May I Patronize Companies that Support Intrinsic Evil?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Living in a sinful world requires all of us to cooperate in evildoing sometimes, and most of us to do it frequently.

Domingos Sequeira, “Caesar’s Coin,” 1790
Domingos Sequeira, “Caesar’s Coin,” 1790 (photo: Public Domain)

Q. I read that the Adobe Company supports Planned Parenthood. I have used Photoshop over the years to supplement my income. I recently bought a new computer, on which my old software is incompatible. Unfortunately, I’ve found that Adobe no longer sells the program outright; rather, I am required to lease it on an annual basis. A priest told me that leasing it is “remote material cooperation,” which apparently means it’s okay. But I have my doubts.

My question is this. When dealing with an intrinsic evil such as abortion, wouldn’t this kind of cooperation still be wrong? How can there be “proportionality” between the benefits I receive in using Photoshop and the evil that they do with the money I give them, especially killing unborn children?

This question can also be applied to shopping at companies like Walmart, Home Depot and Starbucks, all of which support causes contrary to good morals. — Mary


A. Whenever we contribute to the success of another’s evildoing, moral theology calls it an instance of moral cooperation (e.g., working as a janitor in a hospital that performs abortions or acting as a defense attorney for obviously guilty clients).

Living in a sinful world requires all of us to cooperate in evildoing sometimes, and most of us to do it frequently. Moral cooperation can be entirely legitimately; even Jesus paid taxes to Rome, which used the money, among other things, to fund evildoing (e.g., to pay the procurator and soldiers that unjustly put him to death). But cooperation in evildoing can also be wrongful, which is no doubt why you want to know whether it’s legitimate to lease something from a company that supports another company that kills preborn children.

I will try to apply to your situation some of the Catholic Church’s wisdom on moral cooperation. In doing so, I hope to provide an example — a model — for you and others to use when addressing other issues of moral cooperation, issues today that can cause grave concern for morally conscientious people (e.g., Can I attend the “wedding” ceremony of my “gay” son? Can I refer to “transgender” persons by their preferred names? Can I vote for candidates whose personal lives or public positions are not always morally exemplary? Can I take a job with a company that supports LGBT activism?)


Assessing Moral Cooperation

When judging whether some instance of cooperation is morally licit, the first thing to do — and you’ve obviously already done this — is make sure that you, the cooperator, do not support the evil that you are contributing to. In the language of theology, make sure that what you are doing is not “formal cooperation.”

We formally cooperate when we help an evildoer so as to advance his evildoing, for example, we support Adobe because it supports Planned Parenthood.

The Catholic Church teaches that formal cooperation is always evil and never should be chosen. (See U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERDs),” Part VI: Introduction, p. 24) The fact that you are asking your question makes clear you are not formally cooperating.

The second and more difficult kind of cooperation to assess is called “material cooperation.” We materially cooperate when we disagree with what the wrongdoer does, yet in some way still advance his bad acts (e.g., Jesus [and us] paying taxes to rulers that use some of the money in wrongful ways). The Catholic Church teaches that this kind of cooperation can be licit, but also can be wrongful. (See ERDs, ibid.)

How do we judge? We examine whether there are stronger reasons (called “just causes,” sometimes referred to as “proportionate reasons”) for cooperating than for not cooperating. How do we determine this? We look at the goods and harms caused by cooperating and not cooperating and we compare them.

Allow me to elaborate.

Every good (or benefit) that we’re trying to achieve and every harm we’re trying to avoid by cooperating stands as a “reason” to cooperate. In your case, these include the benefits you think you can achieve from leasing Photoshop, including the income you derive, your satisfaction at creating something beautiful, the positive relationships you nurture through your work, etc. It also includes the harms you are trying to avoid by cooperating, including the loss of income from not using the software, with all attendant disadvantages (e.g., not being able to pay your rent, children’s school bills, food, etc.).

Likewise, every harm caused by our cooperation stands as a reason not to cooperate. To determine what these are, we should ask questions such as the following:

  • Will babies (or more babies) be killed by my annual leasing of Photoshop?
  • Will my example of cooperation undermine my own personal witness to the love of Christ and to Gospel morality?
  • Will long-term cooperation cause me over time to become psychologically callous to the fact that Adobe supports a corporation that kills massive numbers of unborn children?
  • Will my cooperation impart legitimacy to Adobe’s leadership so as to encourage more support for Planned Parenthood and other companies that do evil? Or, on the flip side, would my non-cooperation prevent or diminish Adobe’s support for Planned Parenthood? Say, if you forgo Photoshop, and you publicize the reasons on Facebook or Instagram or by sending a letter/email to each member of the Adobe Board of Directors telling them what you’re doing and why; is this likely to make a difference?
  • Will my example of paying annual subscriptions to Adobe tempt anyone to sin? (This is the crucial question of “scandal.”)
  • Will my example cause disharmony between me and other good people committed to ending the evil of abortion, or worse, disharmony within the Christian community, of which we have far too much already?

These are not random questions. Each concerns a duty that we have to someone interested in or affected by our cooperation, duties to ourselves, to our families, to the babies, to Jesus and the Gospel, to our neighbors, especially fellow Christians, and even to the evildoers themselves.

If after honest reflection and inquiry (perhaps also some research) I conclude that the reasons not to cooperate are not strong: I figure that nobody will be interested enough in my leasing of Photoshop to be scandalized by my example or set in disharmony against me; that the money Adobe gets from my subscription is unlikely to affect directly the life of any baby, for better or worse; that my publicized opposition is unlikely to influence the company away from its support for Planned Parenthood; and that given my enduring opposition to abortion, I am likely to remain firmly resolved to oppose in the world and in myself whatever breeds complacency towards the evil of abortion. And I similarly conclude that my reasons to cooperate are strong: e.g., I need the software to support my family. Then thus far, I don’t have a decisive reason not to lease the product.

But a final question still needs to be answered before we can be confident our cooperation is licit.

Is there available a morally acceptable and practically feasible alternative that would not require me to cooperate with evildoing? So would any of the photo-editing alternatives to Photoshop reasonably meet your needs?

By reasonable I mean two thing: First, are they produced by companies that are not publicly committed to wrongdoing? And second, and more practically speaking, can you afford them, learn them without a great burden, and do they perform the tasks you need? If there are viable alternatives, then you shouldn’t support Adobe. Why? Because you’d have no reason at all — except perhaps laziness, which is not a good reason — to contribute to a company that does evil.

Finally, even if you decide that buying Photoshop is an instance of licit material cooperation, you may consider writing (and encouraging others to write) to the company urging it to cease supporting Planned Parenthood.