From CD to MP3 for Free? The Principle of Moral Cooperation

John Kleinsman
Issue 17, November 2005

Having carefully saved his pocket money, my thirteen year old son recently purchased a new music CD. One of his friends immediately wanted to borrow the CD so that he could copy the songs - at no cost - onto his MP3 player, something that is a clear breach of copyright. "Heaps of people do it Dad, but I don't think it is right. What do you think?" I had to agree with him. "Could you tell him that he can borrow it to listen to, but that you don't want him to copy it," I ventured to suggest. "Yeah right, Dad. We both know that he will copy it anyway."

My son has been raised to understand that people are responsible for their actions. It would have been easy enough - and even quite logical - for him to have reasoned that he would not be responsible for his friend's actions and to give into the pressure to lend him the CD. After all, who wants to say "no" to their mates? So why was he uncomfortable about doing it? He sensed that in some way he would still share in the responsibility for what would happen. After all, his involvement ("cooperation") was essential if his friend was to break copyright. That he strongly disagreed with what his friend was (in all likelihood) going to do was not sufficient to let his conscience "off the hook".

Is my son being unnecessarily scrupulous or is he onto something important?

In a revised edition of Fagotheys classic 1950's text, Right and Reason, we read that "Only the person who knowingly and willingly does an act can be responsible for it. In this sense no one can be responsible for the acts of another person" (Austin Fagothey, 1981, p.47).

At first glance this statement seems to be both straight forward and uncontroversial. After all, the idea that we are each responsible for our own actions is a basic moral premise that is universally accepted. At the Nuremburg trials, for example, the arguments of those who pleaded that they were simply "following orders" were roundly rejected. Fagothey might seem to be implying that a person has no responsibility for the actions of others, only their own. However, it needs to be noted that further on he qualifies his statement, arguing that we are responsible for our own acts insofar as knowingly and willingly they affect other persons as an incentive to either good or evil. This indicates that there is also a sense in which we can be responsible for the acts of another person.

Stated positively, we have the ability to influence others and their decisions for the good through our words and deeds. There is a definite "relational" dimension to what we say or do - or don't say or do. Stated negatively, our words and deeds have a corresponding ability to undermine the good actions of others and/or contribute to their bad actions. The Catholic moral tradition recognises the negative influence exerted on people by an individual's attitudes and behaviours (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.2284), as well as by communal situations and social structures that are the product of the sinful actions of others (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.408).

We need reminding that taking full responsibility for our personal actions must include an honest assessment of the way in which those actions will impact on others and our world. In particular, we need to consider seriously the extent to which our words and deeds may (intentionally or otherwise) assist or encourage others in carrying out bad actions. We are responsible for "cooperating" in the bad actions of others to the extent that our words or deeds assist, lead, entice, allure, encourage or otherwise influence them to do something wrong, or when we fail to say or do something that might have reasonably prevented them from some wrongdoing.

In practice, it is impossible to avoid all deeds or actions that have negative consequences. If that were the case, then "we could do so little that we might as well stop living ... life would be intolerably difficult if we had to avoid all actions in which others might find an occasion to do evil" (Fagothey, 1981, p.47). This quote highlights what most of us know already – that it is common for us to find ourselves in situations where doing something "good" simultaneously involves us in causing some sort of harm or "evil". We are often called to make compromises that involve varying degrees of collaboration or cooperation in moral wrongdoing.

In the Catholic moral tradition there are a number of principles available to us for resolving the dilemmas that arise when we are faced with the prospect of causing or allowing harm. Key among these principles is that of "moral cooperation". Moral cooperation happens when a person assists another person in doing something harmful. Cooperation may occur "by joining that person in the actual performance of the act or by supplying him or her with the means for performing it" (Fagothey, 1981, p.48).

Formal Cooperation

When we knowingly and willingly share in the immoral intention or purpose of a person's bad action, this is known as formal cooperation. Anyone who directs, encourages, approves, commands, or actively defends another's immoral act formally cooperates in that immoral act (Gregg, 2001) and shares completely in the responsibility for what takes place, "no matter how small one's share in the actual physical execution" (Ashley and O'Rourke, 1989, p.188.) Assisting someone to carry out a robbery, or to plan a robbery that others will then execute, are two classic examples given of formal cooperation.

Formal cooperation would also occur in cases where a shareholder invests in a company that uses cheap overseas slave labour or child labour in order to cut costs. Grisez (1997) explains:

One normally has no reason to invest directly in a particular company's stock unless one expects and intends one's money to be used to make a profit, and one normally cannot intend that without intending that the company ... do efficiently all they are aware of its doing to make its profits. If some of the company's profit-enhancing policies and actions are immoral, the investor normally intends the immorality and so shares moral responsibility for it. (Difficult Moral Questions, p. 505.)

While some occasions of formal cooperation are obviously more serious than others, formal cooperation is always wrong.

Material Cooperation

In all other cases, where there is no sharing in the intention of the person performing the bad act, any form of cooperation is properly described as material. Material cooperation occurs when we - knowingly or unknowingly – perform an otherwise good or morally neutral action that assists or encourages others to do something bad. Where there is a connection between our own action/s (or lack of action) and the wrongful act, then we bear a degree of responsibility for that act. Because material cooperation, by definition, presumes a lack of approval of the wrongdoing and involves an act that is not of itself morally bad, it involves a lesser type of cooperation than formal cooperation. Unlike formal cooperation, it is not always wrong. The bank employee who is forced to open the vault for armed robbers undoubtedly contributes to the success of the robbery, but clearly is to be judged differently from a dishonest bank employee who offers the same assistance because he is in cahoots with the robbers.

