During the 2nd WW the term “quisling” was used as an accusation, originating in Norway, against fellow-countrymen who “cooperated” with the enemy in some form or fashion. The term “collaborator” has also been used. It could be a serious charge, and, if proven, could subject the accused to some serious penalties, such as execution, imprisonment, or the loss of reputation and esteem in one’s native land. It was a derisive, demeaning term, applicable to people like Judas, in the gospel story, or Benedict Arnold in the Revolutionary War.
Cooperation, another term, is usually confined to issues of evil (not good), and is not always easy to establish. It is easier “said” than “done”, i.e., the charge of being a collaborator in a morally evil action is easier to make than to establish it. While flagrant instances of it may be easy enough to establish, this is not so with lesser degrees of cooperation in evil. The complicating thing about cooperation is that there is always another person involved in it, who, as a matter of fact, is the main culprit. The one who cooperates is really not in total command of the scenario but operates in a “helping” mode.
As a result, it’s easier to identify the major player in a complex situation, than it is those who may be collaborators or cooperators in it. For in such a scenario, the involvement of secondary agents admits of shades of grey.
A major collaborator is one who is necessary for the action to take place. While not being the main agent, such a one is so essential to its accomplishment that should he or she falter, the entire operation is in jeopardy. During the Civil War, the accidental shooting of General Stonewall Jackson by one of his own men was probably a main reason why Lee’s effort at Gettysburg failed. For Jackson was usually the centerpiece of Lee’s strategy as his major collaborator.
In a complex society such as ours, growing ever more so with each advance in electronic and computerized developments, the phenomenon of cooperation in the deeds of others is difficult to determine. Character assassination, for example, can take place surreptitiously in an electronic medium, beginning with one person but quickly joined in by others, so that the effort at assigning responsibility among the multiple participants collaborating in this event is difficult. Perhaps this is the reason why Pope Francis has so frequently condemned gossip in his remarks, having in mind a traditional mode of collaboration in its modern garb.
Usually, the more essential that a collaborator is to the performance of an action, the more responsibility falls on the shoulders of that person. But where “many hands” have helped to bring about an operation, then parceling out responsibility for it among all these individuals is more challenging.
It is also important to realize that cooperation in another’s action can take place by what one does not do, as well as by what one does. If I am part of a group in which one individual is the dominant agent, as, for instance, talking about another (absent) person in a belittling or besmirching way, and if I know it to be totally or even partially false, without doing anything to correct a false and hurtful denunciation, then I am a collaborator in the resulting harm. While not the main agent of the injury that is inflicted, nor even the only one in the group recognizing the harm that is taking place, my failure to act makes me partially responsible for the defamation of character that ensues, especially if my testimony could have offset some of the harm resulting from the damaging remarks.
Our contemporary society is complex. If I invest assets in a profitable company that has a reputation for polluting the environment, or manufacturing military equipment/weaponry that figure prominently in the prosecution of a military venture, I am a collaborator in whatever moral evil might be involved in this enterprise. Of course, there are usually scores of other investors, not just myself, so I am not a necessary component in the harm that is being done. For I can divest myself from this enterprise without causing the unfortunate procedure to discontinue. This is an instance where my collaboration is minimal, even insignificant, so my moral responsibility is also small.
Given the dimensions of what cooperation in the deeds of others can assume in contemporary society, the more scrupulous among us can unduly fret over the extent of our participation in actions that others generate and sustain, and worry too much about the level of our responsibility, for instance, in the veritable explosion of environmentally polluting procedures produced by the manufacturing industry.
The only guaranteed way of avoiding responsibility for this maze of harmful pollutants is to exit the universe we inhabit, which, of course, we will all likely be able to do, eventually. But, in the meantime, we can improve our sensitivity to the role we might be playing, no matter how feeble, in the bothersome issue of collaborating in a host of harmful situations.