On the Boundaries of Moral Complicity

Last week’s lively exchange about the moral legacy of “the father of space medicine” invokes the broader issue of how to decide when one is being complicit in an immoral act.  (Please note that I am NOT attempting to weigh in further on the individual discussed last week—whose name I will not write here, in hopes that I can protect this post from further exchange about him personally.)

We all agree that what the Nazis did in the name of “human subject research” was evil.  At least, I think we all agree.  But would it be evil to use an anatomy text whose illustrations had been derived from the Nazis’ efforts?  Or, to be more contemporary about it, would it be unethical to take a new drug whose development included laboratory tests using stem cells from embryos specifically created or destroyed for use in those tests?   The Nazis are easy targets, but not a shield from more thorny issues that might strike closer to home.

Dr. Robert Orr addressed the issue of moral complicity at length in an article posted in 2003 on the website of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.  In it, he posed several scenarios of moral complicity, and argued that they are not ethically equivalent.  To distinguish among them, he proposed five criteria:

1)      Timing—Association with a future immoral act is worse than association with one that is past.

2)      Proximity or remoteness—The more closely one is involved, the worse it is.

3)      Degree of certitude—how surely are the facts of the case known?  If not known, does one need to steer clear to avoid the possibility of appearing complicit?

4)      Degree of knowledge of the facts—Knowing them makes one more responsible than not knowing them (although I suppose we should be concerned about hiding behind a sort of “ignorance is bliss” argument).

5)      Intent—or, to be more exact, whether the intent of the person performing the immoral act and of a potentially complicit person are the same or different.

Dr. Orr explicitly rejected the possibility of “hand washing” in an attempt to absolve oneself from complicity (see: Pilate), and he counseled humility in judging the complicity of others.  Finally, he pointed out that hard and fast rules will be elusive, and that sensitivity to issues of the heart is paramount.

Read the whole thing.

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