No, “we” are not collectively responsible for anything

This afternoon, Chris Hayes — whom I’ve always had pleasant interactions with, who is obviously really smart, who does good work in pushing for genuine policy debate in the media, etc., etc. — tweeted the following:

I was so moved by my utter rejection of this claim that I broke my Twitter hibernation and went on a tweetstorm, which I copy here for posterity.

  • “We” don’t have the capacity for collective deliberation and action, therefore CANNOT be morally responsible for anything collectively.
  • The elites who make and enforce policy decisions do have collective deliberation and action, therefore are collectively responsible.
  • “We’re ALL responsible” presupposes the existence of a collective subject that does not exist, then blames it for whatever is happening.
  • And in so doing, it obscures the actual-existing collective subjects who effectively are responsible for big systemic decisions.
  • “We” as a whole are not responsible for Trump getting the nomination. The Republican Party is the entity that had control over that.
  • “We” are not collectively responsible for gun violence. Gun manufacturers, advocacy groups, and gun-friendly lawmakers are.
  • The spurious collective responsibility of “us all” is absolutely toxic to rational political discourse. Absolutely, 100% obscurantist.

24 thoughts on “No, “we” are not collectively responsible for anything

  1. The suggestion that “we” are all equally responsible is clearly false as particular groups have direct control, where others are excluded from this collective subject as you point out. But collective subjects do not exist in isolation from all other agencies, so our action or inaction can influence the decisions of other collective subjects, even if we are not directly part of the collective subject making the decision. So in that sense we can be complicit in a decision we were not a part of, if we have failed to take the actions available to us to influence that collective subject to make a different decision.

  2. I agree that one measure of our responsibility for actions by collectives we are part of is our share in the decision-making by the collective. In a democracy, tho, we all share some part of the decision-making of our nation, and so do share some degree of moral responsibility for our nation’s actions, tho of course the responsibility of elites is proportionally greater. But I would say our passive acquiescence in wrongs perpetrated by those collectives, both past and present, also implicates us in responsibility for those wrongs, especially when we benefit individually as a result. This is the entire moral argument behind white privilege. The alternative would deny the social existence of race and class privilege or any responsibility to do anything about such inequities, a profoundly reactionary position.

  3. I don’t think the point of privilege discourse is to blame people for being privileged, which is not something the individual can choose or control. It’s to make them aware of what’s going on and get them to use the “dishonest wealth” of privilege for good ends, to the extent possible — or at least stop them from obliviously harming people.

    As for sharing in the decision-making process of our nation, we mainly get to choose between two viable options at any given point — sometimes not even two. We don’t control which options are offered to us. Yes, we should exercise the agency we have through voting, in my opinion — though I can see the argument for abstaining from voting so as not to keep up the farce. But saying that we’re complicit because we choose between the two impoverished options is like saying that the residents of an urban food desert are complicit because they continue to “support” the liquor store and McDonald’s.

    I’m disappointed and annoyed that two out of the first three comments are trying to preserve some space for blaming the general public for the actions of elites. Why is this important? Why is that your gut reaction?

  4. A possibility: if the general public is blameworthy, that at least preserves some level of agency — though it’s what I elsewhere call the “negative sweet spot” of freedom, just enough freedom to be to blame but not enough to make a difference.

  5. Would it be adequate to try and link this argument with another you’re making while presenting the The Prince of This World? I’m referring to this: “If I am correct that the modern world inherits the Christian concept of freedom, however then that means that we are all stuck in the vicious circle as the devil, able to use our freedom only to further inculpate ourselves. Why are our political institutions so corrupt and ineffective? Because voters elect the people who make them that way. Why is our economy so unjust and self-destructive? Because we all choose that system every day through our consumer choices. In these and many other examples, freedom serves less to enhance our dignity or express our creative potential than to render us blameworthy—all while letting the rulers of this world off the hook. In short, we are all devils now.”

