Lepora and Goodin on Complicity

What is complicity? Lepora and Goodin (2013) provide the most comprehensive framework for parsing and assessing the moral blameworthiness of complicit behavior.

Lepora and Goodin (2013, ch. 3) distinguish between three groups of agents: (a) co-principals of a wrongdoing, (b) contributors who are complicit in it, and (c) non-contributors who have no causal relation to the harm.

Co-principals are active participants in the planning and execution of a wrong-doing; their actions constitute the harm. In most cases, the co-principles are co-operators: they each take the plan as their own and partake in its actions, even if in different but interdependent ways. For example, members of a bank robbery gang are co-operating co-principals, including those holding the guns, the lookouts, and the getaway driver.

Contributors, on the other hand, are casually necessary to the harm but not constitutive; their complicity “necessarily involves committing an act that potentially contributes to the wrongdoing of others in some causal way” (Lepora and Goodin 2013, 6). They contribute to but do not join in the wrongdoing. This includes the generic complicity simpliciter (without qualification), such as the bank teller who knowingly leaves the bank vault open. There are also more specific (qualified) types of complicit contribution, including complicity by collaboration (going along with a plan), by connivance (tacitly assenting), by condoning (granting forgiveness), by consorting (close social distance), and by contiguity (close physical distance). The first of this class, the collaborator, goes along with a plan that is not their own. For example, a teller who is forced to open that vault at gunpoint is a complicit collaborator—though morally exonerable in the larger framework because their action was involuntary.

Connivance, condoning, consorting, and contiguity can also be the non-causal acts of non-contributors. Non-contributory connivance is tacitly assenting to a harm, like not reporting a crime; yet, if criminals know they won’t be reported and consequently commit another crime, this connivance becomes complicit connivance The same holds true for condoning, consorting, and contiguity. These terms describe people associated with wrongdoers; when their association becomes causal, encouraging harm, they move from this third group of non-contributors to the second group of complicit contributors.

Within these roles we can see various “dimension of difference” (Lepora and Goodin 2013, ch. 4). Contributors might be essential to the wrongdoing, potentially so, or inessential. A sniper who successfully assassinates the target was essential; the back-up assassin was only potential so. Centrality speaks to the extent of contribution, such as the importance of a ring leader. Proximity speaks to the closeness to the harm in the causal chain; the last contribution to a wrongdoing has a greater weight than an earlier one. For example, wielding the gun in a robbery is more proximate to the harm than procuring it. Is the wrongdoing reversible? What of its temporality: did the contribution happen before or after the primary wrongdoing? There is also an person’s mental stance toward planning the harm. Is the person a plan-maker or plan-taker? If the latter, what is their responsiveness to the plan: do they eagerly adopt it as their own, otherwise accept it, or merely comply? Finally, is the plan about a shared purpose or not?

These dimensions are inputs to functions which yield factors within Lepora and Goodin’s “framework for assessment.”

  • BF (Badness Factor): how morally bad is the principal wrongdoing
  • RF (Responsibility Factor) = f(V, Kc, Kw)
    • V: voluntariness
    • Kc: Knowledge of contribution
    • Kw: knowledge of wrongness
  • CF (Contribution Factor) = f(C, Prox, Rvse, Temp, Pr, Resp)
    • C: centrality
    • Prox: proximity
    • Rvse: reversibility
    • Temp: temporality
    • Pr: planning role
    • Resp: responsiveness
  • SP (Shared Purpose): extent of overlap, strength, and guidance relative to purposes of wrong-doers

These factors are used to calculate complicit blameworthiness: CB = (RF*BF*CF) + (RF*SP). An implication of this is that even though bank tellers can be complicit when coerced, they are not blameworthy; if RF=0, so is CB. Another implication is that you need not share the evil purposes of the wrong-doer to be blameworthy. Even if SP=0, a contributor might have non-zero factors of responsibility (RF), badness (BF), and contribution (BF).

This equation implies four categories of secondary agents: those who are not complicit, those who are complicit but without blame, complicit and somewhat to blame, and those who are bear maximal blame.

  1. The secondary agent is not complicit with the principal wrongdoing if they had no knowledge of their contribution, its wrongness, or did not contribute.
Kc=0 or Kw=0 or CF=0
  1. The agent is complicit but bears no blame for contributing to the principal wrongdoing if it wasn’t voluntary.
Kc=1 and Kw=1 and CF > 0 but V=0
  1. The agent is complicit and bears more or less blame if they knew but only partially contributed, consented, or shared purpose.
Kc=1 and Kw=1 but (0<CF<1 or 0<V<1 or 0<SP<max)
  1. The agent is complicit and bears maximal blame if they knew, volunteered, made an essential contribution and shared the purpose of the wrongdoing.
Kc=1 and Kw=1 and V=1 and CF=1 and SP=max

Finally, Lepora and Goodin, true to their concern about humanitarian efforts, acknowledge that blameworthy complicity in one harm (provisioning a warlord) can be the lesser evil of another harm (letting more people starve). Nonetheless, we should still recognize the lesser evil as an evil: “We think that is a better way of explicating the morality of the situation than to deny that you are doing anything wrong at all by contributing to wrongdoing, on the grounds that your own intentions are pure” (Lepora and Goodin 2013, 96).


Lepora, Chiara, and Robert E. Goodin. 2013. On Complicity and Compromise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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