Tainted by the Sins of Our Fathers?

21 July 2014

This week, we’re discussing moral taint and collective responsibility. We’re asking the question, “Can we be tainted by the sins of our Fathers?” You might think that the answer is that we certainly can. Adam and Eve ate that darned  apple and tainted all humankind with Original Sin.  Now I know that that’s the biblical theory… but, frankly, I don’t get it.  I have never gotten it. They ate the apple.  Not us.  Why would a loving God hold  us – their descendants – responsible for what they did?   What kind of divine justice is that??

Of course, it’s not just the Bible and religion.  It's also the law that can taint us with the sins of others.  A parent allows their underage kid to drive the car. The kid gets in a crash and injures some people.  Who do you think they’re going to sue?

You could argue, I suppose, that underage children are a special case.  They are not fully responsible for themselves.  But they are still capable of action.  And when things go wrong,  somebody has to be held responsible.  And since parents are responsible for the care, feeding, and nurturing of their children, it makes a certain degree of sense to hold them responsible for the actions of their children – especially when the parents are negligent in their stewardship of their children.

But it’s not just with one’s children that one can be held responsible for the actions of another. You’re an employer. One of your managers barters promotions for sexual favors.   Even if the employee is a fully functioning, autonomous adult, you, as his employer, can still be sued for his actions.  

Ah, but that’s because the law regards managers as agents of their employers. And it’s quite generally true that when somebody is directly acting as my agent, I can be held responsible for what they do.  More generally,  it seems that we can assign responsibility to agent x for the actions of agent y only when there is some special relationship between x and y that enables that.  We’ve discovered two such relations – being the parent of and being an agent of.  When x is the parent of y,  x can be held responsible for at least some of y’s actions.  When y acts as x’s agent,  x can be held responsible for at least some of y’s action.

 Perhaps we can rescue a more general principle by saying something like this.  In general,  I am  responsible for all and only my own actions and not the actions of others.  The only exceptions are when there is some special relations between me and the other – like when I am their parent or when they act as my agent.

The problem is that the so-called special cases can easily be made to pile up.  And it begins to look like our general principle will get whittled down to almost nothing.

Suppose, for example, that the US decides to invade some faraway land, seizes their oilfields and installs a puppet government to do its bidding.   I think I’d feel pretty outraged.  But I’d also feel something else – a certain degree of shame.   Now I might feel the same outrage if it were Russia doing the invading,  but I wouldn’t feel ashamed.   Shame seems inappropriate as a response on my part to Russian adventurism in the world.  Ask yourself why that is?  The answer, I think, is pretty easy.   I am not a Russian.  And because of that I bear not even the tiniest bit of responsibility for what Russia does – good or bad.   But I am an American and just in virtue of being one I can be tainted by the sins, if not of my father, than of my country.

Do I really  bear any responsibility for what the US does?  Isn’t it the officials who decide our policies and/or the ones who faithfully and willingly execute those policies who  bear real responsibility?   Surely they do the bear the brunt of the responsibility.  But I don’t think that we citizens can fully escape responsibility either …  especially not in a democracy, especially if we  condone and support those policies.  We can’t just wash our hands of what we  empower the government to do in our names.  And it’s not just those of us who condone and support the policies that are to some degree responsible.   Even people who, say, secretly disapprove of the policies but are too afraid or lazy to openly resist bear some responsibility.  Now I grant that their responsibility is perhaps more limited.  They, I suspect, are only responsible for what they themselves actually did or didn’t do -- their failure to speak up.  That doesn’t make them responsible for what their nation ended up doing. But it does show that  they too can be morally  tainted by the  actions of their country in a way that an outside non-resister cannot be.

And maybe, just maybe,  things can get even more complicated.  It seems plausible to me that you can be somehow tainted even by actions in which you played no part whatsoever,  in which you neither did nor failed to do anything relevant to the problematic actions.    Suppose that for several centuries your ancestors held my ancestors in slavery.  Yours got richer and richer; mine got poorer and poorer.   One day the slaves are finally free. But for decades, maybe even centuries after, the descendants of the slaves are much worse off than the descendants of the slave holders.   Finally, we get to you and me.  Just because you benefited from that history and I was harmed by that history, you and your brethren, may owe reparations to me and my brethren, even if  you guys aren’t actively oppressing us guys anymore.

