So I've recently been thinking a lot about issues relating to collective responsibility, and it occurs to me that I haven't posted very much about the issues. Accordingly, I figured that it might be worthwhile to provide something of an overview of where my thinking has gone on this issue. In what follows (including subsequent parts), I will include citations that often come from Larry May's and Stacey Hoffman's edited collection, Collective Responsibility: Five Decades of Debate in Theoretical and Applied Ethics; I will designate these with the letters "CR".
The first thing that will be necessary to deal with in any discussion of collective responsibility is methodological individualism -- the idea that all statements about collectives are in principle reducible to statements about the individuals who compose those collectives, and that if we wanted to be really precise (allowing, of course, for the idea that sometimes we don't), we would want to only use statements and terms that referred to individuals, and not groups. If methodological individualism is a plausible approach to thinking about the sorts of issues that raise questions about collective responsibility, then it would seem that talking about collective responsibility as being somehow separate from individual responsibility would be a mistake. Collective responsibility would be at best shorthand for certain (reducible) matters of individual responsibility, and at worst the fabrication of nonsensical (that is, non-reducible) attributions of responsibility to entities that don't really exist.
Accordingly, I will direct my attention towards this idea in this post, and leave discussing other issues for later posts. I will first address methodological individualism broadly, and then focus my discussion on the subject of moral responsibility. I will then address the idea of holding groups accountable for wrongs that cannot properly be distributed across the membership of the group. Finally, I will offer a few concluding thoughts about whether methodological individualism really makes sense in thinking about collective moral responsibility.
So what, then, of methodological individualism? Is it true that statements about collectives are really reducible to statements about the individuals who compose those collectives? I don't think so. In his essay, "Collective Responsibility," David E. Cooper writes (CR 37):
Very often the person who ascribes Responsibility is not willing or able to mention, explicitly, individuals. Nor, if he could, would his statements mentioning individuals be equivalent in meaning to his statement about the collective. This is because the identity of a collective does not consist in the identity of its membership. The local tennis club is the same club as it was last year, despite the fact that new members may have joined, and old ones departed. The expression 'the local tennis club' does not, except in rare circumstances, refer to a determinate set of individuals. So it is absurd to equate the meaning of a statement about a collective with the meaning of a statement about a number of individuals.
Cooper continues (CR 39):
When a person says 'My stamp collection is very old' he may well agree to the set of statements, 'stamp X is old; stamp Y is old; stamp Z is old…etc.'. Here we may say that the predicate used to describe to collective is 'divisible'; that is, it is applicable to the members of the collective taken singly. Contrast the above case, though, with the following; A person states that the stew is delicious, but he certainly does not think that any of the ingredients, taken singly, are delicious. The stew’s being delicious is, of course, the result of the ingredients having the qualities that they do; but not one of them need be delicious. Here we say that the predicate used to describe the collective is 'indivisible' over the field of its members.
I think that these observations are correct and fatal to the methodological individualist position. I also think that Cooper's identification of "indivisible predicates" is particularly important. Where there are "divisible" predicates, it seems to me as though we could follow the individualists in saying that to do so would bring about more precision. But it seems rather clear to me that there are instances where there are "indivisible" predicates (whether because of persistent collective identity that's independent of membership flux, or because of emergent phenomena that arise from components' interrelationships, or whatever), and that in these cases we must abandon the reductionist mindset and understand what we are looking at as a uniquely collective phenomenon.
It should here be noted, however, I am not in this post supposed to be discussing collectives in a completely broad sense -- I am discussing them in the context of ascribing moral responsibility. And while the reductionism of methodological individualism is not well suited for all discussions of collectives, it may be that reductionism makes sense when discussing issues of morality. In his essay, "Collective Responsibility" (yes, everything ever written on this subject is in the form of an essay entitled "Collective Responsibility"; get over it), Jan Narveson writes (180):
The question for morals is always and fundamentally cast in individual terms: what is this, that, or the other person to do? If we think that there are things which groups should do, those claims will say nothing to anyone unless there is some way of understanding that individuals, such as members of that group or persons affected by its behavior, have duties or rights or some other moral status in relation to it.
I think that this is an important point. Even if we want to somehow argue that collectives can bear moral responsibility for things as collectives, it ultimately won't matter at all unless we translate that claim into some notion about what the member individuals are responsible for. Narveson conveys this well when he writes (185):
...given irreducibility, you can infer no individual responsibility at all, whether equal or otherwise. If no individual did this thing, no individual is responsible for it...
