Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Should I Support Businesses That Promote Things I Object To Morally?

Q - I was surfing the internet and came upon a commercial from a company that had an obvious homosexual scene, I then researched it a bit and found that this isn't the only ad that targets a "gay audience." I know that one has to choose their battles, and I know that if I were to stop patronizing every company that supports Planned Parenthood, Gay Rights, etc..., I wouldn't be able to shop at very many places. I have been a long time user of this product, and I am just curious as to what your take on this situation is. Thanks for your time, Marcel.

A - Thanks for the question.  I think this is a good thing to ask -should I patronize a business or buy a product of a company that is promoting something that I differ with morally?  The answer is somewhat nuanced.

First, you are under no moral obligation to stop shopping at businesses or stop buying products of businesses that support immoral actions.

Second, you should always follow your conscience.

Third, you would not be sinning if you continued to shop at such places or buy such products.
Why is this?

The principles are similar to a question I answered recently about paying taxes.
We can never directly support intrinsically evil actions. Abortion, same-sex marriage, cloning, fetal stem cell research, euthanasia are some of the actions a Catholic cannot support morally. Yet, there are times it seems we get "tangled up" in these issues despite our best efforts.  This is where the principle of material vs. formal cooperation with evil comes in handy. No matter how hard you might try, there are situations were good an evil are mixed up and sometimes we get caught being complicit in an evil act.

When we "cooperate" in an evil act our cooperation can be either "material" (meaning well-removed from it) or "formal" (close to the evil act). So, if you went shopping at a store because they had the best prices in town on books and while you were checking out you noticed that they also sell pornography, you could still licitly still shop at the store, if you don't intend to support the selling of porn. But, you are still in material support of the evil. A good rule to follow is that while material cooperation may be licit, we want to be as far-removed from formal cooperation as possible. So, if there is another option of shopping somewhere with similar prices and selection, which doesn't sell porn, we might shop there instead. Remote cooperation is licit because we don't intend to cooperate in the evil act and if we did intend to coooperate with evil it is no longer a licit act.

If the evil act is not intended by someone and the person is sufficiently remote from the act, then they are not complicit with it. This is called remote material cooperation. Things that might cause an act to be remote include (not in order and an incomplete list):
  • Time between the complicit act(s) - in some cases, time between events can cause distance. But, time is not a cure-all. For instance, using research gained from the Nazi death camps is still immoral.
  • Steps separating the complicit act(s) - For instance. If you buy a piece of clothing that was originally made in a child-labor sweatshop from another part of the world, then you are many steps from the original evil (sweatshops using child labor). If we intended to buy it because we support sweatshops, then we would be complicit.
  • On-going or one-time (or completed) complicit act(s) - The US supporting slavery is an example. We no longer allow it, but how are we now responsible as a people for once doing so? On the other hand, the sex-trade is still an on-going problem. We cannot participate in such evil.
  • Severity of the complicit act(s) - For instance, abortion. The act is an indescribably evil in and of itself. We cannot cooperate in acts that formally support such evil. On the other hand, there are lesser evils where it is not quite as clear.
  • Nature and Immediacy of the Goods - The most common example is a custodian at a hospital that performs abortions. As long as the person does not formally cooperate in them and disapproves of them, he is not complicit in them - if he is dependent on the job for his livelihood. If he is able to get a job elsewhere, then his cooperation could be formal and not material.
There are times when we are not remote from the evil at all.  If you were working on the advertising campaign you described above and helping to promote a lifestyle contrary to Catholic teaching, then you would be in formal cooperation with an evil.

The less remote the cooperation, the more we should seek to do something different. Once it is no longer remote from an evil, we ought never participate.

I hope this helps.


Christina said...

I've been struggling with this lately. My company is participating in the Bike MS (for which donations go to the MS Society). I love biking so I originally signed up, then I learned that one of the things the MS Society funds in embryonic stem cell research.

I decided that I wouldn't participate and would be giving money to another group that did ethical work. Unfortunately this is turning out to be a lot of work and may not be doable, if a MS group mentions which research it supports at all, it almost always includes this.

I realize that this research is only a tiny proportion of what they fund, I know that other things I've given money to probably support far more of this research, I know that it would be remote material cooperation, but I can't seem to shake the feeling that it would be wrong to support them.

Marcel said...

Trust your conscience.

Fr. Dismas said...

Thank you for this wonderful summary. I'm frequently explaining this to folks, and this is a handy little guide!