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Collective Responsibility

First published Mon Aug 8, 2005; substantive revision Mon Jun 14, 2010
The notion of collective responsibility, like that of personal responsibility and shared
responsibility, refers to both the causal responsibility of moral agents for harm in the
world and the blameworthiness that we ascribe to them for having caused such harm.
Hence, it is, like its two more purely individualistic counterparts, almost always a
notion of moral, rather than purely causal, responsibility. But, unlike its two more
purely individualistic counterparts, it does not associate either causal responsibility or
blameworthiness with discrete individuals or locate the source of moral responsibility in
the free will of individual moral agents. Instead, it associates both causal responsibility
and blameworthiness with groups and locates the source of moral responsibility in the
collective actions taken by these groups understood as collectives.
Since the notion of collective responsibility is part of what many contemporary
philosophers refer to as group morality, it has undergone a great deal of scrutiny in
recent years by methodological and normative individualists alike. Methodological
individualists challenge the very possibility of associating moral agency with groups, as
distinct from their individual members, and normative individualists argue that
collective responsibility violates principles of both individual responsibility and
fairness. Defenders of collective responsibility take their cue from both sets of critical
arguments and set out to show that collective responsibilityas well as group
intentions, collective action, and group blameworthinessare coherent as constructs
and can be ascribed to agents fairly in at least some, if not all, cases.
While the vast majority of those now writing on collective responsibility in
philosophical circles continue to debate the possibility of collective responsibility, a
smaller group of scholars has in recent years placed two furtherand very important
concerns at the center of our attention. The first has to do with whether groups have to
meet the same stringent conditions of moral responsibility that individuals do.
(Intentionality becomes key here.) The second has to do with the advantages and
disadvantages of holding particular kinds of groups, e.g., nation states, races, and ethnic
groups, morally responsible in practice.
1. Collective Responsibility: the Philosophical Controversies
2. Making Sense of Collective Responsibility: Actions, Intentions and Group
3. Collective Responsibility and the Structure of Groups

4. Can Collective Responsibility Be Distributed?

5. Alternative Approaches to Collective Responsibility
6. Collective Responsibility and the Question of Consequences
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1. Collective Responsibility: the

While the notion of moral responsibility traditionally understood grounds moral
blameworthiness in the wills of discrete individuals who freely cause harm, the notion
of collective responsibility associates both causation and blameworthiness with groups
and construes groups as moral agents in their own right. Hence, it does not fit easily
into the prevailing philosophical literature on moral responsibility, which generally asks
about the relationship between free will and determinism. Nor has it been readily
accepted by those who are used to construing moral agency in purely individualistic
terms. Indeed, the notion of collective responsibility has become the source of three
major philosophical controversies over the years by virtue of its very nature as a groupbased construct.
The first of these controversies concerns whether or not collective responsibility makes
sense as a form of moral responsibility. Not surprisingly, the primary focus of attention
here has been with both the moral agency of groups in general and the possibility of
group intentions in particular. How, participants in this controversy have asked, can we
understand the notion of collective responsibility as a matter of moraland not just
causalresponsibility? Is it possible for groups, as distinct from their members, to
cause harm in the sense required by moral responsibility? to act as collectives? to have
intentions? Is it possible for groups, as distinct from their members, to be morally
blameworthy for bringing about harm? to be guilty as moral agents?
The second controversy, interestingly enough, is not really about the moral
responsibility of groups at all, even though it is couched in the language of collective

moral responsibility. Instead, it is about the moral responsibility of individuals who

belong to groups that are themselves thought to be morally responsible for particular
cases of harm. How, participants in this controversy have asked, can we distribute
collective responsibility across individual members of such a group? Does it makes
sense to distribute collective responsibility in general? Is it appropriate to hold
individual group members morally responsible for harm that other group members
caused? that the group itself caused? that the group as a whole failed to prevent? If so,
under what conditions and with respect to what particular kinds of groups? Random
collections of individuals? Interest-based groups? Corporate entities?
The third controversy is primarily normative and concerns the value of ascribing
collective responsibility in practice. In some cases, the concern is with the general
practice of collective responsibility and its consequences for our ability to sustain the
values of individualism, freedom, and justice. In other cases, the concern is with the
ascriptions of collective responsibility in particular contexts, e.g., in the contexts of war
tribunals, reparations for slavery, terrorism, and rape, and with whether such ascriptions
are productive and/or fair to those being blamed.
While those participating in these three controversies have focused their attention
primarily on the formulation of collective responsibility as a concept rather than on the
politics of ascribing collective responsibility, they have not made their arguments in a
social and political vacuum. Nor have they ignored the various hard cases of collective
responsibility that have racked the consciences of historical actors since WWII. Indeed,
participants in all three controversies have placed a variety of such cases, ranging from
the extermination of Jews during WWII to the atrocities of the Vietnam War to the racist
treatment of American blacks, at the center of their attention in an effort to establish
whether or not particular groups in history can legitimately be considered morally
responsible for the suffering that group members have brought about through their
faulty actions.

2. Making Sense of Collective

Responsibility: Actions, Intentions, and
Group Solidarity
Almost all of those now writing about collective responsibility agree that collective
responsibility would make sense if it were merely an aggregative phenomenon. But
they disagree markedly about whether collective responsibility makes sense as a nondistributive phenomenon, i.e., as a phenomenon that transcends the contributions of
particular group members. In this context, as in many others, skeptics set the agenda.
Two claims become crucial. The first is that groups, unlike individuals, cannot form
intentions and hence cannot be understood to act or to cause harm quagroups. The

second is that groups, as distinct from their individual members, cannot be understood
as morally blameworthy in the sense required by moral responsibility.
Both claims come out of classical methodological individualism of the sort articulated
by Max Weber (Weber 1914) and H. D. Lewis (Lewis 1948) in their respective
rejections of collective responsibility. In Economy and Society Vol. I, Weber (Weber
1914) argues that collective responsibility makes no sense both because we cannot
isolate genuinely collective actions, as distinct from identical actions of many persons,
and because groups, unlike the individuals who belong to them, cannot think as groups
or formulate intentions of the kind normally thought to be necessary to actions. H. D.
Lewis follows suit in his own arguments and couples his methodological individualism
with a sense of moral outrage at the idea of blaming individuals for the actions of
others. Lewis writes:
Value belongs to the individual and it is the individual who is the sole bearer of moral
responsibility. No one is morally guilty except in relation to some conduct which he
himself considered to be wrong Collective responsibility is barbarous. (Lewis
1948, pp. 36)
Contemporary critics of collective responsibility do not generally go as far as Lewis
does here in equating collective responsibility with barbarism. But they do generally
share their predecessors' skepticism about the possibility of both group intentions and
genuinely collective actions. (See below.) Likewise, they, too, worry about the fairness
of ascribing collective responsibility to individuals who do not themselves directly
cause harm or who do not bring about harm purposefully. Stephen Sverdlik writes:
It would be unfair, whether we are considering a result produced by more than one
person's action or by a single person, to blame a person for a result that he or she did not
intend to produce. (Sverdlik 1987, p. 68)
Both of these claimsthat genuinely collective actions are not possible and that it
would be unfair to consider agents morally blameworthy for harm that they did not
bring about purposivelyrest on two normative assumptions that are key to the critic's
position. Both concern the importance of intentions. The first is that actionswhether
they are individual or collectivenecessarily begin with intentions. (Otherwise, they
are not actions but instead kinds of behavior.) The second is that moral blameworthiness
has its source in and requires the existence of bad intentionsor at least moral
faultinesson the part of those being held responsible.
The first assumption, namely, that all actions begin with intentions, is very useful to
critics because it enables them to write group intentions into the definition of collective
action itself and hence render group intentions a necessary condition of collective
responsibility. J. Angelo Corlett's definition of a collective action is typical here.
According to Corlett,

