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Professor Offers Ethics Guidelines for “Dirty Hands”


As a Catholic, what do you do when you are required by your employer to do something you find morally reprehensible?

That philosophical question prompted a lecture, “The Problem of Dirty Hands,” by Joseph Koterski, S.J., Ph.D., professor of natural law ethics and medieval philosophy, and editor of International Philosophical Quarterly. Father Koterski said the issue requires some good philosophical and theological reflection, and is frequently compatible with one’s faith.

Citing Fagothey’s Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice (Merrill Publishing Co., 1989 [1953]), a classic ethics text by Austin Fagothey, S.J., a renowned church moral philosopher, Father Koterski outlined guidelines one can follow when facing a moral difficulty. He made the strong distinction between formal cooperation and material cooperation in difficult cases that involve some sort of complicity with evil. Material cooperation, he said, often involves physical contact with something morally reprehensible, but does not involve “direct causality” in the act: For example, a Catholic postal worker could deliver checks to a women’s clinic where abortions may be performed that happens to be on his delivery route. Formal cooperation, he said, consists of participating deliberately in any behavior that, by your individual will, brings about the reprehensible act: a Catholic may not be a nurse in the same clinic, and may not assist on an abortion.

“What this tradition suggests is that one has to look at intention, the nature of the action, and what are the circumstances and consequences,” he said. “May I choose it? No. But may I tolerate some contact with evil? Yes, as long as I am not in the causal chain.”

At the lecture, sponsored by the International Political Economy and Development program, Father Koterski cited the Catechism: if one has the possibility of avoiding a bad act and does not take it, that act is “imputable to its author.” He gave as an example an innocent death caused by a drunken driver.

In Fagothey’s view, Father Koterski said, the principle of “double effect” allows someone to perform an act—under certain circumstances—from which one foresees an evil consequence, if there is a “proportionately grave reason.” For example, the choice of the passengers to down United Flight 93 on Sept. 11 may have been undertaken to prevent further destruction of innocent lives.

“In the Catholic tradition, a well-informed conscience really does reign supreme,” he said.


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