Or maybe you do.   I don’t want to say that you definitely do owe us reparations.  But I don’t want to say that you definitely don’t, either.  I just want to say that the issue is a lot more complicated than we  were first making it out to be.     And what better way to clear it up than listening to our episode and/or contributing to this ongoing discussion here on our blog.   I’m dying to hear what you think.

Comments (10)

SuzieQ45's picture


Monday, July 21, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Professor Taylor, you are

Professor Taylor, you are obviously educated and sophisticated;  in short, a highly-evolved human being.  Unfortunately, most of the world's billions of inhabitants are far more primitive. Your proposal, to hold persons accountable for actions in which they personally took no part, is dangerous when seized by primitive individuals.  The results of "the sins of the fathers" creed are all too evident in the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, SE Asia, and possibly the former US slave states, to list but a few.  In its most basic statement, the idea is this: your "people" (ancestors, ethnic group, religious congregation, race, nationality--whatever) harmed me, or my people. Therefore, you are accountable, and I may now punish you, and others of "your kind" for those transgressions.  I don't understand how any rational person could find this fair or just.  If someone wearing a green shirt assaults me, am I justified in blaming any and all who are similarly dressed?   By your logic, I might be.
But beyond questions of basic fairness, this thinking can, and does, lead to violence and to such atrocities as ethnic cleansing and genocide.  By way of example:  if I know that a certain group holds me, my children and my children's children accountable for an evil act done by my great-grandfather, I have every incentive to regard members of the group with intense suspicion.  Then, if my worst suspicions appear to be confirmed by a perceived threat, I might decide that to save my people, it is necessary to marginalize this group politically (denying them voting rights, e.g.), or to drive them from the area in which we live (economic isolation, segregation, or outright ethnic cleansing), or--should these measures fail--by mutilating or killing them.  At this point, I would certainly be aware that now their people will blame not only me, but all of "mine" for what has happened.  Logically, therefore, the solution might well seem to be to kill them all--every man, woman and child--in order that there be nobody left with a grudge against us.  From an evolutionary perspective, ethnic cleansing and  genocide are highly predictable responses to the "sins of the fathers" ethic.
As to the question of "reparations", let it go.  Generations ago, slave owners (i.e., white people) did a gross injustice to Africans (i.e., black people) seized and delivered into slavery by Arab traders.  All of the people who were involved in any part of that system are long dead.  Furthermore, the system itself ended well before the majority of present-day Americans' ancestors arrived on the shores of the US.  There can be no claim under any guise against these descendants of later immigrants--unless the "green shirt" example actually makes sense to you.  Although the justice system of the US is undoubtedly flawed, its goal of holding accountable those who have actually transgressed is far superior to prosecuting the transgressors' descendants, along with anyone who looks like them, worships as they do, hails from the same part of the world, speaks the same language, etc., etc.   Have you actually done the necessary research to ascertain exactly which "ancestors" were slave holders?  Or who the "descendants" of these slave holders actually are?  It seems to me that you are putting forth a blanket indictment of all white people in the US, regardless of whether their ancestors lived in a different country until after 1865, or were indentured servants themselves, or were, in fact, devout abolitionists.  
At this point, I confess that I am feeling like I am rising to the bait.  But I can assure you that I, as one of seven children of high school-educated parents, received no "wealth" from my parents.  I went to college, working my way through, with little more than the clothes on my back.  My parents did not, and in fact could not, provide me with cash to go to college.  I can honestly say that I earned everything I have through the sweat of my own brow.  Which brings me to my final comment:  whoever our ancestors may have been, we (the 99%) have a lot more in common than you believe.

Ken Taylor's picture

Ken Taylor

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 -- 5:00 PM


I actually don't support reparations personally, partly for some of the reasons you lay out.  I think we do a good job of sorting through the issue on the episode, so be sure to give a listen, when you get a chance.  My own thought about reparations is that it is a bad way of framing a real issue, that can lead, in the hands of more "primitive"  thinkers, to use a phrase of yours, just the sort of mistaken reasoning you outline.   A better way is to think in terms of justice -- all kinds of justice, distributive justice, compensatory justice, etc.    Basically if we look at the effects of the past on the present from the point of view of justice,  we can see the past as having the effect of something like  a lottery.  But sometimes the lottery is rigged.  And sometimes jusstice  demands that we pursue policies that make up for the results of a rigged lottery.    If we think of it in these terms, we get away from us thinking in terms of one person or group  of persons paying reparations to another person or group of persons on the basis of what some long dead person or persons   did or didn't do to some other long dead  person or  persons.    We don't really need to trace  lines of descent from past to present to figure out who owes what to whom as a matter of contemporary justice.   We just need to figure out how best to ameliorate the contemporary effects of the rigged lottery.