[a] collective (intentional) action is an action the subject of which is a collective

intentional agent. A collective behavior is a doing or behavior that is the result of a
collective, though not the result of its intentions. A collective action is caused by the
beliefs and desires (wants) of the collective itself, whether or not such beliefs and
desires can be accounted for or explained in individualistic terms (Corlett 2001, p. 575).
The second assumption, namely, that moral blameworthiness of all kinds is grounded in
the bad intentions of moral agents who cause harm, is also very useful to critics of
collective responsibility, since it enables them to stipulate that collective responsibility
requires, not just group intentions, but the ability of groups to have bad intentions or at
least to be morally faulty. How, critics ask, can groups, as distinct from their individual
members, be understood to have bad intentions? to be morally faulty? to have a moral
character, faulty or not? How, in other words, can they be understood as appropriate
bearers of moral blameworthiness, guilt, or shame?
A majority of critics here concentrate on showing either that actions are associated
exclusively with individuals, not groups, or that groups, which do not have minds of
their own, cannot make choices or hold beliefs in the sense required by the formulation
of intentions. H. D Lewis concentrates on making both points in his 1948 critique of
collective responsibility. So, too, does J. W. N. Watkins (1957). Later methodological
individualists such as Alvin Goldman (1970), Stephen Sverdlik (1987), J. Angelo
Corlett (Corlett 2001), and Jan Narveson (2002), unlike their predecessors, are
generally willing to acknowledge the sensibility of collective responsibility in a limited
number of cases. But, they, too, draw attention to the host of difficulties that arise for
collective responsibility as a moral construct once we acknowledge the simple fact that
collectives do not have full blown mental lives.
Critics of collective responsibility pay somewhat less attention to the nature of
collective moral blameworthiness than they do to the nature of collective actions. But
they do sometimes worry about the appropriateness of associating moral
blameworthiness with groups, as distinct from group members. R. S. Downie, among
others, places what turns out to be a very traditional notion of moral responsibility at the
center of his attention and argues that
[c]ollectives do not have moral faults, since they don't make moral choices, and hence
they cannot properly be ascribed moral responsibility. For there to be moral
responsibility there must be blameworthiness involving a morally faulty decision, and
this can only occur at the individual level (Downie 1969, p. 67).
Jan Narveson goes as far in this context as to argue that the bearers of moral
blameworthiness haveto be individuals because only individuals can have moral agency.
Nothing else, Narveson writes, can literally be the bearer of full responsibility
(Narveson 2002, p. 179). The word literally here turns out to be significant for those

writing on collective responsibility. For, it contrasts with the sense shared by Narveson
and others that we might in the end be able to make sense of collective responsibility in
metaphorical terms by treating individual moral agency, including both agent causation
and moral blameworthiness, as a metaphor for group agency of the sort relevant to
moral responsibility traditionally understood.
Defenders of collective responsibility rely on a variety of philosophical strategies to
debunk the above claims and to justify both the possibility of collective responsibility in
some, if not all, cases, and the coherence of collective responsibility as an intellectual
construct. One of these strategies has been simply to point out both that we blame
groups all the time in practice and that we do so in a way that is difficult to analyze with
the precepts of methodological individualism. David Cooper, among others, uses this
strategy to great effect in his own defense of collective responsibility. According to
Cooper, [t]here is an obvious point to be recognized and that obvious point is that
responsibility is ascribed to collectives, as well as to individual persons. Blaming
attitudes are held towards collective as well as towards individuals, (Cooper 1968, p.
Deborah Tollefsen (Tollefsen, 2006) goes as far as to argue that the sheer fact that we
have emotional responses to groupsanger, resentment, an moral indignationjustifies
our practice of holding groups morally responsible. So, too, does the sheer fact that we
have feelings of pride, guilt, and shame as group members. (Whether or not the groups
themselves can have these emotions remains up in the air.)
Cooper and others acknowledge that both our use of language here and our blaming
attitudes may be misguided. Hence, they find it necessary to show, not just that we
ascribe blame to collectives in practice, but that the collective blame that we ascribe
cannot be analyzed in terms of individual blame. Cooper himself takes on this project
by exploring particular cases of blame, e.g., those associated with sports clubs and
nations, that, he argues, can only attach to groups. According to Cooper, when we look
at how such collectives act, we see that whether we regard statements about collectives
as propositional functions or not, we cannot deduce from them statements about
particular individuals. This is so, he argues, because the existence of a collective is
compatible with varying membership. No determinate set of individuals is necessary for
the existence of the collective (Cooper 1968, p. 260).
In a similar vein, Peter French focuses on that class of predicates that, he contends, can
only be true of collectives. According to French,
[t]here is a class of predicates that just cannot be true of individuals, that can only be
true of collectives. Examples of such predicates abound and include disbanded
(most uses of), lost the football game, elected a president, and passed an

amendment. Methodological individualism would be at a loss in this context.

(French 1998, p. 37)
A majority of those who defend the possibility of group actions in this context rely on
linguistic analyses. But there are also those who, like Larry May, turn instead to social
theory and to the existentialist tradition. May himself uses the relational theory of JeanPaul Sartre to argue that groups can legitimately be ascribed actions in cases where
individuals are related to one another and act in ways together that would not be
possible if they acted alone. May sets down two relationally-based conditions under
which we can legitimately say of an action that it is collective rather than individual
which for May means, not trans-individual, but relational. The first condition is that the
individuals in question be related to each other so as to enable each to act in ways that
they could not manage on their own. The second is that some individuals be authorized
to represent their own actions as the actions of the group as a whole (May 1987, p. 55).
What about group intentions? Not surprisingly, group intentions present an even greater
challenge than group actions do. For, intentions are mental states and hence not the
kinds of things that are normally thought to be shareable. Are they sharable?
According to Brook Sadler and others, the question is inherently puzzling. For, if
intentions are mental states, states which play a fundamental role in an agent's practical
deliberation and volition, the prospect of a shared intention introduces the specter of
shared mental states and hence shared mindswhich is something that philosophers
have traditionally hoped to leave behind. (Sadler 2006, p.115.)
Indeed, the possibility that collective responsibility requires, not only collective actions
and intentions, but a collective mind, has proven to be one of the greatest challenges to
those who want to sustain a notion of collective responsibility. Groups can legitimately
be said to have beliefs and other states characteristic of a mind in particular cases, e.g.,
when the group is organized around such beliefs. But groups do not seem to have minds
in any sense other than their ability to build on the minds of individual members. As
David Sosa argues, groups might be said to have a mind or a will but only in a
derivative sense: the persons that are members of the group have minds, and the group's
mind (in whatever sense it has one, its beliefs and desires) is some sort of construct
from those minds (Sosa 2007, p. 215).
How, then, if at all, can defenders of collective responsibility render the notion of
shared intentions comprehensible? Interestingly enough, defenders of collective
responsibility frequently turn back here to the works of Durkheim (1895) and Simmel
(1971), as well as to that of Sartre (1960), for inspiration, although they themselves
proceed analytically. Margaret Gilbert, who grounds several of her arguments in
Durkheim's theory of social facts, develops what she calls a plural-subject account of
shared intentions to justify the coherence of collective responsibility (Gilbert 1989,

