In a fallen world evil is encountered in many ways. Any morally careful person knows that he or she encounters evil within himself. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. We may be more or less sensitive to our role as potential and, on occasion, actual perpetrators of evil, but we certainly cannot doubt that sometimes we are evil doers.
We also encounter evil as its victims and sufferers. The victims of malice, sin, crime, abuse, insane ideology, and unjust war all suffer from evil. That suffering is a burden and challenge. We may increase our own patience under our sufferings by reflecting on the co-inherence of sin, and thus our own role in the evil that afflicts us. We may accept that our own sins – if only our failure to pray for others as we ought – contribute to the sins of others, from which sins we in turn suffer. Nonetheless, when we are suffering from evil we often have great clarity about it.
In addition to being sometimes the perpetrators of evil and sometimes its victims, Christians and moral agents in general also encounter evil in a more complex and obscure manner. I refer to the problem traditionally considered by moral theologians under the rubric of ‘cooperation with evil’. We find ourselves in various ways entangled in practical, worldly, everyday situations in which all courses seem tainted. What are we to do when asked – even if only by ourselves – to act or to refrain from acting in cases that seem enmeshed in evil in ways that we would rather avoid entirely? When may we act in a way that to some degree and in some fashion seems to forward evil or to taint us with evil or to flow from evil or to lead to evil? ‘The matter is’, as R.C. Mortimer says, ‘of some importance and difficulty.’
One set of such cases involves acts that use or benefit from products, techniques, discoveries, or resources that themselves arose from immoral acts. For example, it is well known that some German companies dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries participated actively in the economy of Germany during the National Socialist era (1933-1945). Some of those companies still exist. Suppose that some of those companies benefitted from immorally acquired assets, such as wealth, land, or company shares stolen from Jewish victims of the regime. Or again, suppose that some of those companies benefitted from information gained by immoral medical experimentation upon victims of the regime such as the mentally handicapped or concentration camp inmates. Is it licit and moral to use the products or services of such companies in our own era? Or is such use an immoral cooperation with and implication in the misdeeds of others? May I buy a Volkswagen? May I ride a Krupp-Thyssen elevator?
A similar kind of moral problem arose in 2020 and 2021 with the production and distribution of vaccines to prevent or to mitigate the effects of the Covid Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) that is caused by the SARS-CoV-19 virus.