Saturday, September 29, 2007

Individual vs. Group Responsibility

Yesterday, I mentioned that I have formed two impressions from watching the CNN broadcast, God’s Warriors. Yesterday, I addressed the issue of how religion fuels a desire in some people to behave in ways harmful to others – and that it is probably as important to address the desire to serve God as it is to address the belief that a God exists.

Today, I wish to address a second impression – the degree to which ‘God’s warriors’ like to speak in terms of group responsibility rather than individual responsibility. When addressing some crime or transgression, often they do not seek out the individuals who are responsible, but they lay the blame on a whole group and use this to justify doing harm to any and all members of the group.

For example, a member of Group X commits some crime – say, a group of blacks rape a white woman, a Irish Catholic blows up an Irish Protestant building, a Sunni Muslim blows up a Shiite mosque, a Palestinian sets off a suicide bomb inside an Israeli bus, some Native Americans rise up and kill some White settlers, Noah finds Ham drunk and naked and condemns all of his descendents to slavery, God finds Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and responds by declaring that all humans deserve punishment for this original sin.

The basic idea is that some individual has committed some moral transgression (or something alleged to have been a moral transgression). This means that some sort of punishment (retribution) is in order. However, for some reason people get it into their head that if Person A commits the crime, and Person B is related to Person A by race, by gender, by family membership, by church affiliation, or some other way, that justice can be served by doing harm to Person B.

So, Person B is then harmed as ‘punishment’ for Person A’s actions. Unfortunately, Person B himself, or Person B’s family and friends take the harm done to Person B as somehow unjust. Since an injustice has been done against Person B, some sort of retribution is in order. So, The Friends of Person B find Person C (who is in some way related to those who did harm to Person B) and they ‘obtain justice’ by doing harm to Person C.

Unfortunately, Person C has friends and family who consider this harm to be unjust . . .

In fact, everywhere where we see conflict ruining the lives of individuals, we hear speakers talking in terms of group responsibility, rather than individual responsibility. Everywhere we see peace, we see societies who, among other things, have a strong cultural dedication to ‘finding the person who was responsible for this.’ Anybody who was not responsible for the crime can rest assured that his or her life is secure. The fact that he or she shares some quality of race, gender, religion, family relationship, or some similar quality as the accused (other than the quality of being guilty), will not be used to condemn him or her.

Of course, this is a matter of degree. I am not talking here about societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of group responsibility, versus societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of individual responsibility. We will still hear people making ‘group responsibility’ claims in an ‘individual responsibility’ culture – and weak and feeble calls for peace from people making ‘individual responsibility’ claims in a ‘group responsibility’ culture. However, to the degree that we see a society descend into barbarism, I suggest that to this degree we see a society adopting a ‘group responsibility’ as their doctrine of ‘justice’.

Even within an individual, we can find cases where that individual is speaking the language of a ‘group responsibility’ adherent, versus speaking as an advocate of ‘individual responsibility’. Somebody who uses the doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ will give specific names when speaking about transgressions, or speak in terms of those who actually commit transgressions (rapists, thieves, murderers, liars, sophists, bigots, people who shout into their cell phones while riding a public bus as if everybody else wants to be a part of her conversation). People who embrace the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’ use generic terms that are not conceptually linked to any transgression (atheist, liberal, conservative, sunni, black, white, gay, Muslim, Christian, secular, religious).

The series God’s Warriors presented interviews with Jews who became terrorists – one of which attempted to kill a number of Palestinian children at a girl’s school. Their plot failed, though they had gone as far as to plant the bomb near the school and to drive off. The moral doctrine behind this behavior was that it is permissible to seek ‘justice’ by doing harm (killing, maiming) people who had nothing at all to do with the transgressions against them.

We also see Israel adopting policies that do harm to all Palestinians equally. It does not seem to matter to them whether the Palestinian being harmed by their policies has anything to do with any transgressions within Israel. As long as one is a Palestinian, one may be legitimately harmed on this doctrine of ‘group responsibility’.

I am not going to even try to pretend that this is a ‘religious’ problem and that those who do not believe in God will not be tempted to adopt the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’. In fact, many of my previous posts have been very tightly focused on cases where I have discovered atheists speaking in terms of ‘group responsibility’ – condemning any and all people who believe in God as if they are all guilty (and can thus be punished) for the moral transgressions of the more fundamentalist theists.

I have had to remind atheist readers on a number of occasions that, “The proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is (almost certainly) true’, by itself has exactly the same moral implications as, “The proposition ‘at least one God exists’ is (almost certainly) false’. That is to say, none at all. In both cases, one needs to add a number of additional propositions – propositions about the nature of this god or these gods and their relationship to goodness in the first sense, propositions about the real-world facts about reasons for action in the second sense – before one can draw conclusions about morality.

Yet, at the same time, religion – particularly fundamentalist religion – seems to do a particularly poor job of teaching its follows to adopt a doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’.