2000, and 2006). She does so in large part, like Michael Bratman (1992, 1993, and
2006) and others do, by zeroing in on joint commitments. According to Gilbert, group
intentions exist when two or more persons constitute the plural subject of an intention to
carry out a particular action, or, in other words, when they are jointly committed to
intending as a body to do A (Gilbert, 2000, p. 22). David Velleman goes on to stress
the unified nature of this plural subject. A truly plural subject, he writes, involves
two or more subjects who combine in such a way as to make one subject (Velleman
Raimo Tuomela (1989, 2005, and 2006) chooses a somewhat different strategy in his
defense of collective responsibility. He puts forward what he calls we intentions. Like
Gilbert, he constructs a collective subject on the basis of joint commitments and then
applies it to the notion of collective responsibility. But he does not, like Gilbert, stress
the pluralistic nature of this subject. Instead, he argues that collective intentional
agency supervenes on individual intentional agency in ways that allow us to talk about
both collective intentions and collective actions. According to Tuomela, actions by
collectives supervene on the actions of the operative members of the collective in such a
way that the properties of particular collectives, such their intentions, beliefs, and
desires, are embodied in and determined by the perspectives of the properties of
individual members or representatives of the collective in question (Tuomela 1989, p.
Interestingly enough, Tuomela's attempt here to save collective responsibility by
positing such a representative subject recalls the efforts of Thomas Hobbes to create a
collective subject in the guise of his Leviathan (1651). Hobbes, in an effort both to
explain sovereignty in general and to justify the legitimacy of the English monarchy in
particular, posited a higher authority in the communitythe Leviathanwhose own
will, as well as actions, came to be those of its/his subjects as a result of their having
transferred their own agency to it/him as part of the only kind of social contract that
from Hobbes's perspective made collective life possible. Hobbes's collective subject not
only represented group members but captured their very being as members of his
Contemporary defenders of collective responsibility sometimes recall Hobbes's
Leviathan in their own attempt to develop a collective subject (see for example: Copp
1980). But they do not, in light of Hobbes's own authoritarianism, go as far as to accept
Hobbes's argument that a Leviathan is necessary to capture the collective will. Nor do
they generally toy with the possibility of reintroducing the seemingly more benevolent
general will of Rousseau (1762) as a way of substantiating group intentions. Instead,
they look for an alternative, less authoritarian, way of substantiating group intentions
representational or notor else argue that group intentions of the sort associated with

traditional Kantian notions of moral agency are not after all necessary to collective
moral responsibility.
Larry May offers one of the most interesting arguments of the latter sort in his own
defense of collective moral agency (May 1987 and 2006). May rejects many of the
above accounts of group intentions as too closely tied to Kantian notions of moral
agency. But he does not do away with group intentions as a necessary condition of
collective responsibility. Nor does he accept a fully collectivist methodology. Instead,
he reformulates group intentions within a theory of what he calls interdependence and,
in doing so, develops a general outlook on collective responsibility that not only
combines individualism and collectivism but places both relationships and social
structures at the center of our attention. The challenge here becomes to describe what
such group intentions actually look like.
May relies in this context once again on the work of Sartre to develop his account of
group intentions and posits what he calls a pre-reflective intention, i.e., an intention
which is not yet reflected upon by each of the members of the group (May 1987 p. 64).
May makes clear here that group intentions of this sort arise out of the relationships
between particular members of a group rather than from any one group member. Hence,
while they are not trans-individual or collective in any sense that stands totally above
individuals, they can be treated as if they are collective (May 1987, p. 64) Moreover,
these intentions are, May makes clear, not individual intentions but group-based. Since
each member of the group comes to have the same intention, either reflectively or prereflectively, it is different from their individual intentions. Indeed, the sameness of
intention is collective in the sense that it is caused by the group structure, that is, it is
group-based (May 1987, p. 65).

3. Collective Responsibility and the

Structure of Groups
While French, Gilbert, May, and others who concentrate on redeeming collective
responsibility as an intellectual construct do so by defending the coherence of collective
actions and group intentions, they do not go as far as to assert that all kinds of groups
are capable of acting and intending collectively. Nor do they go as far as to assert that
all kinds of groups can be understood as collectively responsible for bringing about
harm. Instead, they assert that only particular kinds of groups are capable of acting and
intending collectively and that only particular kinds of groups are capable of being
collectively responsible for harm. What kinds of groups are these?
The most common approach taken to distinguishing between appropriate and
inappropriate sites of collective responsibility has been to focus on nations,
corporations, and other groups that have well-ordered decision-making procedures in

place, since, it is argued, these groups are, by virtue of their well-ordered decisionmaking procedures, able to demonstrate two things that are often assumed to be
necessary to collective responsibility. The first is a set of group actions that have an
identifiable moral agent, e.g., a governing board or a representative body, behind them
capable of carrying out a group action. The second is a set of decisions that are made
self-consciously on a rational basisor at least purposivelyby the group that take the
form of group intentions or group choices.
Peter French considers groups that are so organized to be especially appropriate sites of
collective responsibility because of three salient features that they all share. The first is
a series of organizational mechanisms through which courses of concerted action can
be, though not necessarily are, chosen on a rational basis. The second is a set of
enforced standards of conduct for individuals that are more stringent than those usually
thought to apply in the larger community of individuals, standards that enable us to talk
about both group conduct and group discipline. The third is a configuration of defined
roles by which individuals can exercise certain powers (French 1984, pp. 1314) All
three of these features, according to French, signal the existence of purposeful and
controlled actions that are capable of rendering groups collectively responsible for
A second approach to the location of appropriate sites of collective responsibility has
been to use groups such as ethnic communities, clubs, and social movements as
paradigmatic cases of appropriate collective responsibility on the grounds that these
groups have members who share interests or needs in common. Two assumptions
prevail here. The first is that groups whose members share interests or needs in common
show signs of group solidarity, which Joel Feinberg defines in this context as a matter
of individuals taking a strong interest in each others' interests (Feinberg 1968). The
second is that groups that show signs of group solidarity understood in this way are
capable of acting and intending in the sense relevant to collective responsibility, since
while they are made up of individuals, they pursue projects together.
Not surprisingly, group solidarity is generally thought to exist primarily in either cases
where group members identify themselves as group members and assert their shared
interests and needs or in cases where group members exhibit collective consciousness to
the extent that they are inclined to take pride or feel shame in group actions without
prompting. But, according to at least some of those who make use of the concept of
group solidarity here, e.g. Larry May (1987) and Howard McGary (1986), group
solidarity does not require group self-consciousness. Indeed, according to both May and
McGary, group solidarity can be understood as present in what McGary calls loosely
structured groups, such as privileged racial groups whose members provide support or
benefits to other members qua group members, even though they may not, in McGary's
words, see themselves as interested in one another's interests (McGary 1986, p. 158).

In these groups, McGary contends, mutual benefits, as well as practices that may
unbeknownst to those who participate in them maintain forms of oppression such as
racism and sexism, signal group solidarity of the sort relevant to collective
A third approach here is to pick up on shared attitudes among group members as
something that renders the group itself an appropriate site of collective responsibility.
The attitudes taken to be relevant here are generally those that both produce serious
harm in society and that require acceptance by many individuals in a community
together in order to be effective, e.g., attitudes such as racism, sexism, and antiSemitism. May (1987), McGary (1986), Marilyn Friedman (Friedman and May 1985)
and others cite these attitudes as enough to render groups such as men and white
Americans collectively responsible for the oppression of women and black Americans
in some, but not all, cases. Other defenders of collective responsibility, e.g., Peter
French, refrain from going this far on the grounds that the groups in question are not
organized enough to be capable of sustaining a sense of moral agency that is genuinely
collective (French 1984).
All three of the above approaches take us in different directions. Hence, they are
sometimes thought to be competing. But they all rest on a general distinction between
aggregate and conglomerate collectivities. An aggregate collectivity, Peter French
writes, is merely a collection of people (French 1984, p. 5). It is not, from the
perspective of most of those now writing on collective responsibility, an appropriate site
of collective responsibility. A conglomerate collectivity, on the other hand, is an
organization of individuals such that its identity is not exhausted by the conjunction of
the identities of the persons in the organization (French 1984, p. 13). It is, from the
perspective of most of those now writing on collective responsibility, an appropriate site
of collective responsibility, since, unlike an aggregate collectivity, it supplies us with a
moral agent capable of purposeful action.
While most of those who defend collective responsibility as a moral construct adhere to
this distinction in general, they do not all agree on what counts as an aggregate
collectivity in practice. Indeed, there is considerable disagreement among those now
writing about collective responsibility (including some who take the above three
approaches) about two particular kinds of groups that appear to some to be aggregative
groups. One of these kinds of groups is the mob. The other is what Virginia Held calls a
random collection of individuals. Neither of these kinds of groups has a decisionmaking procedure in place. Nor do their members show much solidarity. Hence, they
are usually rejected as candidates for collective responsibility by many of those who
otherwise find the notion of collective responsibility to be very useful. But there are
those who put forward both groups as appropriate sites of collective responsibility.

