Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Henk ten Have

Responsibility: Collective

  • Janna ThompsonEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-05544-2_382-1

Abstract

Collective responsibility is about the moral responsibilities of groups and their members for the good or bad consequences of group behavior, the nature of these responsibilities, and how they should be assigned. Since many bioethical decisions are made by groups – teams of physicians, hospital committees, or government bureaucracies – bioethicists cannot ignore the philosophical and ethical issues that arise when groups do wrong. A central question is whether responsibility in these cases belongs to the group itself or only to its members. But equally critical is the question of how group members share responsibility and how far responsibility extends. The topic of collective responsibility also includes the responsibility of individuals to form groups capable of meeting needs and alleviating harm – a concern that has become particularly important in an increasingly interdependent world. The obligations that group members owe to each other are another aspect of collective responsibility. Whether and to what extent citizens are responsible for each other’s well-being is a perennial topic of political and philosophical debate.

Keywords

Collective responsibility Group responsibility Shared responsibility Interdependence Complicity Group agency Welfare rights 

Introduction

Discussions of moral responsibility generally focus on how an individual ought to respond to situations that require moral decision-making. This is also true in bioethics. Traditionally bioethics aims to tell us how individuals should make decisions about matters of life and death, reproduction, and medical treatment: for example, whether a woman is justified in seeking a late-term abortion or whether a doctor should save the life of a severely handicapped newborn child. But many bioethical decisions are made by groups rather than by individuals – by hospital committees, medical teams, or government bureaucracies. Collective decision-making requires bioethicists to pay attention to how a group makes decisions and how it can avoid wrongdoing. The collective nature of decision-making also requires them to address a central philosophical problem. When groups act or make decisions, where does responsibility lie?

The first topic to be considered in this discussion of collective responsibility is whether responsibilities for past actions can belong to groups themselves. The second section examines views about how members of a group share responsibility for their collective actions. The prevalence of harms that can only be prevented by collective action raises the question of whether individuals can have a responsibility to form groups capable of effective action. This is the third topic of discussion. Group members have responsibilities to each other as well as to nonmembers, and the existence and nature of mutual obligations are discussed in the final section.

History

Collective or shared responsibility becomes a matter of philosophical and general concern when groups or their members commit serious wrongs. Writing after World War Two (Jaspers 1947), Karl Jaspers asks what responsibility Germans share for the crimes of the Nazis. Guilt cannot be attributed to a people, he insists. Nevertheless, he argues that Germans as citizens have a political responsibility for the consequences of the deeds of their rulers and as individuals they bear responsibility for their participation or complicity in Nazi crimes or for their failure to oppose them. All of humanity shares metaphysical guilt in the face of Nazi injustices. Jaspers calls the guilt metaphysical because he believes that those who do evil deeds implicate humanity by manifesting a human potential for wrongdoing. “There exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsible for every wrong and injustice in the world…” (Jaspers, p. 32).

War crimes committed by soldiers in Vietnam also motivated philosophers to ask whether responsibility for these wrongs was shared by leaders or by those who supported the war. These early debates raised the question of whether groups themselves can be made responsible for wrongs. In an influential article, H.D. Lewis (1948) argued that collective guilt undermines proper moral distinctions between the actions and responsibility of individuals. Praise or blame falls upon all without discrimination. However, other philosophers insisted that groups can act as agents and should bear responsibility for what they do.

Philosophers who discuss collective responsibility have been mostly concerned with the problem of assigning guilt for the wrongs that people do in groups. But unintended harms, particularly those caused by global relationships, have encouraged an interest in the responsibility of people to organize in order to alleviate harm and solve structural problems. Virginia Held argued (1970) that individuals can have an obligation to form themselves into groups capable of rescuing people from harm. More recently Iris Marion Young (2006) has advocated a social connection model that requires all who participate in a structure that causes harm to work together to make relationships more just.

Conceptual Clarifications

In their typologies of groups, philosophers generally make a distinction between groups that are mere aggregates and groups that play a role in the lives of their members. Aggregates are defined only by a common characteristic of their members: like having blue eyes or being born in 1980. The second kind of group – the kind that figures in accounts of collective responsibility – includes those that possess decision-making bodies, as do states and corporations, and also those that lack organization but are bound together by members sharing common goals, a common identity, or, at least, a sense of belonging together. Some of these groups persist through the generations, as do states, ethnic groups, and religious groups. They are the groups most likely to play a role in forming the identity of their members. Others come together to achieve a common aim and then disperse. Not captured in the two-group typology are groups whose members have no common identity or shared purpose but who together bring about a morally significant consequence. Those people whose emitting activities are causing climate change are an example. Whether members of such groups are collectively responsible for the harmful consequence of their activities is an issue increasingly discussed by moral philosophers.

