The Dubious Guidance of the New Natural Law Theorists on "Formal Cooperation"

Christopher Tollefsen argues as follows regarding the issue of formal cooperation:

As Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George have explained, formal cooperation involves acts that assist another in wrongdoing, in which the intention of the one providing assistance is precisely to further the wrongful aims of the primary agent. If I provide you with contraceptives in order to enable you to contracept, then I am formally cooperating with you. Formal cooperation is not guaranteed by inevitability: I might know to a certainty that you will misuse some resource or aid I give you. But unless I provide the aid for the sake of so enabling you, then I do not share in your bad intention.

Where the HHS mandate is concerned, there should be little doubt that formal cooperation is not at issue. If the president of a Catholic college is compelled to offer the coverage and complies, it will not be done for the sake of enabling his employers to contracept, but for the sake of complying with a legally authoritative, even if unjust, policy. Accordingly, the form of cooperation at stake is material, not formal.

Alas, this is an aperçu that wasn’t, because the definition of formal cooperation is incorrect.  The definition provided implies that only if the cooperator “intends” to bring about the evil involved is the cooperation formal. But “intent” is being used in a peculiar fashion, to denote only what makes the act desirable to the agent and to positively exclude the integral nature and per se effects of that which is chosen. Note how easy this makes avoiding formal cooperation:  one may do anything whatsoever provided that one wishes one weren’t doing it.  But the integral nature and per se effects of action are always included in the moral object, contrary to those for whom the object of moral action is merely what makes that action appetible to the agent.  This is because we choose actions and not merely the formal aspect under which the action is desirable to us—not merely the ratio of the appetibility of an action—but also the action itself.  The one who murders “wishing” he were not, but nonetheless choosing to do so, has a conflicted conscience, but is a murderer.  The one who offers to provide mass support for the pursuit of sinful actions, while wishing he were not aiding sinful actions, is still “directly” providing such support:  “directness” is not a function merely of how one describes one’s proposal for action, but includes the action itself, its integral nature, and per se effects.  So, perhaps the reason why someone performs formal cooperation with evil is not because he wishes the evil to be done, but for some other reason:  but it is wrong to do.  It is wrong to provide mass access to things that one knows are principally sought after for gravely immoral purpose, and the wrongness is formal because providing such access is in essential part defined by its causal implication in depravity and the agent is choosing this causal implication irrespective what he “wishes”.  The case is similar with respect to the performance of action generally. For instance, perhaps someone crushes an infant’s skull to remove it from the birth canal and save the mother, and not because one wishes to hurt the child:  but this is wrongful homicide and not a medical act, because the act terminates in the child—in such a way as to hurt and kill the child—and not in the putative patient, the mother.  Irrespective that the agent “only wishes to help the mother” what the agent is doing is murdering a child.  Roman Catholics who wish serious guidance about these matters should reflect that the George/Gigris account is deriving from a theory that countenances the crushing of infant skulls in craniotomy, and that is deeply implicated in the recent abortion (as witness the Lysaught brief defending the hospital) for which the former St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital has rightly lost its Catholic status.  It is wonderful that gifted men of affairs and lawyers are willing to defend the rights of Catholic believers in the public forum.  But inasmuch as some of these persons are wedded to a theory in critical contradiction with important elements of the actual moral tradition of the Church—a tradition centrally related to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas—the long-term benefit is dubious.  This begins to be seen in the misportrayal of the Church’s teaching regarding material and formal cooperation, which the NNLT—wedded to a purely logicist insistence on the content of a proposal for action rather than a realist account such as is found in the teaching of Aquinas—cannot help but get wrong, having gotten wrong the analysis of human action in general.  The chickens of the NNLT are beginning to come home to roost:  NNLT chicken roosting is an emerging bull market.