Tainted by the Sins of Our Fathers?

Sunday, January 29, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Is It

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? Philosophers have long thought that we can only be responsible for what is under our voluntary control, but sometimes we feel guilty about events we didn’t bring about, simply because we are connected in some way to those who did. Many Germans, for instance, feel guilty about their ancestors' participation in the Nazi regime. Can we really be responsible for things outside of our control? Or are these feelings just vestiges of a more primitive moral outlook? John and Ken play innocent with Larry May from Vanderbilt University, author of Sharing Responsiblity.

Listening Notes

We can be tainted by the sins of our fathers, opens John. Just look at the actions of Adam and Eve and their consequences on us! Ken, however, is not so convinced. After all, he says, it was Adam and Eve who ate the apple – why should God hold the rest of humanity responsible for what was not our fault? John points out that it is not only the Bible that dictates this sort of association, it is also the law. He gives the example of underage driving resulting in a crash – in such a case, it is the parent who will be held liable. John then gives another example, but Ken argues that these are special cases and that the core of the matter is that a person cannot and should not be held responsible for actions other than their own. Ken and John then talk about the role that shame plays in the notion of guilt by association and briefly discuss slavery and the controversy over reparations, which is looked at more in depth in the Roving Philosophical Reporter.

Ken and John are joined by guest Larry May, Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Sharing Responsibility. John asks Larry what sparked his interest in the topic of moral taint and collective responsibility. Larry explains that his interest goes back to his teenage years, when the Vietnam War was taking place and he felt ashamed for the actions of his country, which was rather unlike him at the time. John asks Larry to explain one of the principles that determine to what extent we can legitimately feel responsible for another’s actions. Larry brings up the interconnectedness of human lives and how this results in our facilitation of the actions of others in ways that make us responsible for them; the indirect role played is crucial, with the main question being whether a person who is indirectly responsible for a crime has the same degree of responsibility as a person who is directly responsible. Larry opines that the degree of responsibility lessens as closeness to the act decreases.

Ken agrees that a person should be responsible if he or she somehow, albeit inadvertently, causes a certain harmful action. But exactly how much responsibility should the person be charged with? He gives the example of a worker in a factory that produces bombs that kill thousands. Here, Larry brings up the idea of moral taint, meaning how a person should feel or regard him or herself. The notion stems from that of the Ancient Greeks and is different from the concept of guilt – taint is a pollution of sorts, a feeling of being somewhat responsible. It is not as strong as being directly responsible for a certain action or being guilty of a crime. Larry provides the example of Oedipus, who sleeps with his mother and kills his father but is not aware of the familial relationship – he is thus tainted but not blameworthy.

Ken asks Larry what the principle holding each person to some degree responsible is, and Larry explains that there is also a rule of responsibility in terms of whether a person benefits from a harmful action. He gives the example of Ken having his grandfather’s watch, which was originally stolen from Larry’s grandfather. Should Ken’s title to the watch be upset at this point? Larry briefly explains how American law takes cases of changes in ownership claims, namely by only going back two generations. John asks Ken what he would do with the watch in such a case, and Ken replies that, while the item has an ugly history, time cannot be rewinded - Ken would have gotten the watch from the unjust lottery that life hands out at birth, just like chance.

Larry, Ken, and John continue to discuss distributions of responsibility. Larry suggests that the concept not be thought of at an individual level but rather as collective schemes of redistribution, which are not as fraught, and he quotes Thomas Jefferson’s statement on the fear of incessant responsibility. Questions from the audience are welcomed, and topics such as whether disconnecting oneself fully from ancestors or groups that influenced a person is sociopathic or even an option, wiping oneself clean from moral taint, and the relationship between distributive justice and politics of reparation are discussed. The show concludes with Larry speaking about public policy recommendations for reparations, including the difficulties of devising a scheme that does not disadvantage any particular person or group, and with Larry’s “silver bullet” advice.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:37): Natalie Jones talks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent at the Atlantic, to explore the debate over reparations for slavery. Could reparations actually be helpful in repairing the damage once done? William Darity, Economics Professor at Duke University, believes they indeed could – reparations would offer descendants of slaves the opportunity to “purchase” their way around obstacles remaining from slavery. Natalie also talks to Robin Kelley, UCLA Professor, on this matter.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:16): Ian Shoales discusses bad influences, sins, and to what extent individuals are shaped by history and family. He speaks of the oblivion that time offers and brings up the example of the Biblical Sodom and the two angels.