In which ways, if any, can groups be morally responsible agents? How should the concept of collective responsibility be understood and applied?
This essay will discuss groups as morally responsible agents and explain how different methods of analysis lead to different outcomes in the debate of collective responsibility. I will conclude that tedious thinking is required to justify collective responsibility in moral philosophical analysis if ever and that its application in our daily life might be required. I will compare the precise approach and the experimental approach to the discussion of collective responsibility by discussing thoughts from writings on collective responsibility by Miller, Nerveson, Lewis and Sverdlik.
Let me introduce the first of two important methods of conceptual analysis to be kept in mind for this essay: Through arguments we try to build bridges to logically move from a position A to a position B. The majority of writings on collective responsibility begin with definitions to be used for their argument. They presume some A and then proceed to build a bridge to B.
For the discussion of collective responsibility, the key terms are ‘collectives’ and ‘responsibility’. The way you define these terms is a significant factor in setting the course of your argument. Their definition can also be the question at hand, but even these kinds of discussions have propositions from which they start their work. The definition of A will determine how you can build a bridge to B. Therefore A — your collection of propositions — needs to be well reasoned as your argument's soundness is directly dependent on it.
David Miller discusses in his essay “Holding Nations Responsible” if it makes sense “to treat nations as responsible agents who can be made to bear the results of their conduct” (Miller, 2004: p. 241). He introduces definitions of nations and responsibility on which he wants to base his argument — he is setting up his A and tries to justify it as a base for his further argument. For the definition of responsibility, Miller chooses the concept of ‘outcome responsibility’ by Tony Honore (Honore, 1999: pp. 14–40): “Outcome responsibility is a narrower notion than bare causal responsibility because it does not extend to outcomes that arise in bizarre and unpredictable ways” (Miller, 2004: p. 245)
Outcome responsibility assigns only responsibility for results which were controllable by the agent. There can be a lot of consequences to the actions of an agent, precisely infinite if we apply the idea of the butterfly effect. For the definition of responsibility we need to answer the question of how far we shall track consequences, that is for how long can my action now be seen as the cause of another possibly harmful action in the future. This definition of responsibility of only tracking controllable outcome will frame his discussion as every thought will be built on and limited by this specific assumption of responsibility. Miller simplifies the matter by choosing a narrow definition of responsibility for the sake of the argument. This limitation can be objected in many ways, but we will shortly see why a simplification can be necessary.
Steven Sverdlik’s goal for his essay is to show that when “a certain distinction is understood - that of responsibility for states of affairs as opposed to responsibility for actions - it will be seen that both sides have reason in back of their conclusions.” (Sverdlik, 1987: p. 61) He introduces two popular thought experiments, the first one of collectively pushing a car down a hill and the second one of a collective of three saving a person from death by removing a heavy beam. His essay concludes that there is “no collective responsibility and that all moral responsibility is individual.” (Sverdlik, 1987: p. 61) Sverdlik is setting the discussion of responsibility itself at the core of his essay. He is discussing A.
As we can see, Miller tries to drives his argument through a simplification of responsibility while Sverdlik tries to find a sufficient definition of responsibility itself. Let us keep this in mind when we take a look at the definitions of collectives.
Miller raises the point in his essay on the responsibility of nations, that we need to discern nations from states to be able to assign blame. States are the means to the end of a nation. He defines nations as a set of cultural values and adds that “This is a gross simplification, admittedly, but one that I think can be justified, given the complexity of the issue that we are addressing.”(Miller, 2004: p. 244) Miller acknowledges this ‘gross’ simplification and continues later on the question of collectives: "As students of crowd behavior have long recognized, people in crowds behave differently precisely because of the contagion of those around them. [...] they are groups whose members interact in such a way that even those who play no direct role in producing the outcome that concerns us may nonetheless properly be brought within the scope of collective responsibility.” (Miller, 2004: p. 251)
Miller is drawing on empirical knowledge to support his argument that even passive members should bear moral responsibility of the group because they sympathise and therefore indirectly support the group. This part does not need to be false just because it is empirical, but it poses a serious danger as it is a piece of the bridge from A to B which we can never be sure to be true — it destabilises the bridge.
Jan Narveson takes a technical approach to collectives :"After all, to be subject to any sort of moral requirement is to fall within the scope of some level of generalization, and any generalization determines a group [...]. If all Gs are to do x, then my being a G is what makes that rule applicable to me; and to be a G is to be a member of the group or class of Gs." (Narveson, 2002: p. 180) If one spins this approach further, they will sooner or later need to address “bizarre and unpredictable” cases which are often hard to understand and discuss and which Miller by choosing outcome responsibility, tries to avoid.