Using terminology originated by Joel Feinberg (1970), attributions of collective moral responsibility are distributive or collective (non-distributive). When people blamed the Union Carbide Corporation for the deadly gas discharge at Bhopal, they were assigning responsibility non-distributively. The group itself was the object of blame. When officials of Union Carbide were convicted of negligence, courts were assigning responsibility distributively – according to the part these individual played in bringing about the disaster. Assigning responsibility to groups raises questions about the nature of their agency and thus invites an examination of what it means to be a person with rights and responsibilities.

Ethical Issues

Does Responsibility Belong to Groups?

It is common and often convenient to assign the blame for a wrong to a group – especially in legal contexts. But whether moral responsibility should ever be attributed to a group is a basic philosophical and moral issue. Are groups themselves morally responsible for the good or bad that results from collective activities or does moral responsibility belong only to the individuals in them?

Responsibility, it is generally assumed, can only belong to those who count as agents. The existence of procedures that enable members to make group decisions in conformity to the purpose for which the group exists is sufficient in the view of some philosophers to make a group into an agent. Peter French (1984) argues that a business corporation, like Union Carbide, or a hospital run by a board of management is sufficiently like a human agent in its ability to make and carry out decisions to count as a person in its own right. On the other hand, Larry May holds that such groups are not agents who act but processes through which actions occur (1987). Though he denies personhood to groups, he agrees that corporate groups have a vicarious agency that results from members acting according to corporate decisions.

For these philosophers, satisfying the conditions for being an agent, or at least a vicarious agent, is sufficient reason for thinking that groups themselves can be blamed or praised for their actions. But some philosophers object to attributing moral responsibility to groups, either because they think that moral responsibility by its nature belongs only to individuals or because they think that assigning responsibility to groups has bad moral consequences.

Some simply insist that only individuals can make moral decisions or engage in morally responsible actions. Those who take this position might be accused of a dogmatic insistence on a particular paradigm of responsibility. But applying common assumptions about moral responsibility to groups has some disquieting consequences. We generally assume that morally responsible agents are liable for blame and punishment for the wrongs they do. But punishment of a group is apt to penalize members who had nothing to do with the wrong. This is especially so if the wrong took place in the more distant past.

The complaint that collective moral responsibility offends against a basic moral principle – that people should not be blamed or praised for what others do – is the primary criticism of those who object on moral grounds to collective responsibility. Jan Narveson (2002) insists that people should not be regarded as guilty of something simply because they are members of a group whose members did wrong. Defenders of collective responsibility point out that blaming a collective for wrongdoing is compatible with singling out particular officials for blame according to their role in bringing about the wrong. Union Carbide can be made responsible for the wrongdoing that result from its decisions or its failure to adopt and implement procedures for avoiding dangerous gas leaks, and at the same time executives and other officials can be blamed and punished for their bad judgment or failures to act. But this reply does not answer Narveson’s complaint that making a collective pay for its wrongs penalizes those members who had nothing to do with committing them or who made only a minor contribution. The reply also ignores the problem of double jeopardy: that members of a group are liable to punished for their own misdemeanor and then again for the misdemeanor of their collective.

Those who object to collective responsibility also wonder why assigning responsibility to groups is necessary. Once we have blamed and punished members of a collective for the role that they played in committing a wrong, why do we also need to assign responsibility to the collective itself? An adequate answer must explain why blaming individuals leaves us with a “responsibility deficit”: why assigning moral responsibility only to individuals cannot answer to the deeds done.

One reason for thinking that responsibility must sometimes be assigned to collectives is the interdependence of the individuals who make them up. Each member of a surgical team bears responsibility for his or her contribution to the success of the procedure. But since none of them is capable of carrying out the surgery alone, it seems that this deed must be ascribed to the group as a whole. Christopher Kutz (2000) argues that interdependence does not demonstrate the failure of an individualist approach to collective responsibility but rather an inadequate conception of this approach. When people act together, he says, individual responsibility must encompass the intentions they form as the result of their relation to each other. Members of the surgical team share an intention and all of them can be credited with the success of the operation (though some deserve more credit than others). According to Kutz, an individual is complicit and thus accountable for what people do together, when he or she intentionally participates in the collective action. Accountability in his view depends on an individual’s intention to participate and not the causal contribution he or she makes. A bomber crew that sets out with others to bomb a city shares accountability for civilian deaths caused by the raid, even if its bombs kill no civilians.