MJA's picture


Thursday, July 24, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I think it is best to learn

I think it is best to learn from our past, and that is reparation enough for me. =

Fred Griswold's picture

Fred Griswold

Friday, July 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Regarding original sin, the

Regarding original sin, the thing about it is that according to Christian theology, before you can get into Heaven you have to be a sinner first, then you have to repent. That's why God has to provide us all with a sin of some kind. It wouldn't be fair to leave some of us out of the game. Original sin is a convenience afforded us by the Holy Maker just in case we don't have anything else to fall back on.

Mark Caplan's picture

Mark Caplan

Friday, July 25, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Scientists of European

Scientists of European ancestry developed drugs to treat HIV-AIDS that prevented possibly hundreds of millions of Africans from dying prematurely. Perhaps others can think of one or two other positive contributions people of European ancestry made to Africans and humanity in general. Do those positive contributions subtract from their ancestor's sins when we compute who owes what to whom, or should we harp only on the sins and pretend the positives don't exist?

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 17, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

The Bible makes sense if you

The Bible makes sense if you can accept that God isn't a magical being.  Gad, the Father, lends DNA, and the apple that will surely kill you for the price of knowing good and evil would make a kid eat apples, and they should know they're going to die anyway. 
We still owe reparations, and the government should address profiling by color.  At least when the housing market suffered for African Americans moving into upper middle class neighborhoods, all the good houses became affordable.  Racism in America has been subject to idiocy, for the fact that Jesus was very much Colored.  MLK Jr.s speech is often titled "I have a dream..." because white people can stomach that.  The words and location of the speech were carefully chosen, and are very powerful in imagery and association.  I personally think he'd torture white people for fun if he didn't understand the need for someone to stand at the foot of Abraham Lincoln's tax funded statue and demand the recognition for pain and suffering that was to remain long endured.  White treatment of African Americans fit into several categories that contribute to civil unrest, and torture; discrimination is a kind way to put it.  Who the fuck discriminates on who to hose down with How many pounds per square inch of water pressure?  That doesn't fit into the category of paying for your daddy's mistakes.  White bigots, to be open about it, judge on the merit of being not judged, and it's oxymoronic.  How many African Americans would call is a sin and punishable by eternal damnation to covet your neighbors wife?  It'd be a short and well devised hell, a hell on Earth.
But responsibility just is.  It's not something to place feelings on.  Grown ups don't have feelings unless they are emotionally unstable, if they wish to call on feelings to guide actions.  That's absurd.  We know enough, as a species, to do what makes common sense for problems that we can identify. 
BP leased that rig, parents with children that do shit that needs to be addressed should probably get a nanny or otherwise address their shortcomings, and the 99% don't trade in stocks so we really can't complain at this point.  Responsibility isn't something that we can decide on, and it's ridiculous a thing to desire to ignore.  It's not a choice; there are implying factors to responsibility, and identifiable, therefore likely to have specific means of addressing. 
So, my dad's father was mentally ill, and was such a horror to him that he doesn't see mental illness in himself.  He has a downed power line, filed for bankruptcy after maxing out many many credit cards, neglected me as a child in many ways that were his legal responsibility, and assumes all responsibilities are of one who identifies a problem whether or not it clearly points to him.  I have a mental illness and he'd like me to not have one.  So, my father has slandered me and discussed me in ways that make him look like an asshole and an idiot.  My dad would also like to see his influence on me, and while I had expressed that, it made me seem like a crude and novel person.  His most recent offense was telling my niece racist jokes; and because I was so fucking offended, my niece can see the racism of '80s episodes of My Little Pony, where the white girl and white pony save the day.  She's going to be the shit. 
Anyway, if our government wanted to seize oil fields, and it were intolerable, each person can make choices in respect to that, to adequately respond; it'd be a fine time to order solar panels in bulk, or otherwise address that shit.  My own senator seemed overly concerned with a simple difference for the Presidential qualifications of another country that was so similar to ours.  So fucking what, perhaps?  Don't you know we still use coal, only?

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