Thursday, January 05, 2006

Group Responsibility

A few of my blog entries begin as responses to somebody's comment. I sometimes find myself going into a fair amount of detail on some feature of moral theory, then figure that this general principle deserves some focused discussion.

In response to the blog entry, “The Moral Infrastructure of Iraq,” in which I argued that the poor state of Iraq’s moral infrastructure is substantially responsible for its current condition, Martin Mapes wrote:

An interesting take on the cost of rebuilding Iraq. Trouble is, you speak of what the Iraqi people -- collectively -- should do. Whereas, most of your columns focus on what an _individual_ ought to do to be moral. Am I, as an American, to be condemned because I allowed GW Bush to be elected?

The short answer is, "Yes, in a sense."

Group Costs and Benefits

One of the facts of the real world -- like it or not -- is that costs and benefits are sometimes allocated based on group efforts. The championship game goes to the team that wins. The whole military (with individual exceptions) unit will either win or lose the battle. The business team that bid on a proposal will all either win or lose that bid. The quality of the moral infrastructure in a country will affect that whole country without regard to who deserves to benefit or suffer.

In these situations it makes sense to cast praise or blame on the group as a whole. The losing coach calls his team into the locker room and yells at all of them for their poor performance. He does not have to single any player out. He criticizes the team, and leaves it to each player to sort out his or her contribution to this group failure.

The same happens in the winning team’s locker room, where the coach praises the team as a whole.

In the military, the company commander calls his unit out on the parade ground and berates the whole company for their poor results in recent war games. Each soldier is expected to use this opportunity to think to himself or herself, "What can I do to improve our company's performance?"

The corporate team who loses the bid does not need to have anybody yell at them. The self-reflection should start the instant they get the message that they lost the bid. The problem is that everybody on the team loses the bid. There is no sorting out those who deserved to lose and those who did not.

If a nation faces the destruction of its roads, pipelines, power plants, and public transportation due to acts of violence, everybody suffers, not just those who cause the destruction. In these types of cases, it is perfectly reasonable to hold the country morally accountable by asserting, "Their moral corruption is the cause of this suffering.”

It is true that, ultimately, all responsibility is individual responsibility. Criticism needs to eventually find its way down to individual changes in behavior. However, one reasonable way to accomplish this is to condemn the group and let it know of its failings, then give each individual in that group the opportunity to reflect on his or her own contribution to that group.

In that earlier blog, I condemned the culture of Iraq for permitting the violence that has destroyed or prevented the rebuilding of much of its infrastructure. All Iraqi citizens are made to suffer because they have not yet decided to take a stand against those who are destroying their infrastructure and their opportunities for the future, and in favor of those who are trying to rebuild the country.

I cannot tell each Iraqi citizen exactly what to do. I do not have the time, and each Iraqi citizen can determine this better than I can. However, I can make the general claim that they each citizen should find some way to rebuild their moral infrastructure. If they do this, they will have a much better time rebuilding the rest of the country.

America's Moral Infrastructure

America is not perfect. It is easy to identify parts of America's moral infrastructure that are crumbling due to lack of attention. As they crumble, all of society suffers huge costs that could otherwise be averted. We would generally benefit, as a country, as a group, if we paid attention to our moral infrastructure and repaired some of this damage.

Here is an example. Since Judge Jones released his opinion (pdf) condemning the Dover Area School Board's attempt to promote Intelligent Design in its 9th grade biology classes, a number of people have written comments on this issue. I invite the reader to do some internet searches on the terms "intelligent design" and "banned". The reader will discover countless instances in which individuals and organizations have reported that Judge Jones’ opinion said that “the teaching of intelligent design in public schools is banned.”

This is false.

More importantly, it is an extremely obvious and easily proved falsehood. Judge Jones wrote,

“With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”

Intelligent design was not banned from schools. School boards were only banned from teaching intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in science classes -- because it is not science. It is religion. Schools can teach intelligent design in any class where discussion of religion is appropriate -- history, philosophy, social studies, religious studies, and the like.

The moral issue here – the evidence of the poor quality of our country’s moral infrastructure – is found in the fact that so many people care so little about the truth that they repeat this falsehood.

Anybody truly interested in the truth can quickly discover what that truth is. If they do not, it is reasonable to conclude that they do not care for the truth, or they lie as a way of obtaining something that, to them, has personal value.

Many of the liars are trying to promote a political agenda. Intellectually reckless people read or hear the lie that Jones banned the teaching of intelligent design, they believe this lie, and they get angry at the injustice. The liars send mailings and broadcast radio shows at these angry people repeating the lies and then ask for money and votes so that they can “fix” the problem. They seek to dupe the intellectually reckless into helping to finance destruction of the moral infrastructure -- the respect for truth -- on which a healthy and prosperous society depends. The result is poor social policy built on a crumbling moral infrastructure whose destruction is funded by the cash contributions of the intellectually lazy.

We, as a society, are made the victims of these liars because we have embraced a culture that passively accepts deception the way the Iraqi culture passively accepts terrorist bombings. If we want this practice to stop – and, along with it, the destruction that it brings to our society – it is important to take a stand against it.

We need to reform a culture that is presently geared to producing, one year after another, a crop of intellectually reckless individuals that the liars can feed upon to our detriment.

How do we begin to patch our crumbling moral architecture?

By pointing out the liars and the intellectually reckless how much damage people like them are doing to our society. For example, if somebody asserts that Judge Jones banned the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools, it is not sufficient to say that he or she is wrong. The objection should also include a lecture on the moral irresponsibility of intellectual recklessness. The objection should say something like,

"You know, if you had even the slightest interest in the facts of this case, you could have found this out for yourself. Obviously, you have no interest in the truth. You either do not care what the facts are, or you care too much about what you can gain by lying to people to tell the truth. Either way, your clear disregard for the facts is an example of one of the things that is wrecking this country. We could accomplish a great deal more as a nation if only its people would recognize that the truth is something to be cherished, and put a tad bit of effort into making sure that what they say or write is actually true.”

It’s the same strategy that I would recommend to the people of Iraq. Any time that any Iraqi offers even the slightest bit of sympathy or support for the destroyers, the moral Iraqi citizen should come down on that person with the harshest condemnation. “You are one of the people who are destroying this country. You are as bad as the people you praise. If you cheer a murderer, then you have the heart of a murderer.”

Patch up a bit of moral infrastructure, and the whole society will benefit. What each of us can do to help to patch up this moral infrastructure I leave to each reader to discover for himself. My contribution consists in writing this blog.

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