By James Powers
This post continues a 2-part series. Read Part 1 here.
In my previous post, I fell down what proved to be a pretty deep rabbit hole by looking at the “Netflix problem” (which is actually a problem with most secular media in general) through the lens of Catholic moral tradition. Specifically, the tradition surrounding “cooperation in evil,” or those circumstances where we find ourselves somehow helping another person to commit a sinful act. As you can imagine, knowingly helping someone to commit a sin is often sinful in itself – but not always. Again, it’s complicated, because the ripple effects of all our actions are complicated.
One factor to consider in determining whether cooperation with evil is sinful is whether that cooperation is formal or material – roughly, whether the “evil” in question is your direct intention, or instead an unwanted side effect. The former is, obviously, always sinful; but the latter might (might) not be. And so we come to the next level of the rabbit hole: how can we discern whether material cooperation in evil is sinful?
We can suss this out by looking at whether or not our material cooperation is immediate or – wait for it – mediate. Things get a little delicate here, but essentially the question of immediate/mediate has to do with whether or not you are directly collaborating in the sinful act itself (whereas the formal/material question has to do with whether or not you intend the sinful act). A simple example of immediate material cooperation would be (to use abortion again) that of a nurse who, as part of his job, assists during abortion procedures – he’s right there in the room, literally handing the doctor the scalpel, even though he doesn’t take the baby’s life himself, and may not particularly desire the abortion to happen or really care about it either way. He’s just doing his job. Nonetheless, the fact that he is directly contributing to the sinful act itself makes him guilty as well, at least to some extent.
By contrast, mediate material cooperation would arise in the case of an employee in this same hospital who never assists in abortion procedures herself. Insofar as she still works in the hospital and thereby assists in its overall operation, she is helping it – however indirectly, i.e. mediately – to keep its doors open and keep providing abortions. Of course, if none of us average joes were morally permitted to ever work for an employer that did morally questionable things, most of us would be in trouble. So while immediate material cooperation is generally sinful, mediate material cooperation (let’s just say MMC) isn’t necessarily.
Wait – not necessarily? Yes, unfortunately things are still ambiguous. Which brings us to yet another level of the rabbit hole: we now have to determine whether the MMC in question is proximate or remote. Let’s take the aforementioned hospital employee again – suppose she is the secretary for one of the physicians there who performs abortions. Of course, she doesn’t actively participate in the procedures herself – but her MMC in abortion is much more proximate (that is, closer to the act itself) than it would be if she were instead, say, an IT specialist who managed the hospital’s record-keeping software. In that case, her MMC would be much more remote. And as you probably guessed, proximate MMC is more likely to be wrong than remote MMC is. Buuuuut remote MMC can still be wrong.
All these distinctions are enough to make anyone’s head spin, even when they’re distilled into a handy flowchart like this one. Thankfully they’re summed up a little more straightforwardly in the principle of double effect. Basically, when we are considering an action that also enables the sinful action of others (or that could have any bad secondary result, i.e. a “double effect”) this principle states that we should ask ourselves these questions:
- Is the action we’re considering morally good, or at least neutral, in itself?
- Do we desire the sinful secondary action for any reason, or would we avoid it if we could?
- Is the good effect that we’re seeking in our action dependent on the bad effect of the sinful secondary action?
- Overall, does the good effect that we’re seeking in our action outweigh the potential bad effect of that action?
When you go through all four of these steps, everything boils down to a pretty straightforward question: is it worth it? Is the good that we’re hoping to achieve in our action worth the bad that may also come about as an effect of it? All the other business about proximate and mediate and material cooperation – that’s all just there to help us determine what “worth it” really means. SO, with that all being said…
…uh, what were we talking about again?
Right, Netflix. If we apply the principle of double effect to the Netflix controversy, the first three questions seem pretty straightforward. First, the mere act of purchasing a subscription to a streaming platform isn’t sinful in itself. Second, we presumably don’t want the platform to host degrading or blasphemous content, nor do we want the company to publicly throw its weight behind abortion. Third, we can still enjoy that subscription regardless of whether or not Netflix as a company also does those other things.
So we finally end up with this question: is the good achieved by our Netflix subscription worth the bad that Netflix does, bad that we contribute to – however slightly – by paying the subscription fee? At first glance, the answer seems uncomfortably obvious. The way many people see it, the good that we get from Netflix is simply our own entertainment, whereas the evil that it contributes to is blasphemy, promotion of abortion, general cultural degradation and who knows what else. Sure seems like the bad outweighs the good, right?
It’s exactly this kind of reasoning that drives most of the clamor for Christians to boycott Netflix. And if you assume – as do many Christians, and humans in general – that the purpose of watching movies and TV is merely for our personal entertainment, then yes, holding onto a Netflix (or HBO, or Disney+, or Hulu) subscription makes little moral sense. Having the ability to stream sitcoms after work is surely not worth contributing to the likes of The First Temptation of Christ, however remotely.
But reducing popular culture to mere entertainment is not a particularly Catholic attitude. As an acquaintance of mine (and fellow JPCatholic student) pointed out when this topic came up at the school, “though the Church as been radically restrictive with media at some points in history, her current guidance in documents like The Letter To Artists, Inter Mirifica, and Communio et Progressio is loud and clear: do not avoid the entertainment industry. If we cut out Netflix, it must be admitted that we are avoiding an extremely large part of it.”
Thing is, the so-called entertainment industry – books, music, social media, films, gaming, etc – isn’t just entertainment. It’s culture; a vast and variegated fabric of people exchanging ideas and beliefs, experiences and feelings, often but not always through the medium of fictional stories. This fabric undergirds society overall, and while it’s true that a lot of evil and toxicity is woven into it, there is also a great deal of beauty and truth.
Untangling the good from the bad in pop culture is, I am convinced, a far more complex task than many of us care to admit. Unlike many of the other moral problems that can be clarified by the principle of double effect, the question of cultural influence and how our choices contribute to it is extremely intangible; it has less to do with what’s going on in people’s visible actions, and more to do with what’s going on in their invisible hearts. As a result, when it comes to the use of Netflix or popular media at large, the fourth part of the principle of double effect calls for careful personal discernment.
We’ve pretty clearly established the broader cultural harms that Netflix is perpetrating, and what sort of cooperation we have in them when we pay our subscription fee (to be clear, it’s almost always – ahem – material mediated remote cooperation). The moral drawback of a Netflix subscription is thus fairly well defined, even if it’s not completely quantifiable. So what remains to be determined is the benefit of it, and whether that benefit is worth some distasteful MMRC.
So, if you have Netflix, ask yourself what benefits and/or harms it presents for you interiorly. More generally, how do you participate in culture as an individual? What are the benefits of that participation, and what are the harms? Do you love Disney movies? Network sitcoms on Hulu? Are top 40 songs your jam, or are you more into underground hip-hop lurking in the depths of Soundcloud? What effect do these things have on your heart? What effect do you see them have on others?
The whole Netflix conundrum shouldn’t be greeted with hashtags or demands for a widespread boycott. It’s not a call to arms in the so-called “culture wars;” not a gauntlet thrown at the feet of Christians that they must either refuse or deny. That does not mean that it’s no big deal or that we should ignore it, however. Our relationship with the culture around us is a big deal, and it merits careful discernment (and probably spiritual direction, if you can come by that). If anything, we can thank Netflix for inadvertently reminding us to take stock of our own hearts.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog and an alumnus of JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing (’19).
For all articles by James, click here.