on related subjects to these themes, which will help you understand them better, see the Related Pages section at the bottom of this webpage.
The Foundation in God
A main ground for the lawfulness of man materially, indirectly and permissively cooperating with the evil of others for a greater good is the fact that we are made in the image of God, and God in providence, materially, indirectly and permissively cooperates with the evil of creatures for a higher good. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48)
God does not in any way formally, or immediately and directly, effect sin as the efficient cause of it. The only efficient cause of evil, that is the formal origin, means and immediate and direct effector of it, is the will of the rational creature. Man’s will, being finite, is able to formally terminate upon evil; God’s infinite will cannot terminate upon anything other than that which is good, and ultimately, upon Himself as the highest infinite good (the Summum Bonum).
As most of historic, reformed theology has taught with Scripture, God effectively and materially permits sin in men through a negative,ª passive, withdrawing of good from his creatures; that is, He does not will their full good, and in doing so the creature certainly and freely falls short of the glory of God.† That is the permissive side of the coin.
† For more on this point and the related points here treated, see Samuel Rutherford, Rutherford’s Examination of Arminianism: the Tables of Contents with Excerpts from Every Chapter trans. Charles Johnson & Travis Fentiman (1668; RBO, 2019), pp. 60-72.
The effective and certain side of the same coin is that God positively, actively and proximately (being God and the First Cause of all material causes) brings about the good in the material conditions‡ (as all existence has some good in it)¹ by which men certainly and freely² sin, though all the formal, moral, relational, sinfulness of the immediate and direct action derives wholly from their finite, falling-short will alone (Eccl. 7:29).³
‡ This principle is necessary, right and Biblical; it was the view of Augustine and reformed orthodoxy. For material on it, see our page, God is Not the Author of Evil.
In this there is a concursus, or a flowing together of both the will of God and the will of man (both being necessary to the combined action):¹ man’s will terminating on evil, and God’s will, through the same material action, passively and indirectly cooperating with it, and bringing it by active and positive gracious actions unto a higher good.º Joseph could say to his near-dozen brothers: “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
¹ For more on concursus, see the resources on our page, Providence.
The Greater Good of God
But what cause could possibly justify allowing billions of people, including some of our loved ones, to justly suffer under their sins in Hell for an unending eternity, for as long as God lives? For God to allow such is lawful and just of itself, however, even for this to occur, it seems that it would require that this permission be for a greater good.
That far greater, incomprehensible, weight of good is the revelation of the manifold attributes of God, his in-root, infinite: patience, power, righteousness, holiness, sovereignty, goodness, mercy and love, the riches of his glory (Rom. 9:21-22). That is a more-than sufficient justification for his just permitting of many of his finite creatures to perish in Hell forever under his revealed glory, flowing out of the infinite fountain of his own nature and being.
Further, the intensity and amount of the richest, redemptive blessings being poured out upon his mercifully chosen, living vessels of honor, especially in their closest, direct, spiritual vision of God Himself in Heaven, in the nearest mystical union to Him, against the backdrop of the Hell that they deserve, all of this being necessarily preconditioned on the creatures’ specific sins, further warrants God’s permitting many of his creatures to justly suffer in Hell for the wickedness that they freely, knowingly and willingly did, and desired to do, while Heaven over-abounds in the greatest glory of God’s revealed Being.
Search your life and society around us: Find how God has turned evil in it, whether others’ or yours, unto your good and the good of his fore-loved people. See how we can materially and indirectly cooperate with the immoral actions of others under degrees of necessity† unto higher goods, and bring glory to God and health and life unto others. Be wise, holy and perfect, as your Father in Heaven is wise, holy and perfect.
† Degrees of necessity should not only be thought of in terms of a constraining privation, but also in terms of seeing and working towards the realization of a great potential good, or even small goods that may bless others, if such is warranted. See also the section, ‘What Constitutes Necessity’ on the page, ‘On Works of Necessity & Mercy on the Sabbath’.
In real life situations, the reality is that there are often more principles and factors than one can wholly take into account, and they are regularly more complex than we understand, but the Lord understands them all. We must do as the Lord’s law and light leads, and trust Him and his Spirit to be with us in the path that He calls us to.
