Some Simple Mistakes about Formal Cooperation

There’s a need for something like a Catholic Truth Society booklet on “Common Mistakes about Formal and Material Cooperation” (sounds like a bestseller, no?), but as the best is the enemy of the good, here is a short jotting expressing something of what such a booklet might contain.

Let us accept the provisional definitions:

Someone cooperates formally with what another person aims to do, if he shares in the intention of that other person.  He cooperates materially, if what that other person aims to do is outside his own intention (praeter intentionem).

Then we say the following:

1. In the definition, to intend is not the same as to want, desire, or willingly to do.  If it were, then formal coopertion could never be coerced, because when we are coerced, we do what we do not want to do.  Yet clearly formal cooperation can be coerced.  (Compare the difference between (i) the bank robber’s holding the gun up to the bank manager’s head to get him to hand over the cash, and (ii) some racketeers through blackmail getting that same manager to obtain cash for them by embezzlement.  Although the proper construal of the first case is disputable, the second case is clearly a matter of coerced formal cooperation.) Again, that someone who is coerced into actually doing something does it purposefully —and therefore can be praised and blamed, depending upon the trade-off he preferred— is the best evidence that in an important sense he intended to do it. (Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics III.1 is invaluable for getting a grasp on these matters.)

2. What someone intends is not subjective but rather objective.  Hence, he can be wrong about what he intends.  Hence, a person’s self-report about his own intention may be mistaken, if he lacks self-knowledge.  Indeed, the road to hell is paved with subjectively good intentions.  The doctor who says that he intended in administering the lethal dose only to release the soul of the patient from suffering also intended, actually, the direct killing of an innocent human being.  In Miss Anscombe’s example, Mr. Truman said that he intended only to end the war and save lives but, whatever he said, because of what he commanded to be done, he thereby intended the killing of women and children.

3. Intention can be implicit and the effect of someone’s “signing up” to do something, rather than express and always prior to the action done.  If you will, one’s intention can be an effect of an action rather than an antecedent cause. (J.L. Austin’s theory of perfomative utterances is based on this fact. ) We see this all the time in small steps which already commit someone to the whole (although one may be reluctant to admit that fact); or, again, in actions which are such that we should have understood them but did not (as for example, “Did I really commit to paying $5000 in earnest money by next Monday?”—said incredulously by a man who signed a contract, to his real estate agent: yes, in signing that contract, he made himself someone intending to do that, by “implicit” intention).  Again, we find that acts which are good or bad change our will, correspondingly, because they change our intention, formally: for example, an adulterer in retrospect finds that his initial adultery implicitly changed his will in all kinds of ways that he did not understand then.(*)

4. The distinction between formal and material cooperation does not match up with the distinction between ends and instrumental means.  That is, it is not the case that what we intend is always an end (although sometimes, on this view, perhaps also the instrumental means to some end, insofar as the means are somehow distinctive of just that end, or somehow “dedicated” to it). To think this is to apply Baconian and Cartesian categories to a distinction which predates the modern era (modern “error”?) and rather finds its proper home in a broadly Aristotelian or classical framework.  What is needed for the distinction is a way of individuating kinds of action and kinds of association, such that we can say that something that someone does belongs, or does not belong, in the same kind.  These kinds are established by objective, not subjective, “forms,” that typically have a reality in law, social understandings, and knowledge.  For example, someone can be trained in defensive actions undertaken with an instrument such as a sword.  The consequent mastery is a skill or craft.  It is essential to the craft that one undertakes actions proportionate to the hostile force.  That someone undertakes such an action when a robber assails him in a dark alley can be established relative to this objective mastery and training, in relation to which, if it “happens” that he kills the robber in repelling him, then the robber’s death is “outside his intention” (praeter intentionem) of self-defense —which is to say that there is an intelligible type of action which this man is capable of undertaking in view of his training, different in kind from murder.  (To apply the distinction between “end” and “instrumental means” is most unhelpful here.)