In recent years, we have heard a number of critics of the ‘new atheism’ refer to the writers in this genre as ‘atheist fundamentalists’. If we take the term ‘fundamentalist’ as ‘somebody who believes that some doctrine is beyond question and all who do not live their lives by strict interpretation of its doctrines are evil,’ then we can expect ‘atheist fundamentalists’ to be as common in the real world as ‘round squares’.

However, if we take the idea that ‘fundamentalism’ is somehow liked to ‘those who adopt an attitude of group responsibility – group credit for any who belong to their group, and group condemnation for all who do not belong,’ then this type of ‘atheist fundamentalist’ is certainly possible. This will be somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent is good merely because he is atheist and his action is just based solely on the fact that it targets theists. This can be held in contrast to somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent who mentions ‘Jesus’ favorably while speaking is a good person and that any policy that targets non-Christians is automatically just.

So, I worry that if the ‘new Atheism’ does not adopt a firm commitment to ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’ – of blaming and praising people by name or in terms conceptually linked to some wrongdoing – that, in the long run, they may not be any better than the people they condemn.

This is, in fact, one of my greatest worries about this ‘new Atheism’.


Sheldon said...

Mmmm, how to phrase my criticism or question?

The logic is completely valid. However, it seems the analysis at various levels raises alot of questions.

It is unassailably true that it is individuals that commit violent acts. Sometimes along with other individual companions who explicitly act with them, i.e. intentional groups.

It is true that it is completely wrong for a member of group x to retaliate against a member of group y, simply because another member of group y committed an atrocity against a member of group x.

However, it also 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.

Now of course it is the leadership of groups who order actions, and their subordinates who carry out those actions that carry the most responsibility. But can others not directly involved be responsible to various extents, either through degrees of direct or indirect support, or complicity?

The case of Nazi Germany, might be an interesting case to consider here. There were many German citizens who may have been involved in very minor ways with the holocaust, perhaps "just doing their jobs." Others may have only lent political support without real knowledge of what was happening. Others perhaps were not directly involved in any aspect of the holocaust, but only "minded their own business" and did nothing in opposition. Still, the latter of these groups were complicit in a great crime against humanity.

It would be clearly wrong to condemn all Germans, simply for being Germans, for the holocaust. Some Germans did resist or oppose these events in various ways. On the other hand there is a level of collective responsibility. It might be sloppy to express that collective responsibility in the phrase "the German people" of the Nazi era, but it seems to be true to a certain extent.

The problem of punishment is even more difficult. It would seem to be a nearly impossible task to impose a just punishement on these lower levels of responsibility. I in fact consider the fire bombing of Dresden and other actions against Germany in WWII as great moral atrocities (innocent children were victims).

Any thanks for a thought provoking post.

Sheldon said...

I apologize for double posting so soon.

However, I also wanted to point out that it seems to be a natural fact of human cognition that we mentally organize ourselves and others into group membership. And attribute responsibility to those groups. Thats not an argument having anything to do with the morality of the practice, but simply an observation.

I quote you below from your Sept. 24th "Baiting" article, not as a "gotcha" but simply to illustrate the fact. And I acknowledge that what you really intend to attribute responsibility to are actual individual Iraqi actors.

"The people of Iraq are the wrongdoer fully responsible for the denigration of their society."

Martin Freedman said...

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.

Now the issue is when individual X does something to individual Y on what basis can Y (and Y's self-identified group A) decide the X is a member of group B and retaliate against another member of B? The issue is creating false group identities and forced group responsibilities and imposing them on the resultant externally determined members.This is the point I think Alonzo is trying to make and I agree.

The question becomes who decides when an action is related to a group and that the group bears some responsibility? Is it the case that the default position should be, disregarding the type of actions that may or may not be legitimately taken, that external determinations of group membership and necessarily connected responsibilities are likely false. I think it is. Unfortunately we dont not yet live in such a world...

Sheldon said...

"Now the issue is when individual X does something to individual Y on what basis can Y....."

Actually, to clarify my position here, that is not my concern. My argument here is not to find some cases where some kind of retaliation based on group responsibility is justified. But instead to argue that we do need to acknowledge varying degrees of responsibility that is attributable to social groups at varying scales. And I argue that we need to be much more specific than simply basing it on membership in a given social group.

I also completely agree with Alonzo about the moral quagmire that results from the doctrine of believing that some kind of collective guilt justifies some kind of retaliation against a group of people. I repudiate that completely because the consequences become horrific, and solve no problems.

Another case to illustrate the problem is the Isreali-Palestinian conflict.

So for example I would argue that few if any Isreali settlers on the West Bank of adult age can be considered truly innocent. Through their participation in the settler's social movement they are engaged in a colonial theft of land from its rightful owners.

However, a Palestinian suicide bomber is still not justified for many reasons. His tactics are indiscriminate against those varying degrees of collective responsibility. His tactics harden the resolve and hatred of his enemies, and invite retaliation against his group. This is not to argue that Palestinians don't have a right to resist, but their cause only maintains its justness through moral tactics of resistance.