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To Boycott or Not to Boycott

Church moral teaching gives guidance on making decisions as consumers

The recent passage of state laws restricting abortion has led to a spate of one-upmanship in woke corporate America, with companies racing to signal their pro-abortion cred: for example, by promising to donate proceeds to Planned Parenthood. In the entertainment industry, celebrities and studios have criticized the “Heartbeat Bill” (which makes abortion illegal after the detection of a fetal heartbeat) passed and signed in Georgia, threatening to cease all production in the state should the law, currently in legal limbo, go into effect.

Popular streaming service Netflix was first and most vehement with such a declaration, with a top executive adding that the company is working with the ACLU to fight the new law in court. These statements have roused pro-life Netflix users at the grassroots level. Social media is bubbling with reports of Netflix cancellations and the emergence of online petitions urging a boycott of Netflix, Disney, and any other company that thinks its mandate to make movies now extends to punishing states for voting not to kill as many unborn babies.

Among Christians, the controversy has raised familiar questions about the efficacy and the necessity of boycotts. Some associate them with the progressive secular left: picketing Chick-fil-A for supporting traditional marriage or swearing off Campbell’s soup because it contains nonrenewable palm oil. Others question whether boycotts do any good. What difference will one latte, more or less, make to anybody? Besides, corporations are often so massive and intertwined, it’s hard to say who really does what.

On the other side are those who preach consumer action so vigorously as to make it almost a moral requirement: If you buy a bottle shampoo from a manufacturer that’s a subsidiary of a conglomerate that operates a foundation that donates to the Girl Scouts, which partners with Planned Parenthood, you will have clean hair but blood on your hands.

What is a Catholic approach to these questions? Are consumer boycotts worthwhile? Are they morally necessary?

The Church teaches that the laity, in particular, have a vocation to evangelize the world, according to Lumen Gentium, “in the ordinary circumstances of the world.” We are to do this, it says, not only by word but by “testimony of life” (35). This ordinary, everyday testimony in the world should act “like leaven,” “infus[ing] a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws, and structures” of the culture around us (Apostolicam Actuositatem 2, 13).

It seems reasonable to include our consumer activity among the ways that we can exercise this properly lay ministry in the world around us. The marketplace, like any other human society, acts and reacts. It can be educated and conditioned, led wisely or deceived. Our part in it may be small, like our vote in government, but it’s real.

Activists in the market, as in politics, understand that collective action can greatly multiply our influence. Do so many companies today kowtow to pro-abortion or gay activism—see if you can find a major corporate website without a page devoted to “Pride” month this June—out of deep-seated conviction? Perhaps in certain companies there are some committed activists in leadership, but for most, it’s simply business.

No, buying one brand of cornflakes over another won’t change the world overnight. Sometimes when we vote with our wallet, as with our ballot, we still come up on the losing end. But even when the moral power of our consumer choices seems so small and drawn out as to be nonexistent, it may later be revealed to have been part of a gradual positive change.

And so it would seem that boycotting certain companies for moral reasons (and, for that matter, intentionally supporting others) can be part of our lay vocation, and it might lead to a good outcome. It’s something that we can reasonably do. But are there any cases in which it’s something we must do?

Arguments in favor of a moral obligation to boycott usually take a negative form, claiming that by supporting certain companies with our purchases we are morally cooperating in the evils that they support. Is this true?

The Catholic moral tradition sets out principles for evaluating moral cooperation. Applying these to a consumer-action scenario can help us determine whether we have an obligation.

Principle 1: Formal vs. material cooperation

There are two ways in which we may morally cooperate with someone else’s act. Material cooperation provides some sort of instrument by which the act is carried out. If I give a gun to someone who uses it to commit a homicide, I cooperate materially in that act. Formal cooperation includes a willed intent to aid the act. If I give a gun to someone with the knowledge and the intent that he will use it to commit homicide, I cooperate formally.

Most of the time, the moral cooperation we give to an immoral act by purchasing an unrelated product or service from the company that commits it is of the material variety. This is a less-serious form of moral cooperation that, depending on other factors, may not put any obligations on us at all. We don’t intend (or perhaps even know about) the evil act that is done.

If our cooperation were formal as well as material—buying Estee-Lauder lipstick expressly because the company promises to donate to Planned Parenthood—we would be culpable for cooperating in the evil.

Principle 2: Mediate vs. immediate cooperation

Sometimes we cooperate materially with an act in a way that is necessary and essential to its commission—such as handing the gun to a man who could not commit homicide without it. Other times, the cooperation is materially connected to the act but not necessary for it: a plumber we pay to fix our kitchen sink use that money to buy a gun that he later uses in a homicide.

Immediate material cooperation carries with it a much stronger level of moral responsibility. Only extreme ignorance could excuse it; otherwise it is tantamount to formal cooperation.

In the majority of cases, though, our consumer acts morally cooperate with evil in a material and mediate way. We commit the morally neutral act of purchasing a licit good or service without either formally intending or immediately-materially enabling an evil that may follow from that purchase.

The morality of mediate material cooperation will depend on the moral “distance” between the act we do (our purchase) and the evil that it later assists in some way.

Principle 3: Proximate vs. remote cooperation

The terms proximate and remote are used to characterize that distance. Much of the time, when we speak of boycotting a business because of some evil it contributes to, we’re talking about moral cooperation that is remote.

We buy a hamburger. The fast-food franchise’s owner takes in the revenue, pays its suppliers, employees, overheads, and taxes, and remits some portion to the parent company. At some point that company then directly or through some affiliate gives money to another party that is likely itself just a cooperator in evil. (For example, they’re usually not giving money directly to abortionists to kill babies but to political lobbyists who try to convince politicians to fund abortions and keep them legal.)

In examples such as this, there is a moral distance of many degrees between the dollar we spend and the evil done that clears us of any culpability for our cooperation in it.

On the other hand, if we spent our dollar on a hamburger at a fundraising cookout for the local abortion clinic, knowing that all the cookout’s proceeds would go directly towards subsidizing abortions for poor women, the close or proximate nature of that cooperation would increase our level of moral culpability for the evils that followed. In most circumstances, even if we didn’t formally want to help fund abortion, that level of cooperation would oblige us not to buy the hamburger.

So, according to Catholic teaching on moral cooperation, most of the time we’re not morally obliged to boycott companies that cooperate in a remote, material way in some evil. But we know that the laity have a special mission to be leaven to the world, in the ordinary circumstances of the world. We know that companies care what their customers think of them and respond accordingly. And we can observe that collective action makes consumer power stronger.

On the level of prudent strategy, then, it could be a good idea—especially when a company goes out of its way to tout its material cooperation or publicly express its formal cooperation. Whether organized or just the collective result of a million consciences, boycotts can send a signal to the market that Christians and our cultural allies aren’t pushovers; that we love life and truth more than stuff.

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