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Why not dirty your hands? (2005)

Or: on the supposed rightness of (sometimes) intentionally cooperating in wrongdoing
by Professor Luke Gormally

1. Introduction

The purpose of considering the thesis is not to convince anyone of it, nor, on the other hand, to argue against it. The purpose of considering an argument for the thesis is to display some of the key elements of a mindset or moral outlook in which preoccupation with whether one is engaged in formal cooperation in wrongdoing is to a large extent unintelligible.

Since the mindset in question is a powerful influence in our society and culture it would be foolish to think that Catholics and other Christians might be untouched by it. And in so far as they are, they will be prone to confusion in their practical thinking about problems of cooperation.

2. Cooperation at the coalface

It is important to have a sense of the multifarious ways in which choices to cooperate in wrongdoing can present themselves, as well as of the ways in which what is at issue can fail to be grasped. Something of this complexity and of the ways in which what is at issue can be obfuscated were brought home to me in the winter months of 1979-1980 when I spent many hours interviewing more than thirty Catholic healthcare professionals, in different parts of England, about the ethical problems they encountered in their work, with a special focus on problems of cooperation. These professionals ranged in position from Dean of a Medical School to student nurse and all professed to be practising Catholics. The most frequently cited reason a number of them had for thinking that practices such as giving contraceptive advice or assisting in sterilization procedures were not morally problematic (i.e. presented no choice about possibly wrongful cooperation) was that both practices were in many cases entirely justifiable. Here what I was encountering was the ripple-effect among the Catholic laity of the very public rejection by many moral theologians and by a number of bishops of the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Some of my interviewees had, indeed, arrived at the conclusion that the Church possessed no distinctive authority to teach moral truth. None of them, however, professed to think that abortion or starving handicapped babies to death was ever justifiable. Nonetheless, some of them had participated in the acknowledged wrongdoing of abortion and the killing of handicapped babies.

* first, one can be an accomplice in the actual doing of the wrong, as someone providing assistance;

* thirdly, one can advise the principal agent to carry out the wrong;

* fourthly, one can fail to advise the principal agent against the wrongdoing when one could and should do so;

* fifthly, one can fail to order the principal agent not to act as he intends when one could and should do so;

* sixthly, one can provide support or concealment of a kind without which the principal agent could not carry out the wrong he proposes; and

* seventhly, one can fail to provide support of a kind which would have prevented the wrongdoing when one could and should provide such support.

So, let us turn to consider the thought: there is no good reason against my assisting in wrongdoing because my refusal to do so will make no difference.

All that need be assumed is that if an act makes no difference to the occurrence of moral wrong, it is not morally wrong. To deny this premise would be irrational, for it would be to claim that doing A is wrong but refraining from doing A is not wrong, although there is no difference in the moral wrong that results.3

First: that a person is as responsible for what he foresees will be the outcome of his refusal to assist in wrongdoing as he would be for the outcome of assisting. It is to be noted that Bayles thinks a person as responsible for what someone else foreseeably does in consequence of his refusal to do it as he is for doing it himself.

Second: that a choice is wrong depends on a calculation of the overall utility or disutility of the foreseeable consequences of the choice.

Fourth: that it is not the case that the effect on the agent of his or her choices is an independent ground for determining the wrongness of choice which cannot be subsumed into some overall calculation of consequences.

And the simple step of a simple courageous man is not to take part in the lie, not to support deceit. Let the lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me.

... to obey the principle [never be party to lying] is to do so at the cost of the total outcome being worse. The strict consequentialist will say that the principle tells us to keep our hands clean, at a cost which will probably be paid by other people. It is excessively self-regarding, placing considerations of my own feelings or purity of character far too high on the scale of factors to be considered.5

Bayles and Glover are utilitarians. A utilitarian believes that our choices should be determined by calculating which of our possible courses of action will in their consequences maximise utility, where utility for a modern utilitarian is most commonly taken to consist in the satisfaction of preferences and the satisfaction of preferences consists in states of affairs. States of affairs will be innumerably various, but the consequentialist has to assume that the calculations required in order to compare options allow us to use some common measure for purposes of comparison.

4. Human agency and responsibility in the Catholic moral tradition

In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor Pope John Paul, confronting the teaching of dissenting moral theologians who have denied that there can be moral absolutes, wrote:

[by which the Pope means the further aims] of the one acting and the circumstances.10

And a few paragraphs later the Pope adds:

... in the question of the morality of human acts, and in particular the question of whether there exist intrinsically evil acts, we find ourselves faced with the question of man himself, of his truth and of the moral consequences flowing from that truth. By acknowledging and teaching the existence of intrinsic evil in given human acts, the Church remains faithful to the integral truth about man; she thus respects and promotes man in his dignity and vocation. Consequently, she must reject the theories ... which contradict this truth.11

The theories in question developed in the minds of at least some of the dissenting moral theologians under the influence of utilitarianism.

To live well we need to become the kind of persons God wants us to be. God makes available to us all that is necessary to that end.

There is no way the choice of what to do about feeding the patient could be rationally based on comparing the overall utility or benefit of the consequences of each option, because those consequences are incommensurable goods or evils; that is, there is no common measure which would allow us to assign comparable positive and negative values to those consequences.

It is because the character we shape by our choices matters greatly for our living well, and because the moral absolutes are so important for shaping our choices, that the traditional casuistry about cooperation in wrongdoing is important. That casuistry is first of all concerned with whether we share the intention of the principal agent in wrongdoing, that is, with whether our actions are chosen precisely to achieve his objective. This concern reflects the moral significance of the distinction between intended and foreseen consequences of our choices, a significance which is tied to the central importance of moral absolutes and their significance for the formation of character.

The absolute prohibitions of traditional morality concern intentional actions (more broadly, intentional courses of conduct) because of the fundamental importance to human flourishing of having people never act for reasons which are directly contrary to the human good, identifiable in terms of the basic goods.

In contrast to intentional courses of conduct, what I do not seek to achieve, such as the side-effects of what I do, does not involve commitments which necessarily serve to shape character in this kind of way. The psychology of character formation is an important part of the background to understanding the rationale of absolute prohibitions.

All I wish to emphasise here is that the framework of traditional morality makes clear that formal cooperation with wrongdoing will necessarily corrupt character. Anyone with a traditional understanding of what it means to live well will have decisive reasons against any formal cooperation in wrongdoing. But whether or not one should materially cooperate will depend on considerations other than the precise character of what one chooses to do. Those considerations, in all their complexity, are the topic of other contributions to this volume.

5. Conclusion

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[1] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a 2ae, q.62, a.7.


[3] Op.cit. 169.


[5] Op.cit. 185.

[6] Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. London: HMSO 1984.


[8] Nichomachean Ethics 2.6: 1107a9-17. On Aristotle and ancient and medieval commentators on him on the topic of moral absolutes see John Finnis, Moral Absolutes, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press 1991, pp.31-36.

[9] Matthew 19: 16-19.


[11] Op.cit. section 83.



[14] It should be noted that the standard textbook illustration fails to reflect the best of contemporary practice, since correctly administered use of opiates tends to prolong rather than shorten life.