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What Responsibility? Whose Responsibility?

Bhaskarjit Neog

Associate Professor, Centre for Philosophy, JNU

Feb 7, 2024

An excerpt from Bhaskarjit Neog's book What Responsibility? Whose Responsibility: Intention, Agency and Emotions of Collective Entities (2024, Routledge, India). Published with permission from Routledge (India).

Examples of collective wrongdoings abound across societies. The moral history of human society is full of such cases – the bloody wars, mob violence, racism, communal and ethnic riots, oppression by colonial powers, exploitation in the name of caste and class, and numerous incidents of coups, gang wars, corporate frauds, and terrorist activities. Their impacts on the moral community are so startling that we do not know how to reconcile ourselves to any punitive measures offered by any existing arrangements of a society. We go out in public and argue why the activities of such groups or collectives are reprehensible, and why we must excoriate them. In most cases, however, public rage dies down over a period of time without receiving much moral attention or condemnation.

One of the reasons behind the disappearance of moral resentment from public memory is the fact that we do not always have a clear understanding of the simple question – who is responsible when a group or collective is held responsible? We do not seem to know much about the idea of moral responsibility for collective wrongdoings as much as we know about moral responsibility of individual wrongdoings. Although collective wrongdoings of this kind are ultimately carried out by individuals, it seems quite appropriate to first talk about the moral culpability of the whole organization or entity of which they are part.

On the face of it, this idea of attributing moral properties to groups or collectives is uncomplicated and a matter of our everyday moral vocabulary. We can easily comprehend why a group or community deserves to be condemned for any action or omission, just the way any individual does. Non-philosophically speaking, the fact that, say, Nazi Germans are collectively blamed for their cruelty against the Jews is no more complex a matter to understand than it is to understand why Hitler is blamed for the same cruelty. As far as the normal comprehension of the meaning of blame is concerned, it hardly makes any difference whether the concept of blame is used in a collective or an individual context. The collective/individual contrast seems immaterial to the semantics of "blame" or other responsibility-bearing moral notions.

But, to view it more analytically, there appears a serious conceptual problem. The idea of collective responsibility tends to become somewhat slippery and eludes our  understanding when we try to understand it by following our easy grasp of the concept of individual moral responsibility. That Hitler is blamed for inhuman actions is easy enough to understand, because there is, or was, an individual human person in space and time that constituted the determinate target of our attitude of blame. In other words, there is a clear answer to the question: “Who is to be blamed?” or “Who experiences the feeling of guilt?” In contrast, there is no distinct identifiable target through which the idea of collective responsibility can be made sense of. Thus, when we talk about collective responsibility, one might bluntly respond with questions: What responsibility? And whose responsibility are you talking about? A collective – whether with a structure or without it – unlike its constituent individuals, does not seem to have any clear responsibility-bearing make-up. For it is not an embodied entity with its own consciousness and rationality required for being a moral agent. To track down its blameworthy character we need to know how and in what sense their actions and inactions are intentional or purposeful. Given that intentions and other responsibility-making psychological states are paradigmatically understood as a matter of minded entities, groups and collectives being non-minded, cannot be said to have such conscious states. Similarly, unlike their individual members, they cannot have or experience any moral emotions when they are made aware of their reprehensilizable behaviours. Neither can they sympathize or empathize with the victims of their actions in the way required of them.

Nevertheless, it is a hard normative fact that we do talk about the moral responsibility of collectives, and we do hold them seriously morally accountable for many things. Many a time our responsibility statements about individuals are in fact grounded in a language of the responsibility of groups or collectives to which they belong. So, the questions that linger in our deliberative mind are: Is the phenomenon of collective responsibility really real, or is it metaphorical – a mere façon de parler, as many would like to call it? If it is real, is it a summation or incorporation of the moral responsibility of individuals, or is it something different from them – both in terms of its contents and meaning? And what gets added or obliterated in our standard understanding of responsibility when we see it through the prism of a collective framework? Besides, normatively speaking, how do we evaluate the moral status of individuals who stand up and raise their voice against the things that are done in the name of their group? For instance, how do we make sense of the moral status of those protestors who hit the streets with slogans such as NotInOurName or NotInMyName?

This book offers a modest ground for judiciously responding to some of these questions. It aims to redeem collective responsibility by defending the consistency and legitimacy of collective intentions, collective agency, and collective emotions. It talks of collective moral responsibility as the responsibility of collectives without either reducing it to the moral responsibility of the collective members or making it a case where their exact moral positions are effectively made blurred. The ground for defending this account is thus a non-individualist or quasi-collectivist ground – a ground located in the contested space between two prominent approaches – collectivism and individualism.

Three components may be considered for a standard justification of moral responsibility – intention, agency, and affective or reactive attitudes of the subject concerned. These components show why, how, and on what ground a subject may be taken to be an appropriate candidate of our moral evaluations. Intentions refer to the psychological state of a subject with which the action concerned is performed. Agency is the capacity that the subject has for being able perform a morally considerable action or omission. And affective or reactive attitudes are humane reactions of the relevant subject’s putative moral agency that is amenable for the attribution of moral responsibility. These components are important not just for the justification of moral responsibility of structured collectives but also for the less-structured collectives.

To proceed on this path, I draw on the latest resources of two theoretically interconnected areas of analytic philosophy – first, collective intentionality, a newly developed area in the intersection of philosophy of action and mind, and the second, somewhat old but now a freshly rejuvenated field called social ontology with perspectives from psychology, sociology, cognitive sciences and other disciplines. Both these areas investigate the nature and functions of variety of cognitive and non-cognitive properties such as beliefs, desires, intentions, guilt, remorse, and others that underly the constitutions of collective affairs. While the justification of a substantive account of collective responsibility along this line has been in the know for quite some time, there has not been a systematic effort of bringing together two equally compelling approaches, namely the cognitivist and emotivist ways. I explore the possibility of combining them in a way that would elevate the debate of collective responsibility from the narrow confines of both individualism and collectivism. 

         This is a book on morality of groups with a special focus on the concept of collective responsibility. So, naturally it is a book that can be catalogued under moral philosophy. But since it is a product of weaving and stitching resources of multiple areas of philosophy and other allied disciplines, its significance may also be seen in other fields of humanities and social sciences where the issue of collectivity is discussed and debated. The prospective audience of the book thus includes, but not restricted to, moral philosophers, political theorists, legal theorists, just war theorists, business ethicists, policy makers, and others who take interest in the general question of moral responsibility in collective contexts.

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