Collective Responsibiltiy

Grad Student Madness: Can There be Collective Shame? takes issue, inter alia, with a post of mine from 2003, Guantanamo: Our Collective Shame.

The author rejects the very idea of collective shame, saying shame is individual,

It seems to me that the nature of shame is that it is not just individual; it's individualizing. Shame removes us from our fellow men and makes us painfully aware of our isolation in the world. It is, in this sense, experienced in much the same way as the ancients experienced fate. It is ours to carry, if we choose to accept it. It's also what makes us moral beings,

The author then goes on to reject collective guilt (also personal) and to question collective responsibility:

A group of people can accept collective responsibility for a crime or transgression, even if guilt can only be accepted on an individual basis. But what does collective responsibility mean when the whole nation accepts it? Nearly as little as collective pride, one would guess. For instance- if all of Germany accepts responsibility for the Holocaust, what distinguishes Eichmann from a butcher in Hamburg who really was unaware? And what distinguishes any of us in this era from a torturing guard at Abe Ghraib? Or from al-Quaida, given that we have all failed to prevent al-Quaida's actions? Is it evident how meaningless this can become?

I assume that these collective shaming exercises are intended to inspire us to action, and yet shame is a horrible motivator.

And so, I think that something like collective shame cannot exist, nor collective guilt; but perhaps something like collective responsibility is possible. Yet, given that collective responsibility tends to flatten out individual responsibility to a benign gray area, I think the most honest way to respond to transgressions is to assign individual responsibilities, and in turn to accept individual responsibility.

I plead guilty to the charge that a purpose of talking about collective shaming is to “to inspire us to action.” Most of the rest I disagree with.

I think the author misses three aspects of the collective guilt/shame/responsibility idea. (They are closely linked: responsibility leads to guilt and shame.)

#1 When the bad act is by your agent, you share in the responsibility for it. In a democracy, your government is your agent. It acts in your name. You therefore have presumptive responsibility for what it does.

#2 One way to shift that burden is to oppose what is done in your name. Indeed there may be a (moral) duty to do so in extreme cases. To fail to oppose serious known (or knowable) evil is — and this is the key step in the argument — to shoulder a significant and meaningful degree of personal responsibility for it. whether one wants it or not.

#3 Failure to shoulder the burden to oppose should lead to guilt and shame. Whether those are “collective” or “individually applying to everyone” seems to me to be, in the grand scheme of things, a quibble. If some people prefer the second formulation, I'm not about to argue.

#4 Nothing about the above requires one to close one's eyes to the reality that there are shades of gray, and also black and white. Direct actors are more responsible than passive ones. Eichmann was worse than a Good German who didn't want to know. The argument neither excuses the Good German, nor suggests, much less requires, that there is an equivalence between the ordinary and the extraordinary. (I leave that for (mis?)readers of Hannah Arendt.)

That is why those among us who know or should know about Guantanamo and about the government's other torture stations must oppose it, or in failing to do so take on a degree of responsibility for it. For each person that is an individual matter; the collective aspect is that the choice faces each of us, as individuals, not that it faces all of us as components of a mass.

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4 Responses to Collective Responsibiltiy

  1. armchair says:

    Does posting one-sided blog editorials, read mostly (if not entirely) by leftist progressives, absolve the self-imposed guilt, or merely give one a sense of absolution?

  2. James Wimberley says:

    Wasn’t the distinction developed in Bonn Germany as a way of dealing – in education and in foreign policy – with the legacy of Nazi crimes? If you applied “grad student”’s logic to Germany, all of those born after Hitler came to power would have the perfect right to say “Auschwitz? Father’s problem, not mine.”

    Shame is the corollary of pride: if you want to feel any vicarious glow of satisfaction about the good things done by your cultural or historical community, you have to accept shame for its evil deeds. There’s no pride in the Founding Fathers or the Alamo without shame at plantation slavery and Jim Crow oppression. As a non-American, i can detach myself from both; but I don’t think Americans can.

  3. bluehelmet says:


    Your comment smacks of barbarous jingoism. Why should any group be forced to bear the blame for actions they had nothing to do with? Next you’ll advocate that moderate Muslims bear responsibility to quell the violent radicals in their midst? Why is that their problem? Why should anyone take pride in being German, American, French or otherwise? Or to take pride in historical events one played absolutely no part in? Seems to me that this mentality leads to strife and war.

    It is only through the vision of our leaders like Clinton and Soros that humanity might achieve its next stage of evolution as one world order.

  4. James Wimberley says:

    Dear me. Patriotisms, local or national, are not necessarily jingoisms. It is a plain fact that almost all of us do have pride in the achievements of the collectivities we belong to – countries, schools, universities,cities, professions, religions, whatever. I reckon myself this penchant is innate, but even if it isn’t, it’s obviously hard to get rid of. Collective shame and pride are as adaptive as individual; they create strong psychological incentives for good behaviour. The shaming process can of course lead to abuse, as with honour killings; and it may have a part in the generation of jihadism – humiliation seems to be a key word.
    You don’t address Froomkin’s and the Germans’ point about the distinction between guilt and shame, or mine that pride implies the acceptance of shame. Moderate Muslims do indeed feel shame at the actions of bin Laden in the name of Islam, and are right to do so. It is objectionable to bully others into accepting a shame they don’t feel and/or denying any shame of one’s own. I’m ashamed of Blair’s mendacity and toadyism in the leading Britain into Iraq; just angry at Bush’s, as I’m not an American. Nebulous collectivities like “the West” aren’t relevant in the context.

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