May the teachings you learn here become real to your life and may the Lord give you understanding, help and light in them. Search these things out and apply them as much as possible, and may you be “even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” (Heb. 5:14)
Major Distinctions Regarding Liberty, Associations of & Connections with Evil, & Degrees & Kinds of Material Cooperation with Evil
The following is a very helpful excerpt from a contemporary Romanist document summarizing numerous of the classic, Christian, ethical distinctions regarding associations and cooperation with evil. These distinctions are not unique to Romanism, but apply to all ethical actions and were used by reformed writers such as Gillespie and Rutherford.
The particular context of the Romanist letter is on the ethical issues related to using, or not using, a vaccine which had been previously developed with fetal cells from aborted babies. The letter on the whole is excellent and is highly commended for the topic.
Notes in [brackets] are by ReformedBooksOnline.
Pontifical Academy for Life, ‘Letter to Mrs Debra L.Vinnedge’ (Rome, 2005)
“…we need to recall briefly the principles assumed in classical moral doctrine with regard to the problem of cooperation in evil, a problem which arises every time that a moral agent perceives the existence of a link between his own acts and a morally evil action carried out by others.
The Principle of Licit [Lawful] Cooperation in Evil
The first fundamental distinction to be made is that between formal and material cooperation. 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.
Material cooperation can be further divided into categories of immediate (direct) and mediate (indirect), depending on whether the cooperation is in the execution of the sinful action per se, or whether the agent acts by fulfilling the conditions – either by providing instruments or products – which make it possible to commit the immoral act.
Furthermore, forms of proximate cooperation and remote cooperation can be distinguished, in relation to the “distance” (be it in terms of temporal space or material connection) between the act of cooperation and the sinful act committed by someone else. Immediate material cooperation is always proximate, while mediate material cooperation can be either proximate or remote.
Formal cooperation is always morally illicit because it represents a form of direct and intentional participation in the sinful action of another person. Material cooperation can sometimes be illicit (depending on the conditions of the “double effect” or “indirect voluntary” action), but when immediate material cooperation concerns grave attacks on human life, it is always to be considered illicit, given the precious nature of the value in question.
A further distinction made in classical morality is that between active (or positive) cooperation in evil and passive (or negative) cooperation in evil, the former referring to the performance of an act of cooperation in a sinful action that is carried out by another person, while the latter refers to the omission of an act of denunciation or impediment of a sinful action carried out by another person, insomuch as there was a moral duty to do that which was omitted.
Passive cooperation can also be formal or material, immediate or mediate, proximate or remote. Obviously, every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted (by many authors) that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.†”
† [The reason for this is that materially using something that has been involved with an evil act, or has been procured by means of an evil act (if the sinful act is done and over), does not make the thing itself evil, as all things of themselves are good as created by God when used for a good purpose (Gen. 1; 1 Tim. 4:1-5), and the sinful will and acts of a creature cannot change that. That is, material things that are indifferent in the abstract, which we have Christian liberty over, cannot be made evil by the creature, lest the creature play God.
To the mature in Christ, Paul, says, all things are lawful. It is true though that not all things are expedient or edifying to others, which limits our Christian liberty. The main limitations to our Christian liberty involve not unnecessarily, passively scandalizing others by inducing them to sin, even by confirming them in their own sinful beliefs and practices (which is contrary to the law of God, and therefore something to be avoided).
So the fundamental issue that may make passive, material, mediate cooperation at a remote distance sinful is the passive scandalizing of others, in inducing them unto and confirming them in their sinful beliefs and practices. However, passive scandal may be given when there is a morally necessary reason to do so, insofar as we must obey God even when persons sinfully and ignorantly take passive scandal at our obedience due to their own fault.
Hence, it is true that “there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so”, precisely because in such a situation there are other greater, more immediate, morally obliging and necessary factors that override not giving passive scandal to the ignorant by an act that is otherwise indifferent (in the abstract) and can be used for a good purpose and outcome, when it is a case of passive, material, mediate cooperation at a remote distance.]
