Charlie Hebdo attack: when should we hold a group responsible for a member’s evil?

When violence erupts, we can be tempted to make judgements about collective responsibility based on our own allegiances, rather than consistent moral principles. EPA/Ian Langsdon

When should we hold a group morally responsible for a member’s evil? In the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attacks, many will demand answers about Islam’s role in promoting violence. As we brace for the inevitable backlash against ordinary Muslims, in France or elsewhere, questions will be raised about different nations’ collective responsibility for individual acts of Islamophobia and racism.

Both questions – and others like them, such as wider responsibility for violence against women – involve judging a group’s moral responsibility for only a few of its members’ actions. Such judgements are ethically complex, and it can prove hard to make them with any consistency.

All of us can be tempted to declare the collective responsibility of other groups (such as Muslim responsibility for terrorism), even as we shrug off similar accusations when they are applied to us (western responsibility for Islamophobia).

Contributory responsibility

One challenge regarding judgements of collective responsibility is that “responsibility” is a slippery word. When we say someone is morally responsible for an act, we usually mean that they directly caused that act. But often in cases of large-scale collective responsibility, we mean something looser. We mean that the accused contributed in some indirect way, laying the groundwork for a situation where the violent action became more likely.

Sometimes, attributing this type of “contributory” responsibility can be straightforward. Most would agree that all Nazi party members bear at least some blame for its atrocities. Even if the party member did not personally commit crimes, his or her racist, brutal beliefs helped contribute to what happened.

Certainly, few doubt that inciting others to violence can be a serious wrong. This idea is captured in Aesop’s fable of The Trumpeter Taken Captive, where a trumpeter who encourages his army to fight is found blameworthy even though he carries no weapon himself.

Outside of such obvious cases, weighing contributory responsibility proves harder. Despite the violent criminal’s appeals to their religious or patriotic motives, the bulk of the group almost always denounces the violence.

Religious leaders assert that their religion forbids terrorism. Political leaders stress that racist violence goes against traditions of tolerance and the rule of law. The leaders often point out that other factors led to the violence, such as a history of personal criminality or insanity. For example, debate rages as to whether the recent siege in Sydney was a religiously motivated lone-wolf terror attack, or the final implosion of a troubled mind.

Sometimes, the collective might soften its condemnation of the violence. They may accept that some of the criminal’s reasons for anger and frustration were valid, or that the criminal was genuinely persecuted, even as they denounce the violence. In such cases, outsiders can feel the collective is partially excusing the criminal’s wrongdoing, even as those in the group can point to a clear difference between endorsing ends versus endorsing violent means to achieve those ends.

Positive responsibility

We can also use “responsibility” in a different sense, where we locate a person or group that we think should have actively worked to prevent the violence. While this person didn’t cause the act, even indirectly, we might believe they were nevertheless in charge of preventing it happening.

In this case, we might agree a religious or political leader “could have done more” to positively prevent the violence. If so, when we demand that the leader condemn the violence, we might not be saying we suspect them of contributing to it, but rather that we think the leader is well placed to bear a positive moral responsibility to try to prevent further attacks, and that this is an appropriate way of their doing so.

Group cohesiveness?

Judging collective responsibility also involves measuring a group’s cohesiveness. Cohesiveness involves the extent to which the group operates as a single agent, with its various parts able to work together or at least influence each other.

Group cohesiveness can be hard to measure. Why? Because when someone does something that we can hardly imagine doing, we naturally ask what could have motivated them.

If we are outside their group, we can suppose the reason lies in the group membership that distinguishes them from us. If we are inside the group, then instead we naturally search for some other distinguishing feature.

Each process can distort our reasoning, but at least the view from inside the group introduces more sophistication into our enquiry. From outside, communities often look homogeneous. From inside, we can appreciate the differences, divisions, partitions and personalities that prevent the group from functioning as a single community, much less a unified agent.

Let’s try for consistency

As we can see, any attribution of collective responsibility ultimately hinges on subtle principles regarding individual moral agency and complex factual claims about group solidarity. Despite these difficulties, like most ethical questions we can benefit from trying to be consistent in our judgements.

This article has discussed two applications of collective responsibility: collective religious responsibility for terrorism and collective national (or cultural) responsibility for racism and Islamophobia. What’s remarkable about these two issues, in my experience, is that those who make the collective attribution in one case are quick to deny it in the other. A person who believes Islam is essentially violent rarely accepts that Western culture is essentially racist. And vice versa.

We can all learn from the ways we resist collective responsibilities others attribute to us, even as we demand such responsibilities of others. This isn’t to say the two issues are equivalent, but rather that thinking about how we personally make these different judgements can help us reflect on the complexities involved.

… and caution

Finally, it bears mention that even in those cases where we do decide a group is somewhat responsible for violence, there remains a question of what the most helpful moral response to that decision is. Locating even a genuine case of blameworthiness does not tell us what action should be taken, much less whether we should be the one to take it.

Deciding that another person does bear moral blame certainly does not authorise us to take retribution. Believing that it does is, after all, one of the fundamental moral failings of both the terrorist and the racist thug.