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.
|(neither voluntary nor knowledgeable of harm or their role)
- 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
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
RF=0, so is
CB. Another implication is that you do
not need a shared purposes (
SP) with the wrong-doer to be blameworthy.
SP=0, a contributor might have non-zero factors of
RF), badness (
BF), and contribution (
resulting in a positive
BF (Badness Factor): the morally badness of the principal
RF (Responsibility Factor) =
f(V, Kc, Kw)
Kc: knowledge of contribution
Kw: knowledge of wrongness
CF (Contribution Factor) =
f(C, Prox, Rvse, Temp, Pr, Resp)
C: centrality, including essentiality
Pr: planning role
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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)
- 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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