The Distinctions Illustrated
The below is taken from the same Romanist document as above. The main purpose of the Romanist letter was to give counsel on the issue of children being required to receive vaccines developed from aborted (murdered) human babies as a condition imposed by the civil government for the children to attend public school. The letter is a summary of a study put together on this topic by Romanist ethical experts. The letter as a whole is highly commended and the excerpts below very helpfully illustrate the main principles given above about associations of, and cooperation with, evil.
Needless to say, the fleshing out of these principles is very helpful in seeking to rightly apply them to the many and varied, similar circumstances and situations that are all about us in the degenerate soceity in which we live.
Pontifical Academy for Life, ‘Letter to Mrs Debra L.Vinnedge’ (Rome, 2005)
“The matter in question regards the lawfulness of production, distribution and use of certain vaccines whose production is connected with acts of procured abortion…
If someone rejects every form of voluntary abortion of human foetuses, would such a person not contradict himself/herself by allowing the use of these vaccines of live attenuated viruses on their children? Would it not be a matter of true (and illicit) cooperation in evil, even though this evil was carried out forty years ago?
In the specific case under examination, there are three categories of people who are involved in the cooperation in evil, evil which is obviously represented by the action of a voluntary abortion performed by others:
a) those who prepare the vaccines using human cell lines coming from voluntary abortions;
b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines;
c) those who need to use them for health reasons.
Firstly, one must consider morally illicit every form of formal cooperation (sharing the evil intention) in the action of those who have performed a voluntary abortion, which in turn has allowed the retrieval of foetal tissues, required for the preparation of vaccines. Therefore, whoever – regardless of the category to which he belongs — cooperates in some way, sharing its intention, to the performance of a voluntary abortion with the aim of producing the above-mentioned vaccines, participates, in actuality, in the same moral evil as the person who has performed that abortion. Such participation would also take place in the case where someone, sharing the intention of the abortion, refrains from denouncing or criticizing this illicit action, although having the moral duty to do so (passive formal cooperation).
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, with the following specifications.
As regards the preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted, such a process is stated, as a matter of principle, morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, within the chain of production-distribution-marketing, the various cooperating agents can have different moral responsibilities.
However, there is another aspect to be considered, and that is the form of passive material cooperation which would be carried out by the producers of these vaccines, if they do not denounce and reject publicly the original immoral act (the voluntary abortion), and if they do not dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil, for the production of vaccines for the same infections. Such passive material cooperation, if it should occur, is equally illicit.
As regards those who need to use such vaccines for reasons of health, it must be emphasized that, apart from every form of formal cooperation, in general, doctors or parents who resort to the use of these vaccines for their children, in spite of knowing their origin (voluntary abortion), carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and thus very mild, in the performance of the original act of abortion, and a mediate material cooperation, with regard to the marketing of cells coming from abortions, and immediate, with regard to the marketing of vaccines produced with such cells. The cooperation is therefore more intense on the part of the authorities and national health systems that accept the use of the vaccines.
However, in this situation, the aspect of passive cooperation is that which stands out most. It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the “culture of death” which underlies them. From this point of view, the use of vaccines whose production is connected with procured abortion constitutes at least a mediate remote passive material cooperation to the abortion, and an immediate passive material cooperation with regard to their marketing. Furthermore, on a cultural level, the use of such vaccines contributes in the creation of a generalized social consensus to the operation of the pharmaceutical industries which produce them in an immoral way.
Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin. Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.
As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis [that is, as long as such circumstances exist]. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles.
In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population – especially with regard to pregnant women.
To summarize, it must be confirmed that:
– there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;
– as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women;
– the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio [by a last reason] due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women);
– such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents [by the civil authorities and public school system], who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”
See the section, ‘Further Distinctions & Factors’ in the Extended Introduction.
This section will be added to in time.