I pointed out two ways to discuss collective responsibility. Miller chooses limited definitions for the course of an argument to handle complexity. This approach is part of the second important method of conceptual analysis: We can build arguments, that is bridges from A to B and B to C and so on, but our minds are naturally limited to how much we can hold, how many bridges and positions we can remember and therefore put together. For a complex concept to be analysed, we need to take small steps. We build a bridge from A to B. If we assume that B is true, we can build a bridge from B to C. This approach is tedious as changes in A will lead to changes in B and therefore also in C. Tedious revision is essential.
As you might have noticed I only shortly discussed the definitions of responsibility and collectives by the writers, pointing out simple objections. Miller was taking an experimental approach to collective responsibility by focusing on a specific group, the one of nations, and choosing a limited definition of responsibility whereas Narveson and Sverdlik chose a more technical approach. I tried to conserve the context of the discussed arguments as much as possible, so that I do not misplace and therefore misjudge them. My point is that we should not immediately reject an argument which is built on a wrong premise, as these experiments with fragile and limited definitions can lead to sound abstractions just as the careful discussion and clear definition of terms can bear fruit. Both ways are a legitimate approach to the question of collective responsibility and philosophical questions as a whole.
There are limits to both approaches. The practical approach looses its credibility with each imprecise measure added to the equation. The precise approach tends to fail at offering an applicable model and tends to object to itself. We need to drive the discussion on both sides, learning from findings and incorporating them into each other’s model. We need practical approaches to experiment with the matter and explore the concept of collective responsibility, so we can later derive abstract rules which then, in the realms of metaphysics, can be validated or rejected. Discovering abstract concepts through exploration can also lead to wrong abstractions as Hywel Lewis notes: “We hypostatize abstractions and make them the bearers of value, forgetting that linguistic devices which make for succinctness of expression or poetic and rhetorical effect are not to be divested of their metaphorical and elliptical meanings, and taken as literal truth.“ (Lewis, 1948: p. 7)
I want to present an objection to collective responsibility whereby I conclude that there is no such concept as collective responsibility in the sphere of morality. In our thought experiments on collective responsibility, we set up a group and its members, then let something bad happen and then check which individuals of the group are to blame and which not. We exclude members which are not to blame. We do not realise that as soon as the harm has been done by a fraction of the group, the group as such is not anymore under consideration, but only the fraction.
For example we should not say that Germany is responsible for the world war but the fraction of the German population which intended the world war and took action. I think that collective responsibility as sound moral concept can only be applied to groups of individuals with exactly the same intentions and exactly same harmful actions. But then the members of these groups can be easily be treated on an individual basis, so that their treatment as a collective would be a mere bureaucratic act of putting them in the same folder. Any other kind of interpretation of collective responsibility will most likely sooner or later lead to an unjustified blaming.
Collective responsibility is a complex concept and as we have seen its discussion is a lengthy process with no certain outcome and therefore requires a lot of effort which we probably can not expect from the ordinary citizens, because they are required to do other essential things. Therefore, we need to fall back to practical measures for collective responsibility in our daily lives.
Miller notes in his essay in a though experiment about a violent mob: "As I indicated earlier, it may be impossible to assign specific shares of responsibility for what has happened to individual members of the mob. We may not know what causal contribution each made to the final outcome, and even if we did, it might still be controversial how responsibility should be divided” (Miller, 2004: p. 251)
We do need to address situations in our life where a group has done harm, but it is impossible to assign individual blame. Collective responsibility as a moral concept is reflected in some laws and has been applied in court cases. Clive Coleman discusses such a case in his podcast "Joint Enterprise" where a gang is involved in a murder, but there is no evidence as to who inflicted the fatal blow. Generally, such an application of collective responsibility will not just bring about an essential feeling of righteousness for society, but potentially a controlling effect if less or even non guilty members next time will try to prevent members from doing harm. We can understand collective responsibility as a tool for bringing about the maximum justice we can achieve as humans and preventing future harm.
I have discussed how we can and should approach the question of collective responsibility and pointed out that collective responsibility is a redundant concept. Its application in our daily life has been shown useful. Ultimately, I think, we should try to validate collective responsibility as much as possible through experimentation, abstraction and validation and then try to bring our current real world application of it as close as possible to this validated version.
Coleman, Clive, Joint Enterprise, BBC: Law in Action, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/
b00lbgtc#synopsis, accessed 25.10.2015
Honore, Tony, Responsibility and Luck, in his Responsibility and Fault (Oxford: Hart, 1999), pp. 14–40.
Lewis, H. D., Collective Responsibility, Philosophy, Vol. 23, No. 84 (Jan., 1948), pp. 3-18, Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy
Miller, David, Holding Nations Responsible, Ethics, Vol. 114, No. 2 (January 2004), pp. 240-268, The University of Chicago Press
Narveson, Jan, Collective Responsibility, The Journal of Ethics 6: 179–198, 2002, Kluwer Academic Publishers
Sverdlik, Steven, Collective Responsibility, Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition , Vol. 51, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 61-76, Springer