Virginia Held (Held 1970) argues that members of an unorganized group may be said to
be responsible for not taking an action that could have prevented harm in cases where
they could have done something to prevent the harm together but chose not to do so.
Her particular examples are those of victims of violence who are beaten or killed in full
sight of strangers assembled around them, strangers who are themselves neither related
to the victim nor there together as part of any group-based project. According to Held,
while none of these individuals may have been able to prevent the violence on their
own, they could have prevented it if they had organized themselves into a group, i.e.,
cooperated with at least some of the others. Hence, they can as a group be blamed for
the victims' suffering and/or death.
Held acknowledges here that holding a random collection of individuals responsible for
harm is more difficult than holding an organized group responsible for it, since the
latter, unlike the former, has a method for deciding how to act, whether it is a voting
procedure or a set of hierarchical authority relations. But, she argues, we can still hold
the former group, i.e., that which she calls a random collection of individuals,
responsible for the violence done to victims, since, if they had tried, they could have
come up with such decision-making procedures themselves. In the foregoing
examples, she writes, we can say that the random collection of individuals was
morally responsible for failing to transform itself into an organized group capable of
taking action rather than inaction with respect to the prevention of harm. (Held 1970,
p. 479.)
Mobs are often thought to be the last groups that we should be tying to hold collectively
responsible. For, they completely lack decision-making procedures, their members are
seemingly not related, and they are often chaotic and irrational. But, Larry May (1987),
Raimo Tuomela (1989), and others argue, we can nevertheless hold mobs collectively
responsible if at least some of their members contribute directly to harm and others
either facilitate these contributions or fail to prevent them. For, in these cases, all mob
members are implicated in mob action, even if not all of them produced specific
harms or organized together to do so. Tuomela (1989, 2005, 2006), much like Le Bon
(1896) before him, argues that both crowds and rioters are appropriate sites of collective
responsibility by virtue of the fact that they perform their acts as members of a group,
even if they do not think of themselves as doing so.
Crowds and rioters are without much or any structure (and divisions of tasks and
activities) with respect to the goals and interests of the group. But they can be
said to act in virtue of their members' actions. Thus in a riot the members of the
collective typically perform their destructive actions as members of a collective without
acting on its behalf. (Tuomela 1989, p. 476.)
Interestingly enough, in both of these casesmobs and what Held calls random
collections of individualsthe groups in question may not be as unrelated as Held and

others suggest they are. Indeed, it may be precisely because these groups are made up
of individuals who become related to each other in the process of producing harm
together (even though they were initially strangers) that they are now potentially
appropriate sites of collective responsibility. Stanley Bates suggests as much in his own
arguments that Held has presented us with a group that is neither as random nor as
disconnected as the term random normally suggests, but that is related to the extent
that group whose members share a particular challenge and are capable of
communicating with one another (Bates 1971).
In almost all of the examples relied upon in discussions of group structure and
collective responsibility, the groups in question are made up of living members. But in
recent years, a number of efforts have been made to hold groups morally responsible for
actions performed by earlier generations. The case of slavery tends to take center stage
here and is often accompanied by arguments for reparations. While such efforts have
generally taken place in the legal arena, they have not been excluded entirely from
contemporary philosophical discussions of collective responsibility. Indeed, in recent
years, a variety of philosophers have set out to ascribe moral responsibility to groups
whose present members were not even alive when the bad actions in question were
carried out, even though, as Janna Thompson points out, not being born when an
injustice took place seems to be a very good reason for denying any responsibility
(Thompson 2006, p. 155).
How can we possibly hope to hold groups morally responsible for the bad actions of
previous generations? Farid Abdel-Nour (Abdel-Nour, 2003) argues that community
solidarity is sufficient to render at least some kinds of groups morally responsible for
the harms brought about by earlier generations, especially if there is a high level of
cross-generational identification and pride in one's ancestors' deeds. In a similar
fashion, Christopher Kutz argues that groups which act on the basis of the same kinds
of intentions over time can be held morally responsible for earlier harms if there is a
significant overlap in those intentions (Kurtz, 2000, p. 165).
Not surprisingly, these kinds of arguments run into trouble when questions of agency
arise. For, while the existence of solidarity and identification may allow us to talk about
a group over time and even label its actions morally wrong,they do not allow us to posit
the kind of agency that is required of moral responsibility as traditionally understood.
For, as Michael Bratman shows in his own work on collective responsibility, the latter
requires, not only that individuals share intentions but that they interact. (See especially
Bratman 2000).
While most of those writing on collective responsibility seem to agree with Bratman
here on the necessity of interaction, not all do. Linda Radzik (Radzik 2001) claims that
we need only show that existing group members benefit from a past injustice to hold
them responsible for it. Larry May makes similar claims throughout his work, including

in his arguments that men are collectively responsible for rape and whites in the U.S.
are collectively responsible for racism (May and Strikwerda 1994).
What place does benefiting from harm have in the ascription of collective
responsibility? As Janna Thompson (2002, 2006) points out, to benefit from a harm is
not the same thing as to cause it. Hence benefitas when men benefit from sexism and
whites from racismdoes not appear to be an appropriate source of collective
responsibility for the past actions of others. But it might be an appropriate source of
collective responsibility for the prolongation of the harm and/or its consequences into
the future. In other words, it might be an appropriate source of collective responsibility
for present and future, if not for past, injusticesincluding injustices that began with
earlier wrongs.
Moreover, while groups of persons might not be good candidates for morally
responsibility for past injustices, particular kinds of collective entitiese.g., states,
corporations, and organized religionsmight be. For, the latter have decision-making
bodies, executive processes, and belief systems that extend over time. J. Thompson
(2006) argues therefore that they can be understood as legitimate cites of moral
responsibilityalthough it is not clear that they have the kinds of agency that we
normally associate with moral responsibility.
How, if they are not moral agents, can Thompson or anyone else speak of groups such
as states, corporations and organized religions, as morally responsible? Thompson feels
comfortable speaking of these groups as morally responsible for harm on the grounds
that they are like moral agents. According to Thompson, whether they count as real
moral persons or only act as if they were, it seems that we are, at least sometimes,
justified in judging these collectives according to the standards that we apply to moral
persons (Thompson, 2006, p. 158).
But it is not clear that likeness is strong enough to sustain the nature of these groups as
moral agents of the kind that we normally associate with moral responsibility. For
acting like a moral agent is not the same thing as being a moral agent. (And if one
really is a moral agent then there is no need to go to the lengths of specifying likeness.)
I suggest below that the unlikelihood that groups are really moral agents does not mean
that the latter cannot be held morally responsible for harm. But it does mean that we
have to re-think the kinds of moral responsibility that we associate with groups in such
a way that moral agents of the Kantian kind are not necessary.