See also the mass of reformed material in, On Error, Guilt, Certainty, Private Knowledge & Passive Obedience in Judicial Rulings, & Conscience in Following Them, or Not
‘In a Remote Posture of Self-Defence, we are not to take us to re-offending, as David was not to kill Saul when he was sleeping, or in the cave, for the same cause’ in Lex Rex (1644; Edinburgh: Robert Ogle & Oliver & Boyd, 1843), ch. 31, p. 161
Rutherford here uses some of the ethical distinctions and principles as given above on this webpage. Specifically, Rutherford argues that while David rightly did not attempt to hurt his peresecutor, King Saul, from a remote distance (when it was in his capacity to do so), yet he would have been justified in defending himself to the death in a proximate, physical struggle.
pp. 85-87 of Question 6 in Appendix, an Introduction to the Doctrine of Scandal in The Divine Right of Church Government… (London, 1646)
A Treatise on the Nature of Obedience to a Usurped Power
This treatise by Rutherford has not been published in modern times. The ocassion for it was the English, Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland. The Protesting party of the Scottish Church had the decision before them, in light of inevitable subjugation, whether they should cooperate with this illegitimate civil power or not.
Rutherford “argued it was lawful to give [limited and qualified, material] obeidence to an usurped power.” He gives the analogy of a highjacking of a ship, and persons helping the highjacker to safely navigate the ship, for the preservation of all. That is what the Protestors did: while openly rebuking Cromwell and showing him his great immorality, they yet cooperated with him and counselled him unto the glory of God in governing Scotland during the inter-regnum period (the period between the kings, namely Charles I and Charles II) in the 1650’s.
This topic, of being taken over by an illegitimate foreign power, was commonly treated (with different answers, by different parties) in England in that time, though it will take some time to collect the resources on it. For further information on Rutherford’s Treatise and what he had to say, see the podcast by Reformation Scotland, ‘Conscience, Obedience & an Unwanted Government – Dalkeith Palace – SFH076’ at 4:42 ff.
Jeanes, Henry – pp. 64-66 of The Want of Church Government… (London, 1650)
Jeanes was an English presbyterian minister. His context is of whether a minister should give the Lord’s Supper to a scandalous person who has not been convicted by the session of elders for such. Jeanes rightly argues ‘Yes’ throughout the article. While this specific section is very much worth attendion, yet not everything said in it is necessarily endorsed.
Gillespie, George – An Useful Case of Conscience Discussed & Resolved Concerning Associations & Confederacies with Idolaters, Infidels, Heretics, or any other known Enemies of Truth & Godliness… (Edinburgh, 1649) 31 pp. This is also in his Miscellany Questions, ch. 14.
This article was born out of a very specific context, namely the Scottish Protester vs. Resolutioner Controversy. Scotland was an established Christian nation. The “wicked men” here treated of were not simply unbelievers, or immoral persons, but were seen as enemies of religion and subverters of the State due to their past political involvement. The question is not of an indirect or remote cooperation with them, but rather that of a direct and immediate cooperation and a dependent relation upon them in a necessary and God-fearing design.
Binning, Hugh – ‘A Useful Case of Conscience, Learnedly & Accurately Discussed & Resolved, Concerning Associations & Confederacies with Idolaters, Infidels, Heretics, Malignants or any other Known Enemies of Truth and Godliness’ in The Works of the Rev. Hugh Binning EBook (1651; Project Gutenberg, 2008), pp. 1181-1297 The work is also in Binning’s one vol. Works 3rd. ed. (1851), pp. 471-521. On the question of the authorship of this article, see Howie’s Faithful Contendings, p. 486.
This article was born out of the same general context as that of Gillespie’s above.
Clarke, Samuel – Ch. 37, ‘Questions & Cases of Conscience about Communicating in Other Men’s Sins’ in Medulla Theologiae, or the Marrow of Divinity, Contained in Sundry Questions & Cases of Conscience… (London, 1659), pp. 367-69
This Samuel Clarke (1599-1682) was a reformed, puritan in the Church of England and a writer of ecclesiastical biographies. He is to be distinguished from the Bible Annotator Samuel Clarke (1626–1701), who was a non-conformist and had Baxterian influences.
The Divine Right of Church Government... (1646), Appendix, p. 85-6
“But for no cause the most weighty can we choose either to shed innocent blood or to co-operate with the shedding of it, nor to co-operate with the works of darkness, for it is shameful that a servant may lawfully cooperate with and thrust his master in at a window to go to a whore; the jus or dominion of masters to command, and the right of servants to obey is only in the Lord.
