5 Points to Ponder About Material Cooperation With Evil

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: To assess questions related to material cooperation, we compare the reasons for cooperating.

Chinese police from the Ministry of Public Security patrol the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
Chinese police from the Ministry of Public Security patrol the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (photo: Geewon Jung / Shutterstock)

Q: I have a question relating to cooperation with evil. Is it morally okay to buy a product that was made in countries (for example, China) in which slave and/or child labor was utilized simply for the purposes of convenience, cost-effectiveness or entertainment?  

It seems that many instances of remote cooperation are justified by grave necessity (for example, giving your child the rubella vaccine because rubella is a serious illness). However, in the case of buying something like a laptop that was made in China, it appears that we often do this without a grave reason.

Is there a certain point where cooperation becomes so remote that even a minor reason (convenience, cost, entertainment, etc.) justifies its purchase? Thank you! — Seth

A. Catholics and all people of goodwill should exercise reasonable solicitude in their choices of commercial vendors. The question of who is producing, distributing and advertising the products we buy is morally relevant because, among other reasons, the money generated from sales, even if the sales themselves are not immoral, is used ultimately to fund and advance the worldviews and value systems of those in company leadership. 

But the question you are asking is not whether you should be solicitous about shopping for Chinese products — which, if what you say is true about slave labor, you surely should be — but whether it is immoral to purchase products made in countries such as China; and you qualify your question by saying “simply for convenience, cost-effectiveness or entertainment,” noting that under conditions of “grave reason” the same behavior can be licit. This seems correct.

Your question falls in Catholic teaching, as you note, under the category of moral cooperation in the evildoing of another. 

There are two forms of cooperating in another’s evildoing, formal cooperation and material cooperation. Formal cooperation exists when I agree with an evildoer’s wrongdoing and support him (for among other reasons) because he is carrying out the wrongdoing. For example, I vote for a political candidate because she is pro-abortion. By formally cooperating in her evildoing, I share her bad will and so her culpability for the evil she does. Thus, formal cooperation is always wrong.

Your question, however, concerns not formal cooperation but material cooperation. I materially cooperate in another’s wrongdoing when my actions somehow advance the evildoers’ plans, but when I do not agree with those plans. I know, or believe, he does wrong, but I oppose his wrongdoing; yet I still in some way contribute to its success.

When I shop at Walmart, for example, the money I spend — relatively little in relation to the billions of dollars in revenue the corporation takes in annually — contributes in a small way to the advancement of LGBT “rights” and other immoral projects Walmart undertakes. Likewise, when I shop Levi’s or Nike or GM or invest with BlackRock, I help each company, however slightly, to fund its “extended reproductive health” plan, which assists its female employees in killing their unborn children. 

To assess questions related to material cooperation, we compare the reasons for cooperating — namely, the prospective benefits we hope to achieve and harms we mean to avoid — with the reasons for not cooperating, which will be related to avoiding the bad side effects caused by my cooperation. If we have stronger reasons to avoid cooperation than to cooperate, then we should avoid it. Thus, we want to reasonably assess what manifest goods can be accomplished and what harms are avoided by cooperating and not cooperating. 

It’s not hard here to assess the goods we are after by cooperating. As you say, buying Chinese products can be convenient, cost-effective and entertaining. 

More difficult is the question of the harm caused by cooperating. I’ll lay out a few questions you can ask yourself, questions that can be generalized for other forms of material cooperation.

First, we want to know whether shopping for Chinese goods will undermine my public witness to Christ and to the good. The credibility of my Christian witness is a great good, and I have a duty to maintain it — a duty to bear witness to the Lord and his Gospel in all my actions. If purchasing Chinese products would compromise my ability to bear perspicuous witness to Christ, then I shouldn’t do it. 

How do I know if such compromise will occur? One way is to ask whether my example will give scandal. If buying Chinese goods leads others wrongly to conclude that exploitation of workers is morally benign, not worth being concerned about, or worse, is justified, then I usually shouldn’t do it. This would be leading others into sin — would give scandal — and ordinarily is wrong, even if done unintentionally. 

But if nobody knows or takes much interest in the fact that I am shopping for Chinese products, or the interest they take has little effect on their views of the matter, then scandal may not be a concern.

I might also ask whether, by buying Chinese goods, I foresee myself becoming psychologically coarsened towards the goods and persons harmed by the evildoing in question. Do I have reasons to believe that I could grow passive and become a silent bystander to grave evil? If so, then I should have the good sense to avoid such cooperating.

The third question is to what degree will my cooperation specifically facilitate the evildoing? If my few dollars are effectively irrelevant to the evildoer’s success, that’s different from if my cooperation, and hence its refusal, would have a significant impact on the evildoing. Would my forgoing the purchasing of Chinese products prevent or impede any immoral work conditions? 

Sometimes, agreeing to cooperate will contribute next to nothing to facilitating the evildoing, and refusing to cooperate will contribute little to minimizing it. Boycotts can be a different matter, as we have recently seen with the Bud Light boycott against Anheuser Busch’s radical “transgender” activism. If a boycott has been initiated because of some egregious evil, we may have a duty to support it if we judge that it is likely to have some positive effect.

The fourth question is whether my material cooperation will contribute to a culture of support for or indifference to the evildoing in question, and on the flip side, whether my non-cooperation would have some positive cultural effect. All cooperation in evildoing, of course, has some effect on culture. But the effect may be very small, effectively negligible. 

Now if I can publish in some way my dissent against the evildoing — through the internet, social media, contacting my friends — then my non-cooperation may have a manifest positive effect. If I am friendless and don’t use social media, publicizing my dissent may not be practically possible.

A fifth question is whether there is a morally acceptable alternative available to me that would permit me to achieve the goods or most of the goods I want to achieve through cooperating, without entailing some or all the bad side-effects threatened by my cooperation. If so, would it be gravely burdensome for me to adopt that alternative? If not, then I don’t have a strong reason for cooperating and probably shouldn’t cooperate. 

Given the saturation of Chinese products in American retail, it would take a good deal of effort to consciously avoid purchasing all such products. Likewise, you may not know which products are produced under the adverse conditions that generate your concern. I don’t think you are required to boycott all Chinese products because of the fear that some of them might be adversely produced. There may be other more constructive ways to oppose China’s violation of human rights.

One final point: If after having asked yourself these questions, you still feel unclear on whether this instance of material cooperation is licit, it may be because the reasons for and against cooperating are equally balanced, and so either course could be acceptable: I could conscientiously avoid Chinese made products, or buy them while keeping an eye out for easily accessible alternatives. 

Whenever the reasons for and against are equally strong, Christians should then — and not before — move to the question of discernment. I say “not before” because if we conclude from our assessment that we have stronger moral reasons to cooperate, or stronger reasons not to cooperate, then we know what morality requires of us. And what morality requires of us is what Jesus requires of us. We don’t need to discern Jesus’ will for something that he has already made known to us through the clarity of the moral law. 

We ask Jesus which among the morally acceptable alternatives he wills for us to adopt. Surely, he wants us to know what he thinks about the matter, since he cares for everything in our lives. Discernment thus becomes the final step of our assessment. 

What if we conclude that however licit it could be to cooperate, nevertheless, the Lord wants us to take a stand against the evil and not cooperate, a stand that goes unnoticed and unacknowledged? Then we shouldn’t cooperate. Even though no empirically measurable good may come out of this, our non-cooperation still has a point: obedience to God’s will and love for the good, and hatred of evil.