In judging whether material cooperation may be morally acceptable we need to first distinguish between "immediate" (direct) and "mediate" (indirect) cooperation. Cooperation is judged to be immediate when it occurs as part of the actual execution of the immoral act. An example of this would be someone not in favour of abortion operating a suction pump to remove the baby from the mother's womb. It is hard to argue in this case that there are two separately identifiable actions. Immediate material cooperation is equivalent to implicit formal cooperation and therefore can never be morally justified.

Mediate material cooperation, on the other hand, concerns all actions which help to fulfil the conditions necessary for an immoral act to take place. These conditions may involve supplying either the instruments or products required (Pontifical Academy for Life, 2005), or in some other way providing the means, without which the action could not take place. Once we are satisfied that the material cooperation may be classified as "mediate", then the moral concern relates to the bad circumstances that are caused by what we do. In Fagothey's words: "Since the act I do is not wrong in itself, since I do not use the other's evil deed as a means to any end of my own, and since I have no wrong intention ... the only remaining difficulty is that of the proportion" (p.48).

Estimating the proportion between the good achieved and harm done involves assessing the amount of harm resulting from cooperation, the amount of harm resulting from not cooperating, and thirdly the "closeness" of the collaboration to the harmful act. Commenting on these criteria Fagothey notes that the first two criteria by and large involve common sense. "My duty ... does not oblige me to suffer an injury greater than or equal to that which I am trying to ward off ... but it does oblige me to suffer a small loss to prevent a great loss from happening to another" (p.48). Similarly, Ashley and O'Rourke write that "the good achieved by the cooperation must outweigh the contribution of the cooperator to the evil and the degree of evil" (1989, p.188). Meanwhile, assessing the "closeness" of the collaboration involves a determination of whether one's actions are "proximate" or "remote".

Proximate and Remote Material Cooperation

Material cooperation is described as proximate if the help is closely connected with the bad action. Saunders (2002) notes that a good question to ask is, "Would this action be done without my help?" Moral cooperation is described as remote when it is not so closely connected to the immoral action. The closer the connection the greater the proportionate reason required to make the material cooperation allowable. Working as a theatre nurse and preparing an operating theatre that sometimes carried out abortions while personally opposing abortion is an example of proximate material cooperation. Working as a theatre cleaner in the same hospital is an example of remote material cooperation.

Material cooperation can be of a passive nature. The shareholder who is personally against abortion but whose failure to vote at shareholder meetings contributes to a decision by the directors of the company to donate money for destructive research on human embryos is an example of passive proximate material cooperation.

When no one else can assist in an act that involves material cooperation then there is a greater obligation not to be involved because the person is in a position to actually prevent the harmful act from happening.

Moral Scandal

Whether mediate material cooperation (either proximate or remote) is morally justifiable, depends also on the avoidance of "scandal". Because we tend to use the word today in a different way Fagothey suggests that it is best translated as giving occasion for evil. Scandal "is any word or deed tending to lead, entice, or allure another person into wrong-doing" (p.47).

The scandal or negative influence we have on others may be either intended by us, in which case it is referred to as "given", or not intended but nevertheless experienced by another person as scandal, in which case it is referred to as "taken". Fagothey puts it clearly:

Occasion of evil is taken but not given when someone with peculiar subjective dispositions is led to evil by another person's innocent words or deeds. It may be due to the takers malice, and then is wholly the taker's responsibility. Or it may be due to the taker's weakness ... Love ... requires us to avoid words and actions, otherwise harmless, that might be a source of moral danger to the innocent or weak (p.48).

We have a duty to take into account the fact that moral scandal might be taken by others even when there is no intention to give it. This requires an assessment of the degree to which cooperation in immoral acts, even when justifiable from a personal perspective, might undermine acceptance of the Church's teaching (eg on the sanctity of human life) or make ourselves or others less sensitive to the wrongs involved. Our cooperation might tempt others because they perceive, even if incorrectly, that the wrong is not so very evil in our eyes. Put positively, we have an obligation to uphold the moral objection promoted by law or teaching and not give others the impression that we have forfeited or compromised any objection to a harmful activity.


While my teenage son had never before encountered the term "moral cooperation", the nature of his questioning clearly showed that he understood the implications of this traditional moral principle. While lack of intention or a different intention often exonerates us from being blamed for a particular action, the principle of moral cooperation reminds us to take into account the bigger picture. Being vehemently opposed to what others do may not always be enough. Sometimes more is demanded of us because of the responsibility we still bear for what occurs. The principle of moral cooperation can help us decide when our cooperation in doing harm is acceptable and when it is not, whether or not compromise is allowable or whether we are called to make a stand.


Ashley, B., & O'Rourke, K. (1989). Healthcare ethics: a theological analysis. St. Louis: The Catholic Health Association of the United States.

Fagothey, A. (1981). Fagothey's right and reason: ethics in theory and practice. (7th ed. revised Milton A. Gonsalves). St. Louis: The C.V. Mosby Company.

Gregg, S. (2001, October). How to be a moral investor. Crisis. Retrieved October 28, 2005:

Grisez, G. (1997). Difficult moral questions: way of the Lord Jesus (Vol. 3). Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press.

Saunders, W. (2002, September 5). Cooperation with evil. Catholic Herald. Retrieved October 21, 2005:


John Kleinsman teaches Moral Theology at the Wellington Catholic Education Centre and is also a part time researcher for The Nathaniel Centre.