Saturday, January 17, 2015
When should we hold a group morally responsible for a member’s evil? In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attacks, many will demand answers about Islam’s role in promoting violence. And as we brace for the inevitable backlash against ordinary Muslims, in France or elsewhere, questions will be raised about different nations’ collective responsibility for individual violent acts of Islamophobia and racism. Both questions (and others like them, such as wider responsibility for violence against women) involve judging a group’s moral responsibility for some of its members’ actions.
Such judgments are ethically complex, and it can prove hard to make them with any consistency. All of us can be tempted to swiftly declare the collective responsibility of other groups (such as Muslim responsibility for terrorism), even as we shrug off the same accusation when it is applied to us (Western responsibility for Islamophobic violence or abuse).
One immediate challenge for these judgments of collective responsibility is that ‘responsible’ is a slippery word. When we say someone is morally responsible for some act, we usually mean that they were directly responsible for performing that act. But often in cases of large-scale collective responsibility, we mean something looser. We mean that the accused contributed in some indirect way to what happened, laying the groundwork for an environment where the violent action became more likely.
Sometimes, attributing this type of ‘contributory’ responsibility can be straightforward. Most people would agree enthusiastic Nazi party members bear at least some blame for its atrocities. Even if the party-member did not personally commit such evils, his or her racist, brutal beliefs helped contribute to what happened. Certainly, few doubt that inciting others to violence can be a serious wrong, a theme captured in Aesop’s famous fable of The Trumpeter Taken Captive, where a trumpeter who encourages his army to fight is found blameworthy even though he carries no weapon himself.
Outside of such clear-cut cases, weighing contributory responsibility proves much more difficult. Despite the violent actors’ appeals to their religious or patriotic motives, the larger collectives almost always denounce the violence. Religious leaders demand the religion utterly forbids terrorism. Political leaders stress that racist violence contravenes national traditions of tolerance and the rule of law. Each might appeal to other factors leading to the specific violence, such as political rather than religious commitments, or personal criminality or insanity. For example, debate rages as to whether the recent siege in Sydney was a religiously motivated lone-wolf terror attack, or the final implosion of a troubled misogynist mind. Similarly, those who defend against any possibility of some collective responsibility for the Paris attacks tend to stress insanity and criminality, rather than commonly held beliefs.
Sometimes, the collective might hedge its condemnation of the terrorist or racist violence. The collective might accept that some of the culprit’s reasons for anger and frustration were valid, or that the culprit was genuinely persecuted, even as they deplore the violence. In such cases, outsiders can feel the collective is partially excusing the actor’s wrongdoing, even as those in the group can point to a clear distinction between endorsing ends versus endorsing means. Both these opposing concerns (of excuse versus distinguishing means and ends) are genuine ethical issues, and need to be weighed carefully in any given case.
We can also use ‘responsibility’ in a different sense, where we locate a person or group that we think should have worked to actively prevent the act from happening. While this person didn’t cause the act, even indirectly, we might believe he or she was nevertheless in charge of doing everything possible to prevent it happening. In this case, we might agree a religious or political leader didn’t facilitate an act, but still feel they ‘could have done more’ to positively prevent it. If so, when we demand that the leader condemn the violence, we might not be saying we suspect them of contributing to it, but rather that we think the leader is well-placed to hold a positive moral responsibility to try to prevent further attacks, and that this is an appropriate way of their doing so.
Judging collective responsibility also involves measuring a group’s cohesiveness, the extent to which it operates as a unified agent, with its various parts able to work together or at least influence each other. Group cohesiveness can be hard to measure. Why? Because when someone does something terrible that we can hardly imagine doing, we naturally ask what could have motivated them. If we are outside their group (religion, nation), we can suppose the reason lies in this factor of group-membership that distinguishes us from them. If we are inside the group, then instead we naturally search for some other distinguishing feature. Each process can distort our reasoning, but at least the view from inside the group introduces more sophistication into our enquiry. From outside, communities often look homogenous. From inside, we can appreciate the profound differences, divisions, partitions and personalities that prevent the group from functioning as a single community, much less a unified agent.
Let’s try for consistency
As we can see, any attribution of collective responsibility ultimately hinges on subtle principles regarding individual moral agency, and complex factual claims about group solidarity. Despite these difficulties, like most ethical questions we can benefit from trying to be consistent in our judgments. This article has discussed two applications of collective responsibility: collective religious responsibility for terrorism, and collective national (or cultural) responsibility for violent acts of racism and Islamaphobia.
What’s remarkable about these two issues, in my experience, is that those who make the collective attribution in one case are quick to deny it in the other. A person who believes Islam is essentially violent rarely accepts that (say) Australia is essentially racist. And vice versa: the person who happily asserts that Australia is a racist country and it behoves all of us to stand up against such ugliness would never think to demand that Islam is a violent religion or that all Muslims must take responsibility for quelling the dangerous minority with their group.
In other words, we can all learn from the ways we ourselves resist the collective responsibilities others attribute to us, even as we demand such responsibilities of others. This isn’t to say the two issues (of violent terrorism and racist violence) are equivalent: a person may have principled conceptual reasons and empirical evidence to make one attribution even as they deny another. Instead, the point is that thinking about how we personally make these different judgments can help us reflect on the complexities involved.
Finally, it bears mention that even in those cases where we do allocate responsibility, there remains a question of what the best and most helpful moral response to that finding is. Locating even a genuine case of blameworthiness does not tell us what action should be taken, much less whether we should be the one take it. Deciding that another person does bear moral blame certainly does not authorize us to take retribution. Believing that it does, after all, is one of the fundamental moral failings of both the terrorist and the racist thug.
[A shorter version of this blogpost was originally published at The Conversation.]