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
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:
(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
contributor might have non-zero factors of responsibility (
BF), and contribution (
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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)
- 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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