4. Can Collective Responsibility be


Contemporary moral and political philosophers are generally careful to distinguish

between collective responsibility, on the one hand, and individual or shared
responsibility, on the other. But they do not leave individual moral agents behind
altogether. Indeed, after analyzing collective responsibility as part of group morality,
they frequently place individual moral agents back at the center of their attention in an
effort to discern what collective responsibility means on the level of individual moral
actors. Is it possible, they ask, for individual members of a group to be collectively
responsible for group-based harms in cases where they did not directly cause it? In
cases where they did not do anything to stop it? If so, under what conditions?
While those who answer these questions tend to focus on the transferability of
collective responsibility and its relationship to individual moral agency in general, they
do not ignore concrete historical examples in which the moral responsibility of
particular groups of individuals for harm is in question. Indeed, almost all of those who
write about collective responsibility and the question of distribution place such concrete
historical examples of harm at the center of their analyses of collective responsibility in
an effort, not just to understand collective responsibility as an abstract construct, but to
discern whether or not particular groups of individuals in history can be held morally
responsible for harms that their groups caused, whether those groups are ethnic groups
(Germans), nations (America) or racial groups (Whites).
Both Karl Jaspers (1961) and Hannah Arendt (1987), as well H. D. Lewis (1948), were
clearly concerned in their writings on collective responsibility about whether or not the
German people can legitimately be held collectively responsible for World War II Nazi
crimes. So, too, were Sanford Levinson (1974), Richard Wasserstrom (1971) and others
who produced their own arguments about collective responsibility in light of the
Nuremberg trials. The My Lai killings of the Viet Nam War, along with the Kitty
Genovese murder and corporate scandals of all kinds, influenced much of the
philosophical work done on collective responsibility during the 1970s and 80s,
including that of Peter French, Larry May, and Virginia Held, and while it is only
recently that group-based oppression such as racism and sexism have come to be of
interest to those writing on collective responsibility, they now figure importantly in the
writings of Larry May (1987 and 1992), Howard McGary (1986), Marilyn Friedman
(Friedman and May 1980), and Anthony Appiah (1987).
In all of these discussions, the question is whether the whole communityor large parts
of itcan be held responsible for the harms produced by particular group members in
cases where not all group members caused the harm directly. Is it appropriate to hold all
Germans responsible for the deaths of extermination camp victims during WWII? all
Americans for the atrocities of the Viet Nam War? Can we legitimately blame all men
for the gender-based oppression and sexual violence that women experience in all
societies? Can we blame all whites for the racist treatment of blacks in the U.S.? What

about members of these groups who go out of their way to stop the harm? Are they
excused from blame because they tried to reform their communities or are they, too,
responsible for the harm in question by virtue of their group membership?
While the arguments made in this context tend to be tied to particular cases of groupbased harm, they are for the most part designed either to establish general criteria for
distributing collective responsibility among group members or to demonstrate that
collective responsibility cannot in the end be distributed at all. The latter arguments
frequently proceed as follows: While collective entities generally act through their
individual members, their actions do not coincide with their member's actions. Nor is
their moral agency merely the moral agency of their members or the moral agency of
group representatives. Instead, such agency isif it is to be genuinely collective moral
agencyan agency that is attached to the collective itself and hence not the kind of
thing that can be distributed across group members or, for that matter, attached to
anything other than a collective itself. In other words, such agency is the kind of thing
that necessarily has collectives, and not individuals, as its subject matter.
Peter French makes such an argument himself in Individual and Collective
Responsibility (1998). But he cautions that the non-distributional character of collective
responsibility does not mean that individual members of the group that is collectively
responsible for harm are themselves blameless. Indeed, he claims, many of these group
members will be morally responsible for all sorts of harms that their group causes.
[I]t should be noted that from Collectivity A is blameworthy for event n, and A is
composed ofx, y, and z, it would be presumptuous to conclude that x, y, and z do not
warrant any blame forn, or that x, y, r z is not himself blameworthy in the case of n. My
point is that such judgments assessed on members of the collectivity do not follow
necessarily from judgments of collective blame (French 1998, p. 25).
The above claim clearly makes sense if we are talking about keeping collective
responsibility in tactqua collective responsibility in our efforts to ascribe it in practice.
But we might want to loosen things up here a bit and suggest that collective
responsibility is the basis upon which we ascribe responsibility to individual group
members for harm that the group itself caused. In other words, we might want to
suggest that individual group members can take collective responsibility into
themselves as persons, in which case collective responsibility changes form and
becomes something closer to personal responsibility, albeit personal responsibility that
exists only because one's collective is responsible for harm. In many cases, this is what
those in philosophical circles who are concerned with the question of how to distribute
collective responsibility seem to have in mind. How do they attempt to distribute
collective responsibility?

In The Question of German Guilt, Karl Jaspers (1961) distinguishes between moral
guilt that is based on what one does and moral guilt that is based on who one is. He
argues that the latter, which he calls metaphysical guilt, can be distributed to all
members of a community who stand by while their fellows produce harm, e.g., murder
Jews. In this context, to be morally blameworthy for harm is largely a matter of
belonging to an evil community without asserting one's own moral powers over the
community to cleanse it of such evil. According to Jaspers, [t]here exists a solidarity
among men as human beings that makes each as responsible for every wrong and every
injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his
knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can do to prevent them, I too am guilty (Jaspers
1961, p. 36).
Jaspers has several contemporary followers, including Larry May and Juha Raikka
(Raikka 1997), who choose to express Jaspers' notion of metaphysical guilt as moral
taint, a notion that emphasizes, among other things, the extent to which, in Anthony
Appiah's terms, we are dirtied by association with our community's harmful actions.
Appiah himself is very reluctant to apply the language of moral taint in general and
does so only in particular cases where there are strong causal connections between
individuals and harm. May, on the other hand, finds moral taint in many places and goes
as far as to tout the utilitarian virtues of distributing collective responsibility widely.
According to May, seeing one's own moral status as interrelated to that of one's fellow
group members will negate the tendency to ignore the most serious moral evils: those
which can only be thwarted by the collective efforts of the community (May 1987, p.
Methodological and normative individualists tend to reject the notion of metaphysical
guilt on two related grounds. The first is that it severs the link between responsibility
and control, especially in cases where the group membership being invoked is one that
individuals cannot possibly choose, e.g., membership in racial, ethnic or national
communities (For a very interesting assessment of this claim, see: Radzik 2001). The
second is that the metaphysical notion of guilt violates the liberal ethic of what Rawls
calls the separateness of persons. According to Rawls, in ascribing responsibility we
have to consider persons separately and focus on their own actions so as not to violate
principles of justice, principles of justice that for Rawls themselves begin with the value
of discrete individuals (Rawls 1971).
While not all liberal individualists agree with Rawls' particular claims here, they do
agree with Rawls that, at the very least, individual group members have to be faulty in
some way in order to be held collectively responsible for harm. Joel Feinberg's theory
of group liability is often taken as a starting point of discussion in this context.
According to Feinberg, in distributing collective responsibility, we need to focus on two
kinds of cases: cases in which all members of a collective share the same fault or cases

