Imagine discovering that your grandfather was a serial killer. Would you feel guilty about it? Would you be at all tempted to contact the families of his victims?
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.