A member of the studio audience, Sheldon, has encouraged me twice in recent weeks to reconsider a part of my position on ‘group responsibility’. In order to add force to his remarks, Sheldon has pointed out where I have spoken in terms of ‘group responsibility’. Another member of the studio audience, Atheist Observer, also is keen to point out my occasional lapses in this regard. Martino also has questions about this distinction.
My position, by the way, has been that when it comes to moral sanctions (condemnation and punishment) that those sanctions can only legitimately be assigned to individuals based on individual conduct. Condemning or punishing ‘groups’ means punishing the innocent with the guilty, which is unjust. The only exception I allow is when a group is defined in terms of a particular wrong – groups like ‘liars’, ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’, ‘sophists’.
[I]t seems to be an unavoidable fact that people act collectively, as groups at various scales from the micro to the macro. There does seem to be cases where at some level there is group responsibility. Where it gets fuzzy and difficult is toward the macro end that includes ethnic groups and societies.
I dealt with one possible interpretation of this argument yesterday where I argued against the inference, “X is a part of our nature that we will never be completely rid of; therefore, we ought not to take a moral stand against X.” I used the examples of rape and racism as things we will probably never be rid of, but which we still have reason to condemn.
However, Sheldon seems to be making a different point – that ‘groups’ behave differently than individuals (or individuals behave differently in groups than they do on their own), and that it would be a mistake for society to fail to apply moral concepts to the actions of groups.
To illustrate his point he calls forth one of my own claims. The people of Iraq are the wrongdoers fully responsible for the denigration of their society. The context of this statement is my argument against blaming Bush for the violence in Iraq. Bush may well be responsible for not anticipating the violence, but the decision to engage in violence was made by individuals in Iraq. The could have chosen to respond differently, but they did not. Bush is guilty of intellectual recklessness. The people in Iraq who choose to engage in and support this violence are guilty of far worse.
Sheldon accepts that my statement should not be interpreted as assigning ‘deserves condemnation or punishment’ to every person in Iraq. Rather, the statement should be interpreted as saying that, even though some Iraqi may be innocent (particularly the young children), a lot of Iraqi are guilty, and I have no capacity to name them. So, I identify the guilty by description. ‘Iraqi who choose to engage in and support this violence.’
Yet, I do not only blame individuals for this. I attribute this love of violence to a cause – to a culture of ‘group responsibility’ and ‘revenge’. The culprit rests with those people who helped to create and support this culture. Iraqi culture itself must change from one of ‘group responsibility’ and ‘revenge’ to ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘justice’ if there is to be peace. Every individual in Iraq has a moral obligation to support this end.
Assigning moral obligations to a group is hardly unwarranted. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a moral principle is that it must be universal – it must apply to everybody. Therefore, moral obligations are inherently applied to groups. There are no exceptions based on personal identity to the prohibitions on rape, murder, theft, and the like. There may be exceptional circumstances (e.g., lying to the Nazi soldier about the hidden Jews), but those circumstances apply to any individual who might be in those circumstances.
Only, I cannot honestly say that this is the correct interpretation of the quote that Sheldon provided. I said that all Iraqi people were wrongdoers. In doing so, actually, I made a mistake – the statement is not accurate as written. It would be more accurate to say that the people of Iraq share a moral responsibility to build a culture of individual responsibility and justice. It is a responsibility that a few Iraqi people might actually be taken seriously (though they are too few in number and too weak to be noticed), but which many (and, in particular, many with access to weapons) are openly disregarding.
Martino wants to add a consideration for political parties.
I could also add to Sheldon's comments what about political parties which are designed to have some form of collective or group responsibility? In most electoral systems you are voting for the party even if you are actually voting for a specific individual.
I am going to have to agree with Martino that there is an exception here. The exception applies to groups with voluntary membership who have some sort of policy or statement of purpose.
On this count, Sheldon could probably find instances in which I held ‘Exxon Mobile’ morally responsible for a campaign of disinformation with respect to global warming. Given the amount of destruction that will likely result of this campaign (the United States alone will – according to scientists – inevitably now lose the land area equivalent to the state of West Virginia), that this campaign of deception is morally comparable to the Holocaust and Stalin’s Purges – done simply for the sake of profit. Any person who remained in voluntary association with Exxon Mobile while it pursued these policies is morally responsible for that outcome. They could have broken that voluntary association at any time, and did not.
The same is true with political parties, Al Queida, or any other voluntary organization. In these cases, it would be entirely appropriate to condemn the organization by condemning the positions that it officially endorses, and by condemning any and all individuals who support the organization in the pursuit of those ends. It does not matter that there are people who call themselves ‘Republicans’ who are in favor of gay rights. It is still the case that the official Republican position is opposition to gay rights, and those who support the Republican Party support this campaign of opposition.
Being black or white, male or female, American or European, are not voluntary-membership organizations. The fact that it is possible to change one’s gender or move to another country introduces some measure of volunteerism to gender and nationality. However, the cost here is so high that, for all practical purposes, extremely few people have a choice in the matter.
On the question of sexual orientation, it may well be the case that membership in the group, “People with a desire to have sex with others of the same gender,” is not voluntary. However, membership in the group, “People who intentionally engage in homosexual acts” is voluntary – so long as the act of having sex is an intentional act.
Membership in a religion (or, perhaps more appropriately, a church) is usually voluntary. Consequently, individuals within a particular church can be held accountable for church doctrine. If they do not like it, then they can leave. I say, “usually voluntary” because in some cultures and some countries choosing membership in a different church (or no church at all) carries costs at least as high as that of changing gender or nationality. In these cases, it is not fair to condemn those who were coerced into a religion for that religion’s practices.
Even where membership in a religion is voluntary, and members can be held accountable for the policies and practices of the church they choose to belong to, it would still be unjust to hold the individuals in one church responsible for the misdeeds of members of some other church. It is unfair and unjust to walk up to an Amish farmer, point to a picture of 9/11, and shout, “See what you did! You should be ashamed of yourself!”. On the other hand, anybody who remains associated with a religious organization that participated in or praised 9/11 deserves condemnation on those grounds.
However, nobody deserves condemnation on the grounds of joining a group that has something else in common with groups supporting the 9/11 attack that does not directly imply supporting the 9/11 attack. This means expanding the list of those who are guilty for the attacks to ‘all those who believe in a god’. That would be another example, applied to groups, of blaming the innocent.