in which all members of a collective contribute to harm but at different levels. In both
kinds of cases, Feinberg stresses, there does not need be a direct link between the
individual being held responsible and the harm, but there does need to be the sharing of
Various faults can exist in the absence of any causal linkage to harm, where that
absence is only a lucky accident reflecting no credit on the person who is at fault.
Where every member of a group shares the same fault, but only one member's fault
leads to any harm, and that not because it was more of a fault than that of others, but
only because of independent fortuities, many will be inclined to ascribe collective
liability to the whole group (Feinberg 1968, p. 687).
Feinberg himself is willing to ascribe collective responsibility to group members for
such harm in some cases, although, he makes clear, in doing so we need to shift our
attention away from strict liability to a softer kind of social blame on grounds of
fairness. He concerns himself with three kinds of cases in particular, namely, those in
which large numbers of individuals are independently at fault; those in which the harm
is caused by a joint undertaking of numerous persons acting cooperatively, and those in
which the harm is ascribed to a particular feature of the common culture which is selfconsciously accepted by or participated in by members of the group. Feinberg is willing
to accept the possibility of ascribing collective responsibility in all three kinds of cases.
But he cautions that we need to proceed on a situation-by-situation basis, since to
ascribe collective responsibility in cases such as these requires not only that we locate
genuinely shared faults but assess various incommensurable dimensions of individual
contributions, including degrees of initiative, importance of assigned task, levels of
authority, etc.
Gregory Mellema (2006) provides a very useful way of assessing different levels of
individual contribution by distinguishing between six different ways in which
individuals can be complicit in wrong-doing. According to Mellema, individuals can
induce or command others to produce harm. They can counsel others to produce harm.
They can give consent to the production of harm by others. They can praise these others
when they produce the harm. They can fail to stop them from producing it.
A second way of tackling the distribution question in this context that does not seem to
violate the principle of individual freedom is to look, not just at the particular role that
individuals played in their community's production of harm, but at how much freedom
the individuals had to distance themselves from the community that has done wrong.
Here we might want to use voluntariness of membership as a criterion of responsibility.
Jan Narveson (2002) does so himself in his generally skeptical work on collective
responsibility. Narveson argues that in thinking about the responsibility of individuals
for group harms we need to be careful to distinguish between four different kinds of
groups, namely: those that are fully voluntary; those that are involuntary in entrance but

voluntary in exit; those that are voluntary in entrance but involuntary in exit; and those
that are voluntary in neither respect. As Narveson makes clear, responsibility is
diminished, if not eradicated, as we go down this list.
Narveson clearly takes an individualistic perspective here. Hence, he is able to address
the questions of individual freedom and personal responsibility with relative ease. Not
surprisingly, things get somewhat more complicated when we start to think about
individuals, not only as participating in groups, but as taking their identity from groups.
Karen Kovach (2006) contends that in some cases, individuals align themselves with
their groupsKovach is concerned with ethnic groups in particularto the extent that
they see the group's agency as an extension of their own. In these cases, Kovach
contends, we can distribute collective moral responsibility to all members of the group
because of what she calls moral alignment.
Moral alignment cannot of course be a simple matter of identification if it is to
sustain collective moral responsibility. For, identification does not implicate an
individual in either the intentions or the actions of the group with which she identifies.
Hence, Kovach finds it necessary to insist that if individuals are to be held collectively
responsible for group harms that they be understood as having acted out the view of
themselves as group members or as having performed the group identity.
While such an insistence goes far in showing how collective responsibility might be
distributed to all members of a group for harm that the group produced in particular
cases, e.g., in cases such as genocide or ethnic cleansing where ethnic identity is
everything, it is not clear that the responsibility in question is the kind that we normally
associate with moral responsibility. For, while acting out or performing a group
identity may contribute to harm in cases such as these, it is not the same thing
as doing something that contributes to that harm. In other words, it does not signal
moral agencyunless one asserts one's identity knowing that it will lead to harming
others, in which case it is the act of assertion, not identification, that is doing the work
Interestingly enough, one of the major points of agreement among those now writing
about collective responsibility is that responsibility cannot be distributed to those group
members who openly resist or fight against their communities' bad actions or policies.
See here, for example, the arguments of Joel Feinberg (1968), Peter French (1998),
Howard McGary (1986), J. R. Lucas (1993), and Michele Moody-Adams (1994). While
the above writers, who find collective responsibility to be a compelling moral construct
in general, differ in particular respects, they all agree that it would be wrong to ascribe
responsibility to dissenters or, in other words, that if one tries to fight harm one should
not be held responsible for it. McGary makes his own claim here in terms of what he
calls the dissociation condition, according to which a person is exempt from
collective responsibility in cases where one's community caused harm if he or she

dissociates him or herself from the action of the community by opposing its bad actions
or policies (McGary 1986).
But there are some who do call for the distribution of collective responsibility to
individuals even in cases where these individuals actively opposed their community's
wrong doings. Juha Raikka, for example, claims that the only way that opposition can
exonerate those who, say, live in a society that systematically pollutes the environment
or depletes resources, is if they are able, by dissenting, to avoid supporting the system
that does these things (a condition that, Raikka acknowledges, is very hard to meet).
According to Raikka,
[o]pposing an evil practice cleans one's hands only on the condition that it does not
require supporting another evil practice. In the end, even those who oppose evil
practices may be blameworthy for those practices. A single member of a group may
have acted as he or she, all things considered, ought to have acted, but still share
responsibility for the group's evil practices. (Raikka 1997, p.104.)
Raikka claims in this context that dissenters can be morally blameworthy even if they
cannot control the system that implicates them in evil. Hence, he finds it necessary to
do two things that not only place him squarely in the camp of Karl Jaspers and other
advocates of metaphysical guilt but that are very telling with respect to contemporary
philosophical debates about collective responsibility in general. The first is to subtract
from the set of conventionally invoked criteria of collective responsibility a criterion
that the majority of those now writing about collective responsibility take very
seriously, namely, the ability of individuals to control those things (whether actions or
harms) for which they are being blamed. The second is to detach moral
blameworthiness from the will of discrete individuals (where traditional, Kantian
notions of agency place it) and to locate its source in the greater community of which
the individuals deemed guilty are ostensibly a part.
Both of these moves force us to acknowledge that, in the end, the various differences
that exist among contemporary philosophers with respect to the coherence and
applicability of collective responsibility as a construct have their source, not just in
competing theories of intentions and actions, but also in competing notions of moral
blameworthiness. While neither defenders nor critics of collective responsibility
generally take on the nature of the moral blameworthiness that they put at the center of
our attentionSee Smiley 1992 for an extended discussion of the different kinds of
moral blameworthiness that we as a community invokethey do make clear that for
some of them the traditional, Kantian standards of moral blameworthiness still prevail
and that for others the appropriate standards of moral blameworthiness take us beyond
the wills of discrete individuals to the structure of guilty communities.

5. Alternative Approaches to Collective

Moral Responsibility has traditionally been understood to entail moraland not just
social or legalblameworthiness and moral blameworthiness has traditionally been
understood to be an aspect of an individual's own moral agency rather than a judgment
that we ourselves make on the basis of our own social and legal standards. Hence, those
who search for the conditions of moral responsibility generally insist that an individual
has herself causedfreely willedthat for which she is being held morally responsible.
Not surprisingly, the kind of free will that is required of moral responsibility
traditionally understoodcontra-causal freedomis difficult if not impossible to locate
in practice. So, too, is the softer notion of free will preferred by compatibilitists.
Hence, when contemporary philosophers turn their attention to the conditions of moral
responsibility in practice, they do not generally set out to establish the conditions of free
will. Instead, they zero in on what they take to be one of free will's key components
intentionalityand ask: Under what conditions can we say that an individual
intended X?
Smiley (1992) argues that having an intention is neither equivalent to free will nor
sufficient to ground the traditional understanding of moral responsibility (as distinct
from its Aristotelian counterpart). Suffice it to point out here that contemporary
philosophers who write about collective responsibility place intentionality at the center
of their attention and do so because they have acceptedconsciously or
unselfconsciouslythe traditional understanding of moral responsibility.
Since the traditional understanding of moral responsibility requires them, at the very
least, to defend the possibility of group intentions, and since group intentions may not
even make sense, those who want to defend the possibility of collective moral
responsibility might want to come up with an alternative notion of collective
responsibility that, while taking other requirements seriously, does not require groups to
have intentions. Can they come up with such an alternative? Or are they obliged to
accept the traditional understanding of moral responsibility?
Three things suggest that they have a lot more creative freedom in this context than they
now realize. First of all, contrary to the assumptions of many contemporary
philosophers, the traditional understanding of moral responsibility is not moral
responsibility per se. Instead, it is a distinctly Kantian notion of moral responsibility
that has at least a trio of respectable counterparts: namely, the Aristotelian, Christian,
and pragmatist notions of moral responsibility (Smiley 1992).
Second, while many contemporary moral philosophers may in the end prefer the
Kantian notion, we cannot dismiss these others simply because they do not live up to