However, an appeal to “intention to participate” is problematic in cases where collective wrong is not the result of a shared intention. Many bad things done by groups are not the result of deliberate policy or shared intentions. They are the consequence of the failure, or nonexistence, of strategies to prevent harm – for example, a lack of attention to health and safety issues. They result from the structural dysfunction of an organization or inadequate procedures. Other bad things that organizations do are the consequence of what can be described as the “culture” of the group. A nursing home where many employees act carelessly or abusively toward residents is often the result of entrenched attitudes and habits. Those who are inducted into this culture may not understand that they are behaving badly, or they may assume that they are adequately fulfilling expectations. Many philosophers who believe that groups are sometimes morally responsible for wrongdoing are impressed by the role that organizational structure plays in causing harm or by the influence of an organization’s culture on the attitudes and motivations of members.

A stickler for individual responsibility like Narveson might argue that an exhaustive tally of the moral failures of group members can provide a complete account of moral responsibility for a collective wrong. These failures would include not merely intentions to do wrong but also failure to fulfill a responsibility, to review group procedure, to properly oversee an operation, to challenge or expose a defective culture, to seek out and apply relevant knowledge, or to communicate concerns. In the nursing home, we can blame some individuals for committing abusive acts, others for failing to make an effort to change the culture that encouraged those acts, administrators and overseers for failing to act on information or for a failure to attend to the fact that abuse was taking place, and so on. In practice it may be impossible to carry out a complete assignment of blame to individuals. Too much about what people know, their motivations, intentions, and capabilities may be unclear – even to themselves. Individualists can allow that, for practical purposes, it is often necessary to assign responsibility to a group. But they insist that in principle it always belongs to individuals.

Some who challenge this reductionist position insist it is impossible to assign all blame for collective failings to individuals. The demise of a tennis club, says D.E. Cooper (1968), may be the result of a cultural malaise that is not the fault of its individual members, any more than the tastiness of a stew can be attributed to its individual ingredients (pp. 39–40). Others who argue against the reductionist position point out that actions of individuals are influenced by the role they are expected to play as group members. Employees of companies and soldiers in a military corps are trained or educated for the positions they are supposed to occupy. Soldiers are not supposed to obey immoral orders and officials ought not to implement unethical policies, but in practice they do so often enough to lead to questions about how much individuals can be blamed for acts that their group role motivates them to perform.

The reductionist position is also challenged by another consideration that arises from the roles of individuals within groups. An organization like a company or a state often has commitments and contracts, policies, and aims that persist through long periods of time. Duties associated with these commitments and policies are passed on from those who originated them to those who take over responsibility for their fulfillment. These inherited obligations can include moral duties: for example, to keep a commitment that the organization made to another group or to make recompense for a moral wrong that resulted from past policies.

Organizational responsibilities can endure not only through changes of leadership but also through a generational change in membership. German companies are now paying compensation to people who they used as slave labor during the Nazi period. In 1997, President of the United States Bill Clinton made a formal apology to survivors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the US Public Health Service on a group of poor black men who over a period of 40 years were denied information about their condition or treatment of it. In these cases none of the individuals responsible for the immoral policies are still in office. Present employees and citizens had little or nothing to do with committing the wrong. So if a moral responsibility to make recompense persists, then it must belong to a group.

Not everyone agrees that such responsibilities do persist. Those like Narveson who adhere to the doctrine of individual responsibility reject the claim that present people have any moral responsibilities in respect to the deeds of their predecessors. Others think that the duty to make amends for the wrongs of the past should be interpreted as a duty of those who obtained unjust enrichment from an injustice. There are, however, considerations that tell in favor of assigning moral responsibilities for past wrongs to companies, states, and other group agents. One is the good, both moral and material, that can be obtained by forming organizations capable of taking responsibility for long-term commitments and maintaining relations of respect with other agents (Thompson 2002). But obtaining this good requires acceptance of group responsibilities by their members. The other is the requirement that agents deal justly with each other. If agents fail in their duties of justice, then they have a responsibility to acknowledge their wrongs to those they have harmed and to make recompense. If an agent is a group, then it seems unethical and irrational to set this requirement aside just because the officials who initiated and carried out the unjust policy are no longer in existence.