It may here be objected that just because collective responsibility may be non-distributive, that wouldn't mean that we couldn't hold the members accountable through some distribution of "blame." And I agree that as a practical matter, this may make sense. H.D. Lewis offers what I take to be a perfectly reasonable discussion of this issue in his essay, "Collective Responsibility" (yes, really) (CR 24):
Normally, the purpose served by the imposition of penalties require [sic] the penalties to be inflicted on persons presumed to have offended, and on no others. For if punishment were meted out without discrimination, its deterrent effect would be substantially lessened and, for the most part, reversed. For punishment would then have to be regarded as sheer injury or as "an act of God" unrelated to our own volitions, and, while thus little able to hinder crimes, it would often provoke them. But there are, however, exceptional cases where expediency requires proceedings to be taken against a group as if it were an individual entity. No account will then be taken of the guilt or innocence of individual members of the group. It is in this way that a teacher punishes a class of unruly children when he is not able to discover the real offenders, or when a meticulous apportionment of blame is not practicable. Such procedure may have effect in two ways, either by (a) directly deterring the main offenders or (b) by inducing the class to deal with them in ways not feasible for the teacher himself.
He continues (CR 24-25):
...as a device for the achievement of practical ends, we have sometimes to accept collective responsibility [in a distributed sense]. This is fully acknowledged in law, where a parent may in some respects be held to account for the conduct of children, or where a society or corporation may be proceeded against as a single entity or person. Extending our canvas still wider, we have the imposition of sanctions against a whole nation in the interest of international order, although it is plain that this involves quite as much suffering for the innocent as for the guilty, the former, in a case of this sort, being probably in a very great majority. Reparations and similar measures adopted against an aggressor among nations may also be mentioned here. Such measures may be needed both in the interest of immediate discipline, and as a part of political education, and they may provide means of redress to victims of aggression. But they will involve a great deal of suffering for person who could not, by any streak of imagination, be held accountable for the culpable acts of the nation, most obvious in the case of infants and babes unborn.
Obviously, some people will take moral exception to the idea of holding people accountable in this way. But the point that I'm trying to capture by quoting Lewis is that where we hold collectives responsible for non-distributive wrongs in a distributive way, we will be doing so for pragmatic reasons, and this will not reflect any appropriate distribution of the wrong in question.
So far, I have argued that methodological individualism is a flawed doctrine in light of the existence of "indivisible" predicates that are important for our ability to understand phenomena. I have suggested that in spite of this, moral responsibility must be conceived of as relating to individuals, even if for pragmatic reasons we sometimes hold groups accountable in ways that we aren't properly distributive to their members. But does that mean that when limiting ourselves to thinking about moral issues, methodological individualism is the right way to go?
I don't think so. It seems to me that even if morality applies to individuals, it doesn't follow that the things we talk about in moral discourse have to be stated only in terms of individuals and never in terms of groups. If in thinking about the moral actions of an individual, we must deal with a situation in which an emergent or collective phenomenon is morally relevant, then the methodological individualist approach would be fundamentally flawed.
To illustrate this point, consider this quotation from R.S. Downie's essay, (you guessed it!) "Collective Responsibility" (CR 50-51):
In the first place, the rules which constitute the collective have been created or accepted by the decisions of individuals, who therefore bear moral responsibility for their decisions. If a collective tends to produce actions with a characteristic moral quality this will be partly because the decisions of the individuals who created the collective are to be morally praised or blamed. (Compare, for example, the moral decisions of those who created the collective 'The Gestapo' with those who created 'Oxfam.') In the second place, whether or not the actions of a given collective tend to produce praiseworthy or blameworthy actions some individual person freely decided to become a member of that collective. The morality of 'role-acceptance' is, of course, complex—all sorts of pressures may force a person to join a certain collective—but we can still maintain that the decision to act as a member of a collective is basically an individual decision which carries moral responsibility with it. And a person can resign if he disagrees violently with the actions he must take as a member of the collective. Finally, a person can bring various moral qualities of his own to his actions as a member of the collective. Thus the collective 'The Home Office' has often been morally criticised for the behaviour of its Immigration Officials. This is because some of them are alleged to bring their actions as members of the collective undesirable moral qualities—rudeness and so on.
It may be that ultimately, we will always want to think about moral responsibility in terms of what individuals ought to do or refrain from doing. But it seems clear to me that it would be unwise to take this as support for the methodological individualist paradigm. In moral theorizing, we will need to be able to discuss collectives as well as individuals, and it will therefore be critical that we not hamstring ourselves by accepting the implausible restrictions of methodological individualism.