…the one kind of action in itself is as indifferent and susceptible of moral lawfulness and unlawfulness as the other. And if the master do cooperate to commit harlotry in climbing in at a window to a whore, and to robbing, in digging through an innocent man’s house in the night, to kill the master of the house, and to steal his goods, then the servant that cooperates in these same physical actions, and also digs through the innocent man’s house and kills himself, is the harlot and the robber by cooperation and participation, no less than the master.
The naked relation of a captive and of a servant cannot make the captive and servant innocent and guiltless cooperators, for then to sin at the command of any conqueror and master, because I am in the condition of a captive and servant, were lawful, though God forbid and inhibit me to do what I do, by the command of my master and conqueror, for in so doing, Utor meo jure, ‘I use my right’ as a servant. For God forbids me in what relation I be in, servant or captive, to sin at the command of any, or for declining any ill of punishment, though as weighty as the torment of hell, separated from sinful despairing and blaspheming of God.
Now to cooperate with that which I know to be a sin is to partake in other men’s sins, which is forbidden, as a sin, 1 Tim. 5:22; Eph. 5:11. But to run with the thief and to help an arch-robber, Prov. 1:13-14, is a consenting to his robbery and bloodshed.”
The Westminster Standards
Notes on the Teaching of Westminster
It should be noted that LC #99.6 below should not be interpreted as enjoining separatism from any and every material evil action or thing around us. Rather, the principle taught includes not only avoiding “all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances” of sins, but it also obliges us unto “all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances” of duties, and that even in the material immoral actions of others around us.
In an evil age we must be as harmless as doves and as wise as serpents in taking “…all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves and others…” (LC 135), even amidst the remote evil associations linked by some upon otherwise moral and necessary, proximate duties.
#99, ‘What rules are to be observed for the right understanding of the ten commandments?’
“5.That what God forbids, is at no time to be done;[w] what he commands, is always our duty;[x] and yet every particular duty is not to be done at all times.[y]
6. That under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded; together with all the causes, means, occasions, and appearances thereof, and provocations thereunto.[z]
7. That what is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are bound, according to our places, to endeavour that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of their places.[a]
8. That in what is commanded to others, we are bound, according to our places and callings, to be helpful to them;[b] and to take heed of partaking with others in what is forbidden them.[c]
#135, ‘What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?’
“…all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves[b] and others[c]… avoiding all occasions,[f] temptations,[g] and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any;[h]…
[b] Eph. 5:28,29.
[c] 1 Kings 18:4.
[d] Jer. 26:15,16. Acts 23:12,16,17,21,27.
[e] Eph. 4:26,27.
[f] 2 Sam. 2:22. Deut. 22:8.
[g] Matt. 4:6,7. Prov. 1:10,11,15,16.
[h] 1 Sam. 24:12. 1 Sam. 26:9-11. Gen. 37:21,22.”
Cohen, Baruch C. – ‘Nazi Medical Experimentation: The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments’ (n.d.) 115 paragraphs
This is a very helpful, detailed and thorough evaluation of whether data from the horrendous and murderous “medical experiments” done by the Nazis in WWII on living prisoners of war ought to be used today in the development of goods and services for the benefit of people and society. This article is on a Jewish website.
The article provides details on the classes of, and exactly what “experiments” the Nazis performed, and the type of data that has been preserved by them. The official justifications of the Nazis for these experiments were that (1) they were necessary for the greater good, due to “military necessity”, and that (2) the subjects were condemned to death anyway. The article also specifies what kind of good things the data can be used for.
It is clear that good can be, and has been brought out of the Nazis’ preserved data (which can’t be obtained in any other way), but should it? The main cost involved in doing so, besides the sheer revoltingness of it all, is the very scandal of the knowledge of these things becoming known. The article concludes:
“Absolute censorship of the Nazi data does not seem proper, especially when the secrets of saving lives may lie solely in its contents… When the value of the Nazi data is of great value to humanity, then the morally appropriate policy would be to utilize the data, while explicitly condemning the atrocities… To further justify its use, the scientific validity of the experiment must be clear; there must be no other alternative source from which to gain that information, and the capacity to save lives must be evident.
