Sunday, August 23, 2009

Material and Formal Complicity (repost)

This is a slightly modified repost of some jottings originally posted in 2007.

The usual question that arises when we talk about complicity in evil is, "In what evils are we really complicitous?" As it happens, I am universalist, or a near universalist, when it comes to complicity; I think that, as a matter of fact, there are few evils in which we do not tend to be complicitous. Of course, it makes it easy to answer the question in most cases -- we are really complicitous in most evils for which the question can arise at all. If we can seriously debate whether we are accomplices, it's usually a sign that we are. But it raises the complementary question: what do we do about our complicity in evil?

A distinction should perhaps be made between material complicity and formal complicity. Material complicity occurs when, given someone engaging in some wrongdoing, we make their wrongdoing possible through our association with them. Formal complicity occurs when through our association we make possible their wrongdoing in the very aspect in which their actions are wrong. It's a sharing in the very perversity of the action. Thus, if an antisemite insults a Jew, you and I are materially complicitous in the action; for instance, we allow the freedom of speech that makes possible the antisemite's wrongdoing. We become formally complicitous if we somehow share in the insult, for instance, by condoning it. This distinction between material and formal complicity is often not made; people tend to assume that the only complicity is formal complicity. The reason is not hard to find, I think; many cases of merely material complicity are not culpable, and we tend to assume that relationships that don't involve culpability involve no moral problem. Thus, we tend to assume our material complicity in the antisemite's action raises no moral problem; the moral problem only arises if we somehow directly share in its blameworthiness. It's clear, however, that this is an untenable assumption.

Not all moral problems have to do with culpability. Culpability, blame, usually suggests that we have lapsed in our responsibility; but there are moral problems that arise when we follow through on our responsibilities. A common problem of this type has to do with cases where we have to take responsibility for someone. If a family member misbehaves in an especially egregious way, for instance, we often can't simply shrug it off as not our fault. It doesn't always matter whether it is our fault; it is a moral problem we have to deal with. In a case like that of the antisemite, being innocent of antisemitism ourselves is not enough to resolve all moral problems. Our material complicity raises a serious moral problem that can't be shirked -- at least, shirking such problems is usually regarded by reflective people as itself blameworthy. At the very least, given that we basically allow the antisemite a space to insult Jews maliciously, we face the question: What are we to do about it? (I won't argue it here, but I would suggest that in fact all rights recognized by society work in exactly this way: By recognizing a right, we affirm that we will all accept responsibility for any problems following from the exercise of that right, because we regard the right as sufficiently important for such a serious commitment. Thus all recognition of rights raises the question of material complicity in the abuse of such rights.)

One of the tricky things about material complicity is that we often can't rid ourselves of it. There are very good reasons why we should allow the freedom of speech the antisemite is able to abuse. So we can't deal with the problem of material complicity by eliminating the right. Are we just stuck with an unresolvable problem? I don't think so. I think there's a natural resolution to (at least many) problems of material complicity, namely, developing forms of solidarity that counteract the problem in question. To return to the antisemite example, the most natural and obvious response to antisemitism is solidarity with the victims of antisemitism.

I say 'natural' but not 'easy'. In fact solidarity is always a very difficult thing to establish. You don't establish solidarity with Jews in the face of antisemitism by saying, or even shouting, "Attention, everyone; I am in solidarity with all Jews everywhere." Solidarity involves working together with someone; this is impossible without establishing some set of shared interests, projects, desiderata, etc. and acting accordingly. Thus the resolution of the problem of material complicity is a serious change in one's life. Such a change doesn't eliminate our material complicity in wrongdoing, or, at least, does not usually do so; it involves taking a stand against the wrongdoing itself, in union with those who are wronged. It involves speaking for the voiceless, defending the defenceless. All this is terribly difficult, and, more seriously, there is no way, by natural lights at least, to do it systematically. Every case is different, and we are complicitous in too many different things. To some degree we can prioritize. We are not equally complicitous in everything in which we are complicitous. Our associations with wrongdoing, even our innocent associations, are not all the same, and some raise problems more urgently than others. But even holding the solution to the problem of material complicity, we are still left with the problem. There are so many demands. The problem has a solution in principle; but practice is another story.

Of course, to some extent, all one can do in such a situation is one's best -- start with the obvious and work out from there. It remains, however, an issue worthy of further thought.

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