  6. “I’m disappointed and annoyed that two out of the first three comments are trying to preserve some space for blaming the general public for the actions of elites”

    I am concerned that your argument is deflecting moral responsibility away from ourselves, while creating this ill-defined category of “elites” to be scapegoats for the moral wrongs our society perpetuates. With respect to people in other parts of the world, we as citizens of the US are all “elites” in terms of our wealth and our access to the levers of power that affect their lives. To be sure, our democratic institutions are highly imperfect, which may mitigate our responsibility to a significant degree, nevertheless we are not powerless. If we lack responsibility, then it is perfectly morally acceptable for us to do nothing. Whereas I would say we have a positive moral duty to speak out against the evils committed by our nation. As a practical matter, outsiders will view us, rightly or wrongly, as collective perpetrators of the evils done in our name and judge us accordingly. Saying I am not really responsible because I am powerless, especially if one has done nothing to use whatever power one may have to protest or mitigate these evils, is a poor excuse that will do little to deflect outsiders perceptions of our collective guilt.

  7. I would say that everyone has a moral obligation to work against injustice to the extent possible. But that extent is severely constrained by the lack of meaningful collective agency. Pointing to our actual existing democratic institutions serves only to blame us, without actually empowering us — in part because democratic accountability in those institutions is so diffuse and indirect. If anything, my argument doesn’t point toward fatalism, but toward the necessity of creating a meaningful collective agency that can take responsibility for ordering the world.

  8. Let’s take the example of the Iraq War. There, I think it’s a clear case of elites selling an unnecessary and criminal war, with the majority of the responsibility coming from an identifiable circle within the Bush administration. “We” collectively did all we could to prevent it — literally the biggest coordinated protests in all of human history — but the people in power are in power and they did what they wanted. Are “we” to blame somehow for the Bush administration’s arbitrary agenda? Are “we” to blame that the Supreme Court put him in power in the first place? I think it’s literally stupid and offensive to answer yes to either.

  9. I think my two main points are: elite is a relative term, relative to the level of power a person or group has compared to others. I am simply afraid that blaming things on “elites” will discourage people from coming to terms with their own complicity and discourage them from taking action. Also, responsibility in an abstract sense may be a less useful concept than a practical sense of responsibility that impels one to action. Blaming people who did indeed exercise their collective power to try to prevent the Iraq War may not be terribly useful in the abstract. Doing so as a rhetorical device to shock those who may have been more passive to take greater action in the future is I think rather more relevant tho.

  10. Sure, there are degrees of elites, but I’m pretty comfortable saying that between me and George W. Bush, Bush had by far more agency over the Iraq War, with my “complicity” or whatever amounting to not even a rounding error. The existence of a spectrum does not mean that distinctions can’t be made or that there aren’t extreme/obvious cases.

    If collective responsibility is a rhetorical ploy to motivate people to action, then I think it’s risky at best — guilt can easily shade into shame, and neither is a particularly strong motivator. Guilting people who have no readily apparent agency can also produce resentment and backlash.

  11. I agree that guilt and shame don’t get it done. I think that the failure of the we is less the failure of collective action to HAVE prevented the Iraq War or Trump or whatever, but the failure to have imagined and constructed a we capable of doing so (or doing similar things in the future). Perhaps pride should be the motivation, although I am aware that pride is also a problematic term. It does seem that the right and now the alt-right offer a twisted form of pride, one that is constructed based on negative definition via the other. Maybe there is positive form of such based on what, for example, a nation might be if we built it rather than letting others build it for us. Or perhaps this line of thought too is a reactionary, atavistic desire for a lost (never present) modernity too bound up in racist, colonialist, misogynistic, thought to be useful as a plan going forward. Someone has to lead, after all (the multitude doesn’t seem to be working). As such, someone will always decide on inside/outside, us/them, the shape of the nation to come, etc. In any case,I think that the “we” can be less a term of blame than one of responsibility. Perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference, but I would rather take responsibility (not for what happened, but for what could or might happen next) than blame.

  12. Sure, I basically agree with your first paragraph. But look, either we have agency or we don’t. If we don’t have agency, if it is literally true that there is nothing at all we can do about a situation, calling us out as responsible is pointless, but so is asking us to do anything at all. If we have no agency, the only rational response is fatalism (or perhaps a sense of deep guilt about our own powerlessness – see below). You do not appear to be arguing in favor of that. So you must think we have some degree of agency, that there is something we can do to organize more effectively against the elites you identify as having the lion share of responsibility for the evils of our society. Well, at least, it seems to me, we are responsible to failing to use that agency. Our collective responsibility may be limited, but I still think it exists.