…it must not be included as ordinary scientific research, just to be cited and placed in a medical journal… citation of the data must contain a thorough expose’ of exactly what tortures and atrocities were committed for that experiment… [and it] must be accompanied with the author’s condemnation of the data… as medical evil, never to be repeated.”
Ostas, Daniel – ‘Cooperate, Comply, or Evade? A Corporate Executive’s Social Responsibilities with Regard to Law’ American Business Law Journal 41(4) (June, 2004), pp. 559-94
Los Angelos County – ‘COVID-19 Vaccine & Fetal Cell Lines’ (2021) 3 pp.
This informational flyer gives the details for how fetal cells have been used in the production of various vaccines. It then also references and quotes numerous Romanist authorities on the moral lawfulness of receiving such a vaccine due to the remoteness of the original evil, the presumed beneficial tendency of the vaccine for good and the fact that using the vaccine does not entail the murder of more children.
In the Tradition of Thomas Aquinas
Question 2, ‘On Sins’, Article 6, ‘Do Circumstances Specify Sins or Alter the Species of Sin by Transferring Them into Different Kinds of Sin?’ in Disputed Questions on Evil Buy
Summa Theologica, part 2
1st Part, Treatise on Human Acts: Acts Peculiar to Man, Questions 6-21
This extended treatment of Aquinas on factors in human actions is highly metaphysical.
2nd Part, Treatise on the Cardinal Virtues, Question 64, ‘Of Murder’, (7) ‘Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?’
See especially, “I answer that…” where Thomas discusses various ethical distinctions in the same action.
For Aquinas the following represented the foundation of natural law:
“Do the Good, Avoid the Evil”
“Bonum faciendum, malum vitandum.”
Post-Aquinas, 1900’s – 2000’s
McHugh, John A. & Charles J. Callan – pt. 2, question 1, article 9, sections 1506-1546, pp. 615-41 in Moral Theology: a Complete Course, based on St. Thomas Aquinas & the Best Modern Authorities rev. Edward P. Farrell (NY: Joseph F. Wagner, 1958), vol. 1 another copy
Solomon, William David – ‘Double Effect’ in ed. Lawrence C. Becker, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, 6 paragraphs
Flannery, Kevin L.
‘Two Factors in the Analysis of Cooperation in Evil’ in The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 13.4 (Winter, 2013), pp. 663-75
Flannery, a Jesuit, wrote a book on the topic below.
Abstract: “The purpose of this essay is to explain what the terms ‘formal cooperation’ and ‘material cooperation’ mean in the thought of St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787], who is a pivotal figure… and (2) the role of ‘segments of intelligibility’ in determining what is material rather than formal cooperation.”
Wtih regard to segments of intelligibility: “…the basic idea here is that such an [material] act is a segment of intelligibility forming a complete unit in its own right, which the malefactor uses as a unit to the detriment of his victim. As Alphonsus puts it, in such a case ‘your action will not be the cause of the damage but only the malice of the thief will be.’ Your action will not be the cause of the damage in the sense that your action is used as a distinct unit by the malefactor; it is his malice that connects your independent act to the evil he effects.” (p. 673)
Liguori’s teaching is profoundly off, and contrary to Westminster Larger Catechism #99.
Long, Steven A. – ‘Formal & Material Cooperation: Once More into the Breach’ (2012) 1 dense paragraph
This is a helpful, in-depth analysis (though concise and brief) by the means of traditional scholastic categories regarding the ethics of a hospital (specifically Romanist) providing baskets of goods, including material means of contraception (which is considered by Long as an evil), to the public due to it being a requirement of the civil government and insurance companies to keep providing health insurance for its employees. Long concludes, contrary to the hospital’s position, that in this case “cooperation is absolutely impossible”.
While one may not agree with every last detail Long affirms, his argumentation is very helpful in seeing traditional ethical categories in exercise. Specifically, his assumption that all essential cooperation is formal cooperation is mistaken.