Kantian standards. Nor, for that matter, can we designate these other notions of moral
responsibility as non-moral or as merely sociological simply because they do not
conform to what Kantians see as the moral realm. Instead, we have to make room for
the above notions of moral responsibilityand perhaps others stillin our discussions
of collective responsibility.
Third, given its association with discrete individuals, the Kantian understanding of
moral responsibility would seem to be especially out of place when it comes to
collective responsibility. For, moral responsibility as Kantians understood it is not
something that we just happen to associate with individual moral agents. Nor is its
notion of moral blameworthiness just incidently applied to individuals. Instead, moral
responsibility as put forward by Kantians is by nature associated with individual moral
agents. So, too, is the notion of moral blameworthiness that grounds it. Indeed, the latter
is best defined as individual moral blameworthiness.
All three points should be liberating for those who want to re-think collective
responsibility in ways that render it both possible and appropriate to groups. The first
suggests that there are other notions of moral responsibility available to us. The second
makes clear that these other notions of moral responsibility cannot be dismissed simply
because they do not conform to the Kantian notion of morality. The third points to the
need to move beyond what is by definition a notion of individualmoral blameworthiness
and to figure out how groups might be understood as morally blameworthyqua groups.
What might it mean for collectives to be morally blameworthy? What kind of causation
would be required to sustain a notion of group moral blameworthiness? How might we
put these two thingsgroup moral blameworthiness and causationtogether in this
context to constitute an alternative way of thinking about collective responsibility that is
both possible and appropriate to groups?
In recent years, a small group of moral philosophers has begun to ask these questions
and in doing so has provided us with intriguing alternatives to the traditional
understanding of moral responsibility. In his own re-thinking of collective
responsibility, Kenneth Shockley (2007) sets out to replace the Kantian notion of moral
blameworthiness with a looser notion of being at fault that allows us to talk about a
particular collective as deserving of some kind of punishment apart from that meted
out to its members for their role in harm (p. 452). Such punishment might mean
eradicating the groups themselves or dismantling part of them. Likewise, it might take
the form of reducing the strength of bonds between individual members or deinstitutionalizing group norms (p. 452).
Neta Crawford (2007), who also distances herself from the Kantian notion of moral
blameworthiness, points to the importance of recognizing that collectives, as distinct
from their members, can do morally bad thingsin some cases through the actions of

their membersby virtue of the particular kind of group that they are and how they are
organized. Crawford's particular concern here is with military groups whose soldiers
end up killing innocents as a result of either their rules of engagement or the kinds of
weapons that they use. What sense does it make to say that such military groups, as
distinct from their members, are morally blameworthy for the deaths of these
Crawford argues that while it makes no sense to consider a military group morally
guilty in the sense of having a tainted soul, it does make sense to consider that it is in at
least some respects a morally bad organization that deserves punishment. Not
surprisingly, such punishment has to be appropriate to organizations, as distinct from
individuals, if it is going to ground collective moral responsibility. Hence, Crawford
chooses to view punishment here as a matter of forcing a collective to apologize, make
amends, and change.
The change here frequently amounts to either eradicating parts of the group in
question or changing those aspects of the group that lead it to produce harm. In the case
of a morally blameworthy military group, it means reducing the likelihood of
systematic atrocities and avoidable accidents by reviewing and revising the choice of
weapons and rules of engagement and apologizing and making amends when
systematic atrocity occurs (Crawford 2007, p. 212).
In other cases, the punishment associated with a morally blameworthy collective may
amount to eradicating the group altogether or to forcing it to give up important aspects
of itself. The Nazi regimeor any other regime whose purpose is to destroy a race of
personswould presumably fall into the first camp. A government or business club that
excludes persons of color and/or women as part of its raison d'etre would presumably
fall into the second.
What kind of causation or agency is required by moral blameworthiness of this kind?
Since we are not talking about a Kantian notion of moral blameworthiness, we do not
have to go as far as to insist on free will. Nor as such do we have to make sense of a
group's having freely willed something bad. But, unless we want to ground moral
blameworthiness in pure utility, we do have to assume, at the very least, that the
collective in question has produced the harm.
Not surprisingly, not just any kind of production will do here. At the very least, the
collective has to play what Shockley (2007) calls an eliminable role in the production
of harmeven if that role is primarily one of providing the conditions under which
members of the collective carry out the harmful actions. In other words, the collective
has to be necessary to the harm's production by virtue of what Shockley calls its
coordinating control over members.

How can we understand such control? In the case of corporations, we can focus on the
way in which the norms of the collective determine or shape particular paths of
behavior, as well as on how incentive structures and patterns of discipline lead
individuals to act in harmful ways. Shockley finds many of these things at work in the
case of Enron. According to him, [t]he norms operative within the membership of
Enron controlled for the climate of secrecy and doubt (Shockley 2007, p. 449).
Shockley assumes here that the collective is morally responsible for harm because it
exerts coordinating control over what happens in the group. But he does not excuse
individual members from moral blameworthiness in the process. Nor, for that matter,
does he allow for the possibility that individual members may together bring about
harm without having acted in a morally blameworthy fashion themselves. Indeed, he
insists on individual members having acted as such if collective moral responsibility is
to be coherent. In cases where collectives are morally responsible for harm, the
collective serves as an enabling condition of individual blameworthy agents to perform
harmful acts (Shockley 2007, p. 442).
Shockley is wise to point out that the moral responsibility of a collective does not
preclude the moral responsibility of its members. But he may go too far in including the
moral blameworthiness of individual members in collective moral responsibility itself.
For, there areeven according to Shockley's own criteria of coordinating control
cases of collective moral responsibility in which individuals either do nothing wrong
but together bring about harm within a collective or do harmful things but are excused
from moral blameworthiness by virtue of their inability to do otherwise. Mobs are a
case of the first kind. Neta Crawford's soldiers are a case of the second.
Moreover, as argued in Smiley 2010, if we are truly concerned about collective moral
responsibility, rather than about the moral responsibility of individuals who belong to
collectives, we do not have to insist that individual members have performed actions
that render them morally blameworthy. Instead, we have to insist only that the
collective, by virtue of its very nature as the particular kind of collective that it is, have
led individual members to produce harm that they could not have produced themselves.
For, it is the moral blameworthiness of the collective itself, rather than that of its
members, that constitutes collective moral responsibility.