    I think you underestimate the power of guilt as a motivator. I think most of the edifice of religion is built on that primal foundation. You appear to want to motivate people out of anger -anger towards elites- also a powerful motivator and also risky. I think you say something interesting when you talk about guilt shading over into shame, tho. I had re-encountered Ruth Benedict’s famous distinction between guilt and shame cultures in another context recently. Plus I read this recent article which brought that distinction to mind I don’t think you are using the terms guilt and shame in Benedict’s classic sense, tho – guilt being intrinsic, concern with what at we think about ourselves, and shame extrinsic, concern for what others think about us. Rather, you seem to mean a distinction between guilt for wrongs one can do something about versus deep guilt, existential guilt, about powerlessness, or about wrongs that call ones very being into question (analogous perhaps to original sin). The left today tends to call out certain categories -whites, “settler-colonists”- as guilty in this deep sense. If the entire existence of a group is founded upon acts of genocide, ethic cleansing, racial discrimination, and colonialism, how can any aspect of their being be justified? Asking someone to come to terms with that kind of deep guilt for historical wrongs can indeed result in denial, in backlash. But an attempt to come to terms with that deep guilt can also be the source of a deep commitment to try to rectify those historical wrongs.

  13. And I repeat: “If anything, my argument doesn’t point toward fatalism, but toward the necessity of creating a meaningful collective agency that can take responsibility for ordering the world.”

  14. As for “But look, either we have agency or we don’t.” — “we” in the sense of “each individual one of us” do have agency. A “we” in the sense of “a meaningful whole that is more than the sum of its parts” basically doesn’t exist, or exists only in really impoverished and diffused ways (through voting or consumer choices). Pretending that “we” in the sense of “the bare set of each and every one of us” is already a “we” in the second sense is what I’m objecting to. If you point to the set of each and every one of us, there is no meaningful agent to blame. It makes no sense. It’s just a rhetorical ploy — either to motivate people, or to distract from the people with actual agency (and I think the first often effectively functions as the second).

    Personally, I think anger is a better motivator than guilt, and it’s a lot easier to be angry when there’s someone to be angry at. Being angry at the meaningful collective subject that doesn’t exist is not as effective as being angry at, for instance, George W. Bush and his advisors.

  15. Yet, you want to impute collective responsibility to elites, who as a “we” are no less diffuse than the set of all American citizens. I don’t think you can have one without the other. You don’t need to have a sense of we that is “greater than the sum of its parts” to have collective responsibility. You just need to have a set of individuals who share similar relationships with the mechanisms of power. Each member of the set of all American citizens has greater agency over what the US government does than, say, a civilian in Yemen. Each member of that set bears greater responsibility for the US governments actions. Still greater is the responsibility of the set of US government officials, etc. The level of responsibility of the American citizen may be attenuated, even impoverished, but it still exists.

  16. Yet, you want to impute collective responsibility to elites, who as a “we” are no less diffuse than the set of all American citizens. — Come on, seriously? “No less diffuse” than the hundreds of millions of people who make up America?

    You don’t need to have a sense of we that is “greater than the sum of its parts” to have collective responsibility — yes you do, because otherwise there is no collective to be responsible. It just doesn’t exist. A bunch of people in a room together isn’t a collective.

  17. I think this is descending into an unfruitful discussion of semantics. I think the problem may be a difference in connotation between the adjectival form of “collective”, in the term “collective responsibility”, which can simply mean “shared by the members of a group” , and the noun form, which can mean “a shared enterprise” . I am meaning the first, that collective responsibility simply means responsibility shared by the members of a group, while you are meaning the second, the responsibility of a collective. But in any case, I am bowing out here.

  18. “Yet, you want to impute collective responsibility to elites, who as a “we” are no less diffuse than the set of all American citizens.”

    On the one hand you have people who are joined together in an institutional structure which functions to produce decisions like whether to provide material support to one side of the civil war in Yemen. On the other hand you have a bunch of individuals who are told “Remember when we do things like provide material support to one side of the war in Yemen, weigh it against the other things we do, the ideologies we promote, and the policies we are known for, then reflect that you have another bunch of people with other ideologies and policies who could be in power instead of us, and add your vote to the pile of millions that determines which of us is in power a few years from now.”

    Yep, total equivalence in diffuseness. Yep.

  19. I think that there is such push back here in part because exactly this kind of false collective responsibility has historically been used to justify our violence against foreign populations. The Iraqis were somehow responsible for Saddams actions the Japanese for the actions of their government Etc. an above comment makes the claims that foreigners will judge us collectively responsible for our leaders, I’m not so sure, but I know we judge foreigners that way.

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