The Theology of Moral Brainworms

How we explain bad, dumb things. Plus Blaise Pascal on nothing and everything

I write this in a coffee shop sponsored by a downtown church. It is the sort of church with a chill and friendly vibe but no visible markers of identity, theological tradition, or specific commitment. I did not inquire into its faith or practices before I showed up to buy a coffee, and had no idea what kinds of teaching or programming I was preparing to subsidize. For that matter, I gathered no information on the provenance of the beans or the pay of the person dispensing the product to me.

This leaves open the possibility that I am participating in something bad. I am not willfully doing something bad, except inasmuch as my coffee is a luxury whose price rightly belongs to someone lacking a necessity. But putting that rather exacting standard to one side for a moment, it’s not that I’m intending to subsidize anything wicked or exploit any farmers or workers. These may just be bad actions I am unintentionally advancing by my consumption choices.1

There are a lot of ways to think about the moral dimensions of these small daily decisions, some of them theological (probably all of them are theological when you get down to it). In The Atlantic, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote about a popular option in Catholic moral theology: the idea of cooperation with evil.

Laundering Opinions with Alphonsus Liguori

American Catholics, Bruenig writes, are league-leaders among White Christians in getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The pope himself has urged it and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has signed off on the vaccines, with the two mRNA choices being preferable but even the Johnson & Johnson option being allowed if the other options aren’t available. But this institutional endorsement has its own philosophical history, which includes the particular rhetoric of Catholic vaccine rejection. The human stem cell lines used in the testing of the vaccines were developed from cells taken from an aborted fetus in 1973. As abortion is, in Catholic teaching, intrinsically evil, this opens up the issue of “cooperation with evil.” This idea, pioneered by Italian theologian Alphonsus Liguori, breaks down into two categories: formal cooperation (where you “align your will” with the evil action) and material cooperation (where you don’t align your will with it but make use of the effects). Furthermore, the latter category is qualified by whether the cooperation is “proximate” or “remote,” with culpability declining the further you get from the act itself. I imagine a moral version of the inverse-square law, though perhaps that is not the intended image. Maybe the culpability declines arithmetically.

The classic example, cited here, is clothing made in a sweatshop. Buying it first-hand is ethically dubious (though not enough to trigger a clear condemnation, apparently), while a person who buys it from a thrift shop is in “a much different moral position.” Congratulations, secondhand buyer, your contribution to the residual value of the exploitation garment is small and late enough to count as “remote.”

“You can do this but you should feel bad about it” is the unilluminating place a lot of modern moralizing lands, especially as consumption rather than collective political action has become the site of our moral reasoning. And with vaccines, I find it even less illuminating:

“We will explain to people very clearly that the Church has, without question, stated that it can be morally permissible to use these cell lines when there is a sufficiently serious reason to do so,” [John] Di Camillo [a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in Philadelphia] told me, provided all the usual caveats are in play: that “the Catholics themselves and their organizations be opposed, obviously, to abortion and to the use of the cell lines in research generally, and that there be active efforts to transform those industries and to seek alternatives.”

And yet: “We certainly made clear that people can in good conscience, as the Church has taught, utilize the vaccines … while at the same time they’re saying very clearly that this doesn’t mean it’s a nonissue. You know, they should not simply say, ‘Oh, well, the Church has said it’s okay. There’s nothing else to think about.’”

In the course of the pandemic, the Vatican has assured Catholics that they can receive COVID-19 vaccines without sinning—though not without troubling their conscience. There is a difference in the elaborate hierarchy of Catholic moral thought. Pope Francis, in typical pastoral fashion, has guided Catholics to think of vaccination as an “act of love”—which it is, I think.

(I have added the emphasis to the muddled, equivocal, or throat-clearing words). I don’t think Bruenig’s purpose in writing this piece was to weigh in on the actual debate, if it can be called that, in Catholic circles over the morality of vaccines. But intended or not, the piece grants legitimacy to the view that you shouldn’t take the vaccine on cooperation-with-evil grounds.

But taking that idea seriously would make everything, not just vaccines and ibuprofen, morally complicated beyond anyone’s ability to reason or even function. The fast-fashion analogy drastically misrepresents the situation. If you imagine instead a garment produced with slave labor in 1973 that was run through a Star Trek replicator millions of times, with some of the resulting garments being used to test fabric softener, the morality of using said fabric softener would be the analogy to the vaccines today.

The utility of the ideas of “remote cooperation” and the rest seem, without exception that I see, to be in rationalizing a decision already made. No one, Catholic or not, who objects to getting vaccinated or to vaccine requirements for school or employment has reasoned out the moral calculus from a neutral position and ended up with a finding of excessive material cooperation. Like “just war theory,” this is a way to explain something you already believe is good or bad, not a way to make a decision in the first place.