Capps, Charles F. – ‘Formal & Material Cooperation with Evil’ Pre American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (2015)
Abstract: “The categories of formal and material cooperation with evil have shifted in meaning since they were employed by St. Alphonsus Liguori in the eighteenth century. I attempt to recover their original meanings by showing how Liguori’s choice of terms reflects a Thomist conception of human action… I advance two theses about the distinction between formal and material cooperation with evil that I believe are not generally accepted, even among Catholic philosophers and theologians. The first concerns when acting intentionally under the description “doing what the other intends” constitutes formal cooperation with evil. The second concerns when material cooperation with evil is justified by the principle of double effect.”
Simo, Pau Agulles – ‘Cooperation with Evil, the Theory of Action & the Contraception Mandate’ Persona y Bioetica (Enero-Junio, 2018), vol. 22, num. 1, pp. 76-89
Abstract: “The debate concerning the so-called U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Contraception Mandate [2014, regarding insurance companies being required to provide abortions, contraception and sterilzation services] has been adequately framed… within the traditional ethical doctrine on cooperation with evil… In this paper, some of these explanations [of others] are addressed and analyzed from the standpoint of the Thomistic theory of action… This work concludes that… as things once stood [when the mandate was originally instituted], compliance with it may have been ethically licit in some cases.” Simo’s conclusion appears erroneous.
Amongst some other helpful (and also not helpful) distinctions and illustrations, Simo gives this interesting ethical dilemma. What would you do if you were the one calling the shots?:
“…[the] example of the loaded passenger airplane that gets shot down by an F/A-18 because it was being used by terrorists as a guided missile against civilian targets. Both the pilot and the Joint Chiefs had, as an intended end, ‘to protect Americans on the ground from the attack’ and, as intended means, ‘to remove the plane from the sky by blowing it up,’ because that was the only means at hand.” – pp. 80-81
Flannery, Jr., S.J., Kevin – Cooperation with Evil: Thomistic Tools of Analysis Pre (Catholic University of American Press, 2019) Includes translated sections from Alphonsus Liguori’s Moral Theology.
Blurb: “…what has been called the most difficult problem in moral theology… The author presents the history of the issue from the 17th to the 20th century by following the debate about the Servant and the Ladder, a proposition condemned as laxist by Bl. Pope Innocent XI. Cummings shows that no thinker has managed to address the question satisfactorily, not even St. Alphonsus Liguori, who expended “great effort” and is often credited with having settled the matter. With the help of British analytic philosophy… and recent contributions to action theory, which complement the clarifications of Pope St John Paul II, the author proposes a new solution to the centuries-old conundrum. While indeed a novel approach, it is, at the same time, a call to recapture the wisdom of the pre-Reformation Catholic moral tradition.”
“Alphonsus’s most extensive explanation… In the pertinent passage, the question is whether a person is required to pay restitution to the victim of a robbery if he has cooperated in the act of theft by such acts as holding a ladder for the thief, giving him keys or other instruments for opening a strongbox, making copies of keys, or
breaking open gates. His answer is that, no, the cooperator need not pay restitution, provided that he does not share the intention of the malefactor… since such acts are, writes Alphonsus, ‘truly indifferent, for, depending on the end toward which they go, they
could be either licit or illicit.'” – Kevin Flannery, ‘Two Factors’, p. 670
Seido Foundation – ‘Morality of Cooperation in Evil’ in 2 Parts Catholic Position Papers, Series B, num. 31 (July, 1985), Japan ed., Articles 13 & 14 on the Catholic Faith. Hosted by EWTN.
The 2nd part of this article analyzes cooperation with evil in regard to voting and the role of judges and lawyers in the application of unjust laws. See here for information about the Seido Foundation, which is a Japanese, eductional non-profit.
K.H. Peschke – ‘Cooperation in the Sins of Others’ in Christian Ethics. Moral Theology in the Light of Vatican II, vol.1, General Moral Theology Pre (C. Goodliffe Neale Ltd., rev. ed., 1986), pp. 320-324
‘Cooperation in Evil’ in Catholic Medical Quarterly 44(3) (Feb. 1994), pp. 15-22
This popular article centers around medical ethics, especially with nurses and doctors not doing directly immoral actions, but being in the context where such is done. The article is generally very good.
Includes towards the end a list of 42 difficult ethical situations for you to try your moral discernment on.