6. Collective Responsibility and the

Question of Consequences
When is it appropriate to hold a group responsible for harm? When is it appropriate to
refrain from holding a group responsible? As things now stand, we generally assume
that to hold a groupor, for that matter, an individualresponsible for harm is simply
to establish that he, she, or it is responsible for the harm, and as such we do not

generally find the above question especially challenging. Indeed, we often assume that
we can answer it by simply reiterating the conditions of collective responsibility itself.
But to hold an agent responsible for harm is not simply to establish that he, she, or it is
responsible for the harm. Instead, it is to make the agents' responsibility known both to
them and to the rest of the community or, in other words, to publicize their
responsibility as part of a social or legal practice of accountability in particular contexts
with particular purposes in mind.
The differences between these two thingsthe act of holding an agent responsible for
harm and the agent's being responsiblefor it are worth underscoring.
While X's being responsible for harm is a matter of what X has done,
our holding of X responsible is a matter of what we do with our knowledge of X's
behavior. The former is ostensibly a moral fact about X. The latter is an act that we
ourselves perform as part of a social or legal practice of accountability.
When are we justified in performing such an act of accountability? Since holding agents
responsible for harm sheds negative light on them and frequently results in calls for
compensation and/or punishment, we generally insist on taking fairness seriously in this
context. Moreover, in our efforts to take fairness seriously, we generally
require accuracy with respect to the facts of responsibility. Indeed, we often combine
these two conditions and say that it would not be fair to hold an agent responsible for
harm if he, she, or it was not really responsible for it.
But fairness is not always just a matter of factual accuracy when it comes to holding
groups responsible. Instead, it can beand often isa matter of making sure that we
do not in our holding of agents responsible discriminate between equally responsible
agents. In other words, it can beand often isa matter of treating like cases in the
same fashion so as not to be discriminatory. Hence the emphasis that we now see being
placed by post-war tribunals on making sure that if collective responsibility is ascribed
to particular groups it is ascribed to all groups according to general rules.
As it turns out, we do not always treat like cases in a similar fashion. Nor, for that
matter, do we always place fairness above all else. Indeed, we sometimes choose to
discriminate between cases that appear to be the same. Moreover, we do so on selfconsciously consequentialist grounds that we find to be justified.
In many of these cases, we are concerned with whether or not we can bring about
positive consequences in the world by holding particular groups responsible. (Would
these groups behave better if we did? Would others follow suit? Would harm be
prevented?) In other cases, we are concerned with consequences of a decidedly more
negative sort. (Would holding particular groups responsible for harm lead to greater
animosity among groups? create resentment in the community? stand in the way of

Interestingly enough, those who are concerned about responsibility in philosophical

circles are frequently hesitant to enter into a full blown consequentialist debate about
when we should hold particular agents responsible in practice. (I suggest why this may
be so below.) But they do often make clear that they have particular consequences in
mind when, in an off-handed fashion, they assess collective responsibility in practice. In
the case of individual responsibility, these consequences tend to be positive and include
the reinforcement of norms associated with moral agency. In the case of collective
responsibility, they tend to be both positive and negative.
While defenders of collective responsibility do not always distinguish between the
consequences of holding particular groups responsible in practice and the value of
collective responsibility per se, they do make clear that we can do important things in
the world by holding particular groups responsible for harm. Among other things, we
can raise consciousness among groups about what they are doing. We can get them to
stop harming others. We can reinforce social norms that prevent such harm from
occurring in the future. And we can make clear to the world that those being harmed are
worth taking seriously.
What about the negative consequences that might follow from holding particular groups
responsible for harm? Not surprisingly, the most commonly cited of these consequences
are those associated with the freeing of individuals from personal responsibility in both
private and public life. In some cases, the negative consequences thought to follow
from collective responsibility are a matter of moral degeneracy and/or the avoidance of
just punishment. In other cases, they are a matter of the erosion of liberal ideals and/or
threats to democratic governance.
Not surprisingly, these arguments have been taken in a variety of directions over the
years. Garrett Hardin's early work focused on the squashing of individual initiative
associated with collective responsibility (Hardin 1968). So, too, did the works of many
others during the Cold War. Contemporary liberals tend to be less vehement than Hardin
with respect to the ways in which collective responsibility undermines individual moral
agency. But they, too, worry that individuals will not take responsibility for harm that
their group is being held responsible for as well.
Richard McKeon, in an essay that rarely finds its way into contemporary work on
collective responsibility, provides us with important insights into the ways in which the
replacement of collective responsibility with personal responsibility in the West was
politically, as well as morally, crucial to the development of liberalism. According to
McKeon, the replacement of collective responsibility with personal responsibility meant
not only that individuals could exercise moral agency as individuals but that the state
would no longer be as necessary as it once was, since individuals could now take
responsibility for governing themselves (McKeon 1957).

One of the most interesting critiques of the practice of collective responsibility put
forward by a contemporary philosopher is that of Mark Reiff (2008). Reiff concedes
that holding particular groups responsible for harm can do good things in the world,
e.g., deter these groups from performing harmful actions in the future, aid us in bringing
about social order more generally, and provide communities with a basis for justice. But
he makes clear that holding groups responsible for harm can also lead to both the
escalation of violence and the watering down of moral strictures. Indeed, he claims,
some of the most heinous crimes in human historyincluding the Nazi's Final
Solution and genocide in Rwandahave been facilitated if not motivated by a belief in
collective responsibility (Reiff 2008, p. 234).
Reiff's primary focus when discussing collective responsibility and violence is on what
can go wrong when we hold groups responsible for harm over time in contexts where
each side in a conflict defines the other as collectively responsible for historical wrongs.
According to Reiff, in such cases, we are bound to encounter endless cycles of
retaliation, as well as the presentation of murderous acts as acts of punishment.
Moreover, we are bound to encounter these kinds of things not because the actors in
question lack a sense of morality but because of the particular kind of moral
righteousness that claims of collective responsibility allow those who want to retaliate
against their enemies in the name of a higher morality.
Since Reiff's focus here is on moral righteousness, we might expect him to view the
practice of holding groups responsible as bolstering morality (albeit morality of a
peculiar and skewed kind). But he does not do so. Instead, he argues just the opposite:
namely, that claims of collective responsibility canand often doundermine both the
importance of morality in general and the effectiveness of punishment in particular.
Here his focus is primarily on what happens when weinternalize collective
Reiff argues that when we internalize claims of collective responsibility, we may come
to feel more responsibilityor responsibility for more thingsthan we used to feel.
But we are less likely to follow the dictates of morality. For, while the range of our
responsibility has been expanded, the ties between responsibility and morality have
been weakened. Indeed, these ties may in some cases be totally severed. How might this
Reiff does not claim, as those before him did, that the practice of collective
responsibility allows individuals to avoid personal responsibility and hence reduces
both their moral agency and their culpability for harm. Nor does he, as his predecessors
did, understand the problem in question as a matter of too little personal responsibility
in general. Instead, he understands the problem as a matter of individuals feeling
responsible for harm even when they have done nothing wrong. (Presumably, the moral

dictates that Reiff is concerned with here are those associated with an individual's own
actions.) According to Reiff,
[the] problem is not that people are less likely to feel responsibility for their own
misconduct if they feel that others will be held collectively responsible for harm. The
problem is that collective responsibility encourages people to feel responsible and
subject to punishment even when they have behaved correctly. Hence, punishment is no
longer an incentive. (Reiff 2008, p. 241)
In the end, he concludes, [e]mbracing collective responsibility undermines the very
concept of responsibility itself, for it encourages people to disregard rather than obey
the structures of morality (Reiff 2008, p. 242).
Interestingly enough, most of those who offer consequentialist critiques of collective
responsibilityand again they are almost always concerned with the practice of
holding groups responsible for harm rather than with the facts of responsibility per se
do so on a surprisingly general level. In other words, they do not provide us with a set
of criteria for thinking about the value of holding groups morally responsible in
particular situations. But they could do so very productively on the basis of the more
general arguments that Reiff and others provide. Moreover, they could do so without
violating their own agent-based approaches to moral responsibility. For, as I have
suggested above, being morally responsible and holding others morally responsible are
not the same thing. Nor do they have the same relationship to consequences. While
consequences may be irrelevant to moral responsibility itself, they may be absolutely
key to our choice to holdor not to holdagents morally responsible in practice.


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