Dick Smith Foods, Microsoft & Cooperation in Evil

Posted: 19 February 2014

Dick Smith Peanut ButterIn 1999 Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith created Dick Smith Foods to provide Australian owned and produced alternatives to the increasing number of foreign owned products. In a number of cases Dick Smith’s determination to support local growers has seen factories reopened, jobs saved and family security restored. Since it began, Dick Smith Foods has given all its profits – some $5.1 million – to over 350 community based charities including the Salvation Army, the Institute for Deaf and Blind Children and the Royal Flying Doctors Service.

Sharing Dick Smith’s desire to support and sustain Australian farmers, I recently put a post on my Facebook page promoting Dick Smith Foods and encouraging people to buy their products. While I usually enjoy a good debate, I was surprised to see one take place beneath my post, with a number of people commenting that they wouldn’t support Dick Smith Foods because of the man’s enthusiasm for national and international population reduction targets.

Now while I don’t agree with his assessment on the population issue (I actually wrote an article on the myth of overpopulation some months ago), it can sometimes be imprudent to reject the good being done in one instance because of a negative aspect in another. Especially in the case of Dick Smith Foods the profits and ideals of the company have nothing to do directly with issues of population control. It is all good and well to stand up to the immorality of the usual ‘life issues’, abortion, contraception, euthanasia etc., but we shouldn’t do that at the expense of not standing up to the immorality of other justice issues such as the right to have a job, earn a fair wage and feed ones family. If we pray for the life of unborn babies on Sunday but don’t support justice for working adults on Monday are we completely balanced?

We all should have an interest though in where the money we spend on food and household items is being funnelled. For many years now a major pro-life institution in the USA has produced an annual listing of the companies that use their profits to support abortion through the massive corporation Planned Parenthood which carries out around 330,000 abortions per year and receives over $500 million in annual government subsidies. Planned Parenthood also receives donations from close to 200 companies that are behind some of the most basic products and services we use every day; Coca-Cola, Kraft, Pepsi, Microsoft, eBay, Levi Strauss, Black & Decker and American Express are just a small handful.

Because we live in what is most evidently a fallen world the need has long existed to consider how we interact with aspects of that world which do not correspond with our own ethical position. Classical moral theology refers to this interaction as ‘cooperation in evil’ and then draws a very important distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation occurs when we deliberately cooperate with the immoral actions of another person or institution and share in that evil intention. Sending a cheque to support the work of your local abortion clinic would be formal cooperation in evil and is always wrong. Material cooperation on the other hand is when we may cooperate with the immoral actions of another person or institution but do not share in their evil intention. Using Microsoft products (so long as they are not pirated) or drinking Coca-Cola comes under material cooperation. In the realm of material cooperation moral theologians have all sorts of distinctions, the general idea being that the greater the degree of our material cooperation, the greater the proportionate reason should be for us allowing such cooperation. If all the major toothpaste suppliers support abortion there is a sufficiently proportionate reason to still buy toothpaste.

Dealing with issues of cooperation in evil is something each person will personally have to contend with continuously throughout life. There is no doubt that we all need to be wary of supporting products and services that are contrary to upright moral behaviour. However, we must also ensure we do not become overly righteous at the expense of what is genuinely good. The Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath because he healed a man on a day dedicated to prayer and rest. Jesus’ response to them was “Which of you, if his son or ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, would not pull him out without hesitation?” The task of discerning good from evil is not always as obvious as we might like it to be.