5. Because the “form” of an action is objective, it can happen that because of the circumstances, and especially the social circumstances, in which I do the action, then I am not free to mean by it—to intend—what I wish.  If I have recently opened a business in a mafia-dominated part of town, and a mafia goon comes into my store and asks me simply to give some merchandise to him for free, then, in those circumstances, it is not up to me to interpret or re-interpret the action as “oh, I am merely giving away some free merchandise here to promote my business.”  Rather, to give the goon the merchandise, in the circumstances, is to capitulate with extortion (and, effectively, to declare that you will later make the required “protection” payments).  Or, again, you may go to a party fully planning to rise above yourself and show mere indifference to an enemy who is going to be there as well, but if he approaches you and holds out his hand to shake, then indifference is no longer an option for you. You are not free to shake his hand or refuse to shake it and then claim that “privately” you remain indifferent—at least, not in the way that you understood and intended this prior to going to the party.

6. Once formal cooperation in wrongdoing is established, then the principle of double effect does not apply.  Recall that it is a presupposition of double effect that the action that one is doing be either neutral or good: if formal cooperation is established, then the action contemplated is bad.  Or, as the moralists say, formal cooperation in evil is always to be avoided.  Indeed, if formal cooperation is established, then attempts to apply double effect are instances of “doing evil so that good may come” (or, which amounts to the same thing, so that greater evil may be avoided).

7. Although today people take the default to be material cooperation, and they understand the burden of proof to fall on the claim of formal cooperation, it seems that historically, as a matter of conscience and in the examination of one’s conscience, the default went the other way, and the liceity of a an action of apparent cooperation in evil had to be established by examining it against the traditional list of nine “modes” of formal cooperation (dating from the 13th c and the commentary of St. Antonius of Florence): Did I command wrongdoing, or counsel it, consent to it, flatter someone doing it, shelter someone doing it, participate directly in it, keep silent about it, not impede it, or hide it?

8. Moreover, it seems an historically established fact that formal cooperation, in even serious and obviously wrong actions, can be widespread and, indeed, nearly universal.  At least, this last conclusion is one which I am tempted to draw from the case of Franz Jaegerstaetter, who seems to have been the only German who refused to serve in the military under Hitler.  Jaegerstaetter said that in conscience he could not cooperate in an aggressive war against innocent French and Russians.  Regarded as a traitor or mad eccentric in his own day, his judgment seems to have been vindicated by history, and he has since been beatified.  Now if conscience is objective, then people who are similarly situated should reach similar judgments; which seems to imply that many, at least, of Jaegerstaetter’s countrymen did cooperate formally with evil.  If the stakes are high (Jaegerstaetter was of course executed as a traitor, leaving behind a wife and child), the evil seems small (will anyone in an army necessarily fire a bullet?), and there seems to be a plausible explanation of why the wrongdoing is praeter intentionem (“I am joining the Wehrmacht only, and surely it cannot be wrong to join in one’s country’s army, which plays a legitimate role of self-defense and is only accidentally connected with aggression?”) nearly everyone will go along.  Jaegerstaetter no more condemned those who did not follow him than did Thomas More.   Still, as regards the objective moral judgment (not the judgment of subjective responsibility), it seems that nearly everyone in those times cooperated formally in wrongdoing.

(*) On implicit intention, consider this passage from Noldin, Summa Theologiae Moralis (v.2, section 117):

“[Cooperation may be formal in either of two ways:] either α. explicitly, due to the intention of the cooperator, who expressly has the intention of participating in the other’s sin, or β. implicitly due to the nature of the act performed—namely, when someone performs an act that, by its nature or attending to its circumstances, is ordered exclusively to the bad action, for then ipso facto the contrary intention is retracted and [the agent] has the intention of the bad action. For instance, if a man participates in the divine worship of heretics, he cooperates formally, even though he says that he does not intend this.”


The appendix to the pamphlet would contain this suggestion for further reading: “The Servant and the Ladder: Implicitly Formal Cooperation in Evil in Light of Veritatis Splendor,” by Rev. McLean A. Cummings, Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum, Facultas Theologiae, Theses ad Doctoratum in Philosophia, Romae 2009.