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.

In their analysis, Lepora and Goodin distinguished between four groups of agents: (a) shady non-contributors who have no causal relation to the harm, (b) non-blameworthy but complicit contributors to the harm, (c) blameworthy complicit contributors to the harm, of varying degrees, (d) and co-principals of the harm. Whether agents are blameworthy (in the case of coercion) or excusable (for participating in a lesser evil) are additional and independent distinctions.

Figure 1: Lepora and Goodin’s (2013) types of agents.

Shady Non- Contributors
(not causal)
Non-Blameworthy Complicit Contributors
(causal but not responsible)
Blameworthy Complicit Contributors
(causal & responsible)
Participating Co-principals
  • connivance
  • condoning
  • consorting
  • contiguity
(neither voluntary nor knowledgeable of harm or their role)
  • connivance
  • condoning
  • consorting
  • contiguity
  • collaboration (follows plan)
  • complicity simpliciter
  • full joint (identical plan & action)
  • co-operation (shared plan & different actions)
  • conspiracy (shared plan)
  • collusion (plan in secret)

Even non-contributors, with no causal connection to a harm, can have “shady” (my term) relationships to the wrongdoer. Such shady non-complicit relationships are connivance (tacitly assenting), condoning (granting forgiveness), consorting (close social distance), and contiguity (close physical distance). Even if unsavory, these non-contributors have no causal contribution to the harm.

Contributors, on the other hand, are causally 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” (2013, p. 6). The researcher who develops a better facial recognition algorithm is a contributor to downstream harm. She did not join in the harm, and she may not even be morally blameworthy—which I will return to shortly—but she did contribute to the harm.

The six types of complicit behavior include the four shady behaviors, already discussed, when they contribute to harm. If criminals know they won’t be reported and consequently commit another crime, the non-reporter’s connivance becomes complicit connivance. The same holds true for condoning, consorting, and contiguity. These terms describe agents associated with wrongdoers; when their behavior becomes causal, encouraging harm, they move from being shady non-contributors to complicit contributors.

The other two types of complicit contribution are collaboration and complicity simpliciter. In collaboration the agent goes along with a wrongful plan of the wrongdoer. A teller who is forced to open that vault at gunpoint is a complicit collaborator—though morally exonerable in the larger framework because his action was coerced. An engineer who is threatened with termination if she does not help build an oppressive system is a complicit collaborator. Complicity simpliciter is a catch-all term used to cover those cases not already addressed. Absent the specificity of the other types of complicity, the agent simply has to have known (or should have known) they were contributing to a harm.

Finally, 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. Members of a bank robbery gang are co-operating co-principals, including those holding the guns, the lookout, and the getaway driver. Similarly, consultants who customize and install a biometric database system so that the innocent can be tracked by an oppressive regime are cooperating co-principals in this harm.

Of course, a given scenario can have multiple harms in which an agent plays multiple roles. Someone who backed out of a heist after helping plan it is a co-principal in the conspiracy and a complicit contributor in its enactment but not a co-principal in the robbery itself.

Within these roles we can see various “dimensions of difference” (Lepora & Goodin, 2013, ch. 4). Centrality speaks to the extent of contribution: how much and how essential. Lepora and Goodin use counter-factual thinking about alternative worlds for this. An essential contribution is necessary to the harm in “every suitably nearby possible world.” For example, someone who smuggles a sniper rifle past security to an assassin is essential to the murder. A potentially essential contribution is a “necessary condition of the wrong occurring, along some (but not all) possible paths by which the wrong might occur” (p. 62). The sniper who successfully assassinated the target was essential; the back-up assassin was potentially so because it is conceivable that some path would’ve led to the primary assassin failing and the back-up assassin succeeding.

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. Firing a rifle in an assassination is more proximate to the harm than the person who procured it. The reversibility of the contribution is a factor as is its temporality (e.g., condoning happens after the primary wrongdoing). There is also a person’s mental stance toward planning the harm. The person might be the plan-maker or a plan-taker. If the latter, there is the degree of shared purpose and responsiveness to the plan, from eagerly adopting it as their own, otherwise accepting it, or merely complying.

These dimensions are inputs to factors within Lepora and Goodin’s framework for assessment. Complicit blameworthiness is a function of the badness, responsibility, contribution, and shared purpose factors: CB = (RF*BF*CF) + (RF*SP). An implication of this equation is that even though bank tellers are complicit when coerced, they are not blameworthy; if RF=0, so is CB. Another implication is that you do not need a shared purposes (SP) with the wrong-doer to be blameworthy. Even when SP=0, a contributor might have non-zero factors of responsibility (RF), badness (BF), and contribution (CF), resulting in a positive CB.

  • BF (Badness Factor): the morally badness of 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, including essentiality
    • 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

This equation also implies four categories of secondary agents: (1) those who are not complicit because they have no knowledge nor contribution, (2) those who are complicit but without blame because of coercion, (3) those who are complicit and somewhat to blame, and (4) those who bear maximal blame.

  1. Secondary agents are 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. Knowing and contributing agents are complicit but bear 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. Agents are complicit and bear more or less blame if they knew but only partially contributed, consented, or shared the purpose.
Kc=1 and Kw=1 but (0<CF<1 or 0<V<1 or 0<SP<max)
  1. Agents are complicit and bear 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, acknowledged that blameworthy complicity in one harm (provisioning a warlord) can be the lesser evil of another harm (letting others 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 & Goodin, 2013, p. 96).


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

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