News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Who's Responsible (2)?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Who's Responsible (2)?

When we ask about responsibility, is it legitimate to limit our concept to the individual? What I am thinking of is the repsonsibility that those who give orders have in acts that they themselves may not actually commit. Of course, this question was undertaken at in the Nuremburg trials held to judge German political, bureaucratic, and military leaders accountable for the Holocaust. People cannot hide from their responsibility by saying that they were simply following orders.

This principle makes its way down through an entire chain of command. The US Uniform Code of Military Conduct holds the enlisted man directly resposnibile for carrying out any actions that might be deemed immoral and against the common-sense understanding of what that means. The assumption being, obviously, that everyone "knows" what it means to be moral.

As Nuremburg showed, however, and as most recently displayed at Abu Ghraib, this assumption about people having a moral sense is deeply called into question. Not only that, but the idea that only those who actually perpetrated the immoral acts were held accountable. Yet, there was obviously an environment in which these acts occurred, as well as a social understanding common to soldiers and commanders alike that one might argue contributed to what one could call an environment of indifference or hostility. This environment gave tacit legitimacy to the bedstial treatment of prisoners, simply because they were in some way not worthy of respect and humane treatment.

What I want to suggest is that America has created a culture in which people can be easily reduced to objects undeserving of human consideration. To believe that the people who carried out these acts simply did so becuase they are evil is simplistic. The point is that they grew up in a society that conditioned them to act and react to circumstances in certain predictable ways. While we should no doubt hold them responsibile for their actions, we should also ask what it is about our world, the US socio-cultural world, that made these people into who they are? (more on this later)

For an interesting discussion of America's responsibility in the deaths of innocent civilians, see Majikthise's blog.

For a useful framework for understanding how criminals deny responsibilityf or their acts, see Sykes and Matza.

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