The ability of structured organizations to make and carry out decisions, especially decisions that transcend the ability of present members to take responsibility, the complexity of many groups, the interdependence of their members, and the effects of group culture and group roles are reasons why many philosophers think that moral responsibility sometimes belongs to groups and not just to individuals. But they differ in their views about which groups bear moral responsibilities. They agree that corporations, states, religious organizations, and other groups with an organizational structure can be held accountable for what they do. But people can act together with a singleness of purpose without such structures. Rioters or people who engage in a spontaneous act of protest are examples. In the nineteenth century, such behavior was taken to be evidence for the existence of a group mind that emerged from the shared intentions, emotions, and spontaneous coordination of group members and had a determining effect on their will and behavior. The belief that there is a controlling collective consciousness distinct from the consciousness of individuals has been largely rejected. But many philosophers think that a mob, though lacking a formal structure for making decisions, demonstrates sufficient coordination and singleness of purpose to count as a group bearing responsibility for the harm it does. Mob behavior provides a particularly clear example of how individuals can be influenced in their motivations and actions by membership in a group.

If mobs have responsibility for what they do, then why not other groups in which members share a common purpose and identify with and influence each other? Margaret Gilbert (1990) thinks that by committing themselves to act together for a purpose, whether this purpose is to take a walk or to storm the Bastille, individuals acquire a joint responsibility that cannot be reduced to responsibilities of each individual.

Whether non-structured groups count as moral agents depends on what conditions are imposed on agency. If agency requires that a group be consistent in its decisions and actions, then groups without a formal decision-making structure cannot be held to this requirement. If the point of locating agency in groups is to provide a means of assigning responsibility for acknowledging and repairing wrongs done by collective actions, including wrongs of the more distant past, then only structured groups are likely to qualify. Mobs once they disperse are no longer available to make amends, and racial or ethnic groups do not generally have institutional means for taking responsibility or making reparation. On the other hand, if group agency is a recourse that we resort to when complexity of interactions, or the way in which members influence each other, make it difficult, or impossible to assign responsibility entirely to individuals, then any group in which members act together to achieve common or overlapping purposes could count as a locus of responsibility.

How Is Responsibility Shared?

Whether a group counts as a moral agent or not, its members share responsibility for what they do together, and in law and philosophy, the crucial questions are how that responsibility is shared and who shares it. According to Kutz’s definition of complicity, those who planned and carried out the Tuskegee syphilis experiment were complicit in the wrongdoing. There were others not directly involved who might be accused of failing to prevent the harm – for example, officials who were alerted to the problem but failed to act. Legal responsibility is generally limited to individuals whose intentions are criminal and whose actions, or failure to act, contributed directly to commission of the crime. But moral responsibility can be broader in its scope. It might include individuals and organizations who contributed in some way to racist attitudes that made it possible for the Tuskegee experiment to be conceived and carried out, as well as those groups and individuals responsible for the lack of affordable health services in the region where the black men lived (a lack that induced them to join a study that offered them free medical checkups).

Kutz’s conception of complicity not only includes people who act with a shared intention to commit a wrong. It extends to those who share an identity and some overlapping intentions with wrongdoers. May (1992), influenced by Jaspers, advocates what he calls “social existentialism.” Those who share responsibility for racist violence include not merely those who commit violent acts but also those who would commit them if they were able, those who share racist views, and those who fail to counter racist attitudes in their society.

Unlike Jaspers, May does not think that all of us bear metaphysical guilt for evil deeds. Nevertheless, he extends the reach of moral responsibility to those who do not normally regard themselves as implicated in wrongdoing. He justifies his position by pointing out that violent forms of racism are made possible by the attitudes and actions of others in a society or by their failure to act. He wants members of their society to consider how they contribute to the existence of such hate crimes and to take responsibility for their contribution. Taking responsibility means changing their attitudes, refusing to support racist practices, and joining with others to combat racism. Even if there is nothing a person can do to combat racism, he or she ought at least to repudiate it. People have a responsibility for avoiding the moral taint that comes from harboring attitudes that encourage members of their group to do wrong.

