There is a widespread assumption that moral responsibility attaches only to individuals, or at least that we are morally responsible only for those actions which, as individuals, we perform freely with knowledge of what we are doing. On the other hand, we sometimes also attribute moral responsibility to groups of various kinds. Is the idea of group or collective responsibility compatible with the idea that moral responsibility is located solely in individuals?
The question is topical because the increasing knowledge of war crimes in Ukraine has led to a desire in the West to prosecute not only Putin as an individual but also his associates. The prosecution of Putin, if it ever happens, is quite compatible with the assumption that moral responsibility is exclusively a feature of individuals. But can the groups round Putin, or even the Russian people, be held morally responsible for the truly evil actions currently being carried out in Ukraine?
Discussions of collective responsibility usually involve a distinction between different types of collective. Some collectives have well-defined identities and decision-making procedures, such as large commercial businesses, or political entities such as the Cabinet in the UK Government or the Russian Government inside the Kremlin. They are what we can think of as corporate collectives, or 'corporations' for short.
A second type of collective is one in which the group members identify themselves as group members and share attitudes, values and aims. A political party or even a much larger group, such as an entire country, might be an example of a collective of that sort. I shall call that a 'values collective'. Specific attitudes, beliefs and values characterise this kind of collective. A specific ethos is pervasive in this sort of collective and it can create the identity of a profession, such as medicine or 'the Royal Navy', or even a national identity. Both types of collective – the corporate and the values – are central to current issues of the collective responsibility for the attack on Ukraine.
Corporate responsibility is the easier of the two to deal with. We can say that corporate responsibility is the responsibility of a corporate person, which we might define as an association of individual persons bound together by a common purpose and governed by agreed rules or a charter. Corporate responsibility is a species of collective responsibility, and is a valid legal concept. In the area of business it has an entire area of the law to itself, concerned with such matters as corporate creditors, corporate criminal liability, corporate governance, and many other arcane subjects.
It is less clear that it can be a valid moral concept, at least if we go along with the common sense assumption about moral responsibility that I mentioned at the start – that it belongs solely to individuals.
A solution might be to say that a corporate person is an assemblage of functional roles, such as 'Chancellor', 'Home Secretary' and so on; or 'board member', 'chief executive' and so on. These functional roles will be defined in terms of the purposes and rules of the corporation. But individuals occupy the roles.
We can therefore argue that, while the content of the decisions emerging from the roles reflects the purposes of the corporation, it is the individuals who occupy the roles who endorse the decisions and enact them. In this way, it is possible to combine corporate decisions – the agreed decisions emerging from the relevant roles – and moral responsibility, since individuals take moral responsibility for the decisions they make. To the extent that a chief executive, or head of corporation, endorses these role decisions, he/she will become morally responsible for the decisions of the entire corporation.
Cabinet responsibility seems to operate in that kind of way. A Cabinet decision reflects the views of the Cabinet as a whole, and each member is equally morally responsible for that decision. If a member of the government disagrees with a corporate decision, then the only choice is resignation.
I do not know enough about the detailed roles within the Russian Government to comment but details are not really relevant in this context. Presumably, the corporate will is expressed in the decisions of Putin and in the defence offered by his spokesman Dmitri Peskov and other close associates. It follows that they can be held morally responsible for these decisions. Collective responsibility can therefore be attributed to that corporate body which is the Russian Government.
It is helpful to approach the responsibility of the attitudinal or values species of collective from a different starting point. Consider some of the institutions which make up our own society, such as the army, the police, the medical profession, the trade unions, the legal institutions, and many others. They all have something which can be called an 'ethos'. By ‘'ethos', I mean that they have a shared history and values which will affect the very identity of those in the ethos, and therefore will affect their decisions.
The same is true on a larger scale of an entire country. In Scotland, we hear about Scottish values and there is a developing awareness of the good and bad aspects of our history. It is these and similar factors which make up what at the start I called an 'attitude or values collective'. An 'attitude collective' with its powerful 'ethos' leads us to interpret international events in a certain way, or to view them through a certain lens. The shaping causality and solidarity of a national ethos can be a good thing in that it provides support in the carrying out of difficult or stressful duties. It is the central element in patriotism and it can encourage or discourage certain government actions.
But it has a huge downside. The ethos discourages criticism. In Russia, information which might lead to criticism or dissent is hard to come by. The views of those outside the collective ethos are not welcome.
Consider another example. In the 1970s, the Americans pursued a war in Vietnam which was widely condemned for its atrocities. One case became prominent: that of Lieutenant Calley, who was prosecuted for a war crime. There was little doubt that he had committed a war crime, as no doubt many of his colleagues also had (and perhaps too some of our own soldiers in Iraq). But his defence was that he was simply expressing the collective values of the USA at that time. Burning children alive with napalm gas was permissible to promote the collective value of democracy, considered in the US and here too to be the supreme value.
The International War Crimes Tribunal, which was set up in 1967 through the efforts of Bertrand Russell, put America itself on trial. The Tribunal declared that the US was guilty of the crime of genocide. Jean Paul Sartre in a speech to the Tribunal declared: 'America is guilty'.
Does all this mean that those belonging to attitude collectives can be held morally responsible? To put the point more clearly, is it reasonable to hold the individual citizens of an entire country morally responsible for the actions of their government? The grounds would be that they share an ethos, a pervasive attitude and values, which encourage the actions of the corporate body which is their government. I think that would be an extreme position. Nevertheless, the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, wrote in 1968: 'Every German is made to share the blame for the crimes committed in the name of the Reich… inasmuch as we let such a regime rise among us'.
The current situation in Russia is slightly different. The Russians cannot be said to have 'let the regime arise'. As a result of the clamp down on accurate information and the fostering of a sense of grievance, a majority seem to approve of the regime and its ambitions. What we can therefore say is at least this: that those identifying with the ethos are complicit in the actions of their government.
In sum, then, there are two possible ways of looking at collective responsibility. It can be seen as what I have called 'corporate responsibility', where a corporate body has a clear structure in which individuals act with delegated responsibilities. Insofar as a collective can be interpreted as a corporate body, it is consistent with attributing moral responsibility to those who act in it and agree with its aims. Moral responsibility can therefore be attributed to the current government of Russia.
Collective responsibility can also be interpreted in a wider and vaguer sense. Groups, which can be anything from team supporters in football, professions and entire countries, possess their own attitudes, beliefs and values, which I have have summed up as their 'ethos'. It is controversial as to whether individuals can be held fully morally responsible for actions encouraged or permitted by this 'attitudes collective'. But at least they are complicit in the wrong-doing which the attitude encourages.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow