A Philosopher's Blog

Group Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2015

After the murders in France, people were once again discussing the matter of group responsibility. In the case of these murders, some contend that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of the few who committed murder. In most cases people do not claim that all Muslims support the killings, but there is a tendency to still put a special burden of responsibility upon Muslims as a group.

Some people do take the killings and other terrible events as evidence that Islam itself is radical and violent. This sort of “reasoning” is, obviously enough, the same sort used when certain critics of the Tea Party drew the conclusion that the movement was racist because some individuals in the Tea Party engaged in racist behavior. It is also the same “reasoning” used to condemn all Christians or Republicans based on the actions of a very few.

To infer that an entire group has a certain characteristic (such as being violent or prone to terrorism) based on the actions of a few would generally involve committing the fallacy of hasty generalization. It can also be seen as the fallacy of suppressed evidence in that evidence contrary to the claim is simply ignored. For example, to condemn Islam as violent based on the actions of terrorists would be to ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceful as people of other faiths, such as Christians and Jews.

It might be objected that a group can be held accountable for the misdeeds of its members even when those misdeeds are committed by a few and even when these misdeeds are supposed to not be in accord with the real beliefs of the group. For example, if I were to engage in sexual harassment while on the job, Florida A&M University can be held accountable for my actions. Thus, it could be argued, all Muslims are accountable for the killings in France and these killings provide just more evidence that Islam itself is a violent and murderous religion.

In reply, Islam (like Christianity) is not a monolithic faith with a single hierarchy over all Muslims. After all, there are various sects of Islam and a multitude of diverse Muslim hierarchies. For example, the Moslems of Saudi Arabia do not fall under the hierarchy of the Moslems of Iran.

As such, treating all of Islam as an organization with a chain of command and a chain of responsibility that extends throughout the entire faith would be rather problematic. To use an analogy, sports fans sometimes go on violent rampages after events. While the actions of the violent fans should be condemned, the peaceful fans are not accountable for those actions. After all, while the fans are connected by their being fans of a specific team this is not enough to form a basis for accountability. So, if some fans of a team set fire to cars, this does not make all the fans of that team responsible. Also, if people unassociated with the fans decide to jump into action and destroy things, it would be even more absurd to claim that the peaceful fans are accountable for their actions. As such, to condemn all of Islam based on what happened in France would be both unfair and unreasonable. As such, the people who murdered in France are accountable but Islam cannot have these incidents laid at its collective doorstep.

This, of course, raises the question of the extent to which even an organized group is accountable for its members. One intuitive guide is that the accountability of the group is proportional to the authority the group has over the individuals. For example, while I am a philosopher and belong to the American Philosophical Association, other philosophers have no authority over me. As such, they have no accountability for my actions. In contrast, my university has considerable authority over my work life as a professional philosopher and hence can be held accountable should I, for example, sexually harass a student or co-worker.

The same principle should be applied to Islam (and any faith). Being a Moslem is analogous to being a philosopher in that there is a recognizable group. As with being a philosopher, merely being a Moslem does not make a person accountable for all other Moslems.

But, just as I belong to an organization with a hierarchy, a Moslem can belong to an analogous organization, such as a mosque or ISIS. To the degree that the group has authority over the individual, the group is accountable. So, if the killers in France were acting as members of ISIS or Al-Qaeda, then the group would be accountable. However, while groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda might delude themselves into thinking they have legitimate authority over all Moslems, they obviously do not. After all, they are opposed by most Moslems.

So, with a religion as vast and varied as Islam, it cannot be reasonably be claimed that there is a central earthly authority over its members and this would serve to limit the collective responsibility of the faith. Naturally, the same would apply to other groups with a similar lack of overall authority, such as Christians, conservatives, liberals, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, runners, and satirists.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 16, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    The Taliban indoctrinates kids with jihadist textbooks paid for by the U.S.

    “After the United States helped chase out the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, it came across a legacy of its earlier intervention in the region. As The Washington Post reported in 2002, the United States had spent millions of dollars beginning in the 1980s to produce and disseminate anti-Soviet textbooks for Afghan schoolchildren. The books encouraged a jihadist outlook, which was useful propaganda at the time for a Washington driven by the imperatives of the Cold War.

    “The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system’s core curriculum,” The Post reported. “Even the Taliban used the American-produced books, though the radical movement scratched out human faces in keeping with its strict fundamentalist code.”

    “Printed both in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two major languages, books such as “The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy” were produced under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and smuggled into Afghanistan through networks built by the CIA and Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI…”

    Continue reading: The Taliban indoctrinates kids with jihadist textbooks paid for by the U.S. http://wpo.st/mJX10

  2. TJB said, on January 17, 2015 at 1:39 am

    I guess it was wrong to hold the Nazis accountable for the Holocaust. Right, Mike?

    • ajmacdonaldjr said, on January 17, 2015 at 10:09 am

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 17, 2015 at 11:44 am

      Why would you infer that? The Nazi party had a clear command structure. Also, the Holocaust matched Nazi ideology.

      Now, you could argue that although Islam, as an entire faith, lacks a unified command structure, it does have a shared doctrine. You could then argue that this doctrine clearly includes committing acts of murder and terror. From this it could be inferred that it is a religion of murder and terror. This would still not make Muslims accountable for all Muslims, but would make the faith “responsible” for the actions (to a degree).

      There is considerable debate about the true doctrines of the major faiths. After all, people have used Christianity to justify war, slavery, and many awful things. But most Christians would say that Christianity is against those things. In the case of Islam, people make the same sort of claims.

      Now, if God would just let us know what He really, really wants, then we could sort this out. But, He does not seem inclined to do that.

      To use an analogy, suppose I form a cult that has a doctrine of punishing non-runners and murdering anyone who makes satirical cartoons about running or great runners. If I have authority over the members, I bear some responsibility for what they do in accord with my doctrines. But, if some folks form their own cult with similar doctrines, my cultists are not accountable for what the other cultists do. I, however, would be accountable to the degree that my doctrines influenced the other cults.

    • WTP said, on January 21, 2015 at 2:02 pm

      Hey TJ, which number do you suppose is greater? The number of Muslims around the world who took to the streets to protest the Charlie Hebdo cartoons by burning churches, flags of not just France but the US and Israel as well, murdering dozens of non-Muslims OR the number of Muslims around the world who took to the streets to protest the Charlie Hebdo murders by confronting Islamic radicals, imams, etc.?

  3. tom hewitt said, on January 17, 2015 at 10:30 am

    So Harry Truman, the workers of the Manhattan Project and Paul Tibbetts bear sole responsibility for the nuclear incineration of little girls on their way to school in Japan on August 6, 1945, causing audible cheers from millions of Americans.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 17, 2015 at 11:47 am

      No, not sole responsibility. The Japanese started the war, the American people elected Truman, etc. I would think that most Americans did not applaud the killing of little girls-if we could have ended the war as quickly without doing that, I would like to believe we would have.


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