The responsibilities that May assigns to members of a group are mainly future directed. They concern what people ought to do collectively to make things better or to change themselves. Some philosophers think that the only viable position to take on shared responsibility for the evil that results from complex group relationships is forward looking. Young (2006) thinks that this is true of those wrongs that result from structural relationships. Since the cause is structural, Young thinks that assigning responsibilities to individual agents – even agents like states and transnational companies – is difficult and pointless. Her social connection model gives to all those who contribute causally to the perpetuation of exploitative structures a shared responsibility to change them and to bring about relationships that are more just. Jeremy Snyder, Valerie Crooks, Rory Johnston, and Paul Kingsbury (2013) apply her model of prospective responsibility to the harms caused when people from wealthy countries take advantage of less expensive medical services available in developing countries to obtain hip replacements, dental work, or cosmetic surgery. These medical tourists sometimes cause harm to citizens of poor countries by making medical services less available or more expensive. The authors argue that the responsibility for acting to prevent these harms falls on all those who play a role in causing them: the tourists themselves, governments of developing countries who encourage this activity, and governments of developed countries who fail to act to ensure that their citizens are not causing harm.

Can People Have a Responsibility to Cooperate?

Young and those who follow her lead are drawing attention to a responsibility deficit that is particularly difficult to remedy. They are in agreement with those who think that complex interrelations make it difficult or impossible to give a full account of responsibility for wrongdoing by assigning it to individuals. But their focus is on those cases where it is also impossible to assign responsibility to an organized group or a group of like-minded people. There is no existing organization that can act effectively to prevent the harms caused by the global economy. Those who contribute to these harms are not united by a common cause or group identity. They are not complicit. Nevertheless, her social connection model gives those who causally contribute to harm an obligation to organize themselves into groups capable of changing structures that cause exploitation and harm.

Responsibility of individuals to cooperate by forming groups capable of preventing or alleviating harm is not confined to cases where the individuals bear a causal responsibility for the harm. Held (1970) convincingly argues that random individuals can have a joint responsibility to act together. Responding to a public announcement that a woman was trapped between a train and the station platform, dozens of train passengers and railway officials in a Japanese train station came to her aid by pushing on the side of the train – moving it sideways sufficiently to free her. The people who came to the aid of the trapped woman had nothing in common except for being travelers and officials who happened to be on hand when the emergency occurred. Nevertheless, this random group of individuals had a responsibility to act. If they had ignored the announcement and the plight of the trapped woman, they would have done wrong.

Held thinks that when it is obvious to everyone that action is called for and that the outcome of action would be favorable, then a random group has a responsibility to act. The passengers had a duty to act together to move the train. But it is not easy to explain how they acquired that duty. No individual had the ability to free the woman. And when the announcement was made, the passengers did not belong to a group able to achieve this end. To become such a group, they had to organize themselves and act together. The moral idea behind assigning responsibility to random groups is that people, whoever they are, sometimes have an obligation to help others simply because they are in need of help. This obligation does not cease to exist when those in need can only be helped by the cooperative action of others.

When do people have a responsibility to act together? Anne Schwenkenbecher (2014) thinks that the obligation to act jointly to remedy an evil exists when there is an obvious concrete goal, when it is fairly easy for members to act together to achieve it, when it is clear what needs to be done, and when acting does not require disproportionate sacrifice from any participant. These conditions were all satisfied in the case of the trapped woman. But she thinks that relatively few cases will satisfy all of them. The Japanese travelers had no responsibility for the woman’s predicament. But when individuals have contributed to causing the harm, as in the cases that Young discusses, then it is plausible to suppose that their obligation to work together to rescue victims is more demanding. They can be expected to make greater sacrifices and to act even when chances of success are not so great and when effective collective action is more difficult to achieve.

Nevertheless, the obligation to form a group to counter violence and exploitation or relieve victims of harm must have its limits. One complaint against Young’s conception of responsibility is its lack of specificity. It does not tell people how they can go about forming a group, engaging in effective action, and avoiding counterproductive effects. The difficulties are especially daunting when the structures that cause harm are global. Moreover, there are many systemic social evils to which individuals contribute in one way or another. Acting to counter each and every one of them would be beyond human powers and certainly beyond what can be expected of an individual. However, these difficulties do not show that Young’s conception of responsibility is fatally flawed. There are many ways that individuals can act together to alleviate harms, even when they have no present way of making the world perfectly just. And individuals can divide their labor by concentrating on wrongs that they are in the best position to alleviate.

