News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Is It Moral to Take Responsibility for the Actions of Others?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Is It Moral to Take Responsibility for the Actions of Others?

Does personal morality or ethics mean taking responsibility for the actions of those we call countrymen? In what way are either I or you not responsible for the actions of the soldiers in the field fighting in our name in Iraq? …

In the American judicial system, people are often held responsible for things they did not do. I am responsible under some laws, for example, for what my child does. I am also responsible for something that occurs in my house, such as drug dealing, for example. A more dramatic example is when I know of a murder, do not do it, but am held responsible for it. All of these examples--perhaps obviously--are not equal. But it does show that individual responsibility according to the law does not stop at the limits of the skin on my teeth.

Indeed, one can only remember the Nuremberg trials to consider how much culpability resides in the actual act of killing and the actions of creating the conditions or possibility for that killing. Some have even gone so far as to accuse the German people per se of being responsible for the holocaust--simply by doing nothing.

But my own comments relate not to social or group responsibility. I am speaking from a first-person stance not a third person plural perspective.

The actions committed in my or your name seem to imply the idea that we are or morally should take responsibility for those actions. We may not want to take responsibility for them, shrinking back from their horror, but they are nonetheless ours. It seems that the type of distancing you suggest--a distancing that I might use to dissociate myself from the evil is in fact a mirror image of the types of moral distancing that occurs when a Bush, for example, talks about collateral damage being just a fact of war. He takes no personal responsibility for the deaths of innocent men, women, and children because a bomb did it, not him. This seems to me to be a morally bankrupt understanding or moral responsibility.

Ted Honderich talks about this in an essay:

What makes something right or wrong is what it can reasonably be expected to do. What makes it right or wrong is not what the person would do instead if he had more choice. It does not matter what he says to himself or others is his goal -- or what he puts out of his mind. The prate of politicians about freedom does not often justify frying people.

Do you need what is as good as a proof of this, out of your own judgement?

Consider an ordinary murderer. His wife left him and he won't take it. He glues the locks of the house she is in and sets fire to it, knowing that an entirely unconnected person went in there and is probably still there. No judge will agree that he is responsible for only one death. No relative of the unconnected person will feel or think that about him.

As the casualty figures for innocents killed on account of American and British soldiers mount, it is impossible to make a relevant difference between the action of the leaders of the soldiers and a young Palestinian woman who carries a bomb onto a bus in Israel to kill innocents and herself.

In a similar way, we must and should take responsibility for the actions of our soldiers in the field. That is the morally responsible thing to do. We should not hold ourselves somehow purer or immune to the consequences of unjust actions perpetrated by either our leaders or our fellow countrymen. That type of distancing only makes us appear self-righteous and holier-than-thou.

The reason for this non-distancing is important in the following way: by identifying with both the victim and the victimizer we gain a deeper insight into the truly human tragedy that is involved in these actions. From this understanding of the human tragedy involved, we can hopefully attain a moral distance that enables us to provide a deeper moral judgment that comprehends both the victim's viewpoint as well as the motivational factors determining the unjust actor's actions.

This latter distance would hopefully give us insight into how to attack and undermine those very determining factors that bring these other humans to carry out these barbaric acts. And via this insight we could thereby counter the actions and develop ways to undermine further acts of their kind.

My point, again, is that one must, to gain an appropriate moral distance, identify with those who commit the crimes and those who are the victims of those crimes. This is because doing so provides an insight based on the tragic nature of any situation.

What is the possible reason for this you might ask? Let me use an historical analogy. You are no doubt familiar with the South African Truth commission. The sole purpose of this commission was to allow victims and perpetrators to tell their stories. One of the reasons for this commission was to enable a form of public and communal forgiveness. Through telling their stories, the perpetrators became more human, less monstrous and fantastical. Thereby, victims and families of victims could find some basis of humanity in themselves that showed how much of the criminal we might indeed have in ourselves.

The forgiveness could not happen if the community continued to hold itself purer and holier-than-thou. In some way, individuals had to recognize themselves in both victim and perpetrator.

The brunt of my previous comment posited that to attain a truly moral distance one must accept responsibility for the actions that others perpetrate. This is a responsibility--of course--that does not imply legal culpability, although it might (I think of nations that allow slavery or genocide). It does imply the notion that to take on injustice I must oppose the perpetrator in myself before I can hope to destroy the injustice that others perpetrate.

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