People Depend on the Fruits of Bad Actions

Of course you don’t need science fiction or science at all to find a decent analogy to evil actions providing the seed resources for many other things. Pretty much everything runs that way. It’s how capital and capitalism get up and running. Accumulation starts through fraud or violence or cruel exploitation—slavery, the enclosure and depopulation of the commons, the abuse of child laborers and so forth— but a little while later you’re sitting in an former industrial building that’s been turned into a church coffee shop. The brutality of what Marx and Engels called “primitive accumulation” vanishes into the distance as capital grows and divides and ends up in your 401(k) or the foundation that pays your salary.

You can solve this dilemma by saying that slavery, violence against working people, or seizure by force aren’t intrinsically bad, and this is the option a lot of moral theology ends up taking. Much of Catholic moral theology, in public at least, appears to be intended to create a moral blast zone around abortion and nothing else. This leaves everyone with the uncomfortable task of explaining how sweat shops and blood-soaked cane fields are somehow qualitatively different.

Alternatively, you can argue from a position of moral relativism that all those bad acts were not considered bad at the time and therefore not subject to the same moral strictures we would apply today. This is a popular form of defense for Christopher Columbus, for American slaveowners, and really for all the forms of violence that suffuse our history. A problem with this view is that it is wrong on its face. The indigenous people enslaved and tortured by Columbus presumably thought he was doing something evil, and we have the testimony of enslaved Africans that they, too, thought it was wrong for other people to enslave them, beat them, and break up their families. We have the witness of European and Anglo-American contemporaries who said “hey this Columbus guy sure is doing some bad torturing” or “the ownership of property in human flesh is very evil!” so it’s not as though mass torture and enslavement were uncontroversial even among the people not being tortured and enslaved.

We have to put up with the moral-relativist take every Columbus Day. We have to put up with it every time we argue about Confederate monuments, reparations for slavery, or indigenous land acknowledgments. Whatever their faults or philosophical shortcomings, it’s the people arguing for these redresses and acknowledgments—and not some conspiracy-obsessed antivax bishop or YouTuber—who are really taking the idea of formal and material cooperation with evil seriously.

Of course there’s a third, more honest option of historically-grounded moral nihilism. “Folks, it’s violence and conquest all the way down and all our attempts to launder it into just and unjust acts are just lies we tell ourselves. Admit it: you can’t afford to unwind the skein of crimes in which we live and move and have our being to snip out the bad parts, even if you could apply meaningful criteria, and even if you really wanted to, which you can’t and don’t. You can’t identify the real aboriginal inhabitants of your town. You aren’t going to turn down emergency medical treatment whatever its research provenance. You aren’t going to skip your morning coffee if the office only has a Krupp machine and you aren’t going to take the stairs unless there’s a Schindler elevator. And you shouldn’t, because those would be dumb things to do. They’re brainworms that have had holy water sprinkled on them by online charlatans and campus activists who gain prestige by making you neurotic.”

I do not endorse this view (which is an exaggeration and a composite of my own creation anyway), but there is something to be said for not attempting to justify ourselves in these ways. There is in fact no moral hygeine being cultivated by public rituals of abnegation or penciling the magnitude of an evil act divided by the distance of years times the expected benefit. If there’s going to be any justice in this world, it’s going to come from collective political decisions about real resources rather than individual gestures and consumption choices.

There’s an Argument for Everything

Whether a rational argument is a cause or an effect of a moral precept is, from what I can tell, an old debate. I incline to the view that, where moral intutions or hierarchies of status or material interests are at play, people are likelier to reason backward from what they want rather than forward from some neutral principle. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but even so there are arguments for everything. Airtight arguments that ought to persuade us but don’t, for good or bad reasons. Shoddy arguments that gain currency because they affirm something that is important to us. Abstruse arguments that don’t seem to matter. This is an acute problem in the age of online brainworms, where a proliferating arsenal of memes calls forth an even greater host of arguments for their deployment.

It’s less important to make or evaluate these arguments than it is to love the right things in the right way. And this too is an empty slogan unless we go to the trouble of defining “love,” to say nothing of “right.” Whether one believes people by nature2 love and seek bad things and need the intervention of grace to love and seek good ones is a good question to ask oneself. If I, the person writing this, who stands up and attempts to preach the Word of God to people, really believe that I am daily in need of a fundamental reordering of the objects of my love and trust, that belief should focus my work more narrowly on that love and trust. No one who does what I do has any business arguing people into excusing real evil or avoiding real good. Morbid anxiety or frantic polemics can come from other sources.

Sermon: A Mean Between All and Nothing

We had Psalm 8 in the lectionary on October 3, which meant busting out Pascal’s Pensées.

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This is not a jokey dilemma. For a long time my favorite library had a coffee and pastry kiosk that I loved, run by nuns who turned out to be kooky schismatics funding their operation through better than average croissants.


I know, even “nature” is equivocal in theology because it can refer to different points in the Creation-Fall sequence, to say nothing of all the cultural stuff that has gotten packed into the term over the millennia. Please bear with me.