Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some initial thoughts on collective failure, responsibility, and guilt

I'm sure the ideas I've been juggling in my head for a while are not new. It seems like an issue some philosopher must have grappled with. But at any rate it's something that itches at me often when I encounter arguments about the issues I list in the title of this post. I want to make this fairly quick, and build on it in the future, so I'm gonna keep it short and punchy.

Some definitions:

Collective failure
I understand collective failure as an outcome within a given group where all/most members of the group are made worse off (could we call that a Pareto decline?),  and the outcome cannot be fully attributed to some exogenous forces, and each member of the group did something that was a necessary (but not, in itself, sufficient) to allow the outcome to happen. (That's too wordy!)

Collective failure may effect people outside the group. For example, if we imagine that the policies of communist China under Mao where responsible for suffering among all Chinese people, we may say this was the result of a collective failure- but not among ALL Chinese, but among, say, the political class, or the educated class, or whatever.

Collective responsibility
Most ethical theories, along with most folk's ethical intuitions, hold that a person is morally responsible for an action iff she could have done otherwise. While I see the usefulness of this way of thinking, I think it comes loaded with some metaphysical baggage; I don't think we ever really know if someone could have done otherwise from what he/she actually did do. OK, but let's say we can imagine, in some cases, that someone could have done otherwise. The role of this way of thinking may be to change future incentives in order to shift behavior at the margin in order to decrease socially costly behavior.

But in the case of collective responsibility, we seem to run into a problem: this way of thinking doesn't apply easily to groups. If you say a group could have done otherwise, it seems like you need a way to translate that into individual action. And here we have the real problem: it's obvious that many individual actions are only possible if others act a certain way. That is, someone could only have also differently if others had also acted differently. Now, there are cases where an individual could plausibly have been able to induce others to behave in this way, but there are also many cases where this isn't the case. In such cases, how can we attribute responsibility in a way that can be sensibly applied to all individuals in a group?

I think a plausible answer to this question goes something like this:
When we attribute responsibility for some outcome to some group, one thing we want to do is to induce that group to develop social practices that will make this outcome less likely in the future. Such practices may only be possible with widespread changes in behavior among all, or a sufficient number of members of the group. I think social norms that guide a lot of behavior are like this: they require most  members to opt in. And I think perception of  collective responsibility within a group may induce a change of behavior that can change social norms and, thus, social outcomes.

Collective guilt
In some usages, 'guilt' and 'responsibility' may be used interchangeably, but I want to argue that, in cases dealing with social outcomes, it is more useful to make a distinction. I think 'guilt' ought to be used only to apply to those we actually punish. Part of the reason for this is rhetorical and pragmatic. People seem to recoil at most suggestions of collective guilt, and probably rightly so. For one thing, guilt also has a connotation of exclusion; once we ascribe guilt, the common understanding is that those who aren't guilty are off the hook. It also has a connotation of finality; once we've found out who is guilty, we punish them, or make them give compensation, and then we're finished. With many social problems, however, thing are more complicated than this kind of thinking allows for.

Application and conclusion
Let me try to apply this thinking to a concrete case to make it clearer. Suppose we attribute the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and occupying authorities from 1932-1946 to a collective failure among the Japanese people at the time to curb the highly nationalistic and militaristic tendencies in Japanese society at that time.

We may say that those people who committed the atrocities, and those who ordered them, or even knowingly allowed them to occur, are clearly guilty in some sense. We may even hold guilty all Japanese who were of a certain age at that time- though in a different sense; we're not going to throw all of them in prison, but we may, say, want them to feel guilty in order to change their behavior in the future.

But it seems pretty absurd to hold most Japanese people alive today to be guilty for those crimes. After all, they weren't even alive at the time, or they were children.And assigning guilt in this way may fuel resentment among Japanese people, or bigotry against Japanese people.

 But we may want to attribute some kind of collective responsibility- not for what happened then, but to do better in the future- to develop better social norms, institutions, and practices so that the Japanese military will never again act in such a way. After all, norms and institutions are sticky- they don't change overnight, and they depend on many bottom-up social phenomena- not only on policy or actions by leaders, but also on the actions of all people within the group.

Of course, we do a lot more than this. We also encourage policies, act in international diplomacy, etc. But this kind of assigning of responsibility is one of the things we may do.

I hope these ideas are useful in helping us understand some important problems we face in our society, and in addressing these problems. In the future, I plan to elaborate on these ideas.

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