‘Cooperation in Evil: Understanding the Issues’ in ed. Helen Watt, Cooperation, Complicity & Conscience: Moral Problems in Healthcare, Science, Law & Public Policy (London: Linacre Centre, 2005), pp. 27-64
This paper on the whole is very good as for exploring the topic. It covers a lot of societal issues at various levels and provides some further distinctions and factors (with various levels of legitimacy given particular situations) than what is above on this webpage, such as (p. 3):
Effective vs. Occasional, depending upon how much the cooperator’s act actually contributed to the principal agent’s act.
Necessitated vs. Free, depending upon how pressured or free the cooperator was.
Explicit vs. Implicit. Explicit formal cooperation occurs where the cooperator clearly approves of the principal agent’s evil action. Implicit formal cooperation, on the other hand, is said to occur when, though the cooperator denies intending the principal agent’s object, no other explanation will suffice to distinguish the cooperator’s object from that of the principal agent’s, the cooperator’s action by its very nature or by the form it takes in the concrete situation can have no other meaning.
Some used this same terminology to separate the cooperator who shares in the evil ends of the principal agent from the cooperator whose ends are different but who intentionally assists the principal agent’s act as a means to the cooperator’s own ends.
See pp. 20-21 for 7 bullet points elucidating the relevance of the factors of strength, time length and reversability (or not) in the evil being materially supported, as far as justifications go for justifying cooperation therein.
“…against cooperating even materially, unless there is a sufficiently strong reason to warrant proceeding.” (p. 22)
Keenan, James F. & Thomas R. Kopfensteiner – ‘The Principle of Cooperation: Theologians Explain Material & Formal Cooperation’ in Health Progress: Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States (April, 1995)
While not everything in this article is approved of (be careful not to be deceived), yet on the whole it is helpful and includes some points and distinctions not above on this webpage which may be legitimate and useful when used rightly, such as:
“…any act of material cooperation requires a proportionately grave reason.”
“In making a judgment about cooperation, it is essential that the possibility of scandal should be eliminated.”
“…cooperation ‘may be refused because of the scandal that would be caused in the circumstances.'”
“A legitimate application of the principle of cooperation requires that all realistic and feasible options to distance the Catholic organization from the wrongdoing of another be explored and written into the contract before the organization forms new partnerships. One might say, then, that the closer one comes to the wrongdoing, the more the duress must be in evidence.”
“…double effect concerns those rare actions that, although they have but a single (either morally right or neutral) object of activity, cause two effects, one of which is wrong.”
Rubio, Julie Hanlon – ‘Moral Cooperation with Evil & Social Ethics’ in Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring / Summer 2011), pp. 103-122
Dr. Newton, William – ‘Avoiding Cooperation with Evil: Keeping Your Nose Clean in a Dirty World’ in Homiletic & Pastoral Review (2012) 49 paragraphs
One may not agree with every last thing in this medium-length article, but it is generally helpful, and includes points, factors and examples not found elsewhere.
Parkinson, Joseph C. – Material Cooperation & Catholic Institutions: An Inquiry into Traditional Moral Principle & its Meaning for Catholic Institutions Today, with Reference to Catholic Hospitals in Australia PhD thesis (Univ. of Notre Dame Australia, 2001)
The historical theology of the issue of material cooperation with evil in Romanism surveyed on pp. 10-46 is particularly helpful, as well as the bibliographies and the mass of other information in the book.
Di Camillo, John A. – Organizational Cooperation with Evil. Conceptual Analysis & Renewed Understanding of the Principles Governing Cooperation with Implications for Catholic… Ref (Regina Apostolorum, 2016) 380 pp.
D.M. Prummer – ‘De Cooperatione ad Malum’ in Manuale Theologiae Moralis secundum Principia S. Thomae Aquinatis, tomus I (Friburgi Brisgoviae, Herder & Co., 1923), pars I, trat. IX, caput III, no. 2, pp. 429-434
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”
2 Cor. 6:14
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
“…as some affirm that we say, ‘Let us do evil, that good may come’? whose damnation is just.”
On the Roman Church being a Church, She being Apostate, her Baptism being Valid, that the Reformers’ Ministerial Calling was Valid, the Necessity of Separation from Her & Whether Romanists may be Saved