By assigning to individuals a responsibility to cooperate to alleviate wrongs, Young is deliberately extending the scope of moral responsibility beyond what most people regard as legitimate. Like May and Kutz, she is motivated by a belief that a conception of moral responsibility that limits itself to assigning blame to individuals only for wrongs within their control and limits their responsibility to the direct effects they have on others is inadequate. Like them, she believes that national and global injustices demand that individuals think of themselves as participants in relationships that give them moral responsibilities. Kutz’s conception of complicity, May’s social existentialism, and Young’s social connection model are attempts to revise our ideas about what it means to be a morally responsible person.

What Are the Duties of Members to Each Other?

In a group where cooperation is necessary to achieve a shared goal, individuals acquire duties to each other. They ought not to oppress, exploit, or cheat each other. The costs and benefits of group activity should be fairly shared. What counts as fair is subject to controversy. Workers and executives of companies are often at odds on this matter, as are citizens of states. In groups like states, where membership for most people is not voluntary, questions arise about why individuals should accept the costs and duties of group membership. Political philosophers have been traditionally occupied by the problems of justifying these duties and determining what counts as a fair share of the benefits of political cooperation.

On the latter issue, there is considerable amount of agreement among philosophers and the citizens of liberal democracies. Individuals ought to have equal standing as citizens, an equal opportunity to obtain the good things of their society and sufficient resources to ensure that they are able live decent lives whatever their circumstances. The right to resources sufficient for a decent life, recognized in these states during the twentieth Century, is often described as a third-generation right – added to human rights of life and liberty and rights of citizenship that were earlier acknowledged. It includes right to social security, education, health care, unemployment, and disability benefits. Welfare rights give citizens a duty of mutual aid that requires those with greater resources to provide assistance to those who are less well off.

Though it is widely accepted that citizens have a collective responsibility for ensuring health care for all – a right included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – there is considerable disagreement about the extent of this social responsibility. Does it require that everyone get the care necessary to achieve a high state of well-being and functioning or only that people are entitled to basic services? Do people who make unhealthy lifestyle choices abrogate their right? These are issues that are likely to be increasingly debated as health services become more costly to maintain.

There are two main philosophical challenges to the view that citizens have a responsibility for each other’s welfare. The first is a denial that welfare rights exist. Individuals, according to this view, have no right to resources that they did not earn by their labor or receive through voluntary transactions. Requiring citizens to provide benefits to others is a violation of individuals’ rights to use their resources as they see fit. This position ignores or discounts the contributions citizens make to infrastructure and a social environment that enable individuals to engage in wealth-producing activities. It is a particularly unattractive position in respect to health. Public health measures – crucial to preventing disease – require the organized contributions of citizens.

The second challenge does not deny the existence of welfare entitlements but objects to the view that people have special rights and obligations as members of a national society. Welfare rights, cosmopolitans believe, belong to all human individuals, and they think that national loyalties get in the way of accepting duties of justice that extend beyond national borders. For example, resources that are now used to treat relatively trivial health problems of people in developed countries could save the lives of large numbers of people in poor countries. Cosmopolitans think that justice requires a more equal distribution of resources among the people of the world. However they discount the importance to many people of national loyalties and the role that states have played in ensuring that people can enjoy rights of any kind. Some of their critics also complain that cosmopolitans ignore the problem of how duties associated with cosmopolitan welfare rights should be assigned. Nevertheless, most moral philosophers, including those who have doubts about the existence of rights, agree that the moral challenge presented by people who are unable to live decent lives ought not to be ignored.

Conclusion

Individuals working together are able to plan and carry out tasks that would be impossible for them to accomplish on their own. Together they are also capable of committing much more serious wrongs. Through their institutions, groups have the capacity to promote the health, happiness, and prosperity of their members. But institutions can also be oppressive, discriminatory, and corrupt. Belonging to a group can give individuals an identity and purpose. But it can also encourage chauvinism and moral irresponsibility. Moral theory and legal practice must find a way to hold groups and their members accountable for what they do. This is as necessary for people with bioethical concerns as is for those who are concerned more directly with political and corporate issues. A traditional emphasis in Western philosophy on individuals and their responsibilities has hindered the development of theories of group responsibility, and according to some philosophers, it has led to an inadequate understanding of what our responsibilities are. Ensuring a decent life for everyone, as well as the solution of global problems, calls for collective action that has so far not been achieved. Such action is not beyond human powers. But it requires not only organizational ingenuity but also a moral perspective that encourages people to acknowledge responsibilities they possess as members of groups and as participants in relations of interdependence.

Cross-References

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Further Readings

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics and PhilosophyLa Trobe UniversityMelbourneAustralia