On Complicity and Compromise by Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin

| January 2014
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On Complicity and Compromise, Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 181 pp., $99 cloth.

9780199677900_p0_v2_s260x420Chiara Lepora, an Italian doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, and Robert Goodin, an American philosopher based at the Australian National University in Canberra, have joined forces to produce an elegant and exceptional book. With humanitarian ethics as its starting point, On Complicity and Compromise elaborates a sophisticated and practical approach to complicity that will be profoundly useful to a much wider audience than humanitarians alone. The rigor and simplicity of this book will be of real value to anyone grappling with difficult ethical choices in politics, business, diplomacy, policing, or social services.

The book starts as a Socratic dialogue between Lepora and Goodin, and is prompted by a moral problem faced by Lepora, the humanitarian doctor: “At the end of a medical information session in a very poor war-torn country, a young soldier came up to me. He asked whether he should use condoms when engaging in rape. I answered ‘Yes.’” But, Lepora asks, was this the right answer, and had her response made her in some way complicit with any rape this soldier would perpetrate in future?

This painful dilemma sets the tone of the book, recognizing that we are often forced to make moral decisions in nonideal situations. In such settings, when we cannot stop wider wrongs, some level of complicity may be unavoidable, even desirable, so as to secure the limited moral goods that we can achieve. Still, such decisions always leave us with an aching sense of moral distress.

The book goes on to discuss complicity, and less so compromise, in nine chapters that mix philosophy and law in an accessible fashion, while also showing a penchant for formulas. This results in a framework through which one can crunch one’s particular complicity problem and its variables. The eventual framework is a bit clunky, but will genuinely help individuals and organizations to think through the nature of their particular predicament and their options. The strongest chapters of the book are the ones in which Lepora and Goodin set up the thinking that informs this framework.

There is an excellent chapter on distinctions between complicity and other “c-words” such as collaboration, collusion, consorting, connivance, and contiguity. The authors argue that these are all closely related “conceptual cousins” to complicity, but not necessarily its equivalent. Lepora and Goodin organize these concepts into three categories of acts: those involving co-principals and full joint wrongdoing; those involving different levels of significant contribution; and those involving no overt contribution but some form of acknowledgement and acceptance.

Another chapter identifies key factors that determine the measure of one’s complicity, like the essentiality, centrality, proximity, and irreversibility of one’s actions in a given process. A chapter on responsibility combines jurisprudence and ethics to analyze what counts as responsibility in contributory acts. Throughout the book, the authors illustrate their arguments with a succession of good examples from criminal cases and humanitarian actions, as well as through some classic cases like those of the Nazi postman (who delivered, among other things, death sentences and plans for the Holocaust) and Osama Bin Laden’s driver. The last two chapters explore two cases—that of humanitarian organizations working in the Rwandan refugee camps in 1994 and that of a medical doctor’s anguish over treating a tortured patient—to show the book’s framework for addressing “real world” problems.

Lepora and Goodin make their views on the ethics of complicity very clear. They rightly observe that the word “complicity” tends to be thrown around loosely, as mere political rhetoric. Even when used seriously, ideas about the term often lack nuance and take little account of the subtlety of difficult or just plain bad situations. The authors are not absolutist or binary in their understanding of complicity, but instead see complicity as inherently scalar and not always wrong. Sometimes it makes moral sense to be somewhere on the scale in order to achieve some other moral good.

Naturally enough, Oskar Schindler, who consorted with Nazis and contributed to the war effort while also protecting more than 1,700 Jews from the Holocaust, represents an iconic exemplar of this moral truth. As Lepora and Goodin conclude: “Deeming that someone is complicit with wrongdoing does not automatically mean that their actions are wrong. . . . Being complicit with the wrongdoing of another, doing something that potentially contributes causally to that wrongdoing, may be the best thing to do in a bad situation ” (p. 171).

Some may find this approach to complicity to be too liberal or too consequentialist in orientation. Many would likely seek to be more absolute in relation to particular political regimes or to controversial business sectors, such as gambling, pornography, or abortion clinics. However, the emphasis of this book is not on the conclusion one draws in any given situation, but on when one should begin to recognize that one may be complicit in an unethical situation or action.

Halfway through the book, in chapter five, the authors set a very minimalist threshold for complicity, insisting that it starts long before the establishment of clear joint wrongdoing or when one has played a direct role as a co-principal in an immoral act. For them, the most important thing is to recognize early on that one “has a case to answer”—in other words, that one is already complicit and so needs to justify one’s choices. This, they hope, will encourage individuals and their organizations to become highly conscious and deliberative about complicity—and that such a consciousness will help policy-makers and practitioners avoid sustained denial about their complicity, becoming cognizant of it before a major threshold is crossed and a damaging path dependency has set in.

On Complicity and Compromise is a major contribution to humanitarian ethics, the field in which it starts and finishes. Humanitarian action is regularly accused of prolonging wars or colluding with and legitimizing vicious regimes. But the profession has been strangely tardy in developing its operational ethics, and lags behind the military, medicine, business, policing, social work, and law in being systematic about the routine ethical problems it faces. Lepora and Goodin’s work elucidates one major area of humanitarian ethics, and sets an appropriately high standard of precision and clarity for those who will now follow to address other areas.


The author is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict, Oxford University.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 27.4

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